A Full Satisfaction: The Fountain of Forgiveness

If a gift is given out of Justice, can it be Merciful?

Paragraph 3 addresses an issue that had been raised by Socinianism concerning the relation of the death of Christ to justification. Fausto Socinus (1539-1604) was a Polish theologian who denied the trinity, was Pelagian in his view of sin, rejecting the omniscience of God as to future contingencies, believed that the orthodox concepts of imputation were immoral as well as irrational, and that forgiveness only in light of the punishment of another was thus flawed. The argument contained these basic contours. Salvation for human beings is an act of divine mercy. If God will not forgive apart from the execution of justice, then mercy loses its essential aspect of freeness. Supposed orthodoxy, he would continue, teaches that God forgives only in light of the execution of justice. Forgiveness, therefore, in orthodoxy is not an act of mercy but of justice only and thus becomes a matter of debt not of a free gift. If we take seriously the reality that God shows Himself merciful and loving in the forgiveness of sinners, then we must drop the idea of a substitutionary atonement that serves the interests of unyielding justice before sinners can be forgiven.


“Freely You Have Received”

This paragraph approaches the issue by giving attention to how God maintains His standard of justice and yet acts with perfect grace, freely and abundantly, toward the offending parties. The article itself is a carefully worded one sentence paragraph that affirms the orthodox position giving special attention to the leading ideas of the objection. It carefully partitions the necessary elements of justification so that the reader will see how what is an act of God fully expressive of His justice is experienced by the sinner as unvarnished mercy. Each of these points expresses a synthesis of relevant passages of Scripture.

The article reads:

Christ by his obedience, and death, did fully discharge the debt of all those that are justified; and did by the sacrifice of himself, in the blood of his cross, undergoing in their stead, the penalty due unto them: make a proper, real, and full satisfaction to God’s justice in their behalf: yet inasmuch as he was given by the Father for them, and his obedience and satisfaction accepted in their stead, and both freely, not for anything in them; their justification is only of free grace, that both the exact justice and rich grace of God, might be glorified in the justification of sinners.

This paragraph begins by asserting an idea that appeared in chapter VIII “On the Mediator.” Paragraph 4 of that chapter begins, “This office the Lord Jesus did most willingly undertake, which that he might discharge he was made under the Law, and did perfectly fulfill it, and underwent the punishment due to us, which we should have born and suffered, being made Sin and a curse for us.” Paragraph five of that chapter makes virtually the same point in saying, “The Lord Jesus by his perfect obedience and sacrifice of himself, which he through the Eternal Spirit once offered up unto God, hath fully satisfied the justice of God, procured reconciliation, and purchased an everlasting inheritance in the Kingdom of Heaven, for all those whom the Father hath given unto him.”


It was Just

Since man was placed under a just law from the beginning, that law must be fulfilled. A person could argue that if the law was not just and to be enforced, it should not have been given in the first place. The imposition of an unjust law that requires an act of cruelty to enforce is an unjust imposition in itself. Even as enacting an unjust law is impossible for God, so an enactment of justice that served to contradict mercy would argue for a division in the eternal disposition of God, which is impossible. The law was, therefore, just, not opposed to mercy, and must needs be fulfilled.

Obedience to the law, therefore, meant life; disobedience meant death. How then can mercy, consistent with justice intervene? If there were no way to enact this condition with absolute strictness apart from the eternal death of the very parties that have sinned, they would necessarily die. As a phrase of this paragraph states, this was a “penalty due unto them.” In addition, none would ever be admitted to eternal life apart from their personal absolute fulfillment of the law. Is there a mean consistent both with justice and mercy by which the transgressors may be forgiven and granted the warrant to eternal life? Both of these requirements were met by Christ: “by his obedience” refers in this case to his active obedience by which he has merited eternal life in the human nature, thus fulfilling that specific requirement of the Law. “And death” means that the requirement of death to the lawbreaker had also been met by him. In these two parts of Christ’s life of singular, perfect, and simple obedience, he has “fully discharged the debt” of all who will be justified. Nothing remains to be done. Obedience for life is complete; obedience to death is finished, and what was “due unto them” has been fully discharged.

If thou hast my discharge procured,
And fully in my room endured
The whole of wrath divine;
Payment God cannot twice demand,
First at my bleeding Surety’s hand,
And then again at mine.
(Augustus Toplady)


It was Merciful and Just

Note that the chapter points to the eminently biblical truth that this justification was procured, not at the expense of those to be justified, but at his own expense. He discharged the debt by the “sacrifice of himself . . . in their stead.” The text in support of this is found in the context of Hebrews 10:14. The offering that was made as a sacrifice for sin was the “body of Jesus” (verse 10); so complete was this offering that it was made “for all time” and was a “single sacrifice” (Verse 12). His doing this “perfected for all time those who are being sanctified.” The perfect requirements of the law have been met in them even while they are in the process of being sanctified.

Jesus gave Himself for our sins. So as to leave no doubt concerning the absoluteness of the fulfillment of the Law’s demands, the confession states that Christ made a “proper, real, and full satisfaction to God’s justice in their behalf.” It was proper in that the very properties of the law and the offense against the law required it. None can evacuate the law of its eternal properties for it reflects the sovereign prerogatives of God over his creatures in accord with his intrinsic holiness and goodness. To fail to fulfill what the law required would be to assault the very character of God Himself.

It was real, that is, not merely nominal. The law and its requirements have an absolute existence and are not mere arbitrary conditions; they are not simply sovereign expressions of an arbitrary rule-maker so that they could be dismissed by the same sovereign voluntary declaration. If God can impose rules by His sovereignty, so the Socinian would argue, He can dismiss them, or change the conditions of their fulfillment. The requirements, however, of absolute righteousness and punishment are not arbitrary or mere names, but they are realities having eternal existence as real expressions of the divine attributes.

The satisfaction made is full. The death of Christ was no mere symbol of devotion demonstrating the depth of conviction a truly good person has, suffering loyally for the sake of his convictions of the Father/Son relationship at the hands of bad. It is no mere impetus to repentance, shocking any moral sensitivity we might have remaining, by showing how ugly, aggressive, and arrogant sin is in dealing out such ridicule, pain, and disrespect to the only perfectly good person who lived. These may be implications that emerge in a ripple effect from the center of the power; those ideas only have meaning, however, from the reality of this death being a full satisfaction. God’s holy justice and immutable prerogative must be satisfied if God be God. If it is done only partially, it is not done at all. Christ was set forth as a “full satisfaction.

No remnant of wrathful punishment remains for those whose sins were upon the body of Jesus when the Father made Him the propitiation. Outside of us, therefore, and in the experience of another, God’s justice has been honored. One proof text points to 1 Peter 1:18, 19 in confirmation of the argument. A ransom was needed; a price for the full dismissal of those who were bound must be forthcoming. “You were ransomed,” Peter wrote, “from the futile ways inherited from your forefathers, not with perishable things such as silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without spot or blemish.”  Truly it was made “to God’s justice,” but just as truly as a manifestation of divine mercy, “in their behalf.”

“According the will of our God and Father.” Not only, however, did Christ Himself give His life, He was given by the Father for them. In His “wisdom and insight” He had established the relations of humans in light of covenants as well as organic and genetic continuity from an original couple. We are connected with Adam as a Federal and as a natural head. Adam was the entire race at his creation; Eve was made from him as bone of his bone and flesh of his flesh. From them as a singularity of the human race have descended all the individuals and nations of men. As in Adam’s fall, we fell, and in his death we died, so in Christ’s obedience, the last Adam, we live. He is of our race through Eve, through Mary, and stands as the second man, the last Adam, the covenant head of a redeemed community.

In this way, not as an arbitrary and merely nominal choice, but as a fully warranted act of premundane mercy, Christ’s “obedience and satisfaction [were] accepted in their stead.” The Father in a mercy fully consistent with His justice appointed His Son as the one to bear the load of human guilt, both its transgressions and its damnable corruption. The acceptance of sinners as sons came, not for “anything in them” by which they have paid a price to justice, or earned the right to life and sonship by their obedience, but “freely.” The recipients of these wise and sublime redemptive works of Christ in accordance with the character as well as the eternal will of the Father, come into possession of these blessings on the basis of grace alone.

The context of Isaiah 53:5, 6 also serves as a proof text both for the justice as well as the freeness involved in the salvation of sinners.

Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him smitten by God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his stripes we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.

Righteousness and Peace—Lovingkindness and Truth: The conclusion of this presentation moves to an assertion that contradicts the objection that grace and mercy are eliminated if the execution of justice is required for their application. God, so the objectors would say, does not act mercifully in the substitutionary atonement of Christ, but only justly. The theological arguments have insisted, however, that since God made a way within Himself to act justly, and all the requirements of the law have been fully met without the sinner suffering those requirements, that what is just in God is pure mercy for the sinner. In this way “lovingkindness and truth have met together; righteousness and peace have kissed each other” (Psalm 85:10).

Divine revelation serves as the foundation for this view as the context of Romans 3:26 is cited: “whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.” So we see verified from the pages of divine revelation the conclusion that “both the exact justice and rich grace of God, might be glorified in the justification of sinners.”

How free flowing, rich, and abundant is this grace toward us—not earned as a matter of justice through what we have done, but only on account of the Father’s gracious gift of Christ to us and Christ’s rich grace in taking our poverty—we find in Paul’s words, “He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?” It would take something sharper even than the two-edged sword of Scripture to divide God’s justice from His grace in such a powerful revelatory proposition that the supreme act of justice on God’s part is the very fountain from which flow all the gifts of mercy and grace.

The Bible does not allow us to think otherwise. Again, we see that the Bible, in a suggested scriptural proof, acknowledges no contradiction between full payment of a debt and the full display of grace when Paul writes, “In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace, which he lavished on us in all wisdom and insight” (Ephesians 1:7, 8). That historical action of God in setting His Son forth in pursuing a necessary path of justice in the shedding of His blood floods that same path with redemptive certainty, forgiveness of sins in infinite mercy, the consequent display of the boundless and immeasurable riches of divine grace, and all of it connected inextricably through God’s own eternal “wisdom and insight.”

To those who in substance would side with the Socinian disgust at this display of justice and see it as a contradiction to God’s attribute of love by consigning the opprobrious term of child-abuse to the cross, Paul goes on to say that in this action we find God’s “kind intention” to sum up all things in Christ and that the redeemed themselves would “be,” that is, have all their subsequent existence in time and eternity “to the praise of his [Christ’s] glory.” This is reemphasized in the suggested supportive text from Ephesians 2:7: “so that in the ages to come He might show the surpassing riches of His grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus.”  If there were any inconsistency between the execution of perfect justice and the display of mercy, grace, and kindness, the biblical writers know nothing of it. Rather they see the one as manifest in the redemptive death of Christ as the most perfect and sublime display of the others.


A Word from Andrew Fuller

Andrew Fuller (1754-1815) composed one of his most elegantly styled and forcefully argued polemical works against Socinianism—The Calvinist and Socinian Systems Compared as to their Moral Tendencies (1794, et al.). One of the superior moral traits of orthodox Calvinism as compared to Socinianism in Fuller’s argument was the tendency of its principles to produce a deep love for Christ. As an apostolic reality, one who does not love Christ does not have salvation—“If anyone does not love the Lord, he is to be accursed. Maranatha” (1 Corinthians 15:22 NASB). Nothing is more conducive to the love for Christ than the combined understanding of human sin, Christ’s deity, Christ’s incarnation, and Christ’s mediatorial death. One who feels no indebtedness to Christ for His vicarious sacrifice can hardly have the same love for Him as one who knows that eternal life depended on that sacrifice. Fuller asked, “Which of the two systems places the mediation of Christ in the most important light?” Clearly that system in which our salvation cost the mediator most dearly evokes the deepest sense of gratitude and love. “We do not conceive of Christ,” Fuller argued, “in his bestowment of this blessing upon us, as presenting us with that which cost him nothing.”

Socinians claim that to the degree Christ’s death endears sinners to Him, even so it must proportionately detract from love to the Father, for it exhibits Him as one who was “incapable of bestowing forgiveness, unless a price was paid for it.” This, however, does not argue for the imperfection of the Father but for a most secure and endearing perfection. He is of such purity that He cannot give forgiveness apart from a full vindication of the perfect equity of the moral law. He is so wise and so full of compassion, that He devised a way in the sending of His Son so that “while mercy triumphs, it may not be at the expense of law, of equity, and of the general good.” Those who have been forgiven most and at the greatest cost love most and also worship with greatest exuberance, singing in celebration of such condescending mercy, “Thou wast slain, and hast redeemed us to God by thy blood, out of every kindred, and tongue, and people, and nation” (Revelation 5:9).


Another word from Benjamin Keach

A century earlier, Benjamin Keach looked at the issue of the relationship between grace and righteousness. He deduced from Scripture that justice and mercy equally shine forth in glory in our pardon. He saw the richness of the Bible’s presentation of the gospel in that “God appears not only gracious, but just and holy also.” In explanation of this, he settled on the Scripture principle of Romans 5:21 that “grace might reign through righteousness by Jesus Christ.” This reign is an infinitely glorious reign.

O, how happy are we under this reign; let all cry, long live this sovereign, this queen, i.e., grace that reigns through righteousness by Jesus Christ, this is the best reign that ever was; no sovereign prince or princess ever reigned through such righteousness: this is a just reign, grace reigns and exalts the infinite justice, infinite righteousness by Jesus Christ; it is a God-honoring reign, a Christ-exalting reign, a law-magnifying reign; it is a sin-condemning, a sin-killing, a sin-destroying reign; it is a hell-confounding and a devil-consuming reign; it is a death-vanquishing, a death plaguing and a death-destroying reign; it is a sinner-enlightening, a sinner-quickening, a sinner-renewing, a sinner-acquitting, a sinner-justifying, a sinner-pardoning, a sinner-comforting, a sinner enriching, a sinner exalting, a sinner sanctifying, and a sinner-glorifying reign. [Keach, Exposition of the Parables, 745f]

Tom has most recently served as the Professor of Historical Theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He previously taught at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School where he was Professor of Church History and Chair of the Department of Church History. Prior to that, he taught at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and Mid-America Baptist Theological Seminary. Along with numerous journal articles and scholarly papers, Dr. Nettles is the author and editor of fifteen books. Among his books are By His Grace and For His Glory; Baptists and the Bible, James Petigru Boyce: A Southern Baptist Statesman, and Living by Revealed Truth: The Life and Pastoral Theology of Charles H. Spurgeon.
Get Founders
in Your Inbox
A weekly brief of our new teaching resources.

"*" indicates required fields

This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.

Teaching BY TYPE
Teaching BY Author
Founders Podcasts

Get a Free Book!

Get a FREE COPY of Luke Griffo’s The Beauty of the Binary when you support Founders by becoming a Founders Alliance Member during the month of June!