The issue concerning the Catholic and traditional Protestant attitudes to the atonement is a very good one. There is actually a lot of diversity in both the Catholic and Protestant camps on this subject, so I do not want to treat the topic simplistically. However, there are some broad principles of difference which I think will help to show the differences between the Catholic and Protestant views. Catholicism sees the atonement as an act of God’s love for Man. He loved us “while we were still sinners” (Romans 5:8). Love needs to be understood in the classical sense of “willing the good of the other for the sake of the other.” This is not an emotional response, but a volition one.
I think Ezekiel says it best:
Eze 18:23 Have I any pleasure in the death of the wicked, says the Lord GOD, and not rather that he should turn from his way and live? Eze 33:11 Say to them, As I live, says the Lord GOD, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live…
Eze 11:19 And I will give them one heart, and I will put a new spirit within you; and I will take the stony heart out of their flesh, and will give them an heart of flesh: Eze 36:26 A new heart also will I give you, and a new spirit will I put within you: and I will take away the stony heart out of your flesh, and I will give you an heart of flesh.
In other words, the love of God for man is not merely an act of God’s omnipotent sovereign will, but, more importantly, an act of His willed generosity, beneficence, unselfishness, and transforming goodness. He wills us to be good and the atonement makes us so. Properly speaking then, by His Incarnation, Jesus comes into solidarity with mankind and does for us what we could not do for ourselves. St. Anselm developed this brilliantly in his book Cur Deus Homo? (“Why God Become Man?). He showed that the offense of human sin against the infinite glory and goodness of God results in an infinite debt of honor that cannot be paid by mere mortal man. Only a divine being could make sufficient amends for such a horrible offense. Merely forgiving humanity would not have been enough because mankind was fallen and mired in the thrall of sinfulness. Men needed to be not only forgiven but regenerated. It was therefore necessary (in St. Anselm’s view) that Man be reconciled to God by the work of a redeemer who was both divine and human. Such a redeemer could merit infinite forgiveness before God on behalf of his fellow human beings. Furthermore, he would also obtain for them a sharing in the divine life of the Trinity such that all men would become Sons of God and partakers of the divine nature. Thus, they would be saved from sin itself, not merely from the consequences of past sins. This was not merely an act of kindness on Jesus’ part over and against the anger of his Father. It was what God himself willed. Remember what St. John wrote:
1Jo 4:8 He who does not love does not know God; for God is love. 1Jo 4:9 In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him. 1Jo 4:10 In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the expiation for our sins. 1Jo 4:14 And we have seen and testify that the Father has sent his Son as the Savior of the world. 1Jo 4:15 Whoever confesses that Jesus is the Son of God, God abides in him, and he in God. 1Jo 4:16 So we know and believe the love God has for us. God is love, and he who abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him.
Jhn 3:16 For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. Jhn 3:17 For God sent the Son into the world, not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him.
God was not so angry with the world that He had to beat up on someone (i.e., Jesus). Rather, He loved it so much that He sent His Son to save it. This work made forgiveness possible so that he could “remember our sins no more.” Jesus saved us from the punishments of sin and death not by being punished in our place by acting on our behalf. Jesus did the will of the Father even to the point of immolation by evil and jealous men at the behest of demonic powers. He persevered as a perfectly good man even in the face of temptation, torture, and death without loosing ‘faith’ in God or the resolve to “do the will of the Father.”
I put ‘faith’ in quotations because technically Jesus did not have faith as you and I do. He had direct knowledge of God — the beatific vision — and so did not require “confident assurance of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1). Jesus saw God directly even in his human mind and had access to all knowledge through his divine nature. This absolutely certain knowledge functioned in Christ just like the virtue of faith does in all other men. Christ was man perfected. When we go to heaven, we too will have this type of knowledge. While on Earth, though we have only partial knowledge of the things of God , which lacks full epistemological certainty. Thus St. Paul says:
1Cor 13:12 For now we see through a mirror, dimly; but then [we shall see] face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.
In Christ Jesus, God himself bore the responsibility for the evil which had come to exist in the world that He had created. God pledged to set things straight “cross My heart and hope to die.” For this reason, we Christians have no philosophical ‘problem of evil.’ It is not just we who suffer for the sake of evil, but God himself. We who gather under the cross do so in the faith that God will settle all accounts, make the crooked path straight, make the rough road smooth, vindicate the good, and punish the wicked. The death of His Son is His pledge to us that it shall be so. When Christ hung on the cross, His suffering was the consequence of all human sinfulness: past, present and future. He bore our sins for us and suffered for them. What he suffered was not the punishment due for our sins. That would have required eternal damnation. Rather, He accepted responsibility for human sins as the God who created our world, the first born of all creation, and the New Adam of a regenerate race. He took our sins upon himself, nailed them to a tree and they died with him:
Col 2:14 Blotting out the handwriting of ordinances that was against us, which was contrary to us, and took it out of the way, nailing it to his cross;
Christ’s resurrection was His literal transformation from death to life. By His perseverance in love both of the Father and of his fellow men, Jesus had gained victory over the wages of sin (i.e., death) and risen to a new ETERNAL life that sin could no longer destroy. St. Paul teaches:
Rom 6:1 What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? Rom 6:2 By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it? Rom 6:3 Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Rom 6:4 We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. Rom 6:5 For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. Rom 6:6 We know that our old self was crucified with him so that the sinful body might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin. Rom 6:7 For he who has died is freed from sin. Rom 6:8 But if we have died with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with him. Rom 6:9 For we know that Christ being raised from the dead will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. Rom 6:10 The death he died he died to sin, once for all, but the life he lives he lives to God. Rom 6:11 So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus. Rom 6:12 Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal bodies, to make you obey their passions. Rom 6:13 Do not yield your members to sin as instruments of wickedness, but yield yourselves to God as men who have been brought from death to life, and your members to God as instruments of righteousness. Rom 6:14 For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace.
When we are baptized, we are put into union with Christ and with his new life so that we ARE no longer under the power of sin. By baptism we are regenerated and become “Christ-like” as St. Paul teaches in Galatians: “It is no longer I who live but Christ who lives in me” (Gal 2:20). Since Jesus acted on our behalf, he was our “vicar”, our representative. Hence, His substitution was vicarious. As St. Paul wrote:
2Cr 5:17 Therefore, if any one is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has passed away, behold, the new has come. 2Cr 5:18 All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; 2Cr 5:19 that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation. 2Cr 5:20 So we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We beseech you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. 2Cr 5:21 For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.
In the classical Protestant system (especially that of Calvin), the wrath of God against sin put mankind at total enmity with God.
Read Jonathan Edwards’ classic sermon Sinner in the Hands of an Angry God to see how Protestantism in general and Calvinism in particular depicted Mankind in the eyes of God. Note these references:
“…So that, thus it is that natural men are held in the hand of God, over the pit of hell; they have deserved the fiery pit, and are already sentenced to it; and God is dreadfully provoked, his anger is as great towards them as to those that are actually suffering the executions of the fierceness of his wrath in hell, and they have done nothing in the least to appease or abate that anger, neither is God in the least bound by any promise to hold them up one moment; the devil is waiting for them, hell is gaping for them, the flames gather and flash about them, and would fain lay hold on them, and swallow them up; the fire pent up in their own hearts is struggling to break out: and they have no interest in any Mediator, there are no means within reach that can be any security to them. In short, they have no refuge, nothing to take hold of, all that preserves them every moment is the mere arbitrary will, and uncovenanted, unobliged forbearance of an incensed God…”
“…The God that holds you over the pit of hell, much as one holds a spider, or some loathsome insect over the fire, abhors you, and is dreadfully provoked: his wrath towards you burns like fire; he looks upon you as worthy of nothing else, but to be cast into the fire; he is of purer eyes than to bear to have you in his sight; you are ten thousand times more abominable in his eyes, than the most hateful venomous serpent is in ours. You have offended him infinitely more than ever a stubborn rebel did his prince; and yet it is nothing but his hand that holds you from falling into the fire every moment. It is to be ascribed to nothing else, that you did not go to hell the last night; that you was suffered to awake again in this world, after you closed your eyes to sleep. And there is no other reason to be given, why you have not dropped into hell since you arose in the morning, but that God’s hand has held you up. There is no other reason to be given why you have not gone to hell, since you have sat here in the house of God, provoking his pure eyes by your sinful wicked manner of attending his solemn worship. Yea, there is nothing else that is to be given as a reason why you do not this very moment drop down into hell…”
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This is an extreme view of human nature as totally depraved and, in light of what Ezekiel said, I would further submit that it is unbiblical. But this is consistent with what Luther and Calvin said.
In this viewpoint, God’s anger and revulsion towards man cannot merely be appeased. He must “spend” his anger by punishing someone. Justice must be done. Someone must be punished for the sins of men. That is where Jesus came in. In a perverted parody of the Anselmian thesis, Jesus did not bear responsibility for our sins and make satisfaction for them. Instead, He was punished BY GOD for the sins of man as a substitution for us. Consequently, sin itself was not destroyed on the Cross. Only the CONSEQUENCE of sin was. Sin still remains in us. That is why the Protestant notion of justification talks about the forensic imputation of an external, alien righteousness. Under the Protestant rubric, justification does not make us righteous.
Jesus’ work consisted in substituting himself for us on the cross: “paying our fine”, “suffering our punishment”, or “serving our sentence.” It was merely a legal technicality by which punishment was meted out to Jesus without any transformation occurring in the guilty human as a result. This was a penal substitution with the penalty for our sins being imposed on Jesus and not upon us. After the Cross, Christ sent the Holy Spirit to assist Men in becoming righteous by a gradual process of sanctification. Conceptually, these are 2 separate and distinct activities. By contrast, Catholicism sees justification and sanctification as integrated together as part of a single process.
The Catholic scheme I gave above is my own. There are other schemes proposed by Catholics, but they are similar to mine in their concern for the love of God as the real motive behind the atonement. For a good general Catholic overview, the best book is What is Redemption? by Philippe De La Trinite. It is out of print but you can get it from on-line used book services (e.g., http://www.bookfinder.com/) or by interlibrary loan through the Public Library.
By Art Sippo
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Note: While content aims to align with Catholic teachings, any inconsistencies or errors are unintended. For precise understanding, always refer to authoritative sources like the Catechism of the Catholic Church. Always double-check any quotes for word-for-word accuracy with the Bible or the Catechism of the Catholic Church.