Part 5: A Closer Look at the Cross

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By Dr. Robert Stackpole, STD (Jan 8, 2015)
The following is the fifth installment of a 15-part series on Divine Mercy and Divine Justice. Read the series to date.

In the previous instalment of this series, I explained why it's unfair to say that the traditional teaching about our Lord's Passion and death on the Cross is "merely transactional." If by that people mean "merely impersonal" or "merely about God's justice and not also about His personal love for us," then it is not a fair description of the doctrine.

We need to remember that in His infinite holiness, God cannot just ignore our mortal sins or pretend that they are unimportant, and "let bygones be bygones." In human relationships, too, we see this clearly. When someone seriously wrongs or injures you, don't they owe you something? A sincere, heartfelt apology, at least? And, in more extreme cases, some kind of compensatory gift or restitution — or a just punishment, where there is no remorse or restitution at all? A personal relationship or friendship cannot truly be restored without that moral debt being acknowledged and made up.

Consider the parable of the Prodigal Son. The merciful father in the story did not simply pretend that no serious offence had been committed. He saw that his son's repentance was sincere and that his son had already suffered grievously for his misdeeds, for the young man came home half-starved and in rags. His heart, therefore, went out to him with forgiveness and love.

Moreover, when we ourselves do wrong to others, our conscience convicts us and pronounces an inner sentence of "guilty" and "worthy of punishment." It was the Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoyevsky in his book Crime and Punishment who showed that this echo of the demands of justice lies so deep within the human heart that when we do something grievously wrong, even if we "get away with it," in the sense that we don't get "caught," we end up punishing ourselves anyway. Bit by bit we destroy ourselves, for we are eaten away deep within by guilt and self-hatred, no matter how much we may refuse to admit that truth to ourselves. The same truth is expressed in another way in the old proverb: "The wicked man flees when no one pursues him." Deep inside, we know our moral debts well enough — and we know what we really deserve.

The most grievous moral wrong that we can commit is when we betray someone we love — especially if the person we betray is innocent of all wrongdoing. Now, human sin is a betrayal of our heavenly Father's infinite love for us. His infinite love created us, gave us the gift of life, and offers us the possibility of eternal life with Him in Heaven. By our sins, we betray that infinite love. And that surely leaves us in a state of serious moral debt to God. We really now owe Him something that we can never pay — namely, a life of totally faithful service spent achieving the good purposes for which He made us. Having misspent our past, we have nothing extra to offer to God to make up for it, and now we owe an infinite penalty to His justice for having so seriously let Him down. But Jesus Christ, the divine Son, makes up for it all on our behalf, by His obedient life and His death on a Cross.

Let's unpack all this a bit more.

First, having betrayed His infinite love by our mortal sins, we owe Him an infinite penalty. The only thing that could even approach such a penalty would be our death: both the irrevocable punishment of bodily death and the everlasting punishment of spiritual death (in other words, the everlasting loss from our hearts of the life-giving Holy Spirit). That is why the Bible says "the wages of sin is death" (Rom 6:23). The uncomfortable truth is: This is what we really deserve!

Second, in the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus asked His heavenly Father that, if possible, the "cup" may be taken from Him. Here, the term "cup" no doubt has several layers of meaning, but one layer surely refers to the "cup" of divine "wrath" for sin (that is, divine commutative justice) — a "cup" mentioned at least 10 times in Holy Scripture (see Job 21:20; Ezek 23:32-34; Is 51:17-22; Ps 75:8; Jer 25:15-29; Hab 2:16 and 49:12; Rev 14:10, 16:1ff, and 18:6).

Third, if Jesus Christ chose to take upon Himself the penalty we deserve, then this helps explain why He was permitted to experience on the Cross even the loss of the sense of the presence of the Holy Spirit, the Comforter. For our sake, therefore, He descended into the very depths of the experience of "God-forsakeness" as He was dying: "My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?" (Mk 15:34).

Fourth, when Jesus cried out on the Cross, "It is finished" (Jn 19:30), it may be that He was deliberately quoting the phrase used in Roman law to mark a document once a debt had been cleared. In the Roman world, "it is finished" meant "the debt has been paid."

Saint Paul put it best in Romans 5:6-8: "For Christ, while we were still helpless, yet died at the appointed time for the ungodly. Indeed, only with difficulty does one die for a just person, though perhaps for a good person one might even find courage to die. But God proves his love for us in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us."

And remember, as we showed in previous articles in this series, Jesus did not only die for our sins: He offered to His heavenly Father a whole life of loving obedience, from cradle to grave. All in all, this was an offering to Divine Justice that more than made up for our sins. It was a "superabundant" sacrifice for our sins that merited for us a whole ocean of graces. This was the aspect of the mystery of the Cross that so astounded St. Faustina:

O Jesus, be mindful of Your own bitter Passion, and do not permit the loss of souls redeemed at so dear a price of Your most precious Blood. ...

[Jesus said to her]: My mercy is greater than your sins, and those of the entire world. ... I let My Sacred Heart be pierced with a lance, thus opening wide the source of mercy for you. Come then with trust to draw graces from this fountain. (Diary, 72 and 1485)

To put it all another way, at its root, human sin always involves the prideful attempt to "play God" — to do things our own way and rely on our own strength and cleverness, rather than trusting in the Lord. The Evangelical John Stott, therefore, explained that the Cross is the perfect reparation for this offence (in His book, The Cross of Christ, p.160):

The concept of substitution may be said to lie at the heart of both sin and salvation. For the essence of sin is man substituting for God, while the essence of salvation is God substituting for man. Man asserts himself against God and puts himself where only God deserves to be; God sacrifices Himself for man and puts Himself where only man deserves to be. Man claims prerogatives that belong to God alone; God accepts penalties that belong to man alone. The biblical gospel of atonement is of God satisfying himself by substituting Himself for us.

In short, Jesus made up for our misspent past, and He bore the penalty that we deserve on the Cross. He also merited for us by His life and death all the sanctifying graces that can heal us and set us free from sin's power in our lives. That's not just some cold, impersonal, judicial transaction. It's a wonderful gift of His mercy that sets us free from the penalty and power of sin! All we need to do to receive that gift is to open our hearts to Jesus more and more by repentance and faith.

To be sure, Christ's saving work is a multi-dimensional mystery, which means it cannot be expressed or understood solely in terms of "satisfaction" or "penal substitution." There are many other dimensions of what Jesus Christ did in His life and death to save us. Charles Gore, the famous Anglican Bishop of Oxford early in the 20th century, summed it up this way:

There are, in fact, three relations in which our Lord stands to us in the New Testament. There is Christ in front of us, who sets before us the standard of the new life — in whom we see the true meaning of manhood. That is to kindle our desire. There is Christ for us — our propitiation or atonement — winning for us, at the price of His blood-shedding, freedom from all the guilt and bondage of the past, assurance of the free forgiveness and a fresh start. Then there is Christ in us — our new life by the Spirit, molding us inwardly into His likeness, and conforming us to His character. And the three are one. Each is unintelligible without the others. The redeeming work of Christ lies in all together.

Moreover, there are several different ways to work out the details even of the "satisfaction" and "penal substitution" dimensions of Christ's saving work. The way St. Thomas Aquinas worked it out was not exactly the same way that St. Anselm, St. Bernard or John Calvin understood this mystery. Nevertheless, I am convinced that common to them all is a central, gospel truth: that Jesus, the divine Son of God, paid the penalty for our sins on the Cross (i.e., He compensated or satisfied divine commutative justice for our sins) so that when we are united with Him through repentance and faith (nurtured in us especially by Baptism, sacramental Confession, and Holy Communion), then the merits of His sacrifice are fully applied to us. As St. Paul said in Romans (8:1, 6:22): "There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. ... But now that you have been set free from sin and have become [servants] of God, the return you get is sanctification, and its end, eternal life."

It seems to me a tragic development that so many Catholic theologians today cannot clearly express this central truth at the very heart of the gospel. Perhaps it is ecumenical dialogue with our Evangelical brothers and sisters in Christ that will wake us up, cure us of our amnesia, and remind us of the importance of this aspect of the doctrine of salvation. After all, it used to be — and ought to be — common ground between us. Again, Evangelical theologian John Stott put it so well in his classic book on the subject, The Cross of Christ (p. 161, 159):

It is the Judge who in this passion takes the place of those who ought to be judged, who in His passion allows Himself to be judged in their place. The passion of Jesus Christ is the judgement of God, in which the Judge Himself was judged. ...

For in giving His Son He was giving Himself. This being so, it is the Judge Himself who in holy love assumed the role of innocent victim, for in and through the person of His Son He Himself bore the penalty which He Himself inflicted. ... For in order to save us in such a way as to satisfy Himself, God through Christ substituted Himself for us. ... The cross was simultaneously an act of punishment and amnesty, severity and grace, justice and mercy.

Seen thus, objections to substitutionary atonement evaporate. There is nothing even remotely immoral here, since the substitute for the law-breakers is none other than the divine Lawmaker Himself. There is no mechanical transaction either, since the self-sacrifice of love is the most personal of all actions. And what is achieved through the cross is no merely external exchange of legal status, since those who see God's love there, and are united in Christ by His Spirit, become radically transformed in outlook and character. ...

Next up: What Happened to the Doctrine of Hell?

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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Be a part of the discussion. Add a comment now!

Dr Chris Reed - Jul 6, 2017

I think that the confusion involved in this topic is due to so many Protestants (Lutherans, Calvinists, Fundamentalists) bringing their Protestant doctrinal baggage with them when the "convert" to Catholicism. Then they wind up becoming catechists and teach in Catholic high schools and colleges and introduce Protestant notions to students in the name of "Catholicism."
Instead of quoting contemporary Protestants to make your case, why not quote from great Dominican theologians prior to Vatican II? I mean theologians such as Fr. Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, adviser to several popes, and Fr. John Arintero. The Church was not brought into existence at Vatican II. In fact, the Church was growing greatly worldwide until Vatican II. It is arguable that Vatican II has caused a great deal of theological and liturgical confusion which has led to more defections from the Church than ever before. More and more monasteries, convents, and church buildings are shut down for lack of attendance.

But on the issue of penal substitution. This is clearly an act of Post-Consiliar importation of Protestantism into Catholicism. The fact is, you cannot find penal substitution taught by any Council or any Doctor of the Church. But you do find it taught explicitly in Protestantism.
The Problem is that penal substitution, taken strictly, states that God the Father had to Damn Christ on the Cross in punishment for our sins.
That's the crux of the matter. (No pun intended.)
All who are proficient in Scholastic Philosophy and Scholastic Theology can tell you why this CANNOT be the case -- why it is blasphemous and heretical.
If Christ were damned by the Father, then it would follow necessarily that
(1) Christ's soul would be damned in Hell,
(2) Christ's Divine Personhood, which is inseparable from His soul, due to the Hypostatic Union, would be separated (damned) from the Father -- hence there would be a temporal occurrence within the Godhead, a going from non-condemnation to condemnation, which would NEGATE the Immutability of God (which is a De Fide Dogma of the Church) and the internal harmonious Divine Union of the Persons (which is also a Dogma of the Church).
(3) To deny that the Divine Person would have to be judged along with His Body and Soul, would lead to the NEGATION of the Hypostatic Union. How could His human nature be charged with a penalty without it affecting the Person who is Ultimately
Responsible for the activity of the human nature? In other words, to separate His Divine Personhood from His human nature in a "hypothetical act of punitive and dominative justice" would be tantamount to claiming that a penal charge could be brought against a non-essential aspect of a human person without it affecting the person responsible for the punishable act. Even if a person get's his hand chopped off for stealing, it is still the person that is being punished and not some abstract aspect of himself. Only persons can be punished. This would especially be the case in God's system of punitive justice. So, if you want to say that the Father damns Christ's human nature only, you NEGATE the very notion of person-based justice and you NEGATE the Hypostatic Union.

THEREFORE, the penal substitution theory is alien to the Traditional Roman Catholic Ethos and the Teachings of the Church's Scholastic Theological Tradition -- and the theory is heretical -- and blasphemous -- for the reasons that I have stated.

The moral of the story is this. If you want to be a Roman Catholic, at least in the Traditional sense of what it has meant to be a Catholic, you should NOT embrace doctrines that are known, historically, to be distinctively Protestant (anti-Catholic) and which are demonstrably heretical and blasphemous.
I rest my case -- to put it juridically. Best. Respect.

Robert Stackpole - Feb 26, 2015

Thanks to both of you--Jack and EJ--for your in-deoth dialogue on this issue! i am sorry it has taken me so long to respond, but I wanted to ponder your discussion and also, as you said, I have been pretty busy of late. Look for a full-length article response to your dialogue in about two weeks, on the home page!

Jack - Jan 27, 2015

Can't say that I have heard of him, EJ. My background was Christian Reformed (Dutch rather than Scottish Calvinism), and I was raised in it. Welcome back to the Church and I'm very happy that you're becoming a deacon!

Dr. Stackpoole, there is a question for you in here, too, but it's later.

First, for you EJ, I'll relate that when a buddy of mine was young and a bit callous, he capped off a break-up with a girl by saying, "but Don't Think Twice, It's All Right." He actually had the gall to do that! Of course he didn't mean, "it's all right"; he meant everything that Bob Dylan said and meant when we wrote that scorched-earth break-up song back in 1962. What I mean by that is that rightly understood, Jesus is actually adverting to the whole psalm: both the feeling of abandonment and the enduring trust. That's the message and for us whenever we feel abandoned. Crystostom says the same thing about this, that he shows us his faithfulness by quoting scripture until the end. God might not save us from suffering and death and internal desolation, but God is still truly there with us as He was for Christ, and will raise us up as He raised Christ up. I don't disagree at all with what the good priest is saying there--I guess that a lot of this is about the semantics of "Penal Substitution", because I wouldn't call what he's talking about "Penal Substitution", and that may be due to my own particular background. I might just need to develop a better ear for what Catholics mean by the same terms that Protestants use.

I agree with the statement from your formation program, too; but "rightly understood" is important, and I question whether applying the label "penal substitution" is useful, for two reasons. One is the meaning that it has among Protestants. The kind of tit-for-tat, forgiveness of someone here means I have to punish someone over there image of God and His Justice is very common in America, and for many people it is at the very heart of the Gospel and at the heart of their understanding of God. If we do want to keep the term "Penal Substitution", I think that we should be very clear that that's not what we're talking about--Christ taking on the punishments that come on us because of our sin (physical and internal suffering; death) is about his unity with us and entry into our own condition, not a Divine demand to punish someone in order to forgive someone else. So in short I suspect that "Penal Substitution, rightly understood" is different enough from how Penal Substitution is generally understood that I'm not sure that it is worth keeping. But there's ample room for difference of opinion on that, of course. The second thing, as I mentioned, is that substitution doesn't strike me as a very good word for the penal aspect of things, since we still undergo those punishments, too. But that's also just semantics.

But I first wrote here for a reason that was not semantic. I wrote because it really seemed to me that Dr. Stackpoole was arguing for an incorporation of a particular interpretation of Penal Substitution (the one that I was arguing against) as well as an importation of penal-substitutionary understanding into language about sacrifice and satisfaction. This series goes so far as to object to people like Joseph Ratzinger and Fr. Robert Barron, both of whom are very explicit about the sacrificial nature of Christ's death and of the Eucharist, and the very real sense in which Christ makes satisfaction for our sins--they just don't see it in terms of a punishment being carried out by God on Christ because justice demanded that someone be punished. The series is even at pains to see in the Cross an expression of the Wrath of God and includes quotes and allusions from Protestant thinkers who definitely do take the view that I've outlined an objection to. That's what drew me in. So Dr. Stackpoole, I'd still be curious to hear you weigh in on whether or not this is what you meant to say. But I understand that you're a busy fellow.

All the best to you, EJ, and God bless you in your diaconate. I'm so glad that you came back to the Church and that you are going to serve her in this way. Your class will be in my prayers.


EJ - Jan 27, 2015


You said: “We both have a great deal of latitude on this in terms of what the Church permits, with so few doctrinal definitions on the topic.”

ME: You’ve hit the nail on the head.

The diaconate formation program of my diocese teaches that Penal Substitution, rightly understood, is a legitimate aspect of the Atonement. I think they are correct.

I am going to give one more quote on the subject, from Father Joseph Koterski, S.J., of Fordham University. He is the host of a weekly one hour program on Radio Maria. He has been going paragraph by paragraph, line by line, through the Catechism for well over four years.

Here is a quote from him on Paragraph 603:

“He took on our nature and was willing to take our punishment for us, even though He did not deserve it. That punishment includes the sense of alienation or distance from God, which is something that we deserve. It is this distance or alienation that alone (led) Him to say ‘My God, why have you forsaken me’ as part of a psalm that is actually a psalm of trust.”

For the record, I was also a Calvinist, before my return to the Church. I was raised Catholic but strayed. I had a conversion experience in a Southern Baptist congregation, went “Protestant” denoms, and came home ten years ago,.

My Presbyterian congregation was a member of the PCA. Tim Keller is the founding and senior pastor. Have you heard of him?

Jack - Jan 27, 2015

Actually, an addendum to clarify. I am NOT DISPUTING that Jesus suffered punishments that we deserve for our sins. He did. (I don't say "the punishments" because we agree that he did not suffer the total separation from God that is deservedly experienced by the damned). Rather, I am trying to clarify part of the relationship between that suffering and our redemption, and in particular to repudiate a pretty specific viewpoint, one with a lot of truth mixed into it and an admitted mathematical kind of appeal to it, and also one that understandably causes a lot of people to leave the Christian Faith.

Jack - Jan 27, 2015


So on that point we have a disagreement that is really small potatoes. I don't think you're quite on the mark, here: the grief over sins that Christ felt is precisely the grief over sins that follows from a will that is united to God. This is the grief that any truly repentant person feels over his own sins, that we also feel over the sins of those we love, and that we feel over all sins to the extent that we love God--which is to say that the greater our love for God the greater that grief will be, which is why Christ's anguish was so great. That's what JPII is going for, and if you read the section in ScG on "how man is freed from sin", Aquinas makes similar points. He may also have lost the sensible sweetness of God's companionship, while also knowing intellectively that he was in fact loved and accepted by God; I wasn't there. What Our Lord didn't experience was the "spiritual death" of mortal sin, which is nothing other than the condition of the will being turned away from God, which His will never was. But this quibble is really not the issue here; I could well be wrong, it's hair-splitting at this point anyway and might even be semantic, and neither of us is being heretical in any way.

The real point is this: why did Jesus make himself subject to the punishments of our sin, the common punishments of all of humanity? The CCC answers: "In order to establish Him in solidarity with us sinners." That model that you seem to be operating from here, and that Dr. Stackpoole seems so keen to have everyone adopt, is that justice demands that the punishments of sin be borne by SOMEONE, so if they are to be removed from us, then they have to be inflicted on Jesus[1]. But that's not why Jesus bore the punishments of sin or why He suffered and died. That is not how the Cross restores or satisfies justice, and would in fact be a mockery of justice. The Cross restores justice because throughout his life and especially culminating in his death on the Cross, Jesus offers to the Father what we all owe, and that is to live a life of perfect obedience, and perfect love of God and our fellow man. That is the fulfillment of the Law. And what we now owe God now is not obedience in Eden but obedience in this valley of tears, this place of exile; and that is exactly what Christ gave, with all of the cost and pain that it entails, with all the suffering and death that is part of the world because of Adam's sin and ours. I could quote Aquinas or Anslem or Augustine or Pope Benedict XVI, but you could always point out, rightly, that none of them are speaking with the charism of infallibility. We both have a great deal of latitude on this in terms of what the Church permits, with so few doctrinal definitions on the topic.

Three more points are worth mentioning here. The first is that we all agree that Christ could have redeemed us with one act; one drop of blood is often said, or just tying His sandals. But He offered a superabundant satisfaction. How do you make sense of that on a penal-substitution model? Punishing a person more than is deserved is not "superabundant satisfaction", it is cruelty. But offering a gift that surpasses a debt is not cruelty. The second is that we all still have to suffer and die; we still have to grieve over our sins; we still have to be obedient even if it means death. The punishments of sin that Christ suffered are not, in fact, removed from us by virtue of the fact that Christ suffered them. (You'll find this out firsthand in good time, I assure you). Disappointingly enough, we are not exempted from what Christ suffered--but happily we are credited with what He offered to the Father. The final one is that your understanding of "bearing sin" seems a bit rigid. The OT priests are said to "bear sin" when the offer sacrifices. The sense is that they make atonement for it, not that they are punished for it. That's also what Aquinas is saying: that Jesus ascribes the sins to himself, "so to speak", in that he is offering atonement for them.

That's pretty much all I have to say on this.



[1] You would no doubt prefer that I not say "inflicted", but let's return to your argument about "punishments that follow from the very nature of sin". If you drink too much whiskey and get a headache, that follows from the very nature of what you did. If I say that for every advil you take I am going to whack your brother on the noggin with a mallet because if SOMEONE drinks too much then justice demands that SOMEONE get a headache, then that is external vengeance inflicted from without, and also crazy.

EJ - Jan 27, 2015

Then one should not have difficulty acknowledging that when our Lord took these grave sins that deprive us of communion with God onto Himself on the Cross that He would, in some way, experience this deprivation.

In fact, this is exactly what the Catechism states in Paragraph 603.

603 Jesus did not experience reprobation as if he himself had sinned. But in the redeeming love that always united him to the Father, he assumed us in the state of our waywardness of sin, to the point that he could say in our name from the cross: "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" Having thus established him in solidarity with us sinners, God "did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all", so that we might be "reconciled to God by the death of his Son".

(Merriam-Webster defines reprobation as “the state of being condemned strongly as unworthy, unacceptable or evil, or foreordained to damnation.”)

The paragraph does not state that Jesus did NOT experience reprobation. If it wanted to say that, all the author had to write was, “Jesus did not suffer reprobation.”

The Catechism is qualifying the reprobation that our Lord experienced:
• It was not for any sins of His own because He was sinless
• He remained in union with the Father
• The motivation was love not wrath
• His cry of “My God, My God...” was said in our name because of His assumption of our sins

Jesus experienced the punishment that is due to us for our sins.

I think the Catechism is clear on this point in Paragraph 603.

Jack - Jan 26, 2015

Yes, the loss of communion with God that Mortal sin entails proceeds directly from a will that it turned away from God.

EJ - Jan 26, 2015

The punishments of sin

1472 To understand this doctrine and practice of the Church, it is necessary to understand that sin has a double consequence. Grave sin deprives us of communion with God and therefore makes us incapable of eternal life, the privation of which is called the "eternal punishment" of sin. On the other hand every sin, even venial, entails an unhealthy attachment to creatures, which must be purified either here on earth, or after death in the state called Purgatory. This purification frees one from what is called the "temporal punishment" of sin. These two punishments must not be conceived of as a kind of vengeance inflicted by God from without, but as following from the very nature of sin. A conversion which proceeds from a fervent charity can attain the complete purification of the sinner in such a way that no punishment would remain.

ME: This paragraph is set within the section on Indulgences, but it tells us something about our sins.

“Grave sin deprives us of communion with God and therefore makes us incapable of eternal life, the privation of which is called the ‘eternal punishment’ of sin.” This is what I meant when I used the phrase “spiritual death.” Maybe I should have used this quote directly so as not to cause confusion.

“These two punishments must not be conceived of as a kind of vengeance inflicted by God from without, but as following from the very nature of sin.”

It is in the very nature of sin, and speaking now of mortal sin, to cause one to lose communion with God. This is not God punishing us from without, it is sin itself that causes this “punishment.”

Can we agree on this?

Jack - Jan 24, 2015


Yes, I believe that Jesus took upon himself the sins of the human race.


EJ - Jan 24, 2015

Thanks for the gracious sentiment, Jack! But I am not a deacon yet. Please remember me and my 18 classmates in your prayers.

Let's tackle this one step at a time. Please permit me to ask you a question first.

Do you believe that as the Lamb of Sacrifice, our Lord took upon Himself all the sins of the human race?

Jack - Jan 24, 2015

Dear Decon EJ,

Thank you for your response. Congratulations on your ordination and upcoming ordination. Now, first of all, I agree, the Atonement is multi-faceted. It shouldn't be boiled down to Satisfaction. We're on the same page there. I'm just focusing on that aspect of it. We might agree more than we think. But I do have a couple of questions that I'd appreciate you helping me with. You say that Jesus suffered a physical AND spiritual death (your emphasis). What do you mean my "spiritual death"? I have always assumed that people who say that are referring to complete separation from God as experienced by the damned. Since you (with the Church) deny that this is what occurred on the Cross, you must mean something else, so it would be helpful to me to know what you do mean; it might shed light for me on what other Catholics are saying as well.

More generally, and this is the general picture of the Church Fathers: Christ, even though he had not himself sinned, suffered from all of the afflictions were brought into the world as punishments for sin, and by this is meant afflictions of spirit and body, culminating finally in His bodily death, and certainly including bitter grief over sins, which is one of the natural punishments of sin. His endurance of all this was an integral part of how Jesus set us free from death. Jesus suffered death to free us from death; he endured the punishments of sin to set us free from them; those are all true statements, obviously.

What I don't see any strong reason to affirm is that the mechanism by which Christ's suffering and death delivers us is as follows: the Divine Justice requires that the sum total of the punishment that could justly be imposed on all of the sinners of the world for each must be imposed on someone; that punishment is imposed on Christ; so now it can be remitted for us. I think that that is problematic on a lot of levels and not even really consistent. Maybe it's not what you or Dr. Stackpoole are arguing, but that's what it sounds like to me. If that's not what you're saying, then I'm just confused here. If you mean something else, please clarify!

But both you and he seem pretty consistently to conflate satisfaction and penal substitution. They're two different things. I don't claim that the Catholic Encyclopedia is authoritative, but it is about as Vatican I-era traditional as it gets, and here is their comment on the second Protestant error concerning the atonement:

The first is indicated in the above words of Pattison in which the Atonement is specially connected with the thought of the wrath of God. It is true of course that sin incurs the anger of the Just Judge, and that this is averted when the debt due to Divine Justice is paid by satisfaction. But it must not be thought that God is only moved to mercy and reconciled to us as a result of this satisfaction. This false conception of the Reconciliation is expressly rejected by St. Augustine (In Joannem, Tract. cx, section 6). God's merciful love is the cause, not the result of that satisfaction.
The second mistake is the tendency to treat the Passion of Christ as being literally a case of vicarious punishment. This is at best a distorted view of the truth that His Atoning Sacrifice took the place of our punishment, and that He took upon Himself the sufferings and death that were due to our sins.

It seems to me that the second of the two positions rejected by the Catholic encyclopedia is exactly what you and Dr. Stackpoole are arguing for. Or perhaps it is simply that you are conflating satisfaction and penal substitution. If I am wrong about what you're going for, please set me straight.

Moreover, I don't see how most of the things that you have emphasized have much to do with this. The Passion involved an agony of the soul, yes; I just don't see the connection to penal substitution there. "Jesus endured an unjust condemnation to save the guilty"--yes, clearly that's true. But to say that the condemnation that he endured was unjust is to undercut the basis of penal substitution. Penal substitution sees the crucifixion of Jesus as justly imposed by God, a as a vindication of God's retributive justice. But if we see it as an injustice, then Christ's willingness to suffer injustice out of love and obedience as an offering of something good to God that restores justice. Paying Adam's debt to the eternal Father is similarly not, or at least not obviously, a statement of penal substitution. And sacrifice has practically nothing to do with penal substitution, although it does avert a punishment. I'm not aiming for a point-by-point dispute, but it's clear that you see penal substitution in a lot of places where I don't. So I'm just not clear on what is in your head.

EJ - Jan 22, 2015

I am a deacon candidate with ordination just a few months away. In our studies on Soteriology, we were taught that the Atonement is multi-faceted and not just a matter of satisfaction. The Atonement is: Sacrifice; Ransom; Satisfaction; and Penal Substitution.

The Satisfaction model of the Atonement has never been officially declared by the Church as “the” official model, nor has Penal Substitution been officially declared as heretical. Certain elements of the Calvinist view are heretical, that our Lord experienced a separation from the Father on the Cross, and that Jesus died only for the elect. But the Church has never officially declared Satisfaction as “it” and Penal Substitution as off-limits.

Although Anselm did state "either satisfaction or punishment", his statement does not make it so. There is nothing inherent in satisfaction that rules out punishment. The Atonement is a deep mystery and multi-faceted.

As far as Aquinas is concerned, there is an ongoing debate among scholars as to whether Thomas opened the door for Calvinism. For instance, Brandon Peterson in an article entitled, “Paving the Way? Penalty and Atonement in Thomas Aquinas’ Soteriology,” states the following:

“In his books Christology and Jesus Our Redeemer, Gerald O’Collins offers an overview of how Christian thinking about salvation changed over the course of the Middle Ages. Therein, he credits none other than Thomas Aquinas for helping to prepare the way for the later emergence of the penal substitution atonement theory in the wake of the Reformation. In response to him, Rik van Nieuwenhove has come to Thomas’ defense, arguing that while Thomas indeed developed
Anselm’s famous theory of “satisfaction,” he in no way rendered the theory either “penal” or “substitutionary.” Here, I will argue that Gerald O‟Collins is correct to identify certain elements of Thomas’ thought as opening the door to this controversial theory of atonement, though some of O’Collins’ criticisms miss the mark.”

Let’s look deeper at one relevant question from the Summa.

Third Part…Question 46…The Passion of Christ…Article 6 – Whether the pain of Christ’s Passion was greater than all other pains?

“The cause of the interior pain was, first of all, all the sins of the human race, for which He made satisfaction by suffering; hence He ascribes them, so to speak, to Himself, saying (Psalm 21:2): ‘The words of my sins.’”

Psalm 21:2 – Douay-Rheims 1899 American Edition – (This is the 22nd Psalm in other translations.)

“2 O God my God, look upon me: why hast thou forsaken me? Far from my salvation are the words of my sins.”

St. Thomas states that our Lord ascribed all the sins of the human race to Himself on the Cross. defines ascribe this way: “1 - To accredit or assign, as to a cause or source; attribute; impute. 2 – To attribute or think of as belonging, as to a quality or characteristic.”

According to Thomas, our Lord ascribes/attributes/imputes all the sins of the human race to Himself on the Cross and then suffers because of them, crying out, “2 O God my God, look upon me: why hast thou forsaken me? Far from my salvation are the words of my sins.”

From the Catechism:

603 Jesus did not experience reprobation as if he himself had sinned. But in the redeeming love that always united him to the Father, he assumed us in the state of our waywardness of sin, to the point that he could say in our name from the cross: "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" Having thus established him in solidarity with us sinners, God "did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all", so that we might be "reconciled to God by the death of his Son".

ME: This paragraph does not state that our Lord did NOT experience reprobation on the Cross. It qualifies how He did. It clearly says He did not experience reprobation for His own sins because He did not sin. It then states that He “assumed us in the state of our waywardness of sin.” On the Cross, He took on Himself our sin. This paragraph states clearly He took our sin. The Latin uses the word deviation of sin. And then He said, in our name from the Cross, “My God, My God……” And He did this while always remaining united to the Father.

Here is what Pope St. John Paul II had to say about Jesus’ cry from the Cross.


“Jesus' cry on the Cross, dear Brothers and Sisters, is not the cry of anguish of a man without hope, but the prayer of the Son who offers his life to the Father in love, for the salvation of all. At the very moment when he identifies with our sin, "abandoned" by the Father, he "abandons" himself into the hands of the Father. His eyes remain fixed on the Father. Precisely because of the knowledge and experience of the Father which he alone has, even at this moment of darkness he sees clearly the gravity of sin and suffers because of it. He alone, who sees the Father and rejoices fully in him, can understand completely what it means to resist the Father's love by sin. More than an experience of physical pain, his Passion is an agonizing suffering of the soul. Theological tradition has not failed to ask how Jesus could possibly experience at one and the same time his profound unity with the Father, by its very nature a source of joy and happiness, and an agony that goes all the way to his final cry of abandonment. The simultaneous presence of these two seemingly irreconcilable aspects is rooted in the fathomless depths of the hypostatic union.”

ME: “More than an experience of physical pain, his Passion is an agonizing suffering of the soul.”

As far as the just being punished for the unjust, I submit this quote from Pope St. Gregory the Great, from his commentary on Job:

“But we must consider how He can be just, and can dispose all things justly, if He condemns Him who ought not to be punished. For our Mediator owed no punishment for Himself, since He wrought nothing that could infect Him with guilt. But if He had not undergone a death that was not His due, He would never have freed us from the death due to us. Therefore, though the Father is just, yet when He punishes the Just He orders all things justly; because through Him He justifies all things, in that on behalf of sinners He condemns Him who is without sin, so that all the elect might rise up to the height of righteousness in Him in whom He who is above all endures the penalties of our unrighteousness. . . . For the rust of vice can only be purged by the fire of torment. And so He came, without fault, freely to submit Himself to the torment, that the punishments due to our iniquity might lose their rightful victims, in that they unjustly held Him who was free from their power (Magna Moralia, iii. 14).”

How was our Lord condemned and judged in our place if not by taking our sins upon Himself on the Cross, and suffering the penalty of death, both temporal AND spiritual? But it is not as though the Father was “pouring out wrath” on the Son as our Sinbearer. The Catechism states:

The punishments of sin

1472 To understand this doctrine and practice of the Church, it is necessary to understand that sin has a double consequence. Grave sin deprives us of communion with God and therefore makes us incapable of eternal life, the privation of which is called the "eternal punishment" of sin. On the other hand every sin, even venial, entails an unhealthy attachment to creatures, which must be purified either here on earth, or after death in the state called Purgatory. This purification frees one from what is called the "temporal punishment" of sin. These two punishments must not be conceived of as a kind of vengeance inflicted by God from without, but as following from the very nature of sin.

What Jesus experienced on the Cross when He took our sins unto Himself on the Cross was not a vengeance inflicted by the Father from without. It came from the very nature of sin itself to cause separation from God. So the Father is not actively “punishing” His Son, pouring out wrath, as the Calvinist would say.

In the spirit of lex orandi, lex credendi….we pray what we believe…..I submit this prayer from the Liturgy of the Hours.

Morning Prayer, Liturgy of the Hours, Week III, Wednesday, Psalm-prayer for the third psalm.

“Lord Jesus, you have revealed your justice to all nations. We stood condemned and you came to be judged in our place. Send your saving power on us and when you come in glory bring your mercy to those for whom you were condemned.”

From the Roman Missal for Palm Sunday, the Passion of our Lord:

“It is truly right and just, our duty and our salvation, always and everywhere to give you thanks, Lord, holy Father, almighty and eternal God, through Christ our Lord. For, though innocent, he suffered willingly for sinners and accepted unjust condemnation to save the guilty. His Death has washed away our sins, and his Resurrection has purchased our justification. And so, with all the Angels, we praise you, as in joyful celebration we acclaim: Holy, Holy, Holy Lord God of hosts . . .”

ME: “For, though innocent, he suffered willingly for sinners and accepted unjust condemnation to save the guilty. His Death has washed away our sins…”

From the Exultet:

“It is truly right and just, with ardent love of mind and heart and with devoted service of our voice, to acclaim our God invisible, the almighty Father, and Jesus Christ, our Lord, his Son, his Only Begotten. Who for our sake paid Adam’s debt to the eternal Father, and, pouring out his own dear Blood, wiped clean the record of our ancient sinfulness…”

ME: “Who for our sake paid Adam’s debt to the eternal Father, and, pouring out his own dear Blood, wiped clean the record of our ancient sinfulness…”

Finally, I leave you with this passage from Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma, by Ludwig Ott: Christ offered Himself on the Cross as a true and proper sacrifice.

“St. John the Baptist, the last of the Prophets, following Isaias, sees in Christ the Lamb of Sacrifice, who took on Himself the sins of all mankind, in order to atone for them. John 1:29: “Behold the Lamb of God who taketh away the sins of the world.”

Jack - Jan 20, 2015

Dr. Stackpole,

Please keep in mind: as Anselm (an Englishman from the land of weregild) says very clearly "either satisfaction or punishment", and Aquinas (who hailed from Italy with its Roman emphasis on punishment) says in a more murky and less convincing way, we can think bringing justice about either by imposing a punishment, or by someone offering the offended person something good to make up for the offense. Both agree that Christ is doing the latter. That, I think, is what all of these writers are trying to make clear. While Protestants see Christ as suffering God's wrath so that we don't have to, Catholics should see Christ as making to the Father a pleasing offering that we ourselves can be incorporated into through the sacraments and by, with the help of God's grace, uniting our will to that of Christ.

If you want to keep things simple, I don't think that's hard to do: Christ's perfect obedience and placing God's Law of perfect love above all earthly things is a pleasing offering that makes atonement for our sinning and turning aside from God and from love toward earthly things. We see this obedience in his willingness to go to a terrible death for the sake of his faithfulness to God, and in the manner in which he endured this death. Contrary to what Protestants teach, Christ did not suffer God's wrath. Rather, he made amends to the Father and restored justice by offering God something more pleasing than our sins were displeasing--and that is practically a direct quote from Aquinas. That is what we as Catholics should emphasize

That's really it, but I'll say a few more things. First of all, when the Church Fathers talk about Christ bearing the punishment for our sins, they are talking about death. And, whether you admit this to yourself or not, we all still die eventually. (And Jesus did not suffer reprobation as though he himself had sinned, the CCC emphasizes--in other words he did not suffer the full punishment that our sins deserve. That is a Calvinist heresy. Jesus, in His divine nature, always possessed the fullness of the beatific vision, even on the Cross, and that's pretty much doctrine). So it clearly isn't a matter of our punishment being transferred to Christ and that's why it's no longer on us. As Christ said, "take up your cross and follow me": we cannot expect to be exempted from anything that he himself suffered. Rather, the Fathers are simply making a statement of fact: the way that Christ saved us involved him also taking upon himself, along with us, suffering and mortality, which were brought on man as a punishment for his sin, and transforming them by suffering while remaining in loving communion with God and by rising from the dead. But the reason that it happened that way was not because God' needed to impose a punishment somewhere in order to satisfy his justice. Similarly, if the Tsar sent me to siberia to bring someone back from exile, you would be correct in saying that I, though innocent, had been sent to Siberia--but that wouldn't mean that the sentence of exile had been transferred over to me in order to satisfy the Tsar's commutative justice. It would just mean that that was how he chose to bring the exiled man home.

Second of all, we need to remember (see City of God on sacrifice for a concise treatment of this) that it is the internal aspect of sacrifice that is pleasing to God. Suffering, without a will united to God's will and informed by love, would be no more pleasing to God than a goat sacrificed to God by a person whose will is not united to God's will and informed by love. That's really what these teachers are trying to emphasize: there isn't some abstract balance of sin and suffering where for each sin, someone, somewhere, has to be subjected to a certain amount of suffering over and above whatever the natural effects of sin are, and that's what Jesus volunteered to do. That's not how God's justice works.

Finally, you complain that "things have gotten hazy", but you end your series by saying that John Calvin was basically saying the same thing as Anselm, and it's hard to imagine something hazier than that juxtaposition. Anselm says, along with the Catholic Church, that Christ offered to God his love and obedience, which is more pleasing than our sins were displeasing, and is a superabundant satisfaction for our sins, so it restores justice. Calvin says that Christ suffered the wrath of God, including the pains of the damned and satisfied justice in this way. Calvin, in order to be consistent, then argues that Jesus only died for the sins of the elect, since clearly it would be unjust to punish the sins of the damned twice, both in Christ and in the damned. This horrible doctrine of limited atonement need not emerge on the Catholic view: it is not unjust for the Son to give the Father a wondrously pleasing gift. and for unrepentant sinners also to be punished. That's just the beginning of the divergence that comes from this--there are big differences here! So, yes, please be clear about the doctrine of the Cross: be clear that it is not about God's demand that someone, somewhere, suffer His full and unmitigated wrath!

Finally, transactional language--not of Christ being punished but of Christ making amends with an offering of love--does indeed have a place in describing the Atonement. It's true! But it shouldn't dominate. Christ suffered and died so as to fully share in our humanity and thus transmit to us His divinity. He died so that He could rise from the dead and set us free. That is at least as central, I think.


A grateful convert from Calvinism