Making Sense of the Cross: Satisfaction, Substitution, and Sacrifice

John 1:29
The next day, John the Baptist saw Jesus coming toward him and declared, “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!”

Romans 3:25
They are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood.

Last week, we began our discussion of atonement theories – that is how the cross solves the problem of the broken relationship between God and humanity. We looked at the earliest atonement theory – the cross as ransom and victory. And remember we asked four questions.

What was broken between God and humanity? Death and the devil are holding humanity hostage because of sin.

How does the cross of Christ repair what’s broken? By tricking the devil with Jesus as a ransom or by Jesus entering into death and defeating it.

What is God like based on this theory? God desperately wants to win us back from the devil. That God loves us so much that God would do just about anything, even trick the devil or entering into death, in order to do it.

What does the Christian life look like? Because of the cross we are free from the clutches of the devil, we are free, even called, to stand against the forces of evil in this world.

Now, as I said, this is a theory. It is one way of thinking about the cross. Not everyone liked this theory. It didn’t always makes sense to people. One of the biggest complaints about it is people didn’t like the idea that God would stoop to the devil’s level of trickery. They thought that was beneath God. It wasn’t honorable for God to behave that way. And so, about 1,000 years later, a new atonement theory came out in reaction to this one. This atonement theory is the cross as satisfaction, substitution, and sacrifice.

Remember, before, the world was centered around this idea that there is a battle between good and evil, God and Satan, going on. But now, about 1,000 years later, that’s not really the primary way of looking at things anymore. At this point in time, kings ruled the world and everything was about hierarchy. Who ruled over who. Kings, Queens, and other royalty were on top and the peasants, the poor were on the bottom. In a sense, peasants owed everything had to the king and were to be obedient to the king. You could say that the king owned the peasants.

This may sound harsh to us now, but this was a particularly difficult to live in history. And this hierarchical structure gave order and security to society. The kings protected the peasant class. And in return, the peasants were obedient to the king. And if they weren’t, it was considered dishonoring the king and they were punished. Severely.

Because this is the world they lived in, people began to think about the relationship between God and humanity this way. God is like a medieval king. More so, God is the ultimate and cosmic king and we are the peasants who owe everything to God and ought to obey God. Everything becomes about maintaining the honor of God. This is why people at this time didn’t like the idea of God tricking the devil. It wasn’t honorable.

So God is the highest king and deserves honor and respect. But then when we, humanity, sin, we disobey and therefore, dishonor God the King.

So what’s problem that needs fixing, that first question: what’s broken between God and humanity? Because of sin, humanity has not given God what it owes God as King, which is obedience. We are indebt to God. And the worst part is, we can never pay it back. We aren’t capable of a sinless life. And nothing we do could be good enough to pay back what we owe. We already owe God everything, so we don’t have any reserves with which to pay this debt. So, we are stuck. We have an accounting problem. We owe God something that we can never payback. It is like when you are behind on your mortgage or your credit card payments and you just can’t quite catch up.

Really, the only one who could pay back God…is God. But God can’t really do that because it wouldn’t be honorable and just. Just as a bank can’t go around loaning people money and not expecting them to pay it back. It would be bad business. So, God is kind of stuck too. The rules of justice demand a payment for debts. For moral order.

The only option for God is the debt to be paid somehow or for humanity to die an eternal death.

This is where Jesus comes in. Jesus is fully God. Which means Jesus can pay God back. But Jesus is also fully human. Which means Jesus’ payment of obedience can count as ours.

For this theory, the way the cross solves the problem is Jesus is perfectly obedient, never sinning, and goes and dies on the cross in obedience to God. In fact, it is so perfectly obedient that Jesus is rewarded by God and Jesus shares that reward with humanity that pays off what we owe to God.

So, on the cross, Jesus satisfies our debt to God through perfect obedience and God’s honor as a king is restored.

Now, we don’t talk a lot about God’s honor and God needing to be honored through obedience. Over time, this theory took on a different shape as the focus became less on God’s honor being offended and more about God’s justice. Now, remember, what happens to those who dishonor the king? Who owe the king and can’t pay it back. They get punished. Severely. You know the phrase…”You do the crime…you do the time.” The focus of this theory became that our sin is a crime against God and someone needs to “do the time.” We sinned; we need to be punished. So over time, this theory becomes less about Jesus satisfying our debts to God, but about Jesus taking our punishment on the cross. Jesus becomes our substitute. He stands in for us.

Did anyone see Mel Gibson’s movie The Passion of the Christ? This movie was completely focused on the gore and suffering of Jesus. Jesus is so obviously punished in the movie. It is a reflection of this theory of Jesus as our substitute; Jesus taking the punishment that we deserve from God. It is also referred to as Jesus sacrificing himself for us. In the gospel of John, Jesus is the sacrificial lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. In Romans, we just read, Jesus is the sacrifice for atonement.

This makes a lot of sense doesn’t it? Our whole legal system works on crime and punishment. We can understand the idea of owing someone something and needing to pay it back. But we can’t pay God back so Jesus pays it for us. It made sense back then and it still makes sense today to a lot of people. This is easily the most popular understanding of the cross still today. Jesus died for my sins. Jesus sacrificed himself for me.

Can we call it forgiveness of sins? Are my sins really forgiven when someone else pays for them?

Let’s go through those four questions.

What the problem, what’s broken? Because of sin, humanity has dishonored God the king and owes God a debt that it can never pay back.

How does Jesus on the cross fix what is broken? Jesus satisfies our debt to God by honoring God all the way to the cross, or Jesus is punished on the cross for our crimes of sin.

What does this say about God? Who is God? God is the ultimate and cosmic king demanding honor and justice. There is a sense that God loves humanity because God wants to fix the problem, but there is also this sense that God’s honor and justice are more important that God’s love. That God can’t really love us until God has been truly honored or until our sins have been paid for. Which, quite frankly, doesn’t sound a lot like love. In fact, some say this portrays an angry God who can’t calm down until someone is punished for the sins of the world. And, in this theory, I don’t know if we can even talk about this God as a forgiving God, when our sins aren’t really forgiven on the cross but paid for by Jesus.

What does this say about the Christian life? It doesn’t say a lot about the Christian life, except simply believing and trusting that Jesus died for your sins and so try to avoid further sins.

There are strengths and weaknesses to this theory as well. But if you have a sense that you have done some things in your life that really deserve punishment and need to be paid back, then this might be a meaningful way to think about Jesus and the cross. That Jesus has already taken that punishment for you and paid back your debt to God. And now, coming to you is no longer punishment from God, but only love.

But if this theory still doesn’t quite ring true, or you sense some problems with it, then tune in again next week as we look at another atonement theory.

If there is anything of God in these words that have been said, may they settle and take root in our life.

Note: This sermon is highly based on chapter 4 of David Lose’s book Making Sense of the Cross.


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