Articulating the Atonement: Part 2

“In Him we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of our sins, according to the riches of His grace which he lavished upon us.” (Ephesians 1:7)

The cross is a mystery. As is the Incarnation, the Resurrection, the Holy Trinity, the hypostatic union, justification, original sin, the divine inspiration and inerrancy of Scripture, the Real Presence, transubstantiation, ecclesial infallibility, and tons of other aspects of our faith. Christianity is pretty mysterious, in a good way. We have inexhaustible mysteries of faith!

But what’s noteworthy and somewhat ironic is that, unlike those dogmas I just listed above, God hasn’t divinely revealed to the Church how exactly the cross “worked.” What I mean by this is that the Church throughout its entire history has never had an official dogma or even doctrine to explain what Christ’s death on the cross accomplished.

Honestly, that confuses me to no end, since the cross is one of the most central aspects of our Christian faith, along with the Incarnation and the Resurrection. Maybe God will one day make explicit what right now is only implicit in the deposit of faith, but for now, we have to rely on fallible human theologians’ opinions and their attempts to explain the Biblical and historical data. (It’s important to remember this, especially because some proponents of certain Atonement theories purport to be merely proclaiming exactly ‘what the Bible teaches,’ which is false for two reasons: 1) the Bible doesn’t inherently ‘teach’ anything on its own, as a text it must be interacted with and interpreted by humans in order to function as an authoritative source; and 2) when any given interpreter is fallible and ostensibly not teaching with divine authority, the teaching can only amount to a human theological opinion and not a doctrinal expression of divine revelation).

Several models attempt to articulate how our redemption was won by Christ’s passion and death on the cross. Christian theologians have developed many different orthodox theories of the Atonement over the last 2,000 years — including substitutionary satisfaction, vicarious satisfaction, christus victor, moral influence theory, and the ransom theory. They formulated these theories through the history of Christianity prior to the Protestant Reformation, during which Martin Luther and John Calvin created their own theory called penal substitution. The Reformers’ theory, which departed radically from the patristic interpretation of the cross, is problematic for several reasons, including the fact that it doesn’t conform with Trinitarian orthodoxy. For more on that, see the first post I wrote on this topic.

Right now, one of the more mainstream views of the atonement in the Catholic Church is substitutionary satisfaction. St. Anselm of Canterbury first systematically articulated the theory in the late 1000’s, and St. Thomas Aquinas expounded upon and developed it in the early 1200’s. It develops the early patristic understanding of Christ’s sacrifice as a substitution. The theory posits that atonement, or appeasing wrath, is made when someone offers a sacrificial gift that satisfies the one to whom it is given.

The theory centers around the idea that humanity needed a divine-human mediator to make atonement, or satisfaction, for us. In Adam, everyone has sinned, meaning we inherit the state of being without original justice (sanctifying grace). Due to that original sin, all humans have a tendency to commit personal sins, which we all inevitably do past the age of reason. Thus, most all of humankind either has or will offend God’s justice, and is deserving of His punishment. Sin is a crime against God, and since He is just and holy, His justice entails that He punish sin.

Since God is infinite, that original sin against Him was an infinite offense that incurred an infinite debt, and so the satisfaction due to God to restore His justice must be infinite. Now because any human in his nature is finite, he is not naturally able to make this infinite satisfaction due his sins.

So God in His relentless love and unfailing mercy chose to do for us what we couldn’t do ourselves. Christ took on human nature to save us, although since He is God He could have redeemed us in any number of ways. But the way of the Incarnation and Calvary serve to display His justice, mercy and immeasurable love most gloriously.

Our Redeemer had to be God, an infinite Being, in order to make infinite satisfaction for the infinite and eternal debt of humanity’s original sin and actual sins. The value of the reparation comes from the one making the reparation. His divinity also allowed Him to make atonement for us, since as a sinless Person He doesn’t owe any obedience to God like we did. Offering obedience that isn’t already owed enables satisfaction to be made. His divinity also enabled Him to be sinless and innocent, so that He could be a perfect sacrifice in no need of a savior.

Our Redeemer also had to be a man, because man owed God a debt, and man had to pay that debt. Jesus as a man was a representative on our behalf, in that He offered the sacrifice of Himself on behalf of all of humanity. As a man, he was also our substitute by offering for us a perfect atoning gift that we could never offer in our place. Having a human nature and body allowed Him to shed blood, which was the ransom price for our sins. Lastly, in taking on our human nature He united it with His divine nature, so that He could later unite our human nature with His divine nature in our justification.

On the cross, Christ the God-Man offered Himself voluntarily in obedience to the Father’s will by enduring humankind’s curse of suffering and physical death and pouring out His blood. This blood was the price of our redemption; it was needed to purchase us out of slavery. In shedding His precious blood unto death, Jesus fully paid the price for our redemption. His blood atoned because it represented His very life. This perfect gift that Jesus gave out of love was greater than the injustice of all of the world’s sins.

In His human nature Jesus made satisfaction for all people’s sins by offering Himself as a perfect sacrifice of love, which was more pleasing than humanity’s sins were displeasing. He did for us what we could never do for ourselves by offering this sacrifice on our behalf as perfect High Priest and perfect victim. He “bore our sins in His body on the tree;” offering up His body as a sacrifice for our sins to make atonement for us in His role as Priest of the world (1 Peter 2:24). His sacrifice had infinite merit and so made restitution for all the sins of humanity.

Christ’s sacrificial sin-offering of Himself made superabundant satisfaction for everyone’s sins (2 Corinthians 5:21). His perfect sacrifice of love satisfied the Trinity’s justice and wrath against sin, and thus merited grace for our salvation. The redemption of humanity was therefore objectively accomplished through the death of Jesus Christ on Calvary. This is one prominent view of Christ’s work on the cross, one attempt amongst many to explain what He did for us and why.

The Church does teach definitively, though, that a person’s salvation comes when that objective redemption becomes subjectively applied to the individual. Since Christ is the head of the Church, which is His Body, the grace merited by the work of the head is shared with the body. Anyone who is united to Christ through the Church will receive the saving grace of Christ’s sacrifice.

In initial justification, a believer receives the grace and forgiveness that was merited by Christ’s sacrifice through faith. The individual’s original sin is removed, and his past sins are cleansed/washed away in the baptismal waters. The believer is saved, meaning he is translated from the darkness to light; he is adopted as a child of God into the Church and relationship with Christ.

However, salvation is a process. A believer who knows and follows Jesus will grow in his justification and become sanctified through his cooperation with God’s grace, and will be forgiven of sins when he repents and confesses them to God. This forgiveness is possible because of Christ’s abundant love for us, which He radically displayed through His atoning death. “This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us” (I John 3:16a).

For more on the historical development of the Atonement theories, see here and here.

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