Accounting for Debts, but No Calculator Required

A few weeks ago, I received an email that raises a most profound theological question. One person wrote: "The real problem I have with stuff like the Divine Mercy Chaplet is that it makes God appear to be transactional."

Although the questioner's language was less than precise, it reminded me of some modern theologians I have read (even Catholic ones), who object to the Church's traditional teaching about the saving work of Jesus on the Cross.

They claim that the traditional teaching makes it appear as if God is only interested in balancing the ledger book of our merits and demerits - that is, with clearing our "debts" to His justice through the death of His Son - rather than re-establishing a loving, personal relationship with His lost children. We should reinterpret the doctrine of the Atonement in "personal-relational" terms, they say, rather than repeating the old judicial-transactional theories involving "satisfaction," "merit," "guilt" and the clearing away of the "punishment" or "penalty" due to sin. Thus, when the Chaplet speaks of offering the Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity of Jesus Christ "in atonement" for our sins, we are encouraging people to continue the old, inadequate judicial-transactional understanding of Jesus Christ's work of reconciling us to our heavenly Father.

Now, there is no question that sometimes the Catholic Faith has been presented in a misleading way. Jesus Christ's saving work must be an expression of both God's love and His justice, not of His justice alone, or of His justice in isolation from His love.

On the other hand, we must not set up in our minds what the philosophers call a "false dichotomy" here. A false dichotomy occurs when we claim that there is an opposition between two statements or two ideas that are not really opposed to each other at all.

The simple fact is that both Scripture and Catholic tradition often use "transactional" and "judicial" (and even "commercial"!) language to describe aspects of what Jesus Christ has done for us to save us from the penalty and power of sin - and this is not seen in isolation from God's personal love for us at all.

For example, in Mark 10:45 Jesus tells His disciples, "For the Son of Man also came not to be served but to serve, and to give His life as a ransom for many." A ransom (in the original Greek of St. Mark's gospel) is a transactional payment that sets a slave free. Saint Paul states repeatedly that we were all "bought with a price" (I Cor 6:20 and 7:23). The New Testament uses judicial language when St. Paul tells us "Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us" (Gal 3:13), and St. Paul refers in this same passage to the Old Testament saying that anyone who is executed on a tree is cursed by God (Dt 21:23).

In what way did Christ bear a divine curse for us? The Old Testament passage that the early Christians saw as a clue to Christ's saving work makes it clear: by bearing for us on the cross the penalty we deserved for our sins. Here is the passage:

But He was wounded for our transgressions, He was bruised for our iniquities; upon Him was the chastisement that made us whole, 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 (Is 53:5).

Saint John's first epistle uses "sacrificial" language to make much the same point. "In this is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us, and sent His Son to be the expiation [or "propitiation"] for our sins" (I Jn 4:10).

Similarly, according to the book of Hebrews, chapters 8-10, the sacrificial offering and shedding of Christ's blood on the cross obtained something that the old covenant animal sacrifices in the Jewish temple could never attain: the forgiveness of sins. In short, God so loved us that He Himself, in the person of His Son, bore the burden and penalty of our sins on the Cross, that we might be forgiven, and that the sanctifying grace of God might be poured out upon us.

Clearly, in doing all this for us, the divine Son of God, Jesus Christ, manifested both His perfect divine justice and His perfect merciful love for us, at one and the same time. Pope John Paul II taught us this in his encyclical Dives in Misericordia (Rich in Mercy):

In the passion and death of Christ - in the fact that the Father did not spare His own Son, but "for our sake made him sin" - absolute justice is expressed, for Christ undergoes the passion and cross because of the sins of humanity. This constitutes even a "superabundance" of justice, for the sins of man are "compensated for" by the sacrifice of the Man-God. Nevertheless, this justice, which is properly justice "to God's measure," springs completely from love: from the love of the Father and of the Son, and completely bears fruit in love (no. 7).

Similarly, the Catechism describes this aspect of Christ's saving work as a judicial accomplishment. That is, He takes away the penalty for our sin by substituting Himself for us on the cross:

By His obedience unto death, Jesus accomplished the substitution of the suffering Servant, who "makes an offering for sin," when "he bore the sin of many," and who "shall make many to be accounted righteous," for "he shall bear their iniquities." Jesus atoned for our faults and made satisfaction for our sins to the Father (443).

To sum up, both Scripture and the magisterium clearly teach us that one very important aspect of Jesus Christ's saving work was in fact "transactional": He made up for our sins by dying for us on the cross. Indeed, He more than made up for our sins! As Pope John Paul II put it, His offering before God's justice was of such great value that it was a "superabundant" sacrifice for sin. In other words, He not only cleared away our debt to divine justice, He also merited for us all the graces we need for the sanctification of our hearts, as well as the gift of eternal life.

Perhaps now we can see why it is unfair to say that Catholic teaching about Christ's saving work - expressed in the wording of the Chaplet, as well as in the Catechism - is merely "transactional," as if by that we meant merely "impersonal" in some way, or merely about God's justice, and not also about His personal love for us.

In His infinite holiness, God cannot just forget about our mortal sins, pretend they are unimportant, and "let bygones be bygones," so to speak. In human relationships, too, we see this clearly. When someone seriously wrongs or injures you, don't they "owe" you something? A sincere apology at least, and in extreme cases some kind of compensatory gift or restitution?

A personal relationship or friendship cannot truly be restored without that moral debt being somehow acknowledged and "made up." And no wrong is more grievous than when we betray or let down someone who loved and trusted us. In a similar way, human sin is a betrayal of our heavenly Father's infinite love for us. His infinite love created us and gave us the gift of life and offered us the possibility of eternal life with Him in heaven.

By our sins we betrayed that love, and that surely leaves us in a state of moral "debt" to God. We really "owe" Him something that we can never repay: a life of faithful service of the good purposes for which He made us. Having misspent our past, we have nothing "extra" to offer to God to make up for it. But Jesus Christ, the divine Son, makes up for it on our behalf, by His obedient life and death on a cross. He "makes up" for our misspent past and bears the penalty we deserve. He merits for us all the sanctifying graces that can heal us and set us free from sin's power!

That's not just some cold, impersonal, judicial "transaction." It's a wonderful gift of His mercy that sets us free from the penalty and power of sin, if we will only receive that gift through opening our hearts to Him more and more, by repentance and by faith.

Saint Paul put it best:

While we were yet helpless, at the right time, Christ died for the ungodly. Why, one will hardly die for a righteous man - though perhaps for a good man one will dare even to die. But God shows His love for us in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us (Rom 5:6-8).

Robert Stackpole, STD, is director of the John Paul II Institute of Divine Mercy. Got a question? E-mail him at [email protected].

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