Heartfelt Questions about Christ (IV)

Question: You have said that Christ’s death for our sins was a satisfaction to God’s justice. Why don’t all professing Christians believe that?

Some professing Christians have rejected the historic understanding of Christ’s death as a satisfaction for sins. This is nothing new. Faustus Socinus (1539–1604), a forerunner of modern Unitarianism, raised a number of objections against this doctrine. The Socinians made Christ more of a teacher and example than a redeemer and priest.

What reasons do they give against the doctrine that Christ satisfied God’s justice?

G. H. Kersten outlined Socinus’s objections, and explained why they are false (Reformed Dogmatics [1980], 261, 263).

Objection 1: The satisfaction of God’s justice by Christ is not necessary. God is not bound to do justice. He is merciful and can simply forgive.

Objection 2: The satisfaction of God’s justice by Christ is absurd. How can the innocent one be punished, and the guilty one be acquitted? This would set a bad example and corrupt society.

Objection 3: The satisfaction of God’s justice by Christ is impossible. No one can pay someone else’s moral debt to God. No one can obey in someone else’s place.

Objection 4: The satisfaction of God’s justice by Christ is harmful. It makes Christ’s love greater than God’s mercy, because Christ was willing to pay when God was not willing to forgive. It also opens the door for people to sin because Christ paid for their sins.

How do you answer those objections?

1. The satisfaction of God’s justice by Christ is necessary because God is righteous and just in His very being. The Bible insists that God is just and the justifier of sinners who trust in Christ’s blood (Rom. 3:25–26). Forgiveness does not mean God pretends that no evil has been done. God forgives the guilt based on the satisfaction that He Himself paid in His Son.

2. The satisfaction of God’s justice by Christ is not absurd but most wise because glorifies both God’s mercy and justice. It shows that God’s righteousness and love do not compromise each other or fight against each other, but operate in perfect harmony. It does not corrupt society, but it saves corrupt men and makes them like God in both mercy and justice.

3. The satisfaction of God’s justice by Christ is possible because Christ, as a divine Person, has the power and freedom to lay down His life and take it up again (John 10:17–18). He therefore could be the Surety, binding Himself to pay our debts to God, for He as God the Son was free from all debts.

4. The satisfaction of God’s justice by Christ is beautiful and helpful because it displays God’s mercy in Christ’s dying love. Christ did not give Himself against the Father’s will, but was sent by the Father because of the Father’s love for sinners (John 3:16). This does not give people permission to sin, but, if they truly receive Him, motivates them to also give their lives in service to others (Eph. 4:32–5:2).

Therefore, it is biblical and right for us to say that Christ acted as a substitute for His elect. He stood in their place to obey God’s law, bear the curse of sin, and pay the full price required to satisfy God’s justice.

God is mercifully just and justly merciful. Let us not fall into the error of Jacob Arminius, who said that God has a throne of mercy and a throne of justice, and His throne of mercy is exalted above His throne of justice. God has one throne, and there mercy and justice dwell together in infinite brightness and joy.

Both justice and mercy shine forth from the cross of Jesus with unspeakable beauty. Yes, His mercy shines all the brighter when seen in the light of His justice. His mercy is for hell-deserving sinners. Nor is it a reluctant mercy. God delights in mercy. That is why, as Luther said, Jesus Christ was reckoned the greatest sinner who ever lived. He that knew no sin became sin to satisfy the justice of God. God’s mercy did not ignore the debt, but paid the price.