Why Your Belief on Atonement Matters this Easter

The Easter celebration brings many thoughts and emotions to Christians all over the world. We celebrate the resurrection of Jesus, while also remember and proclaim His death until He returns. However, one aspect that I believe might sometimes take a back seat (though it has seen some resurgence in recent years through Good Friday festivities) is the atoning death of Jesus on the cross of Calvary. I am convinced a recovery of atonement – specifically the penal satisfaction view – is necessary to remain faithful to Holy Scripture and the Christian tradition.

As one of the most crucial doctrines of the Christian faith, the atonement stands as a definitive marker to those who label themselves followers of Christ. The reasoning for such a necessity of right belief in atonement is correctly asserted by Leroy Forlines when he writes that “Christianity would be nonexistent. It is the birth that makes the death of Christ possible, but it is the death that makes the birth important.”[1]

Therefore, in this blog post, I would like to present a case for the satisfaction view of atonement and likewise apply this case to the modern-day church.

Satisfaction View of Atonement

            The satisfaction view of atonement stands in agreement with Jonathan Edwards when he said, “The death of Christ for sins is a necessary precondition for salvation, whether they believe it or not.”[2] Edwards is communicating that God is a sovereign God who is Judge and, because of his holiness, he must judge all sin accordingly. That humanity is sinful demands all be judged by the all-perfect, all-holy God. Humankind cannot make themselves right with God (Rom. 3:10, 23), which is why the death of Christ was required. The only way for humankind to ever obtain a right relationship with God again was for God to become a human, keep the law for humanity, and die in their place to satisfy God’s wrath toward them and their sins.

This is written clearly for us in Paul’s letter to the Philippians: “And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross (2:8).”

Thus, the satisfaction view of atonement can be defined by the following sentence: God became man to live the life which sinners could not live and, in their place, pay the penalty for their sin which they were unable to pay for the salvation of all who would repent and believe.

            Although the satisfaction view of atonement is an essential doctrine of the Christian faith, there are some differing (or confusing) terms of which scholars and theologians use that must be reconciled.

Satisfaction or Substitution

            A weightier matter extends far beyond the views to the terminology used to describe the atoning death of Jesus Christ on the cross. 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? These questions entreat the human mind to consider what the purpose of the atonement is and how it affects humankind’s relationship with the Triune God.

Satisfaction. F. Leroy Forlines names his view of atonement as 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 a righteous life. Passive obedience refers to the death of Christ. He submitted to the wrath of God for our sins.”[3] 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 agrees and records, “Christ as ΘΕΑΝΘΡΩΠΟΣ (theanthropos) fully satisfieddivinejusticeby fulfilling the law and paying the just price on behalf of all men.”[4]

Substitution. David 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.”[5] 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 nuances used, the definitions are similar theologically as well. Therefore, after analyzing the two different definitions, 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.

John Stott, the famous British pastor/scholar, 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.”[6] 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.

Application for the Modern-Day Church

            The atonement is one of the most important and essential doctrines of the Christian faith, for it prompts many other doctrines in Christian theology as laying the foundation. The atonement is not only the foundation for other core doctrines of the Christian faith, but also, according to Luther, the way in which we know God. “Knowledge of God is not found through human wisdom, human powers, or human achievements. It is found in the foolishness of the cross.”[7]

            It is foolish to think that God became man to die in the place of sinful humanity and reconcile them back to God. The importance of the atonement is climaxed at the simple fact that without it, there is no such thing as Christianity. To echo Leroy Forlines, Christianity is nonexistent without the atoning work of Christ on the cross. And not only is atonement necessary, but the satisfaction view of atonement is also the necessary viewpoint from which to see it.

            Claiming Christ’s death was simply an example of the wrath of God on sin is to minimize the punishment for sin and the character of God. There is only one way to save the world and it is by the sacrificial, satisfactory death of Christ Jesus, the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world (John 1:29), on the cross. Charles E. Hill observes that “the whole world needs saving, and that he (Christ) is the world’s only Savior.”[8] Satisfaction matters because it is the only view that presents Christ as the one who shed his own blood for the people of God (Acts 20:28).


            Not only does atonement matter for theological formulation, it also matters for correct teaching and preaching. There is always a necessity to preach and teach the penal satisfaction view of atonement from the pulpit. If there is a lack of satisfaction atonement preached, there is a lacking gospel being presented. The best and biblically faithful way to present the gospel is through the lens of the satisfactory death of Christ on the cross.  

[1] F. Leroy Forlines. The Quest For Truth: Theology for Postmodern Times (Nashville: Randall House, 2001), 183.

[2] David L. Allen. The Extent of the Atonement: A Historical and Critical Review (Nashville: B&H, 2017), 276.

[3] Forlines, Quest, 186.

[4] 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.

[5] Allen, The Extent of the Atonement, 461.

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

[7] Michael Reeves and Tim Chester. Why The Reformation Still Matters (Wheaton: Crossway, 2016), 102.

[8] Charles E. Hill, “1-3 John” in A Biblical-Theological Introduction to the New Testament: The Gospel Realized, ed. Michael J. Kruger (Wheaton: Crossway, 2016), 493.

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