“No two words in the theological vocabulary of the cross arouse more criticism than satisfaction and substitution.” With these words John Stott begins Chapter Five of his book The Cross of Christ.
Stott makes it clear that the next two chapters of his book will elaborate on the idea that God needed some sort of satisfaction before He could forgive man of his sin. He also plans to discuss the fact that God’s satisfaction could only be gained by substituting Jesus Christ for man, Jesus taking the punishment man deserved.
It may seem that this subject has already been discussed in Chapter Four, but in Five and Six, Stott is going to take a “deeper bite” at this apple. His problem centers around those first words already mentioned: satisfaction and substitution. He feels that the ordinary Christian’s understanding of Jesus’ sacrifice denigrates God because man’s conceptualization has God performing acts that are contradictory to His very nature.
“What demands are being made to stand in the way until they are satisfied? And who is making them? Is it the devil? Or is it the law, or God’s honor or justice, or ‘the moral order’”? [Stott, 113].
Stott lays out the purpose of his discussion best in the words “I will argue, however, that the primary ‘obstacle’ is to be found within God Himself. He must ‘satisfy Himself’ in the way of salvation He devises; He cannot save us by contradicting Himself.” He cannot do something that compromises His perfect goodness in order to make our lives better.
Let’s take on the devil first.
In the early church it was common to think that the devil “made” the cross necessary. Jesus and his Apostles did comment in Scripture that the cross was a means to overthrow the devil but when one considers this approach, it assumes the devil has a lot of power, more power than he should have. “Since the Fall, and on account of it, humankind has been in captivity not only of sin and guilt but to the devil.”
Does the devil have so much power that God used His only Son to overthrow Him?
Stott thinks not…
The devil is described in Scripture as “a rebel,” “a robber,” and “a usurper” but the devil did not have power over God. God is all powerful and “all controlling,” not the devil. What power the devil has is allowed by God, not power the devil has on his own.
Secondly, early Christians thought of the cross as a transaction between God and the devil. Man needs to be “ransomed” from the devil and Jesus is the price that must be paid so the devil’s captives [mankind] can be released. This was a popular belief in the early church but just because it was a popular way of understanding the reason for the death of Christ, does not make it a viable explanation. Is it too simple? Does it denigrate God?
Thirdly some discount the power of the devil in the death of Jesus altogether. The devil may have power over sinners but does the devil have power over Jesus Christ, someone who had committed no sin? See Hebrews 2: 14 “Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, He himself likewise partook of the same things, that through death He might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil.” The devil has no real authority over Jesus and even if he did, he shed innocent blood. Stott writes that this is “abuse of power” and if the devil abuses his power “he is deprived of it.” Some early church theologians felt that maybe the devil was not aware of what was going on, that he did not realize that Jesus was God in human form. Would God try to trick the devil into making a grievous error? Saint Gregory of Nyssa (writing in the Fourth Century) makes this argument, that “God… in order to secure that the ransom in our behalf might be easily accepted by him [that is, the devil] who required it…was hidden under the veil of our nature, that so, as with ravenous fish, the hook of the Deity might be gulped down along with the bait of flesh, and this, life being introduced into the house of death,….(the devil) might vanish” [Nyssa in Stott, 114]. The idea is that God “baited” the devil with the blood of Christ.
Stott thinks this is an interesting take on God’s use of the death of Jesus, but feels it is just another way of explaining Jesus’ death to the common man. Maybe it was satisfying for early Christians to think that God outsmarted the devil like the devil outsmarted man in the Garden of Eden. Since the snake deceived man into disobedience, God turned the tables and also took away the devil’s power through deception.
Here’s the “rub.”
God is so perfectly good that He would not stoop to fraudulent action. To think so is to denigrate God, and attribute an act to God which is contradictory to His nature.
Are these “devil” theories of any value? Stott says that they did communicate the seriousness of evil. He cites Luke 11: 21 which describes the devil as a “strong man, fully armed.” People in the early church did fear the devil.. Secondly when Jesus went to the cross, early Christians did understand that His death was the death of evil. The power that Satan had over man was over when Jesus died on the cross.
The problem was the degree of power that believers attributed to Satan. Does the devil have the power to tempt man, to steal man’s life from him and to ruin man’s life with God after death? Yes, those powers are real.
Does Satan have so much power that God has to satisfy him by performing some “power move” to overthrow him, some transaction to appease him or some trick to bait him.
The answer is no.
God is all powerful. God is perfectly good. God does not engage in fraud or trickery. He does not need to do something that is against His perfect nature.
“Any notion of Christ’s death as a necessary transaction with, let alone deception of, the devil is ruled out” [Stott, 115].
Satisfaction and substitution…
If God needed some sort of satisfaction before He could forgive man of his sin, it does not stem from His relationship with Satan. God did not sacrifice His only Son to appease the devil. There was no substitution in God’s plan.