Satisfaction or Substitution?

This post is a bit of a piggy-back off of the previous post “Anselm: Chief Communicator of the Satisfaction View of Atonement.” You can find it here.

It is vitally important to distinguish the two words satisfaction and substitution. Do these definitions require distinction? Can they both work in conjunction as a part of the doctrine of the atonement? Are they synonymous? All of these questions implore the human mind to consider how these terms explain what the purpose of the atonement was and how it affects humankind’s relationship with the Triune God.

SatisfactionF. Leroy Forlines names his view of atonement satisfaction. He proffers two specific aspects of atonement: (1) active obedience, and (2) passive obedience. He writes, “Active obedience of Christ refers to the idea that he lived a life of absolute obedience to the Father. He lived an absolutely righteous life. Passive obedience refers to the death of Christ. He submitted to the wrath of God for our sins.”[1]The view of satisfaction is that Christ’s life and death are equally a part of the process and extent of the atonement. Thus, making the God-man, Jesus Christ, our only hope for salvation by his death and resurrection. John Milton wrote, “Christ as ΘΕΑΝΘΡΩΠΟΣ fully satisfied divine justice by fulfilling the law and paying the just price on behalf of all men.”[2]

SubstitutionDavid Allen writes on behalf of Thomas Grantham that “To remedy the sin problem, God designed that Christ should be the physician to cure the malady of the sin of humanity.”[3]The view of substitution rightly affirms that Christ died in the stead of sinners. This view of atonement describes the death of Christ solely as an act of the Triune God to save sinners, whatever the cost. In the God-man, Jesus Christ, the Triune God can be affirmably described as the “author and perfecter of our faith (Heb. 12:2).”

Between these two words, the definitions are generally identical. Other than a few non-essential words used, the definitions are similar theologically as well. Therefore, after analyzing the two different descriptions of atonement, the difference between the verbiage of satisfaction and substitution is unrecognizable. Labeling a view as satisfaction or substitution is indifferent – for there is no distinction.

A different approach by British theologian, John Stott, offers that Christians should use the terminology “satisfaction through substitution” for it is “uniquely honoring to God and which should therefore lie at the very heart of the church’s worship and witness.”[4] Stott argues that the two words used by themselves can lead to wrong conclusions and beliefs regarding the death of Christ. To use his coined phrase may be the best possible choice for believers and their witness.

[1] F. Leroy Forlines. The Quest For Truth: Theology For Postmodern Times (Nashville: Randall House, 2001), 186.

[2] Samuel Smith, “Milton’s theology of the cross: substitution and satisfaction in Christ’s atonement” in Christianity and Literature 63 no 1 Aug 2013, 9.

[3] David Allen. The Extent of the Atonement (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2017), 461.

[4] John R.W. Stott. The Cross of Christ (Downers Grove: InterVaristy, 2006), 113.

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