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Part 4: The Cross in Scripture, the Early Fathers, and the Magisterium

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By Dr. Robert Stackpole, STD (Dec 7, 2014)
The following is the fourth of a 15-part series on Divine Mercy and Divine Justice. Read the series to date.

In part 3 of this series we looked at some examples of how some of the best Catholic writers today inadvertently cast a cloud of confusion over the Gospel of the Cross. But I also admitted that I am guilty of doing the same thing myself.

Time to eat some humble pie.

In my first (and best) book, Jesus, Mercy Incarnate (Marian Press, 2000), I had this to say about the Passion and Death of our Savior:

The problem with the [classical Christian] point of view is that even if God wanted to take proper retribution for our sins upon Himself, justice would not be served. Strict justice does not say "a sin has been committed — someone must suffer for it," but "a sin has been committed — the guilty party must suffer for it (Ez 18: 1-4). Thus, the innocent divine Son could not justly bear the retribution we deserve. As one theologian wrote:

"Justice can never be served by punishing the innocent. ... If [the Son of] God then deliberately takes on Himself the suffering which is my due for the evil I have done, He is not satisfying Justice; He is perverting it. His conduct may be considered admirable from a different point of view, but not from that of Justice."

It is clear to me now that this argument does not hold water. Here is why: We know very well that a mere human person cannot justly be punished in place of, and for the crimes of, another. But Jesus Christ was not a mere human person; He is the Divine Son of God in human form — and we do not know that it is unjust for our Creator and Judge to take upon Himself the burden and penalty of our sins.

Imagine a judge in a court of law who pronounces a verdict of "guilty as charged," and justly sentences the accused and his family to pay massive reparations for their crimes — reparation payments so huge that the family will have to pay off the debt for the rest of their lives. Then imagine the same judge, out of mercy and compassion for that family, coming down from the bench and offering to "foot the bill" to clear those payments, even at terrible cost to himself. Here we have an analogy (albeit an imperfect one) of what our Judge and Savior, Jesus Christ, has done for us.

Again, I believe this issue is an important one in the Church today because a vague or truncated doctrine of the Cross prevents us from clearly proclaiming something at the very heart of the Gospel. And few things will weaken the effectiveness of the New Evangelization more than a muddled Gospel message.

Our own Fr. Michael Gaitley, MIC, in his book Consoling the Heart of Jesus (Marian Press, 2010, p. 134), sets the record straight:

By our sins we offended not just any man but the God-Man, an offense that deserves the penalty of death. Yet, instead of destroying us ungrateful creatures as we deserved, God in Christ Jesus chose to suffer the death penalty for us, so we might be forgiven and have life with God. What unfathomable love and mercy!

Nevertheless, many theologians today, both Catholic and Protestant, object to the Church's traditional teaching about the saving work of Jesus on the Cross. They claim that this traditional teaching makes it appear as if God is only interested in balancing the ledger book in Heaven of our merits and demerits, that is, with clearing our debts to Divine Justice through the Death of His Son, rather than re-establishing a loving personal relationship with His lost children. We should reinterpret the doctrine of the atonement in personal, relational terms, they say, rather than repeating the old judicial, "transactional" theories involving satisfaction, merit, guilt, punishment, and so on.

Now, there's no question that sometimes the doctrine of the Cross has been presented in a misleading way. Jesus Christ's saving work must be an expression both of God's love and His justice, not of His justice alone or of His justice in isolation from His love. And it is certainly not the case that we have an angry Father of Justice who needed to be bought off by a loving Son. The Father and Son are both persons of the Blessed Trinity, so they both share the divine attributes of infinitely perfect justice and infinitely perfect love.

The simple fact is that both Scripture and Catholic tradition often use "transactional," judicial, and even commercial language to describe what Jesus Christ has done to save us from the penalty and power of sin. And this is not seen in isolation from God's personal love for us. For example, in Mark 10:45, Jesus tells His disciples, "For the Son of Man also came not to be served, but to serve, and to give His life as a ransom for many." A ransom, in the original Greek of St. Mark's Gospel, is a transactional payment that sets a slave free. Saint Paul states that we are all "bought with a price" (1 Cor 6:20). The New Testament uses judicial language when St. Paul tells us, "Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us" (Gal 3:13). And St. Paul refers in the same passage to the Old Testament saying that anyone who is executed on a tree is cursed by God (see Deut 21:23).

In what way did Christ bear a divine curse for us? The Old Testament passage that the early Christians saw as a special clue to Christ's saving work (and it has been enshrined in the Liturgy for Good Friday ever since), is the one about the Suffering Servant of the Lord bearing for us on the Cross the penalty we deserve for our sins. Here's the passage from Isaiah 53:5: "But He was wounded for our transgressions. He was bruised for our iniquities, upon Him was the chastisement that made us whole, and with His stripes we are healed. All we, like sheep, have gone astray, we have turned everyone to his own way, and the Lord has laid on Him the iniquity of us all."

Saint John's first epistle uses sacrificial language to make much the same point. "And this is love, not that we love God, but that He loved us," wrote St. John, "and sent His Son to be the expiation [or propitiation] for our sins" (1 Jn 4:10). If the proper translation of the word here is "propitiation" (and Evangelical New Testament scholar Leon Morris made a very convincing case that it is), then we have Christ offering a propitiatory sacrifice for us on the Cross; in other words, a sacrifice that turns aside the just wrath (that is, the commutative justice) of God. In Colossians 2:13-14, St. Paul tells us that God in Christ has "forgiven us all our trespasses, having cancelled the bond which stood against us with its legal demands ... nailing it to the Cross." Here we have St. Paul using the image of Christ paying off our moral debts by His Passion and Death.

In short, God loved us so much that God Himself, in the Person of His Son, bore the burden and penalty of our sins on the Cross, thereby removing our debt to Divine Justice so that we might find forgiveness and so that the sanctifying grace of God might be poured out upon us. In doing all this for us, the Divine Son of God, Jesus Christ, manifested both His perfect justice, and His merciful love for us, at one at the same time.

To put it in the context of the Chronicles of Narnia: Aslan, the Great Lion, knew very well that "the deep magic" required either the penalty of death for the traitor, the boy Eustace, or that an innocent one substitute himself in the traitor's stead, and so Aslan mercifully bore the penalty on Edmund's behalf to set him free.

The point is that this is not merely a "Medieval" doctrine of some kind; it goes right back to the Bible, and, in fact, to the teachings of the early Fathers of the Church. A number of the ancient Fathers of the Church seem to have taught this same Gospel message.

In his book Violence, Hospitality and the Cross, Dr. Hans Boersma gave a brief summary of the early Christian witness to this interpretation of Christ's saving work (pp. 162-163):

Saint Irenaeus [in the second century] expresses the connection between Christ's sacrifice and propitiation most clearly when he says that the Lord "did not make void, but fulfilled the law, by performing the offices of the high priest, propitiating God for men, and cleansing the lepers, healing the sick, and Himself suffering death, that exiled man might go free from condemnation, and might return without fear to his own inheritance. ..."

Origen (c. 185-253) ... argues that Christ is the sacrificial victim through whose death on the cross "propitiation" is made. Similarly, St. Cyril of Alexandria (c. 375-444) argues that Christ "accepted the punishment of sinners." These judicial elements were reinforced in the West through the writings of St. Hilary of Poitiers (d. 367) and St. Augustine (354-430). "Christ though guiltless," comments Augustine, "took our punishment that he might cancel our guilt, and do away with our punishment." In the sixth century we find St. Gregory the Great (c. 540-604) explicitly discussing the question of God's justice in condemning the Mediator who "deserved not to be punished for Himself." Gregory answers the question with an eye to the outcome of Christ's death: "But if He had not Himself undertaken a death not due to Him, He would never have freed us from the one that was justly due to us. And so, whereas 'The Father is righteous,' in punishing a righteous man 'He ordereth all things righteously.'"

We could add to the ancient Fathers quoted by Dr. Boersma here the testimony of Tertullian, St. Athanasius, and St. John Chrysostom. Clearly, the doctrine that Christ's death was a "propitiatory" sacrifice (in other words, one that turned aside the wrath of God by paying the penalty for our sins) was not, as some have claimed, an invention of St. Anselm in the 11th century; it was already part of the patrimony of the Church in its reflections on Christ's work of atonement.

And the Magisterium (the teaching authority of the Church of the pope and the bishops) continues this sacred tradition today.

For example, St. John Paul II expressed the doctrine of the Cross in his encyclical Dives In Misericordia (Rich in Mercy), section 7:

In the Passion and Death of Christ, in the fact that the Father did not spare His own Son, but for our own sake made Him sin, absolute justice is expressed, for Christ undergoes the Passion and Cross because of the sins of humanity. This constitutes even a superabundance of justice, for the sins of Man are compensated for by the sacrifice of the Man-God. Nevertheless, this justice, which is properly justice to God's measure, springs completely from love, from the love of the Father and the Son, and completely bears fruit in love.

In a similar way, the Catechism of the Catholic Church describes this aspect of Christ's saving work as a judicial accomplishment, that is, He made satisfaction for our sins by substituting Himself for us on the Cross (entry 443):

By His obedience unto Death, Jesus accomplished the substitution of the suffering servant who makes an offering for sin when 'He bore the sin of many, and who shall make many to be counted righteous, for He shall bear their iniquities.' Jesus atoned for our faults, and made satisfaction for our sins to the Father.

To sum up, Holy Scripture, the ancient Fathers of the Church, and the Magisterium today all clearly teach us that Jesus Christ's saving work was, in a sense, "transactional." He compensated for our sins by dying for us on the Cross. Indeed, as we have seen, through St. Thomas Aquinas and St. Alphonsus, the Catholic Tradition teaches that Christ more than made up for our sins. As St. Paul wrote: "where sin increased, grace abounded all the more" (Rom 5:20), or as St. John Paul II put it, our Savior's offering before Divine Justice was of such great value, that it was a "super-abundant" sacrifice for sin. In other words, He not only cleared away our debt to Divine Justice, He also merited for us all the graces that we need for the sanctification of our hearts and the gift of eternal life. Here is a perfect example of how God's mercy not only meets the demands of His justice, but goes way beyond what justice requires — out of His boundless, compassionate love for us.

Next week: A Closer Look at the Doctrine of the Cross

Read the series to date.

Robert Stackpole, STD, is director of the John Paul II Institute of Divine Mercy, an apostolate of the Marian Fathers of the Immaculate Conception.

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