Recovering the Classic Concept of Satisfaction: Part III

Dani Ross
Monday 20 December 2021

By: Carl Mosser

It is frequently observed that the ecumenical creeds say little about the nature of atonement. While that is true, the most prominent confessions of the Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox churches agree on one important aspect of its nature: Christ made satisfaction for humanity’s sin.[1] Yet, few theologians make constructive use of the concept even if they profess commitment to catholicity. This has been the case ever since F.C. Baur portrayed satisfaction as an outdated intellectual artifact tied to Roman legal conventions, medieval feudalism, scholasticism, and sacramental penance.[2] According to Baur, the idea that Christ made satisfaction for sin commits one to something called “the satisfaction theory” of atonement incompatible with the spirit of the Reformation.[3] Others insist the idea is alien to authentic Eastern Orthodox theology.[4]

In actuality, satisfaction is not an intrinsically legal, feudal, or scholastic concept but a feature of common interpersonal exchanges observable across cultures. Thus, the first post in this series defined satisfaction as the notion of ‘doing enough’ (satis + facere) to fulfill a duty, meet an obligation, repay a debt, compensate wrongdoing, or make amends in order to uphold or restore the balance of justice, fairness, and equity between parties. This definition attempts to capture two aspects of satisfaction. The first is the rudimentary notion of doing enough to satisfy an obligation, duty, or requirement such that there are no grounds to censure or punish a person. When that occurs, the order of justice is maintained. If someone goes “above and beyond the call of duty” they merit commendation or reward, especially if done in the face of danger or at great personal cost.

On the other hand, when someone culpably fails to satisfy a duty or obligation, they disrupt the order of justice and incur a kind of moral debt. Whether it stems from negligence or misconduct, wrongdoing further tends to harm others, breed distrust, provoke anger, rupture relationships, and tear at the fabric of society. The wrongdoer acquires an obligation to rectify the situation as much as it can be. Satisfaction then becomes doing enough to make things right in order to restore the order of justice. If a wrongdoer is unable to rectify the situation on their own, in some situations a mediator can facilitate satisfaction or, even, make satisfaction on behalf of the wrongdoer. Satisfaction, however, is refusable. The wronged party or relevant authority may insist that the wrongdoer face the full repercussions of their action. Accepting satisfaction is an act of mercy. If satisfaction is accepted, the wrongdoer’s debt is forgiven and they are no longer liable to censure or punishment.

Satisfaction is a work of justice that obviates the need to exercise justice. The goal of satisfaction is to see justice restored in a way that gives the wronged party grounds to forgo anger, vengeance, or retribution and instead relate to the wrongdoer propitiously. In its most rudimentary form, the process of making satisfaction consists of sincerely acknowledging the wrong and apologizing. In many cases, though, the process appropriately involves such things as suffering the pain of shame or sorrow, repairing damage, compensating harm, or even submitting to the sanction of the law. Making satisfaction may include gift-giving designed to express the depth of one’s sorrow and please the aggrieved party in order to restore their favor. The focus of satisfaction is external to the wrongdoer but the process nonetheless helps him or her grow in virtue and mature as a responsible member of the moral community.

There are, of course, other means by which the order of justice may be restored. It can be imposed on the wrongdoer by means of punishment, retribution, or vengeance. Sometimes we speak of such actions in terms of satisfaction as well. This is common in literature and movies. Authorities “exact satisfaction” from wrongdoers by inflicting punishment. Chivalrous gentlemen “demand satisfaction” for offences. If the offender refuses to apologize and make amends, the gentleman will attempt to “take satisfaction” in a duel. Heroes promise to avenge their abused or murdered loved ones when they declare, “I will have satisfaction!” Cinematic gunslingers similarly speak of having or taking satisfaction, but for them, the offence is merely a pretext to put another notch in their belt and instill fear in others.

There is a world of difference between offering or making satisfaction and taking satisfaction. Medieval theologians captured the difference by distinguishing between satisfaction and satispassion. We mark the difference by inverting the subject and object of the verb. Making satisfaction is an act by (or on behalf of) a wrongdoer designed to conciliate the wronged party. Taking satisfaction is an act by (or on behalf of) the wronged party designed to make the wrongdoer suffer. Both of these notions can serve as a means for restoring justice, and both may include suffering, but it should be evident that one is superior to the other. When satisfaction is offered and received, the order of justice is restored in a manner that exhibits mercy, contributes to moral growth, affects propitiation, and, ideally, reconciles relationships. Satisfaction causes justice to flourish more fully than does simple pardon or punishment. It is thus an especially fitting means to correct wrongdoing or sin.

Some theologians say “God satisfied his wrath” or “satisfied his justice” at the cross. The idea is that God poured onto Jesus the just punishment the redeemed would have otherwise suffered for their sins. These phrases are superficially similar to confessional formulations, but attentive readers will notice three significant differences. First, some of the Protestant confessions speak of Christ bearing, appeasing, placating, extinguishing, or conquering the wrath of God.[5] However, they never speak of that wrath being “satisfied.”[6] Second, satisfaction seems to be understood in the sense of sating an appetite, passion, or desire, the kind of satisfaction of which the Rolling Stones can’t get no.[7] Third, the confessions consistently identify Christ as the subject of verbs related to satisfaction. Thus, we repeatedly encounter formulas like the following.[8]

  • Christ made satisfaction… “for our sins”; “to the justice of God”; “to the infinite majesty of God”; “in our name”
  • Christ satisfied… “the justice of God”; “the judgement of God”; “the law”; “the mercy of God”; “for us;” “on our behalf”; “for the faithful”
  • Christ has given “satisfaction for sin”
  • Christ accomplished or fulfilled “eternal satisfaction”
  • Christ is… “our satisfaction”; “the satisfaction for all believers”
  • Christians… “are made partakers of that satisfaction”; “obtain full satisfaction”; “have satisfaction for our sins”

Some theologians object to the confessional doctrine on the grounds that no forgiveness is involved when someone satisfies a debt. To forgive a debt is simply to cancel it. Isn’t that what Jesus instructs his disciples to ask God to do when they pray, “forgive us our debts” (Matt. 6:12)?[9] Other theologians press the debt metaphor in ways that presume Christ suffered a quantum of pain for each sin or sinner that will be forgiven, paying precisely what we owed. Theologians in both camps fail to distinguish satisfying the terms of a debt from satisfaction accepted to discharge a debt.

We can distinguish the notions as follows. A debt is satisfied when the debtholder receives payment in accord with its terms. The law calls this strict performance. A debt is discharged by satisfaction when a debtholder agrees to accept something of value in lieu of strict performance. The original debt is effectively canceled and its terms are replaced by a new agreement. Black’s Law Dictionary defines this sense of satisfaction as: “The giving of something with the intention, express or implied, that it is to extinguish some existing legal or moral obligation. Satisfaction differs from performance because it is always something given as a substitute for or equivalent of something else, while performance is the identical thing promised to be done.”[10] This definition is consonant with those commonly found in ancient, medieval, and early modern texts.

Imagine I lend you $10 (or pounds, euros, etc.) to be repaid next week and we agree upon a penalty should you fail to pay on time. When the due date arrives, you don’t have the money but offer a book in lieu of repayment. If I accept the book, the debt is discharged but not strictly repaid. The value of the book need not be equivalent to the original sum; I am free to accept a book of lesser or greater value. Regardless of its value, accepting the book cancels your debt and liability for the penalty.

An important feature of discharging debt by means of satisfaction is that it can accomplish much more than a specific performance can. Let’s say the book you offer is Alvin Plantinga’s long-awaited biography of Feike the Frisian lifeguard. I intended to purchase a copy for $75. The book is something I greatly desire and more valuable than the borrowed sum. Moreover, I discern that you can repay the $10 but offer Plantinga’s book because you know about my fascination with Feike’s life and you delight to make your friends happy. Your offer is designed to simultaneously discharge your debt and give me a gift. I can insist on repayment or even cancel the debt, but why would I?

Let’s modify the scenario. Imagine we quarrel sometime after the loan was made. Hurtful words were said and you are in the wrong. A few days later you default on the loan. You are grieved to see me upset and ashamed about failing to repay the money. Glancing at a stack of unread books on your nightstand, Plantinga’s biography of Feike catches your eye. Suddenly remembering my interest in Feike’s life, you offer me the book hoping to make amends as well as discharge your debt. In this scenario, if I accept satisfaction, I forgive your moral and financial debts alike. Moreover, my anger is quelled and we are reconciled. Satisfaction has this effect because you offered something that expresses your genuine sorrow, it is something I value more than the borrowed sum, and the anticipated delight from reading the book outweighs the pain of your hurtful words. As Aquinas puts it, one satisfies for an offense by offering something which the offended party loves more than they detest the offense.[11]

The scenario can be modified further to provide a closer analogy to the work of Christ. Suppose your words seriously ruptured our relationship. A mutual friend intercedes to mediate. She buys a copy of Plantinga’s book and offers it to take care of your debt, propitiate my anger, and reconcile us. Either one of us can insist on payment of the original sum and the penalty. But because we value our friendship, we each gratefully accept our friend’s offer of vicarious satisfaction. Our friend effectively gives us a gift at cost to herself that engenders forgiveness and reconciliation.

There is ample biblical warrant for thinking about sin and forgiveness in terms of debt. Gary Anderson has demonstrated that early Old Testament texts describe sin as a kind of burden that makes one susceptible to divine wrath. Forgiveness is imagined in terms of bearing the burden away. However, Anderson shows that later texts predominantly employ a debt metaphor. Forgiveness is then likened to repayment or satisfaction. Various passages describe the exile and covenant curses Israel experienced as a kind of debt slavery from which Israel needed to be redeemed.[12] As we have already seen, Matthew’s version of the Lord’s Prayer similarly conceives of sin as debt. Other New Testament texts depict sin as something which enslaves (e.g., John 8:34; Rom. 6:1-23).

Colossians 2:13-15 says God “forgave us all our trespasses, erasing the record that stood against us with its legal demands. He set this aside, nailing it to the cross.” The majority of New Testament scholars understand the record in question to be a bond of indebtedness and its cancellation an act of manumission. If that is correct, the crucifixion of Jesus displayed the canceled bond that held us in slavery to sin. Moreover, by means of the crucifixion, God “forgave us all our trespasses” and “disarmed the rulers and authorities and made a public example of them, triumphing over them in it.” What we have, then, is a depiction of forgiveness and victory achieved by means of vicarious satisfaction.[13]

Additional warrant for the claim that Christ made satisfaction for sin is found in passages that identify his death as a ransom or redemption price. The gospels record Jesus saying the Son of Man came “to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many” (Matt. 20:28; Mk. 10:45). The epistles echo this idea when they say Christ “gave himself a ransom for all” (1 Tim. 2:6) and “gave himself for us that he might redeem us from all iniquity” (Tit. 2:14). Using different Greek terminology from the marketplace, they similarly say believers were “ransomed… with the precious blood of Christ” (1 Pet. 1:18) and “bought with a price” (1 Cor. 6:20; 7:23). In Revelation, a new song is sung to the Lamb who, by his blood, “ransomed for God saints from every tribe and people and nation” (Rev. 5:9). According to these texts, Christ gave his life as the price that ransomed or redeemed people for God. None of them speculate about who received the ransom or suggest God exacted the price as retribution. Their focus is the generous self-giving of the Son of God, its costliness to him, and the freedom and other benefits that accrue to believers.

There is broad consensus among biblical scholars that in at least some Old Testament texts (e.g., Exod. 21:30; 30:12-16; Num. 31:50; 35:31-33), atonement is understood in the sense of ransom (kopher). That is important background for these New Testament passages. Careful analysis of Old Testament ransom language has led scholars to identify specific features of the notion. Jay Sklar summarizes the fundamental meaning of kopher in terms of five key characteristics: (1) It is a legally or ethically legitimate payment; (2) It delivers a guilty party from a just punishment that is the right of the offended party to execute or to have executed; (3) It is a lesser punishment than was originally expected; (4) It is up to the offended party whether or not to accept the payment; (5) Its acceptance serves both to rescue the life of the guilty and to appease the offended party, thus restoring peace to the relationship.[14] Medieval and early modern theologians ascribe precisely the same characteristics to satisfaction. Whether we call it ransom or satisfaction, the concept is the same.

The first post in this blog series highlighted the important place the classic concept of satisfaction once held in both Catholic and Protestant explanations of the redemptive work of Christ. It also illustrated that some commonplaces found within standard narratives are simply mistaken. The second post discussed some ways the concept of satisfaction developed within medieval theology after Anselm. Three distinctions were described that informed the theology of some important early Protestant divines. In this final post, I have elaborated on the concept of satisfaction in greater detail, made a few observations about how the concept is employed in the confessional tradition, drew some further distinctions, and illustrated a couple ways Scripture warrants the claim that Christ made satisfaction for sin. My hope is that this series will help Christians of all traditions better understand what their medieval and early modern forbears meant when they spoke of the satisfaction of Christ. I also hope some will agree the concept ought to be retrieved as one that can be useful today for explaining how the death of Christ grounds the forgiveness of our sins and reconciles us to God.


[1] Some readers may be surprised to see Orthodoxy listed here. In 1839 the Most Holy Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church adopted and promulgated Metropolitan Philaret’s Shorter and Longer Catechisms as the Church’s own. The Longer Catechism was translated into Greek and sent to all the Eastern Patriarchs who reportedly received it with universal approbation. For more than a century it was widely regarded as Eastern Orthodoxy’s most authoritative confessional statement. The Shorter Catechism says Christ “endured all the penalties due to all the sins of men” while the Longer specifies that his voluntary suffering and death constitute “a perfect satisfaction to the justice of God” of infinite value and merit. See R.W. Blackmore, trans. and ed., The Doctrine of the Russian Church: Being the Primer or Spelling Book, the Shorter and Longer Catechisms, and a Treatise on the Duty of Parish Priests (Aberdeen: A. Brown and Co, 1845), vi, 19, 67.

[2] These claims were made as part of an elaborate attempt to expunge satisfaction from Protestant theology in favor of moral exemplarism wedded to Hegelian idealism. See, passim, Ferdinand Christian Baur, Die christliche Lehre von der Versöhnung in ihrer geschichtlichen Entwicklung von der ältesten Zeit bis auf die neueste (Tübingen: C.F. Osiander, 1838).

[3] An important part of Baur’s strategy was to relativize satisfaction by distinguishing competing “theories” of reconciliation characterized by a single defining notion to which other aspects of redemption are subordinate. Theologians of all stripes readily adopted Baur’s methodological innovation and it remains ubiquitous. Only recently have scholars begun to identify ways in which the reductionism inherent in Baur’s approach distorts the historical record. See, especially, Adam J. Johnson, “Theories and Theoria of the Atonement: A Proposal,” IJST (2021): 92-108 (esp. 100-101).

[4] Gustaf Aulén appropriated Baur’s assertions about satisfaction in his perennially popular Christus Victor: An Historical Study of the Three Main Types of the Idea of Atonement, trans. A.G. Hebert (New York: Macmillan, 1969 [1931]). Baur and Aulén both present a fall of the church narrative centered on the idea that satisfaction is a medieval Roman Catholic innovation with pagan roots that gave rise to a baneful scholasticism that can be blamed for all that went wrong in the Western church prior to the Reformation. Émigré Orthodox scholars adapted the Baur-Aulén narrative in their own histories of doctrine. Baur’s tropes continue to play a prominent role in modern Orthodox anti-western polemics; the irony of their western origin is lost on the polemicists. The fact that these tropes are not traditional Orthodox criticisms of the West can be readily confirmed by consulting the error-lists collated in Tia M. Kolbaba, The Byzantine Lists: Errors of the Latins (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2000).

[5] Christ’s wrath-bearing experience is not portrayed as the effect of a retributive act of the Father directed against his Son. Nor is it limited to the passion and crucifixion. Rather, what these confessions mean is Christ suffered and overcame the miseries of life associated with the legacy of Adam as well as the effects of God’s wrath against wickedness presently manifest in the cosmos (cf. Rom. 1:18). That experience culminated in the ignominious death of a sinner unjustly inflicted by Roman soldiers. For example, Q. 37 of the Heidelberg Catechism states: “all the time He lived on earth, but especially at the end of His life, He bore, in body and soul, the wrath of God against the sin of the whole human race.” In the background stands the idea that Christ recapitulated the experiences of the Psalmists, e.g., “all our days pass away under your wrath” (Ps. 90:9). Already in the seventeenth century Herman Witsius had to clarify the confessional Reformed view and his explanation remains helpful. See The Economy of the Covenants Between God and Man—Comprehending a Complete Body of Divinity, 2 vols. (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage, 2010), 2.213-14.

[6] Outside the confessions, early Protestant writers sometimes say Christ “made satisfaction to the wrath of God” or “satisfied the wrath of God.” In context, these statements are usually parallel with “satisfied the justice of God.” What they typically mean is Christ made satisfaction to release humanity from liability to divine wrath or that he made compensation for the provocation of God’s wrath.

[7] John Bossy observes that from the eighteenth century, the strong sense of satisfaction as making up for, paying for, making amends, and making reparation was superseded in popular discourse by the weak sense of contentment and gratified desire. The strong sense that informed the confessional tradition “passed from public use, superseded by the weak meaning except in technical professional fields.” See John Bossy, “Practices of Satisfaction, 1215-1700,” in Retribution, Repentance, and Reconciliation, ed. Kate Cooper and Jeremy Gregory (Suffolk: Boydell Press, 2004), 106.

[8] What follows is derived from searches in Jaroslav Pelikan and Valerie R. Hotchkiss, eds., Creeds and Confessions of Faith in the Christian Tradition, 4 vols. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003); James T. Dennison, Jr., ed., Reformed Confessions of the 16th and 17th Centuries in English Translation, 4 vols. (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage, 2014); John A. McHugh and Charles J. Callan, eds., Catechism of the Council of Trent for Parish Priests (New York: Joseph F. Wagner, 1934); Blackmore, The Doctrine of the Russian Church; William L. Lumpkin and Bill J. Leonard, eds., Baptist Confessions of Faith, 2nd ed. (Valley Forge, PA: Judson Press, 2011).

[9] The prayer is not, in fact, a request for simple cancellation of debt but a request to forgive as we forgive others (cf. Matt. 6:14-15). Jesus elsewhere instructs his disciples to forgive specifically those who express repentance (Luke 17:3-4). The idea forgiveness conditioned upon repentance pervades the New Testament and other early Christian literature. See Ilaria L. E. Ramelli, “Unconditional Forgiveness in Christianity? Some Reflections on Ancient Christian Sources and Practices,” in The Ethics of Forgiveness: A Collection of Essays, ed. Christel Fricke (New York: Routledge, 2011), 30-48. Repentance, like apology, is arguably a rudimentary form of making satisfaction.

[10] Bryan A. Garner, ed., Black’s Law Dictionary, 10th ed. (St. Paul, MN: Thomson Reuters, 2014), s.v. “Satisfaction.”

[11] Summa Theologica III, q. 48, a. 2, resp.

[12] Gary Anderson, Sin: A History (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009).

[13] Anderson makes a good case for situating Colossians 2:14 near the headwaters of a long stream of early Jewish and Christian thinking about atonement as discharging a bond of indebtedness (Sin, 111-32). However, while the Greek term cheirographon can refer to a bond of indebtedness or loan contract, it is really a general term for a variety of legal contracts and declarations. See Kyu Seop Kim, “The Meaning of Χειρόγραφον in Colossians 2:14 Revisited,” TynBul 68/2 (2017): 223-39. Kim suggests the cheirographon in view here is a declaration to observe particular religious regulations from which the Colossians were manumitted by the cross. Satisfaction can be made to discharge a wide range of obligations, not just debt. If Kim’s proposal is correct, an act of satisfaction is probably still described.

[14] Jay Sklar, Leviticus: An Introduction and Commentary (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2014), 50. For additional detail, see Jay Sklar, Sin, Impurity, Sacrifice, Atonement: The Priestly Conceptions (Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2005), 60.


Carl Mosser (Ph.D., University of St. Andrews) is a biblical scholar and theologian living in Southern California. He has held academic appointments in both disciplines and spent four years as a visiting research professor and analytic theology fellow at the University of Notre Dame. His publications address such diverse topics as the Christian doctrine of deification, the epistle to the Hebrews, social Trinitarianism, first-century synagogue practices, and Mormonism. He and his wife Elisabeth are the parents of six children.
Photo courtesy of Jan Kohl on Unsplash

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