Doctrine of Christ (Part 23): The Work of Christ (16) - Atonement, Satisfaction of Divine Justice

July 12, 2017


We’ve been thinking about how the substitutionary punishment of Christ serves to satisfy the demands of God’s retributive justice. Last time we saw that penal substitution actually takes place within the Anglo-American justice system. Particularly we saw in civil law that substitutes are allowed to pay the penalties that are sometimes exacted by the court, and that even in criminal law there are cases of vicarious liability where the guilt of an employee is imputed to his employer and the employer may be punished on behalf of both of them. Thus in the American justice system the satisfactoriness of penal substitution is in some cases recognized. You will remember the philosopher David Lewis said, as I quoted him last week, that this indicates that both sides agree that penal substitution sometimes makes sense even if none can say how it makes sense.

Protestant theologians like Francois Turretin (that we looked at in the past) offered an account to make sense of penal substitution in the case of Christ. Turretin maintains that Christ is not only our substitute but also our representative before God. This requires us to say a word about the nature of substitution and representation. Though these are similar, they are not the same thing. In a case of simple substitution someone takes the place of another person but he does not represent that person. A great example of this would be a pinch hitter in baseball. The pinch hitter enters the lineup to bat in place of another player. He in no sense represents that other player. He is a substitute for the other player but he doesn’t represent him. That is why the player who is replaced is not affected by the performance of the pinch hitter. The pinch hitter’s batting average is entirely independent of the batting average of the player that he replaces. He substitutes for the player in the lineup but he in no sense represents that player. On the other hand, a representative acts on behalf of another person and serves as that person’s spokesman. For example, this baseball player also has an agent who represents the player in his contract negotiations with the team. The representative does not replace the player but rather he advocates on behalf of the player.

Turretin believes that in dying for our sins Christ is both our substitute and our representative before God. He was our substitute because he was punished in our place. He is the one who bore the suffering that we deserved. But he also represented us before God so that his punishment was our punishment. In 2 Corinthians 5:14 Paul says, “For we are convinced that one has died for all, therefore all have died.” Christ died for all, therefore all who are represented by him have died. A good illustration of this combination of substitution and representation would be the role of a proxy at a shareholders’ meeting.[1] If we cannot attend the shareholders’ meeting ourselves, we may receive a form in the mail authorizing someone else to serve as our proxy at the shareholders’ meeting. He votes for us, and because he has been authorized to do so, his votes are our votes. So he is a substitute for us in the sense that he attends the meeting, not we. On the other hand, he is also our representative in that he does not vote instead of us; rather he votes on our behalf so that we vote. We vote by proxy. Similarly, Christ was not merely punished instead of us; rather we were punished by proxy. For that reason, divine justice is satisfied.

How is it that we are represented by Christ? Turretin proposed two ways in which we are in union with Christ and therefore united with him as our representative. The first way, he said, is by way of his incarnation. He takes on our human nature and therefore becomes our representative before God. Secondly, though, he said he is also our representative in virtue of our mystical union with Christ as believers. He is the head of his body – the church. Believers are united with Christ in this intimate way.

Theologians will often appeal to this latter union of believers with Christ in order to explain the efficacy of his atonement. They will say because we are united with Christ therefore Christ dies for our sins, he represents us before God, and divine justice is satisfied. But it seems to me that such an account is explanatorily circular and therefore untenable. Turretin maintained that it is our union with Christ that is the basis for the imputation of our sins to Christ and his justification or righteousness being imputed to us. On the one hand, it is in virtue of our union with Christ that the imputation of sins and our justification takes place. But the problem is that the mystical union of believers with Christ is available only for those who already are justified in Christ. So you seem to have an explanatory circle here: in order to have your sins imputed to Christ and to be justified you need to be in union with Christ, but in order to be in union with Christ you need to have your sins imputed to him and his righteousness imputed to you. So there is a vicious explanatory circle here. You need to already be a Christian in order to be a beneficiary of imputation and justification, but to be in union with Christ (to be a Christian) you need to have imputation and justification. So it seems to me that what we need here is a relationship of explanatory priority that goes from our union with Christ to our imputation of sins to him and our justification.

I think, therefore, Turretin’s first proposal is to be preferred. That is to say, this is a union that is wrought by Christ’s incarnation (and, I would want to add here, his baptism). In his baptism, Jesus identified himself with fallen sinful humanity.[2] Christ himself being sinless did not need to undergo John’s baptism or repentance of sins. But he agreed to do it anyway thereby expressing his solidarity with fallen sinful mankind. So I would say that in virtue of his incarnation and baptism Christ is appointed by God to serve as our proxy before God. It is of little consequence if there is no parallel to this in our criminal justice system because God might even forbid this arrangement among human persons. But, as we’ve seen, he is free to make such an arrangement for himself for a divine person. The Logos, the second person of the Trinity, has been voluntarily appointed to serve as our proxy by means of his incarnation and baptism, so that by his death he might satisfy the demands of God’s justice on our behalf.


Student: In like manner, couldn't you say that in addition to the baptism, also when he took our sins at the cross voluntarily? It would be like when you look at the verse, For God so loved the world as it was cut off that he gave his Son to join us. Or like, Before the foundation of the world, he was slain. He took upon himself to perform the union.

Dr. Craig: Are you saying that with the baptism that he not merely identifies himself with fallen humanity but this is actually the point at which he becomes the sin bearer and bears our sins?

Student: No. I think it is a step in the middle to show us examples getting closer. In the Garden of Gethsemane. And on the cross he takes our sins.

Dr. Craig: I am quite open to that. I think that ultimately Christ doesn't become the sin bearer in the full sense until his death because the consequences and punishment for sin is death. So when our sins are fully imputed to him and God judges him it must result in his death. God could not have halted it before the death and had full satisfaction of divine justice.

Student: Just a comment on the substitutionary aspects of our justice system. I don't know if you need, like you mentioned, an analogy to modern American jurisprudence in order to argue that the atonement is morally sound. But probably the closest thing to substitutionary or vicarious punishment in the criminal justice system would be where there is a fine or a financial condition at the criminal sentence which often occurs. It could be restitution but usually a fine is involved. The money to satisfy that condition could come from anywhere. It could be paid by parents. For example, a young person who gets a DUI the parents probably pay the fine for their child. Or the defendant could borrow the money from a bank. I don't know that you want to say that the parents are being punished as substitutes for the defendant or the bank is being punished as a substitute for the defendant, but there is a substitutionary aspect that I guess you could say. That is very typical that money to satisfy the financial condition comes from a different source than the defendant.

Dr. Craig: I think that is a very good point. It is a little odd that David Lewis didn't make that application. He talks about that in civil law, but as you say fines are often criminal penalties that could be paid by someone else. I think you are making a very good point.

I do want to emphasize what you said at the beginning. You don't need to have analogies to penal substitution in the Anglo-American justice system in order to defend its satisfactoriness. In fact, I think that this account by Turretin is just brilliant and satisfactory on its own. But if you do find in our justice system analogs to it, I think this helps the case to say, This does satisfy justice. It is recognized by legal theorists who have poured thousands of hours into this justice system. Where one can find these analogies, I think they are very, very helpful in providing parallel illustrations to these theological points.[3]

Student: Where you had the supposed conflict between the union, imputation, justification – it seemed to me these all happened simultaneously. This is not a temporal conflict here.

Dr. Craig: I understand. He is making a very good point here. What we are talking about is not a chronological priority. As you say, these could be simultaneous. We are talking about an explanatory priority. That is to say, in virtue of what are my sins imputed to Christ and his righteousness imputed to me? It is in virtue of our union with Christ, and I would say through the incarnation and baptism. But you are quite right in saying that the precedence here is explanatory and not chronological.


You may remember that Socinus, the 16th century unitarian theologian who attacked penal substitution so vehemently, objected that Christ's satisfying the demands of God's justice is incompatible with God's forgiving our sins and remitting our debt. If Christ has paid the debt for us then there is nothing left to forgive. So it is incompatible, Socinus said, to say that Christ paid our debt and that God forgives us of the debt that Christ has paid.

How might we respond to this objection? I think Hugo Grotius pointed out a central failing of Socinus' theology that is unfortunately all too common today among atonement theorists. And that is to say Socinus thinks of God as a private person in a personal dispute. For example, a creditor to whom someone owes money. Such a creditor could easily forgive the debt if he so wished. That is up to him. We shouldn't think of God in terms of a private party in a personal dispute. Rather, as Grotius points out, God is in the role of ruler and judge of the world and therefore fulfills this legal capacity. Far too many contemporary atonement theorists neglect this legal aspect of God's role in the atonement. Instead they turn to these personal, private relationships as analogies of the atonement rather than to legal analogies. Thereby they overlook God's official role as judge and ruler of the universe. Indeed, I think that rather than conceive of God's forgiveness on the model of the forgiveness that typically takes place among human beings in personal relationships, divine forgiveness is much more like a legal pardon. Forgiveness among human persons is a relinquishing of resentment or bitterness – a change of attitude on the part of the person wronged. But a legal pardon is much more than a subjective change of attitude. It involves the cancellation of the person's liability to punishment. It involves the annulling of the consequences of the crime for which that person is pardoned. So pardon is a legal act which cancels a person's liability to punishment. It is not just a subjective change of attitude on God's part toward us.

As a legal act, a pardon does not affect the moral status of the person who is pardoned. If the President pardons some hardened criminal, in virtue of that pardon, that hardened criminal doesn't suddenly become a virtuous, loving, selfless person.[4] Similarly, our legal pardon by God does not automatically make us into virtuous, holy, good people. Our legal pardon by God needs to be supplemented by moral sanctification if we are to become all that we are in Christ. On the one hand there is justification which is this legal act whereby God declares us pardoned of our sins. But then there is the life-long process of sanctification whereby we become increasingly conformed to the image and character of Christ until we go home to be with him in glory.

Socinus implies that God's pardoning our sins would be incompatible with the satisfaction of divine justice by Christ on our behalf. If Christ has been punished for those sins then we cannot be pardoned for those sins. But in fact pardons are typically given after a person's prison sentence has been fully served and the demands of justice satisfied. In fact, you cannot even apply to the Office of Pardon Attorney in the United States until five years after your sentence has been fully served and justice fully satisfied. When you receive a pardon you not only are released from all of the legal consequences of your crime but that pardon also restores to you all of the civil rights which have been lost as a result of your conviction – for example, the right to vote, the right to serve on a jury, the right to attend stockholders' meetings, and things of this sort. Similarly, our pardon by God not only results in the forgiveness of our sins but it bestows upon us all of the rights of the children of God – things like adoption as sons, heirs of eternal life – which are in themselves also legal notions when you think about it. So a pardon from God both cancels our liability to punishment but then also bestows upon us the rights and privileges that are inherent to a child of God. These pardons, as I say, are fully compatible with the sentence already having been discharged.

So if Christ has paid our sentence fully, God can therefore say the demands of justice has been met and now I offer you a full pardon if you will receive it. Significantly, pardons can be conditional. The President can offer a person a pardon based upon certain conditions which he must agree to and fulfill if he is to be pardoned. If he refuses those conditions then the pardon, though granted by the President, is inefficacious – it has no effect whatsoever. Similarly, God's pardon of us in Christ can be conditioned upon repentance and faith on our part. It needs to be freely accepted in which case it is efficacious. If it is freely refused then we remain liable for our sins.

So God, seeing the demands of retributive justice have been fully met by Christ's substitutionary punishment, can therefore turn to us and offer us a full pardon of the sins that we have committed. It is in that sense, I think, that we can say that God has graciously and out of mercy forgiven our sins. Colossians 2:13-14 says,

And you, who were dead in trespasses . . . , God made alive together with him [Christ], having forgiven us all our trespasses, by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands; this he set aside, nailing it to the cross.

It is through the cross of Christ that this legal punishment that stood against us is set aside and divine forgiveness is made available.[5] So forgiveness in this legal sense is the declaration by God that the punishment has been fully paid and that therefore we are now free.


Student: I have a question about the preemptive nature of God's pardon. Not only did God forgive us of our sins in the past, we are forgiven of future sin. When it comes to divine justice, this is to me the most strange aspect of it. Over time the pardon becomes actually more valuable because not only are you forgiven for all your sins but you are going to be forgiven for all the other how ever many millions you are going to commit between now and eternity. How can you help me understand that a little bit?

Dr. Craig: I don't have any firm opinions on this, but let me share with you what Turretin says and I find very persuasive. Turretin says that God does not forgive your future sins. He says the atonement of Christ is sufficient to cover them once they occur. So as you say you will be forgiven. But he says you can't be forgiven for future sins because they haven't been committed, and therefore you are not guilty. You can't be guilty of something you haven't done. This takes tense seriously. This takes the view of time, according to which temporal becoming is real and the future doesn't exist, very seriously. That seems quite right. A person in the future who doesn't even exist hasn't done anything wrong. He hasn't committed any sin. It is not as though that person can be forgiven. But what Turretin would say is that the suffering of Christ on behalf of humanity is so superabundant of infinite value, in fact, that it suffices for the forgiveness of anyone's sins once that person commits those sins and turns to God in repentance and faith and thereby appropriates that forgiveness. This is this old distinction that I think we've talked about before of the difference between redemption accomplished and applied. It is accomplished at the cross but it is applied historically over time as people come into existence, sin, repent, and turn to God in faith, and then become members of the body of Christ and come into relationship with him.

Student: A historical example comes to mind. I am thinking of Gerald Ford's pardon of Richard Nixon who was never actually charged with a crime but the pardon said you can't even prosecute this guy.

Dr. Craig: I love this! This is so good! There are very few conditions on a presidential pardon, but one of them is that you cannot be pardoned for something you have not yet done. You can't get a pardon for future crimes. In the case of Richard Nixon, the acts for which he was pardoned had been done. The wrongdoing had been done. Pardons can be given either prior to conviction, during the court process, or after sentencing and indeed after the sentence has been discharged. But they cannot be given for crimes that have not yet been committed. That is the point that Turretin is making, and he is exactly on all fours with the American justice system in saying that although Ford could pardon Nixon for the wrongdoing he had done prior to conviction, he couldn't pardon someone for some future crime that he might commit.


Let me just wrap up this section very briefly then by saying as for Socinus' arguments against Christ's death being sufficient to satisfy for humanity’s sins, I again consider Turretin's response based on the deity of Christ to be entirely adequate.[6] On Turretin's view, Christ in virtue of his deity undergoes a punishment that has infinite worth before God and is therefore superabundant and able to satisfy for all of the sins of humanity that they ever have committed or ever will commit. It is the withdrawal of divine fellowship and blessedness that Christ experiences in dying on the cross that is this horrible suffering or penalty that Christ pays which suffices to satisfy for all persons at all time. Remember Socinus didn't think that Christ was God. He was a unitarian; an anti-trinitarian. He thought he was just a human being. But if you believe in the deity of Christ as Turretin did then it seems to me that his punishment is superabundant and ample to pay for the sins of all of humanity and more.[7]



[1] 5:11

[2] 10:02

[3] 15:14

[4] 20:24

[5] 25:09

[6] 30:03

[7] Total Running Time: 31:55 (Copyright © 2017 William Lane Craig)