Is the Atonement of Christ Justice?
How the Atonement of Christ Satisfied Public Justice, not Retributive Justice
A Critique of Penal Substitution
By Jesse Morrell
By definition, the punishment of the innocent instead of the guilty cannot be a satisfaction of retributive justice. Retributive justice demands that the guilty, not the innocent, be punished. Retributive justice requires that each moral agent be treated according to their personal merits or demerits. That is why the atonement of Christ should not be viewed as the punishment of the innocent on behalf of the guilty. Such a scenario would be totally unjust, according to retributive justice.
If a man commits murder and the penalty he deserves is capital punishment, it would be unjust to let the murderer free and to execute an innocent person instead in His place. It would be ridiculous to say, “Well, justice requires that somebody die. So if we aren’t going to execute the murderer, we have to execute somebody else to satisfy justice.” No, justice doesn’t require that somebody die. Justice requires that the guilty die. Which is also what the Bible says, “The soul that sinneth it shall die.” Retributive justice is always according to personal guilt.
The Bible says Jesus suffered for our sins and was sacrificed our sins, not punished for our sins. Never mind the fact that the punishment our sins deserve is eternal hell and there is no way, by any stretch of the imagination, can it be said Jesus suffered eternal hell. Just punishment always requires personal guilt. Without personal guilt, there can be no just punishment. Retributive justice requires the punishment of the guilty sinner and the non-punishment of the innocent. The atonement therefore cannot be a satisfaction of retributive justice because in the atonement of Christ the innocent suffers and the guilty are set free.
If the atonement was not, and could not have been, a satisfaction to retributive justice, what was it? Rather than being a satisfaction of retributive justice, the atonement was a satisfaction of public justice. As a substitute for punishment (not a substitute in punishment), the atonement publicly displayed God’s hatred for sin and regard for His law just as the punishment of sinners would have. The atonement of Christ publicly displays and publicly communicates the same things that would have been publicly displayed and publicly communicated to the universe by the eternal damnation of sinners. When the universe looked upon the damnation of sinners, they would see that God hates sin and upholds His law and therefore would be deterred from following in mankind’s example. And when the universe looks upon the suffering of Christ for our sins, which takes the place of our eternal damnation in hell, the universe again sees that God hates sin and means to uphold His law and is therefore deterred from sinning like mankind did. The atonement of Christ is a public deterrent from sin just as the punishment of sinners would have been, so the governmental purposes of punishment are satisfied in the atonement, thus rendering the punishment of sin dispensable under God’s moral government.
In other words, the punishment of sin (which is eternal hell) can be withheld through the atonement without God giving the universe the impression that He doesn’t hate sin or that He will not uphold His law if others in His universe were to transgress as well. It would be unjust to the universe for God to forgive mankind without an atonement because that would encourage further sin in His universe. But now that the atonement of Christ has been made, God can set aside the penalty of the law in the forgiveness of sins without encouraging further sin in His universe since His character is publicly displayed in the atonement of Christ as it would have been in the punishment of sinners. The atonement made it possible for God to be just and yet not punish sin. Forgiveness is the non-punishment of sin, which would be unjust without an atonement. But now that atonement is made, He can set aside the punishment of sin in forgiveness and still be just to His character, His law, and His universe, because the atonement accomplished the governmental purposes of penalty.
The death of Christ for the sins of all men renders the penalty of the sins of all men remittable. That is, the atonement of Christ makes sin forgivable, but not automatically or unconditionally so. Sinners must repent of their sins in order for their pardon through the atonement to be safe to the universe. The atonement, as a medium of forgiveness, makes salvation available to everyone but automatic to no one. The atonement makes forgiveness available to all but they must meet certain conditions in order to receive it.
What does this kind of atonement accomplish? The atonement makes salvation available unbelievers while also at the same time making salvation actual to believers. It’s an amazing accomplishment. The atonement solved the dilemma between justice and forgiveness. Since forgiveness is the remission of penalty, yet penalty serves governmental purposes, how could God accomplish both the forgiveness of the sinner and the governmental purposes of penalty, if penalty is remitted in forgiveness? Answer, the atonement of Christ which substitutes penalty. God can now be just to all His obligations without punishing sin. He can be just to His character, His law, and His universe, even while he remits our penalty.
The atonement, properly understood, really shows the Genius of God. The atonement is the greatest revelation of the character of God to the universe. It demonstrates His hatred for sin, His holy regard for His law, His love and goodwill towards sinners, and His genius as the Moral Governor of the Universe, solving the problems and dilemmas that such a Governor faces. There is no greater understanding of God than what comes through the atonement of Christ.