Friday, May 11, 2007

The Satisfaction of Christ: A Payment?

We in the reformed theological tradition are very much inclined to think of Christ's work on behalf of sinners as a payment. This is encouraged by the Biblical metaphor of ransom and redemption. It is reinforced by the arguments of theologians who encourage us to think in the terms of commerce.

John Owen is a good example. Here is just a sample from his Death of Death in the Death of Christ:

Satisfaction is a term borrowed from the law, applied properly to things, thence translated and accommodated unto persons; and it is a full compensation of the creditor from the debtor. To whom any thing is due from any man, he is in that regard that man’s creditor; and the other is his debtor, upon whom there is an obligation to pay or restore what is so due from him, until he be freed by a lawful breaking of that obligation, by making it null and void; which must be done by yielding satisfaction to what his creditor can require by virtue of that obligation: as, if I owe a man a hundred pounds, I am his debtor, by virtue of the bond wherein I am bound, until some such thing be done as recompenseth him, and moveth him to cancel the bond; which is called satisfaction.

Page 265.

Owen goes so far as to make this payment the basis of God's obligation to release sinners from their debts:

Fifthly, That whereas to receive a discharge from farther trouble is equitably due to a debtor who hath been in obligation, his debt being paid, the Lord, having accepted of the payment from Christ in the stead of all them for whom he died, ought in justice, according to that obligation which, in free grace, he hath put upon himself, to grant them a discharge.

Ibid., p. 273.

This conception of Christ's work as a payment underlies Owen's idea of double jeopardy. My reformed brothers and sisters are probably well aware of the argument memorialized in the lines attributed to Augustus Toplady:

If Thou hast my discharge procured, And freely in my room endured The whole of wrath divine, Payment God cannot twice demand, First at thy bleeding Surety’s hand, And then again at mine.

I wonder, though, whether this is a proper way to view the atonement. Did Christ make a strict and proper payment? Or is the language of "ransom" and "redemption" a metaphor? Would it never be a stretch to compare Christ's work to payment? I came across a verse recently that sheds light on this question:

For thus saith the LORD, Ye have sold yourselves for nought; and ye shall be redeemed without money.

Isaiah 52:3, KJV.

Redeemed without money. As Israel sold themselves for nothing, so God redeemed them (and by extension redeems us) without a demand of payment.

Some will say that this refers to the demand of payment from us. God will not demand a payment of us. But the idea of redemption is not that of the sinner redeeming himself through his own resources. The idea is that of salvation, delivery, and rescue by redemption. In verse 9, God tells Isaiah, "the Lord hath comforted his people, he hath redeemed Jerusalem." Here God tells Israel that He will rescue them, and it will be rescue motivated by His own gracious purposes.

Our sovereign God is a just God, but He is also a gracious God. Though we are "bought with a price," we are also "redeemed without money." Any arguments that fail to keep in mind that the ideas of "ransom" and "redemption" are metaphors can run afoul of Isaiah 52:3. We ought not to take these metaphors of purchase as running to the extent of crass commercialism, as many seem inclined to do.

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