The ideas expressed here may be controversial for some - they're intended to be.
The idea is to get you thinking about why you believe what you believe, and generate a bit of discussion.
Many blogs offer devotional inspiration, I want to offer theological inspiration.

Monday, 27 September 2010

The Cross - All for Nothing?

One explanation about how Jesus’ death brings salvation dates from the middle ages. It’s called Satisfaction Theory and is based upon old mediaeval ideas of honour.

It goes like this:  We have offended God’s honour and this demands that recompense (satisfaction) be made. Sadly, we can't meet the demands of God’s infinite honour, so we can never pay the debt of honour. Fortunately, Jesus voluntarily offers his perfect, sinless life to God as restitution. This makes the offer of his life an infinite recompense, and so God’s honour is duly satisfied.

The biggest problem with satisfaction theory is that it makes sin out to be God’s problem, not ours. God is all grumpy because we have upset him and only the death of his son will make him feel better. It God's attitude to us that changes, not the other way around. Looked at this way, it’s actually a compensation theory, and makes you wonder whether God would have been better off going to Injury Lawers 4U instead.

So should we abandon it altogether? Personally, I don’t think so. I think we have been guilty of taking far too literally Jesus’ words, “The Son of Man came... to give his life as a ransom for many” Mk 10:45. We get all knotted up with questions about who paid what to whom and why, and forget that there is another point to be made.

Whatever else happened on the cross, however it ‘worked’ for us, the result from our point of view is that we now owe God an impossibly huge (infinite) debt. It’s a debt for which God expects absolutely nothing in return, because it is a debt to love from which we have received all the wealth of God’s grace.

It’s a very contemporary message. There are thousands of students and others with massive loans and maxed out credit cards who know what indebtedness feels like – especially if they have been bailed out by a benefactor.

Let me put it another way, in the form of a devotional poem:

My soul’s mortgaged,
   Banked by the vaults of divine love.
And yet I’ve found a greater freedom
   Than could ever be bought by all the stores of human wealth.
This bond holds me captive in the treasury of God,
   Obliged to enjoy all the stores of heaven.
There is no exemption,
   No clause through which I may escape the purse of Grace.
I must lay aside all:
   My broken things,
     My poor things,
       My feeble things,
         My useless things,
And be abandoned to the generosity of God.
   In debt, without debt.
Owing all and owning nothing.
   I am the richest person on earth.


  1. Hi Tim - you might find Norman McIlwain's book an interesting follow up to this. Review by yours truly here: The Biblical Revelation of the Cross

  2. Thanks Phil, that does look interesting. I explored various theories of atonement in a series of lectures I gave. The old theories, Ransom, Satisfaction and Penal Substitution all pose problems, whilst the liberal alternative - the Moral Exemplar - seems weak and impotent to me. I like the emerging Incarnational Theory, which fits more with my theology spirituality. I may look at that in my next blog.

  3. I find it fascinating the way that many theologians want to nail the truth down (pun intended) to particular theories or interpretations, but the truth as it comes to us in Jesus is living, dynamic, active ... and each time we think we've got him nailed down, he dies again only to reappear three days later and turn everything upside down all over again.

    To my way of thinking it's all about grace: God's radical action changes everything. God meets us in brokenness ... like a flower that grows through the cracks in the paving stones, gently but inexorably pushing them apart until that very brokenness becomes the opportunity for new life to emerge...

    When it comes to the atonement I'm inclined to think that all we can do is stand back in amazement. For sure it pays to reflect upon it, but there's surely a danger of being so caught up in the reflections that we miss the light itself which makes the reflections possible...

  4. Hi Tim, Just a quick note from the republic of Ireland where 'debt' is a big issue right now (I think we are the most bankrupt nation in Europe!!) I'm the editor of a Christian magazine here (VOX) and would love to use your poem (above) in our January edition... may I have your permission to print it? You can contact me at
    Thanks a million
    Ruth Garvey-Williams

  5. Phil
    I love that comment about Jesus dying all over again..

  6. again..I just have to say that the poem should be beautiful