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Part 14: A Closer Look at the Cross — Encore!

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By Dr. Robert Stackpole, STD (Mar 27, 2015)
The following is the fourteenth installment of a 15-part series on Divine Mercy and Divine Justice. Read the series to date.

As we near the end of this series on God's mercy and His justice, I want to explain to my good dialogue partner, Jack — and to all my readers — why I think Catholics need to include both the idea of "satisfaction" and the idea of "penal substitution" in their deeper meditations on the mystery of the Cross.

Jack, you beautifully expressed the mainstream "satisfaction" theory in your commentary (appended to the fifth installment of this series):

While Protestants see Christ as suffering God's wrath so 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. ... Christ's perfect obedience and placing of God's Law of perfect love above all earthly things is a pleasing offering that makes atonement for our sinning ... he made amends to the Father and restored justice by offering God something more pleasing than our sins were displeasing ...

I agree with much of what you wrote here, Jack, though not the first line — the one that completely pushes aside what you call the "Protestant" view. In Scripture, God's "wrath" is really just a metaphor for His commutative justice — the justice by which He renders to each person what they deserve. To me, the idea God in Christ took upon Himself, in our place, the penalty for sin that we deserve is an important part of what He has done for us on the Cross.

Why isn't your "satisfaction" theory alone sufficient for me? Because it seems to me ...

1) There is more in Holy Scripture than that. See my brief discussion of Galatians 3:13/Deuteronomy 21:23, where St. Paul states that Christ bore a divine "curse" for us (Note: not just with us, but for us — and it is a curse from God, not just from men), and Isaiah 53:5 in article number 4 of this series: "Upon him was the chastisement that made us whole ... and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all."

Saint John the Baptist called him "the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world" (Jn 1:29) — a phrase we repeat at every Mass, and the latter part of the phrase is evidently an allusion to the "scapegoats" who were sacrificed on the Jewish Day of Atonement (the Passover Lamb was not a sacrifice for taking away sin, so John the Baptist evidently saw in Jesus both the fulfillment of the Passover sacrifice and of the sacrifices on the Day of Atonement. On the "scapegoats," see Leviticus 16:5-22. As to the mystery applied to Christ, see also Hebrews 9:7, 12, 28. The sacrifice of the scapegoats on the annual Day of Atonement was arguably the one Jewish temple sacrifice in which the sacrificial animal acted symbolically as a penal substitute). Moreover, as I discussed in part 5 of this series, given that the metaphor of the "cup" in the Old Testament at least 10 times refers to the "cup" of divine "wrath" for sin (i.e., God's commutative justice), it is hard not to read the story of the cup offered to Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane as including this same dimension.

2) There is more in the writings of the Fathers and saints of the Church than that. It seems to me that you just cannot "squeeze" the witness of all of the Fathers and saints into a "Satisfaction" theory mold. Read again the quotes I gave from St. Cyril of Alexandria, St. Augustine, and St. Gregory the Great in part 4 of this series. One could make a strong argument that St. Bernard of Clairvaux and certainly St. Alphonsus Liguori taught penal substitution as well. That's five Doctors of the Church.

3) There is more in the Liturgical Tradition of the Church than that. It's pretty hard to read at least some of the examples that EJ provided for us in his comments appended to part 5 in any other way than as expressions of penal substitution, especially this one: "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 your glory bring your mercy to those for whom you were condemned" (Morning Prayer, Liturgy of the Hours, Week III, Wednesday, Psalm-prayer for the third Psalm). Also, "For though innocent he suffered willingly and for sinners accepted unjust condemnation to save the guilty" (Roman Missal for Palm Sunday, the Passion of our Lord). It also appears in a few of the common hymns of the Church, for example the hymn attributed to St. Bernard of Clairvaux, "O Sacred Head Sore Wounded," one of whose stanzas reads as follows: "What thou my Lord hast suffered was all for sinners' gain; mine, mine was the transgression but Thine the deadly pain. Lo, here I fall my Savior, 'Tis I deserve Thy place; look on me with They favor, vouchsafe to me Thy grace."

4) There is more in the Catechism of the Catholic Church than that. Again, see Catechism entry 615, which says that "Jesus accomplished the substitution of the suffering servant."

5) And theological clarity requires more than that.

First of all, the satisfaction theory, all by itself, cannot establish that Jesus in any sense accomplished an act of "substitution" on our behalf. On your theory, Jack, Jesus shares the human experience of suffering and death, which is the inevitable and natural consequence of original and actual sin upon human life (and in that sense, He shares in our "punishment" for sin), but sharing in an experience of something with others is certainly not the same things as substituting oneself for others. In what sense was Jesus acting as our saving "substitute" if not by bearing in our place the punishment for sin that we deserve?

Second, the satisfaction theory seems to make Christ's actual death on the Cross unnecessary. Here's why: The theory states that Jesus loved His Father and all of humanity with all of His Heart, perfectly fulfilling the law of love, and that He was even willing to be killed rather than compromise this love in any way. The Father was well pleased with this whole-life offering of His Divine Son in human flesh. It thereby merited the removal of our moral debt to God for our sins, applying fully to those who are incorporated into Christ's life by faith and the Sacraments.

No doubt all of this has an element of truth in it as far as it goes. But why, then, would Christ's actual death on the Cross be necessary? Christ's mere willingness to die, if it came to that, would have been enough to make His self-offering of love complete. This is also a difficulty if one holds, as some of the saints do (and as you say, Jack), that even one drop of Christ's Blood would have been enough all by itself to save the world. That's the satisfaction theory on its own taken to its logical conclusion. But if that is true, then surely Christ saved the world in the Garden of Gethsemane when He surrendered Himself in love to the Father and sweat drops of Blood! The Cross itself was not really needed. If the apostles had managed to get Jesus safely out of the Garden before He was arrested and He had died at a ripe old age, He still would have saved the world in Gethsemane! But He did not seek to escape. Rather, speaking of His Passion and Death, Jesus said to the disciples on the road to Emmaus: "Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and enter into his glory?" (Lk 24:26) For some reason, He could only say of His saving work "It is finished" at the moment of His death, and not before (see Jn 19:30).

To put it another way, imagine a chivalric suitor who pledges to his lady that he will offer his whole life to her in loving service, even to the point of dying for her, if need be, to show his love for her and her people. So he spends 33 years in faithful, loving service to her, and then walks over to the edge of a cliff and jumps off, crying out: "See how much I love you!" If that leap of death was not really necessary to save her from peril, how would it really be a "pleasing" offering of "love" to his beloved?

In short, I would argue that what made the Son's offering of Himself on the Cross pleasing to the Father was that by dying on the Cross, He thereby carried to completion His Father's loving plan of bearing, in our place, the penalty we deserve for our sins — a sacrifice really necessary to win our pardon. It was a plan the Son willingly accepted when He was sent into the world in the first place (see Mk 10:45; Jn 3:16).

Next week: The "Grand Finale" on the Cross of Jesus

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!

EJ - Apr 2, 2015

I just prayed the Midday Prayer of the Liturgy of the Hours. Right before the concluding prayer, it reads:

-Ours were the sufferings he bore.
--Ours the weight of guilt he endured.

The "weight of guilt" implies something more than just bearing our sins and grieving over them.

Jack - Apr 2, 2015


As it happens, I totally dig what the pope is saying here. Perhaps we hear it differently. I hear it in the same way that my closest Catholic friends have heard it and explained it to me: Christ felt the weight of those sins in that he was betrayed by a friend, abandoned by friends, condemned by tryants, murdered by his fellow men; and he also felt the pain of everyone who has ever suffered those things; all of our pain and all of the pain that we have caused. That's what the Pope is getting at, I think.

It was starting to see the Cross like that--not as Christ suffering God's wrath but as Christ suffering our sin, our rejection of God, our rejection of our fellow man, our refusal to love--that first allowed it to be a productive part of my prayer life rather than an obstruction or a scandal. It has never been academic for me either.

Without putting too fine point on it, it's the difference between learning that your reckless driving has injured an innocent person whom you love and hearing that your reckless driving angered a local strongman, who was only appeased when an innocent person whom you love agreed to let thugs injure him. In the cross we see not the anger and monstrosity of God but the anger and monstrosity of man, the monstrosity in all of us and behind every sin.

That's what I think. Obviously different people will see things differently, profit from different kinds of meditation. Whatever you see, I pray it brings you to a greater compassion for God and neighbor.


EJ - Apr 2, 2015

I find this discussion, and other discussions that I've had on this topic, to be not just an academic exercise, but a contemplative one, as I seek to plumb the depths of the Sacrifice of our Lord for us.

I just received this quote of Pope Francis in an email from The Magnificat:

"God placed on Jesus' Cross all the weight of our sins, all the injustices perpetrated by every Cain against his brother, all the bitterness of the betrayal by Judas and by Peter, all the vanity of tyrants, all the arrogance of false friends. It was a heavy Cross, like night experienced by abandoned people, heavy like the death of loved ones, heavy because it carries all the ugliness of evil. However, the Cross is also glorious like the dawn after a long night, for it represents all the love of God, which is greater than our iniquities and our betrayals. In the Cross we see the monstrosity of man, when he allows evil to guide him; but we also see the immensity of the mercy of God, who does not treat us according to our sins but according to his mercy."

May we all continue to meditate on our Lord's Passion as we enter into the Triduum.


Robert - Mar 31, 2015

Thanks, Jack, but I can't fully agree with that. It seems to me that the two goats on the Day of Atonement are one sacrifice. Here is John Stott's commentary on that very point from his book The Cross of Christ:
"Some commentators make the mistake of driving a wedge between the two goats, the sacrificed goat and the scapegoat, overlooking the fact that the two are described as a 'sin offering' in the singular (Lev 16:5)...each embodied a different aspect of the same sacrifice, the one exhibiting the means the other the results of the atonement. In this case the public proclamation of he Day of Atonement was plain, namely that reconciliation was possible only through substitutionary sin-bearing. The author of the Letter to the Hebrews has no inhibitions about seeing Jesus as both 'a merciful and faithful high priest' (2:17) and as the two victims, the sacrificed goat whose blood was taken into the inner sanctuary (9:7, 12) and the scapegoat which carried away the people's sins (9:28).

Ah well, back and forth we go! I will look forward to your more general response when article #15 in the series comes out in a few days. May you too have a holy week flowing with graces from the Heart of Him who died for both of us, and for us all!

Jack - Mar 31, 2015

I appreciate all the attention and dialogue. I said I'd wait till the series finale to weigh back in and for the most part I will, but I'll say one thing: the scapegoat (etymologically the "goat that escapes") is NOT sacrificed. It is released into the desert to carry away the people's sins, but it does not have to be killed in punishment for them--the people are nowhere commanded to kill it. It is the other goat that is sacrificed.

The scapegoat is not a penal substitute--it is not punished with death.

For the deeper stuff, I'll wait till the last installment of the series is in place to put my final word in.

Best wishes for a blessed holy week!