How the Cross Saves Us
Fr Conor McDonough OP
The Cross and us.
What does the Cross have to do with us and how does Christ’s cruel death save us? The New Testament declares with clarity the fact that Christ’s death reconciles us to the Father and makes possible eternal life. But how precisely does it do all this?
There the New Testament doesn’t give us one answer but provides us with a suite of images and analogies to help us understand the mystery. Christ’s death is compared to a ransom (Matthew 20:28), for example, and a sacrifice (Hebrews 9:26).
Later theologians synthesised these images and began to propose what we might call ‘theories of salvation’. St Thomas Aquinas, for example, puts forward four possible ways of understanding how the Crucifixion of Christ brings about our salvation (we’ll look at one of them below).
The Cross as ‘penal substitution’.
Today, one of the most popular theories of salvation is called ‘penal substitution’. It’s favoured by many evangelical Protestants but has currency in Catholic circles too, largely through the influence of contemporary Christian music. It goes like this: When our first parents turned away from God they took upon themselves an infinite debt (infinite because God is infinitely good) and divine justice required that this debt be paid.
This unpaid debt, so the story continues, causes God to be angry and to mandate punishment in payment of the debt. We could never bear such punishment or repay the debt by our own resources so, in order to satisfy His justice, God the Father sent His Son into the world to receive the punishment on our behalf by dying on the Cross. His innocence was then attributed to those for whom he died and so, as the popular hymn has it, ‘the wrath of God was satisfied’.
There are advantages to this way of understanding the Crucifixion. For one, it makes clear that something had indeed gone wrong when we sinned and needed to be put right. That is, it underlines the reality of God’s justice.
The passivity problem.
But there are huge problems with this account. First, it presents Christ on the Cross as entirely passive. He’s simply the recipient of the Father’s wrath. He’s the anvil to the Father’s hammer.
And second, penal substitution makes us entirely passive too: the Cross is something that occurs between the Father and the Son, outside of us. This fits, of course, with the Protestant ideas of ‘justification through faith alone’ and ‘alien righteousness’ but it’s harder to square with the Catholic understanding, according to which the free gift of salvation in Christ includes the invitation to join in the work of our salvation and sanctification by our own works of love.
The Cross as ‘satisfaction’.
St Thomas Aquinas suggests a different way of thinking about the Cross, a way he labels ‘satisfaction’, and it seems to me the best response to the ‘penal substitution’ view. In common with penal substitution, Aquinas underlines the justice of God: sin is a disorder that demands to be put right. But it’s not only God’s justice that’s operative here; His goodness too leads Him to fight against sin and to restore the good order He established for our happiness.
St Thomas agrees, then, that we owe God a debt we cannot repay but makes a further important observation: “The things that we can accomplish through the efforts of our friends we seem to do ourselves, for friendship makes two persons one in love, and especially in the love of charity.”
Friendship makes us one.
A story will help illustrate what Aquinas is saying here. Say John steals Michael’s car and crashes it but has no means of paying Michael back. John’s stuck. But he has a friend, Andrew — a very good friend in this case. Because he loves John, Andrew is willing to buy a new car for Michael and Michael honours the friendship between John and Andrew by accepting the car as if it came from John.
Andrew isn’t just a substitute here for John, he’s standing in solidarity with him. Friendship has made them one person in love and this is the basis for recompense being made, justice honoured, and peace restored.
This model Aquinas then applies to the Crucifixion. We’re not dealing with a car in place of a car. Instead, Christ’s Crucifixion, because of his great charity, is an act so precious that it outweighs all our sins. And this great action is not just Christ’s own action — because “friendship makes two persons one in love”.
What Christ did on the Cross counts as our action if we receive his offer of friendship.
Our participation in the Cross.
The Cross, then, isn’t just something that happened between the Father and the Son: all of humanity was there on the Cross, at least potentially, in the heart of Jesus. When we come to accept him as our friend, his action then counts as ours.
He is not a mere substitute, he is our friend. He gives his life in loving solidarity with us and this solidarity means that our salvation is not just something we passively receive. Because of our friendship with Christ the Cross counts not only as Christ’s work done for us but truly as our work. We are not only passively saved by Christ, we are called to actively live and love in union with him. As Our Lord himself said, the Christian should “take up his cross and follow me”, (Mt 16:24).
God’s unchanging love.
Finally, what about God’s wrath being satisfied? Aquinas makes absolutely clear that, even if Scripture speaks of God’s anger, we should not imagine the eternal God passing from anger to calm and back again, as humans get angry.
God is unchanging and so is His love; He doesn’t start to love us again having fallen out of love. Thomas quotes Jeremiah to make the point: “I have loved you with an everlasting love,” (Jeremiah 31:3).
The good God certainly takes up arms against sin and resolves the disorder it brings about, but it’s His goodness that motivates Him and not some ignoble need for revenge.
Splitting hairs or worlds apart?
To some, the differences between Aquinas’ understanding of the Crucifixion as ‘satisfactory’ and the Protestant theory of ‘penal substitution’ are very slight indeed. But on closer inspection they are worlds apart.
Penal substitution leads to a horrific picture of a vengeful God and turns our salvation into an event that happens outside of us. St Thomas’ view of the Crucifixion, on the other hand, accounts for both God’s justice and His enduring love and sets the stage for the whole Christian life, a life lived actively in union with the crucified and risen Jesus.
Our loving Saviour.
Above all, it reminds us that the one who hung upon the Cross was not merely an object to receive punishment but our active, loving Saviour carrying in his heart all those whom, the night before he died, he called his friends.