Question: "What is the satisfaction or commercial theory of the atonement?"


Anselm of Canterbury (d. 1109) rejected the ransom theory of atonement that had held sway for many generations and interpreted Jesus’ work on the cross through the lens of the feudal honor/shame culture in which he lived. According to the satisfaction theory of the atonement, God is due complete honor in the form of absolute obedience. Humans are fallen both because they are descendants of Adam and Eve, who dishonored God by disobeying Him, and because of their own disobedience. God must be honored in a satisfactory way.

There are only three ways in which people can properly honor God: act in complete obedience, give recompense, or suffer punishment. This is a problem, for these reasons:

- No one can be completely obedient, so we all carry a debt of honor for God.
- Complete obedience is the baseline of what humans owe God, so it is impossible to honor God “more”; we cannot give recompense because we cannot earn more to fill our debt.
- Since God is infinitely honorable, our punishment must be infinite.

Jesus is the only one who can satisfy God’s honor. Because Jesus was perfectly obedient, even to the point of death on the cross (Philippians 2:8), He perfectly honored God the Father. Because Jesus is God and is infinitely honorable, the merit He earned is infinite. Because He is fully man, He can transfer that merit to humans.

The satisfaction theory of the atonement, also called the commercial theory, is not completely wrong. Unlike the ransom theory before it, it insists that our sin creates a debt to God, not to Satan or to death. The satisfaction theory strongly affirms that people are completely fallen and cannot save themselves with good works (Ephesians 2:8–9). It also provides a good introduction to the gospel for people in honor/shame cultures such as in the Middle East and Asia. They, more than Westerners, would respond to the truth of how our sin shames God.

The satisfaction theory fails to describe atonement, however, because it treats a symptom instead of the disease. It is true that sin dishonors God, but that doesn’t mean that dishonor is the problem—sin is! Sin is the root issue that must be atoned for. Jesus didn’t go to the cross to build up stores of honor but to take the punishment—to pay the price—for our sin (1 Peter 2:24). “For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God. He was put to death in the body but made alive in the Spirit” (1 Peter 3:18).