3. Justice or Mercy

God is merciful. Everyone would agree with that statement. However, the satisfaction (or penal substitution) theory of the atonement presents a God who actually is not merciful, because He is first and foremost just. Let me explain.

Anselm’s theory of the atonement indicates that God has been wronged by sinful man (we would all agree with that part), and that God was so offended that restitution needs to be made to Him. Our sincere heartfelt remorse and earnest repentance are insufficient to turn His wrath away, because our offense is too great. We must face the punishment for our sins because God’s justice demands it. However, since the offense was made by man, a man having committed no offense could take the penalty upon himself to pay the restitution, satisfying God’s requirement for justice.

However, does this image of the Father show that He is merciful? According to this view, God is not willing to forgive our debt, but rather requires another to pay it instead. He technically shows no mercy at all, but rather just puts the wrath on another. The debt payment is still required in full. There is no forgiveness of the debt at all.

Worse yet, He actually sends His most beloved Son to suffer and die at His own hands, to satisfy His own demands for justice, because His very nature can’t simply extend mercy and forgiveness. This justice actually makes Him a tyrant.

This atonement model also limits Christ’s blood to a payment of sorts, clearing a ledger, making restitution for damages incurred by the Father. However, Scripture tells us that the blood of Christ actually cleanses us, washing away our sins—literally changing us (1 John 1:7), not just erasing the ledgers of heaven.

In contrast, the real God has always been merciful to those who humble themselves before Him in repentance—that is, turning away from sin and unto righteousness. Look at the people of Nineveh, or the Israelites numerous times in their history. God’s offer for forgiveness of sins has always been open to all who come to him with a broken and contrite spirit, as the Psalmist states: “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; A broken and a contrite heart, O God, You will not despise” (Psalm 51:17). Forgiveness is available to all who come to Him. However, our predisposition to sin from the corruption through the lineage of Adam prevails in our flesh. Regardless of our desire to please God, we still fall short as a result of this bondage to sin (Romans 7:14-24). Breaking us free from the bondage of corruption is the true reason why the Father sent Christ to die at the hand of sinners. Christ came to destroy the devil’s works (1 John 3:8).

Let us see how Jesus explained forgiveness in His parable in Matthew 18.

Then Peter came and said to Him, “Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me and I forgive him? Up to seven times?” Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you, up to seven times, but up to seventy times seven. For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves. When he had begun to settle them, one who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him. But since he did not have the means to repay, his lord commanded him to be sold, along with his wife and children and all that he had, and repayment to be made. So the slave fell to the ground and prostrated himself before him, saying, ‘Have patience with me and I will repay you everything.’ And the lord of that slave felt compassion and released him and forgave him the debt. But that slave went out and found one of his fellow slaves who owed him a hundred denarii; and he seized him and began to choke him, saying, ‘Pay back what you owe.’ So his fellow slave fell to the ground and began to plead with him, saying, ‘Have patience with me and I will repay you.’ But he was unwilling and went and threw him in prison until he should pay back what was owed. So when his fellow slaves saw what had happened, they were deeply grieved and came and reported to their lord all that had happened. Then summoning him, his lord said to him, ‘You wicked slave, I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. Should you not also have had mercy on your fellow slave, in the same way that I had mercy on you?’ And his lord, moved with anger, handed him over to the torturers until he should repay all that was owed him. My heavenly Father will also do the same to you, if each of you does not forgive his brother from your heart.” (Matthew 18:21-35)

Peter asked Jesus how many times he should forgive someone. In response, Jesus told him a story about a king (the Father) settling accounts with his slaves (men). A slave owed a debt he could not pay and the king demanded payment. However, the slave pled for mercy, and the king was moved with compassion. Here is when, according to Anselm’s theory of the atonement, a man with no debt would step in and pay the balance of the account, because the king’s requirement for justice necessitated payment in full. But this does not happen. Instead, the king simply released him and forgave the debt. This is a picture of God’s mercy.

There’s another important point. We also see here that the forgiveness of the slave’s debt was conditional. When the slave refused to forgive his debtor, the king, in turn, held him accountable for his previously forgiven personal debts. If Anselm’s theory were true, this could not be. If Jesus supposedly erased the ledger by His payment for our sins, payment was made, and God could never hold us accountable for that debt again. However, if our debt is forgiven simply by God’s mercy (based on sincere remorse and repentance), God can justly reinstate the sin to our account if we fail to manifest that repentance and live it out with our fellow man. And Jesus clearly states in this passage (as He did in the Lord’s prayer) that if we fail to forgive our debtors, we will not be forgiven.

Lastly, does God really expect more from us than He was willing to do Himself? The point of this entire story was to answer Peter’s question concerning man forgiving man. Jesus illustrates that we must forgive as God did. But with Anselm’s theory, God demanded justice and full payment. If this were true, it would be consistent and appropriate for us to demand the same. Clearly this does not reconcile with the Gospel.

In the next chapter, I will introduce a subject that is all but lost in today’s churches, though it is the very theme of Jesus’ teachings—the Kingdom of God.

– Marc Carrier

2 thoughts on “3. Justice or Mercy

  1. The Penal Substitution view of the atonement is indeed confusing. If you watch the documentary “Hellbound”, by Kevin Miller, it is an excellent tool to start a conversation. Not only with others, but with yourself and God. How we view the Father will shape the way we live our lives. It also shapes the way churches are run….which in this day and age (and maybe in the past as well) are not teaching the Kingdom of God.


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