Far beyond crucifixion by execution, the Cross of Christ has, historically, generated a Good News proclamation—the gospel of God’s saving work through Jesus’ death and resurrection. That gospel was announced through a great banquet of biblical metaphors describing the means, meaning, and outcomes of the Paschal Mystery—with the Passover Lamb’s liberation from death and bondage as the central New Testament image.
In addition to the gospel message and the biblical metaphors that fill out its meaning, theologians have speculated as to WHY and HOW the Cross (both death and resurrection) saves people across time. We call the array of responses to those questions “atonement theories.” These should not be confused with the gospel as such or Scripture’s metaphors.1
Some of these theories use the language of “satisfaction,” a theme that recurs in some of the key Messianic texts of the Hebrew prophets. This begs the questions, (1) who was satisfied, (2) what was being satisfied, and (3) what brought that satisfaction. Some key Latin theologians opined on these questions, always narrowing the question to how God is satisfied:
Augustine – early 5th century
Augustine describes God’s satisfaction in On the Holy Trinity, where he vehemently denies any sense that Christ’s death was required to appease the Father. He argues that the Father did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all, and so was already satisfied from all eternity. The triune God is forever satisfied by their own superabundant, eternal love, prior even to (and resulting in) the Incarnation. There was no lack in God that needed satisfaction, since God IS infinite love and cannot be diminished, but out of the fulness, God sent the Beloved Son.
Anselm – end of the first millennium
Anselm was not so sure. When he asked why God needed to become human (in Cur Deus Homo), Anselm defaulted to medieval tort law and the bygone practice of dueling for honor. He concluded that our sin had offended God’s honor and needed to be redressed. God’s honor could only be adequately satisfied by someone both divine and human. In Anselm, God’s honor was satisfied by the perfect obedience of Jesus.
John Calvin – early 16th century
The Genevan reformer, John Calvin, doubled down on satisfaction as wrath-appeasement. In Calvin’s Institutes, he writes that our sin is an affront to the justice of God, whose wrath (not love, not honor) needed to be appeased—not by mere obedience, but by a punishment that fit the crime. Since God is eternal, the penal debt for human sin had to be paid out in an eternal person. It’s not enough to crucify an innocent man for half a day—the infinite wrath of God needed to be poured out in Christ’s body, soul, and spirit. In fact, Christ had to endure the tortures of eternal hell (while on the Cross) to satiate God’s wrath.
Paganizing the Gospel
If we review the trajectory of satisfaction in these theories, they drift further from divine grace into projections of angry human retribution. In The Day the Revolution Began, Tom Wright called this devolving progression “paganizing the gospel” (p. 147). He says that John’s Gospel does not say, “God so hated the world that he killed his only Son.” The gift of the Incarnation and the power of the Cross is that we see infinite Love and Light and Life come into the world out of the plenitude of God’s heart, even as it is refracted through human rebellion and violent retribution. Thus, God in Christ subverts the Cross into our salvation, but that’s galaxies away from assigning the pound-of-flesh justice to our heavenly Father.
REVISITING BIBLICAL SATISFACTION
That said, expunging satisfaction of implications of a diminishment in God’s nature or need for appeasement does not mean jettisoning satisfaction altogether. In fact, we can read its broader and more beautiful sense in two key passages that prefigure the Passion of the Christ. In fact, teasing out satisfaction in these texts magnifies the gospel message.
I’ve written extensively on Psalm 22 both in A More Christlike God and online (here, here, and here, focusing specifically on how the “cry of dereliction” (“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me”) is drawn from the larger crucifixion narrative described in David’s poem. And I have regularly noted how verses 22-24 explicitly proclaim of God:
For he did NOT despise or abhor
the affliction of the afflicted;
he did NOT hide his face from me,
but heard when I cried to him.
The cry of dereliction is, therefore, not a statement of God-forsakenness, but a plea that God hears and answers, so that Jesus will say in John, “You will leave me all alone. Yet I am NOT alone, for my Father is with me” (John 16:32)
But in this essay, I will proceed to the verses that follow to pick up on the satisfaction motif.
The Poor Shall Eat and Be Satisfied
In the paragraph following the prophecies of Christ’s suffering and God’s salvation, the Psalmist turns to some specific, glorious outcomes. In verse 26, who is satisfied?
26 The poor shall eat and be satisfied;
those who seek him shall praise the Lord.
May your hearts live forever!
These phrases anticipate the banqueting table of God to which Jesus often refers. Remember that Christ’s invitation included the poor, the lame, the blind—those sold on street corners or huddled behind hedges. He tells his disciples to compel them to attend and be filled—those hungry (body, soul and spirit) will be satisfied with good things (Luke 1:53).
All the Families and Nations Included
But not only the poor! God’s heart is to include:
- Those who seek him (26)
- All the ends of the earth shall remember and turn to him (27)
- All the families of the nations shall worship him (27)
- All who sleep in the earth / go down to the dust will bow to him (29)
- Posterity / future generations will hear and serve him (30)
- And will proclaim deliverance to those not yet born (31)
- “Saying that he has done it” (31)
“Done it.” Done what? God in Christ has secured their deliverance, prepared a banquet, and satisfied ALL families in ALL nations—whether dead, alive, or yet to live—with the bottomless cup of salvation!
Similarly, I have frequently visited Isaiah 53 (since Stricken by God? 2007) to demonstrate that it was mankind who “despised and rejected” Christ (vs. 3) and we who mistakenly considered Christ “punished by God, stricken by him and afflicted,” (vs. 4), but in fact it was our sins, wrath, and punishment he endured (vs. 5).
The Lord does not “lay on him the iniquities of us all” (vs. 6) as a punishment he needs to inflict to satisfy his honor, justice, or wrath. Rather, by bearing (enduring) and forgiving our sin rather than condemning us, the Lamb slain intercedes for the transgressors (Isa. 53:12) and reconciles the world to God, not counting our sins against us (2 Cor. 5:19). In that sense, Christ’s life becomes “an offering for sin” (Isa 53:10)—a grace-gift of radically-forgiving, self-giving love rather than some retributive mechanism to meet a forensic requirement in God.
I’ve also elsewhere addressed the translation disparity in Isaiah 53:10 between the Masoretic Text (“It pleased the Lord to crush him”) and the Septuagint (“It pleased the Lord to cleanse/heal him”).
But now let’s pick up on the satisfaction theme once again.
Christ is Satisfied by the Offspring of His Labor
When, by grace, the Lord “poured out his life, bore the sin of many, and made intercession for us,” he effectively transfigured humanity’s heinous murder into a love-offering. Having done that,
10b he will see his offspring and prolong his days,
and the will of the Lord will prosper in his hand.
11 After he has suffered,
he will see the light of life and be satisfied;
by his knowledge my righteous servant will justify many,
and he will bear their iniquities.
The pronouns here are tricky. Is “he” Yahweh or the Suffering Servant? YES. As God was in Christ, Yahweh is the One pierced in the Servant (Zech. 12:10). In fact, let’s deliberately refrain from disambiguation on this point. Instead, we’ll focus on satisfaction.
Earlier, I denied that anything is ever lacking or diminished in God’s eternal nature, whether by our sin or any other factor. Otherwise, God’s nature (i.e., infinite love) would be subject to external powers. God would be rendered less than God. No satisfaction is necessary to restore what can’t be lacking in God.
However, God’s good creation is still unfurling toward its telos in Christ, when at the telos, God will be all and in all (1 Cor. 15:28). That mission will only be satisfied with the retrieval of every last lost coin, the rescue of every last sheep, and the homecoming of every last son and daughter. The thing lacking, in other words, is us. Only when the full number of the elect (ALL humanity) has been summed up in Christ (Eph 1:8-10) will the end of the ages come to its fulness.
With that in mind, Isaiah 53 reads the Cross from its telos (the End). At the Cross (again, death and resurrection are indivisible), Jesus Christ “sees his offspring”—the “joy set before him” (Heb. 12:2)—he will “see the light of life, and be satisfied.” Some translations include a note to say, “He will see the fruit of his suffering and will be satisfied.”
So, is God somehow satisfied in the work of the Cross? Yes. What satisfies him? By the fruit of his suffering. By seeing, in advance, the offspring (children of the Son). And this by virtue of the Father empowering the Son by the Spirit to see from the Cross the End when the fullness of his love for the world is satisfied.
So, do I believe satisfaction is a theme relevant to our preaching of the Cross? Absolutely, but the history of satisfaction theories requires extra care, lest we slip back into retributive models of appeasement where the Cross is insufficient for sin apart from some expression of divine punishment.
I think sometimes the issue of satisfaction resides in our fallen imaginations. We see the evil in our world and cannot imagine solutions that truly rectify human atrocities or take them seriously without some retribution. I understand that. I want that. But I’m now convinced that the part of me that demands payback, payoff, or pay-down has yet to be crucified with Christ. What I need are the eyes to see “There’s wonderworking power in the precious blood of Christ” that IS the restitution for every sin and reparation for every harm… where the Almighty power is Love.
I’m now convinced there is NOTHING his blood can’t wash. From the lyrics of 2nd Chapter of Acts (“Which way the wind blows”), God in Christ “TOOK the sins of sinning,” and he ain’t paying them back.
So, if we’re to take up satisfaction, let it be in the mission of Christ to accomplish to the uttermost the restoration of the cosmos according to the almighty Love of God, to whom I bow for the Last Word:
“I declare the END from the beginning, and ancient times from what is still to come. I say, ‘My purpose WILL stand, and ALL My good pleasure I WILL accomplish” (Isaiah 46:10).
 For details on these distinctions, with examples, see Bradley Jersak, A More Christlike God: A More Beautiful Gospel (2015).