Did Jesus’ Death Satisfy God’s Wrath?
I lead worship music at our church and deeply love the song “In Christ Alone”, but have always struggled with the line,
Till on that cross as Jesus died
The wrath of God was satisfied
For every sin on him was laid
Did the death of Jesus satisfy God’s wrath? I think it is important to explore this question carefully. I’d like to propose three considerations, 1) biblical, 2) theological and 3) cultural. The first, which I will gladly retract in light of proof to the contrary, is that there is no direct biblical support for this idea – the Bible never teaches that Jesus’ death satisfies God’s wrath. It does say that his death provided propitiation (“atonement” or, yes, even “satisfaction”) for sins in Romans 3:25 and this is explicitly connected to God’s justice or righteousness there, but this is said to be in demonstration of God’s righteousness here, not appeasement of his fury. In fact, 1 John 4:10 tells us that it is because he loves us that God sent his Son as propitiation for our sins. The point is, there is nowhere in Scripture I know of that would allow us to say that Christ’s death satisfies the wrath of God. That by itself doesn’t mean we can’t say it; it just means its not a slam dunk and we’re going to have to do some deeper theological thinking. This leads me to my theological argument.
The indication I want to make here is that the attributes of God as they are worked out and displayed in Christ’s work have to be understood in their eternal perfection – God’s righteousness is not lacking prior to Christ’s death any more than his love is lacking prior to creating objects of his love. Moreover, they have to be understood as a unity – God’s righteousness and love, even his wrath and forgiveness, do not work against each other within him until this internal division is healed by Christ’s death. No, God is eternally perfect in a harmonious union of love and righteousness so that in their application to us in forgiveness and wrath, God is not divided in his being or in his work, but we are divided in our reception of the one eternal reality that he is. In short, God’s wrath is not the absence of his love but its outworking in the face of the self-destructive force of sin in the lives of those he loves.
Let me put it this way: God, not lacking anything in himself, either glory, love, justice, or anything else, creates us human beings out of his sheer creative and loving freedom – not in order to satisfy any need he has, he just creates and loves us because he does and nothing whatsoever can turn him back from that love. We, however, have collectively rejected that love and turned to our own wills. In doing so, we have chosen our own destruction. Since God is our life – not just the cause of our coming into existence but at every moment the source we rely on for our life and every good thing that goes with it – rejecting him is to reject our own life, to oppose our own existence. That is what sin is. That is the meaning of the biblical phrase, “the wages of sin is death” (Rom 6:23). Since God loves us with an utterly free and therefore unshakable love, he utterly opposes that sin. He stands unshakably opposed to all that opposes his love. He rejects our rejection of him and pursues us with unquenchable passion. This is God’s wrath against sin. Not his disgust at us for all our mistakes or some petty need to have his own honor satisfied by taking something from us – again, he is eternally without need and can therefore gain nothing from us either good or bad but loves us in total freedom – no, his wrath is his single minded opposition to all that seeks to separate us from his love.
Does God need the death of Christ in order to love us? No! We do! Does his sense of justice stand in his way of him loving us until Christ satisfies it, only then leaving him free to love us? No! It was because God loved us that he sent his only Son (John 3:16)! It is us that need justice to be satisfied. It is us that need the law in order to know that we are sinners (Romans 7:7) and us that need the demands of the law fulfilled on our behalf. And that is the point of Christ’s death on the cross. In fact it is the point of everything about Jesus, from his incarnation through the Virgin Mary to his death, his resurrection, his ascension and his present ministry before the Father on our behalf. Christ gives himself in order to fix our problem, not God’s. He came to heal us and give us new life where we were dead, not satiate God’s need for blood or satisfy a sense of justice that would hold back his love. God needs nothing in order to love us. He needs no satisfaction – actually, he is incapable of satisfaction.
God’s love, being totally free and not arising from any need or lack he has in himself, has no end goal other than itself. There is no sense in which God’s love reaches its final target and then stops. It goes on and on and on. It is as infinite as he is. And if this is true of his love, then it is equally true of his wrath against sin. As long as there is sin working against God’s love, God’s wrath furiously opposes it. This is true on both sides of the cross. If Christ’s death satisfied God’s wrath in the sense of ending it, then from the time of that death forward he would leave all sin unaddressed. I’m sure someone will argue that God’s wrath was satisfied in relation to the elect; even in that case, however, are we really going to say God no longer opposes the sin of the saints, that he no longer disciplines his children?
There is at least one legitimate sense of the phrase “the wrath of God was satisfied” that I can think of which is that the death of Christ brought to a culmination all of God’s purposes in creation. It was the enactment in history of the full measure of God’s love, the full giving of himself to us in redemption and reconciliation. If we approach that truth with a unified understanding of God’s attributes, then we can say that Christ was the fulfillment of God’s love, righteousness, glory, judgment, mercy, wrath, forgiveness – everything. The death of Christ on the cross was the decisive moment of God being God among us, fulfilling his eternal purpose for creation. In that sense we can say that the death of Christ satisfied, as in fulfilled rather than quenched, the intentions of God and thus satisfied his love and so also his wrath. Not that these are then rendered inactive but that they are once and for all fully enacted.
This, however, leads me to my cultural argument. I hope I’m wrong here, but my sense is that most Christians who sing In Christ Alone on a Sunday morning don’t bring this unified understanding of God with them. My sense is that most of us worship God under the false notion that Christ as the Son enabled the Father to love us by standing in for us as the object of God’s cruel anger, allowing it to spend itself on him so that the Father would not need to brutalize us. This is a gross misconception of who God is in his triune Being. The Father has not sent his Son so that he could love us; he sent his Son because he already and unfailingly does.