In 1931, a theologian named Gustav Aulen published a book about the atonement called Christus Victor, a book that challenged the historic doctrine of atonement sometimes called “penal substitution” or the “satisfaction.” In it, Aulen argued that Christ did not die to appease God’s wrath for the sins we have committed, but that Christ died to defeat sin, death, and the power of evil in a general way.
The doctrine of penal substitution, on the other hand, teaches that at the atonement, Jesus Christ actually took upon himself our sins, and that God punished him as though Jesus himself committed them. In this way, Jesus bore the full wrath of God against our sins, thus satisfying God’s wrath, and reconciling him to us. Aulen argues that, on the whole, few in the church have ever taken this position.
Curiously, Aulen even went so far as to argue that Martin Luther himself had espoused only this general view of the atonement, and that Luther didn’t really commend the penal substitution or satisfaction understanding of the atonement.
But today, as a meditation for Good Friday, here is a passage from Luther’s Second Sermon on Luke 24:36-47, where the theology of penal substitution comes through clearly:
But now, if God’s wrath is to be taken away from me and I am to obtain grace and forgiveness, some one must merit this; for God cannot be a friend of sin nor gracious to it, nor can he remit the punishment and wrath, unless payment and satisfaction be made.
Now, no one, not even an angel of heaven, could make restitution for the infinite and irreparable injury and appease the eternal wrath of God which we had merited by our sins; except that eternal person, the Son of God himself, and he could do it only by taking our place, assuming our sins, and answering for them as though he himself were guilty of them.
This our dear Lord and only Saviour and Mediator before God, Jesus Christ, did for us by his blood and death, in which he became a sacrifice for us; and with his purity, innocence, and righteousness, which was divine and eternal, he outweighed all sin and wrath he was compelled to bear on our account; yea, he entirely engulfed and swallowed it up, and his merit is so great that God is now satisfied and says, “If he wills thereby to save, then there will be a salvation. (Sermons of Martin Luther, vol. 2, p. 344)
But of course, even though the penal satisfaction of Jesus’ atonement is the beginning (and foundation) of Christ’s salvation, it isn’t the only thing Christ accomplished. Luther concludes his sermon this way:
…it [the term “satisfaction”] is nevertheless too weak and says too little concerning the grace of Christ and does not do honor enough to his sufferings, to which one should give higher honor, confessing that he not only has made satisfaction for sin but has also redeemed us from the power of death, the devil, and hell, and established an everlasting kingdom of grace and of daily forgiveness of the sin that remains in us; and thus is become for us, as St. Paul says in 1 Cor. 1:30, an eternal redemption and sanctification… (Sermons of Martin Luther, vol. 2, p. 351)
Indeed, our hymns are absolutely true:
“In our place condemned he stood to seal our pardon with his blood.”
“On the cross as Jesus died, the wrath of God was satisfied.”
But through Christ’s atonement, he was purchasing a people for his own possession, zealous for good works. Moreover, he was establishing a kingdom, against which the gates of hell cannot stand. And even more, he was accomplishing everything necessary for saving us to the uttermost.
All of this begins with–and none of this is possible apart from–Jesus’ payment and satisfaction for our sins from taking our condemnation on his own head at the cross on Good Friday.
Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!