For What does Christ Die?

For What does Christ Die?: Jonathan Edwards on Divine Justice and Atonement

S. Mark Hamilton


Jonathan Edwards’ doctrine of atonement has been the source of some recent and focused interest in the literature. Until recently, the majority of his interpreters had characterized Edwards’ doctrine as on the one hand, “Anselmian” by which is generally understood that Edwards subscribed to the doctrine of the absolute necessity of the atonement rather than what we might think of as full-orbed satisfaction model.[*]1. See e.g.: John H. Gerstner, The Rational Biblical Theology of Jonathan Edwards, Vol. 1-3 (Powhatan, VA: Bera Publications), 2:424-73. For a helpful treatment of Anselm’s model, see: David Brown, ‘Anselm on the Atonement,’ in Brian Davies and Brian Leftow, eds., The Cambridge Companion to Anselm(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), ch. 13. Absolute necessity is the idea that the death of Christ was not merely the most “fitting” way to make satisfaction for sin (as in the case of so-called hypothetical necessity), it was the only way to make satisfaction for sin.[*]2. I am grateful to Richard Muller for this observation. For more discussion on the absolute versus the hypothetical necessity of atonement in the Reformed theological tradition, see: Heinrich Heppe, Reformed Dogmatics, trans. G.T. Thomson (London: HarperCollins, 1950), p. 469ff.Edwards’ interpreters have also long-described his latent commitment to the “Moral Government” model of atonement, according to which, Christ performs the work of a penal example—his death restoring honor to the moral order by displaying the severity of sin’s consequences for transgressions against the moral law.[*]3. See e.g.: Dorus Paul Rudisill, The Doctrine of the Atonement in Jonathan Edwards and His Successors (New York: Poseidon Books, 1971), p. 29; John H. Gerstner, The Rational Biblical Theology of Jonathan Edwards, in 3 Vols. (Powhatan, VA: Berea, 1991-3), 2:424-5; Gerald McDermott, Jonathan Edwards Confronts the Gods (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000), p. 42, n. 20; Stephen R. Holmes, God of Grace, God of Glory (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2001), p. 145, n. 66.Now, more recent interpreters have argued all to the contrary, that Edwards articulated something closer to a version of the “Penal Substitution” model of atonement.[*]4. See e.g.: S. Mark Hamilton, ‘Jonathan Edwards on the Atonement’, International Journal of Systematic Theology 15:4 (October 2013): pp. 394-415; et al., ‘Jonathan Edwards, Anselmic Satisfaction, and God’s Moral Government’, International Journal of Systematic Theology 17:1 (January 2015): pp. 1-22; Oliver D. Crisp, ‘The Moral Government of God: Jonathan Edwards and Joseph Bellamy on the Atonement’, in Oliver D. Crisp and Douglas A. Sweeney, eds., After Jonathan Edwards: The Course of New England Theology (New York: Oxford University Press: 2012), pp. 78-90; For more on the recent revisionist historiography of New England theology, see: Michael J. McClymond and Gerald R. McDermott, The Theology of Jonathan Edwards (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), chs. 37 and 38.On the penal substitution model, Christ assumes the legal responsibility of the sin(s) of human persons and by his substitutionary death, pays their debt of punishment demanded by God’s retributive justice.[*]5. According to Packer, there is no single paradigm that accounts for all iterations of the doctrine of Penal Substitution. Nevertheless he locates certain features or aspects common to most accounts, aspects including: 1) the retributive demands of divine justice, 2) the necessity of the atonement, 3) the substitutionary and penal nature of atonement, and 4) the infinite, objective value of Christ’s vicarious sacrifice; see: James I. Packer, ‘What did the Cross Achieve? The Logic of Penal Substitution’, Tyndale Bulletin 25 (1974): pp. 3-46. This most recent interpretive development is something of a tectonic shift, as it were, in our understanding of Edwards’ thinking about the atonement; a shift that has since provoked me to rethink several important and what are to my mind unresolved questions about both the exact shape of Edwards’ doctrine of atonement and the findings of his earlier interpreters.

Among the more pressing, unresolved questions about Edwards’ doctrine has to do with the how he cashes out the peculiar demands of divine justice and the specific judicial problem that Edwards’ model of atonement was intended to solve. In this paper, I argue that since Edwards fails to adequately distinguish between the rectoral and retributive demands of divine justice and how Christ’s work stands to meet those demands, we have yet to arrive at a coherent picture of his doctrine of atonement, and we won’t, I think, save for some constructive theological solution.[*]6. There are several other important questions here about Edwards’ understanding of divine justice and atonement related to the nature of sins offense and that of both the demands of commutative justice—the right of individual equity—and the demands of distributive justice—the right of societal equity.

To this end, I consider what it means for Edwards to endorse the penal substitution model, in parallel with a sample of several curious statements that he makes about the demands of God’s rectoral justice which appear to be in tension with those statements that he makes about demands of God’s retributive justice—a notion that is at the heart of penal substitution. For the sake of clarity and brevity, I shall look at three aspects of the penal substitution model: 1) Representationalism, 2) Debts of Punishment and 3) and the nature of Divine Retribution, from a variety of Edwards’ literature. Since the latter two are at the fore of my concern, I will examine these aspects of the doctrine together. Let us begin by turning our attention to Representationalism.


Proponents of penal substitution often assume the truth of what is referred to as representationalism, which is the idea that God “fixes”, as it were, the relationship of persons, one to another (and to Christ), in such a way that the act of one person may be treated as if it is executed by another (or group of persons), irrespective of the time or space at which the representative person performs the act—whether that act be morally good or bad.[*]7. For some helpful discussion of the development of Representationalism in the Reformed tradition, see: William G.T. Shedd, Dogmatic Theology, ed. Alan W. Gomes, 3rd edn. (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed), pp. 451-55.Representationalism is one of the hallmarks of the Reformed theological tradition, to which appear several clear ascriptions throughout Edwards’ work. He says,

What I think we may rationally and truly suppose concerning this matter, is this: that as of old God was long preparing his church to receive the doctrine of an atonement for sin by the sufferings of Jesus Christ, the second Adam, and imputing his sufferings to the sinner as one that in that matter stood for the sinner and was his representative, by representing himself as appeased and pardoning the sinner on the account of the sacrifices and vicarious sufferings and death of brute animals, and so long using his church and accustoming the world of mankind to the notion of an atonement by vicarious sufferings.[*]

8. All references to the printed works of Jonathan Edwards are to the Yale Letterpress Edition (Perry Miller, John E. Smith and Harry S. Stout, general editors, The Works of Jonathan Edwards in 26 Volumes [New Haven: Yale University Press, 1957–2006]). Henceforth, citations shall appear as WJE, followed by volume number, colon, and page reference. Citations for the digital works of Edwards ( [volumes 27-73]) shall appear by title, followed by WJEO and volume number, in this case: ‘Controversies’ Notebook, WJEO 27.

Now, for Edwards’ part—and this is what makes him unique amongst his Reformed brethren—he would have said something like, representationalism works if and only if we think of the representative and the ones represented as united beyond a bare legal (or federal) relationship—specifically, in some exotic way, where the ones represented (collectively) are (literally) the representative in some real (specifically, some Augustinian real) sense. This is quite an interesting discussion that has recently developed in Edwards studies. I mention it here only because it is material to Edwards’ notion of representationalism, even though it is not necessarily material to what I argue in this paper. For more on Edwards’ version of representationalism, I direct my readers elsewhere.[*]9. Hamilton, ‘Jonathan Edwards on the Atonement’, IJST 15:4 (October 2013): pp. 394-415; Crisp, ‘On the theological pedigree of Jonathan Edwards’ doctrine of imputation’ in Scottish Journal of Theology 56 (2003): 308-327.So moving forward with this aspect of penal substitution in mind, and its being a unique and firm fixture in Edwards’ atonement formula, let us turn our attention to what Edwards says about the so-called debts of punishment demanded by God’s retributive justice

Debts of Punishment and Retribution

Something for which penal substitution invites some of its greatest criticisms is the idea that Christ’s death is equivalent to his absorbing the penalty for the sin of humanity (usually understood to mean some number less than the total number of human persons. For penal substitution is in principle consistent with universalism). Or to put it differently, the work of Christ is a payment of humanity’s debt of punishment. This is quite a subtle and nevertheless critically important distinction from Christ’s work being construed as payment for a debt simpliciter. Indeed, not understanding the difference between the nature of a simple debt and a debt of punishment is to miss the very substance of penal substitution altogether. And the difference is this: to owe God a debt of punishment is to owe a debt specifically for an offence that requires humanity (the debtor) suffer loss by suffering a punishment equivalent to their offense(s).[*]10. David Lewis, ‘Do We Believe in Penal Substitution?’, in Oliver D. Crisp, ed., A Reader in Contemporary Philosophical Theology (New York: T & T Clark, 2009), pp. p. 329 (emphasis added; hereafter, RCPT). According to Lewis, ‘in the case of a debt, what is required is that the creditor shall not suffer a loss. Whereas in the case of a debt of punishment what is required is that the debtor shall suffer a loss.’This is the work of Christ on the penal substitution model, namely, to suffer loss by paying humanity’s debt of punishment to God’s retributive justice. To owe God a debt of any other sort is to owe God for something that requires that God (the creditor) not suffer loss. The work of Christ in this light fits more than one model of atonement. And it is in this distinction—between debts and debts of punishment—where the tension in Edwards’ account of divine justice and atonement appears. This tension has two parts. The first tension we will see by way of a contrast between what a debt demands and what a debt of punishment demands and we will see the second by understanding the direction, as it were, of sins offense.

Debts and Debts of Punishment

First, notice that a debt of punishment requires that transgressors (or more accurately, Christ) suffer loss. In this way, the penal substitution model is surprisingly anthropocentric in terms of its chief goal, in that the problem facing sinners is not a matter of their failed effort to restore anything to God, so much as it is with his exacting a penalty from them (or again, Christ). Edwards says as much about this sort of judicial demand in several places throughout his work. For example, he argues that,

God declares that those sinners that are not forgiven shall pay the uttermost farthing, and the last mite, and that all the debt [of punishment] shall be exacted of them, etc. Now it seems unreasonable to suppose that God, in case of a surety, and his insisting on an atonement made by him, that he will show mercy by releasing the surety without a full atonement, anymore than that he will release it to the sinner that is punished, by not insisting on the complete punishment.[*]

11. ‘Miscellany’ n. 1076, WJE 20:460.In other words, in the same way that the full punitive demands of God’s retributive justice are to be exacted from sinners, Edwards says that they are exacted from Christ and this, because he is their representative and God should require no less from him despite his status as a divine person.[*]12. Matthew Levering offers a recent and helpful synthesis of Edwards’ thinking about punitive nature of divine justice and its relationship to both spiritual and somatic death in: ‘Jonathan Edwards and Thomas Aquinas on Original Sin’, in Kyle C. Strobel, ed., The Ecumenical Edwards: Jonathan Edwards and the Theologians (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2015), pp. 134-40. Levering’s argument lends considerable strength to the idea that Edwards did in fact support some version of penal substitution. It is worth noting that several of his references to the nature of human suffering (and God’s providential role in that suffering), however, might well be read in support of a penal non-substitution or moral government model.Notice that Edwards says nothing in this context of what Christ’s work does positively, that is, positively for God. This is because restoring anything to God is not a problem that the penal substitution model endeavors to solve. Interestingly, in another place, Edwards argues that restoring to God the honor that is due him is precisely the work Christ undertook in making atonement, saying,

The sacrifice of Christ is a sweet savor, [first], because as such it was a great honor done to God’s majesty, holiness and law, and a glorious expression and testimony of Christ’s respect to that majesty etc.; that when he loved man and so greatly desired his salvation, he had yet so great respect to that majesty and holiness of God, that he had rather die than that salvation should be any injury or dishonor unto those attributes. And then secondly, it was a sweet savor, as it was a marvelous act of obedience, and so an expression of a wonderful respect to God’s authority. The value of Christ’s sacrifice was infinite, both as a propitiation and as an act of obedience; because he showed an infinite regard to the majesty, holiness, etc. of God, in being at infinite expense from regard to it. (See Nos. 451, 452).[*]

13. ‘Miscellany’ n. 449, WJE 13:497 (emphasis added).To make the distinction between owing a debt and a debt of punishment clear, consider the following analogy.

Imagine that you get a call one day from “Easy Eddy”, the notorious Chicago gangster Al Capone’s bookkeeper. Eddy calls to talk to you about some massive unpaid debt that you owe Capone after losing a few hands of poker to Capone a few weeks ago.[*]14. For a recent and interesting account of Edward O’hare and the Capone empire, see: Jonathan Eig, Get Capone: The Secret Plot That Captured America’s Most Wanted Gangster (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2011).Eddy reminds you that you owe Capone a hundred-grand and that if you don’t pay up soon, the next call you’ll be getting will be a “house call”, from none other than Capone’s so-called “Enforcer”, Frank Nitti, and a few of his leg-breakers—only they won’t be breaking legs, they will be coming to finish you. Desperate to avoid a thrashing by Nitti-and-company, you quickly hang up on Eddy and phone your brother, Jake “Greasy Thumb” Guzik, who happens to be a close-confidante of the Capone family. After telling your brother what you’ve done and that you don’t have the money, he arranges a meeting with you and Capone to make a deal. To your great surprise and relief, in the meeting, your brother promises to pony-up the hundred-grand to pay your debt to Capone. The problem, however, is that having brokered the deal and bought your debt to Capone, your brother Guzik is now out a hundred-grand (provided he pays-up of course). What is interesting is that by discharging you of your debt to Capone, and assuming it himself, Guzik is now in a position to either forgive your debt to him outright and absorb the financial loss or exact the same sort of retribution from you, as would have Capone and company. Buying up your debt gives him that right. In this way, Guzik can either pay your debt or your debt of punishment.

Now, if we stop here we could cash out this analogy in terms of either a payment of a debt of punishment or payment of a debt. To owe Capone a debt—in this case, a debt of honor—means that he may neither lose money nor his honor and thus remains both vigilant and patient until these things are restored to him. To owe him a debt of punishment means that getting back the money means less to Capone than killing you, perhaps in order to show that he is not one to be trifled with and that he will inevitably and eventually settle all accounts of those offenses against him.[*]15. I am conscious that this later arrangement could lend equal support to a moral government model of atonement in the sense—following our analogy—that Capone appears interested in little more than making a penal example of you. It seems to me that introducing the idea of substitutionary atonement is the razor’s edge of difference between the moral government and penal substitution models. That Christ is punished for sin is the point. The reason for his punishment is the distinguishing factor and something controlled in large part by the particular designs of divine justice.

Retribution and the Direction of Sins offense

The second aspect of a debt of punishment that demands our attention here is the underlying assumption that sins offense is directed against God himself, and not, say, against his moral law. According to Edwards,

Sin is of such a nature that it wishes ill, and aims at ill, to God and men, but to God especially. It strikes at God; it would, if it could, procure his misery and death. It is but suitable that with what measure it meets, it should be measured to it again. ‘Tis but suitable that men should reap what they sow, and that the reward of every man’s hands should be given him.[*]

16. ‘Miscellany’ n. 779, WJE 18:436.

In this way, exponents of penal substitution make much of the fact that divine retribution for offenses against God are private legal affairs—that is, they are offenses against God himself by individual, morally responsible creatures, in contrast to say, a public offense, which is an offense against a society. Consider that if someone commits a crime against another, that person is liable for the offense and punishment will likely befall the offending party. The individual who sins against God, so they argue, is thus justly liable to the punitive measures of God’s retributive justice as an individual. Such exponents also make much of the fact that private or individual offenses require individual reconciliation. This is, so they claim, what Christ does in making atonement, namely, effect personal, individual, and legal reconciliation between persons and God. That sins offense is against God and that it is something with individual implications is evident from the previous quotations. However, Edwards says elsewhere that,

’tis requisite that sin should be punished, as punishment is deserved and just, therefore the justice of God obliges him to punish sin: for it belongs to God as the supreme Rector of the universality of things, to maintain order and decorum in his kingdom, and to see to it that decency and right takes place at all times, and in all cases. That perfection of his nature whereby he is disposed to this, is his justice; and therefore, his justice naturally disposes him to punish sin as it deserves. The holiness of God, which is the infinite opposition of his nature to sin, naturally and necessarily disposes him to punish sin.[*]

17. ‘Miscellany’ n. 779, WJE 18:437 (emphasis added).He then goes on to argue that,

God is to be considered in this affair not merely as the governor of the world of creatures, to order things between one creature and another, but as the supreme regulator or Rector of the universality of things, the orderer of things relating to the whole compass of existence, including himself, to maintain the rights of the whole, and decorum through the whole, and to maintain his own rights, and the due honor of his own perfections, as well as to keep justice among creatures. ‘Tis fit that there should be one that has this office, and the office properly belongs to the supreme being. And if he should fail of doing justice to him[self] in a needed vindication of his own majesty and glory, it would be an immensely greater failure of his rectoral justice than if he should deprive the creatures, that are beings of infinitely less consequence, of their rights.[*]

18. ‘Miscellany’ n. 779, WJE 18:440 (emphasis added).A close reading of these two statements alongside the previous one reveal that these statements are actually incongruent. The problem here is that if penal offenses are both criminal and punishable, they are not, strictly speaking, private or individual, so much as public or societal affairs that are punishable by the authority of a system of laws, not an individual lawmaker. In other words, a coherent picture of penal substitution seems to require that sins offense be leveled against the moral law and not God himself, and that this a problem facing all persons collectively, not as individuals, as it is so often thought to be the case. For Edwards’ part, he seems to conflate the two.

It might be helpful to think of the difference between the offenses that are tried in a United States district or civil court versus those tried in a United States criminal court. In a district court, someone might be sued, for example, for a breach of contract. Strictly speaking, this is not a criminal offense. This is a personal, (and therefore private) offense—one person versus another (even another individual group, as in a class action suit)—that is resolved by the offending party restoring or making reparation for the offended party. Criminal courts, by contrast, try criminal offenders. If someone is on trial for murder, say, that person’s offense is, again, strictly speaking, not against the one they killed (though I am sure we would all agree that murder is, if not the most, among the most egregious personal offenses that human persons can perpetrate against one another). Rather, their offense is against the laws of the society to which both parties have presumably assented and which demand that murderers pay a debt of punishment to society upon the commitment of such a crime. And in the United States judicial system, this debt is paid by incarceration or in some states, death. In this way, murder, or any such criminal offense, is a public matter between the murderer and the society at large, not the murderer and the one that was murdered.[*]19. I am grateful to Patrick Murphy and Chris Wolf for suggesting this analogy.To put it differently, there’s a difference between offenses against Capone himself and those leveled against the rules of his club.

Now, carrying this line of thinking over to the more recent suggestions of Edwards subscription to penal substitution, if Christ is said to pay a debt of punishment on behalf of others, then, the debt is actually not a private offense against God—like in a district court—requiring that something be restored (via reparation) to God, despite those claims of his being the privately offended party.[*]20. I suppose, were one to construe the three-ness of God in terms of a ‘society’ of persons in the God-head, as well as construe human persons as some sort of collective ‘moral whole’, rather than morally responsible individuals, then it would be consistent to think of sin as a public offense that issues in a debt of punishment owed to a society. I am not conscious of any such theological argument having been made.To put it rather bluntly, nothing is restored to God on the penal substitution model. Instead, and quite to the contrary of the apparent demands of God’s retributive justice, penal substitution seems only to make provision for God to restore righteousness to humanity, leaving God dishonored and his Son, crushed (as the prophet Isaiah says) for this dishonor, and what is more, all of this being of no apparent benefit to himself. And this is in contrast to Edwards’ apparent thinking that the work Christ does in making atonement restores honor to God—something that belongs to owing and paying a debt of honor. The problem, as I have suggested before, is that Christ cannot perform both works. He cannot suffer as a penal substitute and a non-penal substitute. So, the question for us then is whether Edwards’ commitment to the rectoral demands of divine justice are at odds with his commitment to the role of retributive justice issued by penal substitution. My answer is yes, they are at odds, and they are in no less than two important ways.

First, because Edwards construes sin as both a private offense against God for which humanity is liable to pay a debt of honor and as a private offense against God for which humanity is liable to pay a debt of punishment (which as we have seen previously is itself something of a contradiction, that is, if we understand a debt of punishment to be a public or societal offense)—both acts of which cannot be done simultaneously by a penal and non-penal substitute. In other words, Christ cannot absorb divine wrath for sin as a penal substitute, when he is at the same time (collectively) deferring or delaying that wrath until the consummation by making reparations on behalf of all humanity. The second way they are at odds, is because Edwards construes the nature of Christ’s substitutionary work in what we might call “personal” and then “meritorious” terms. By personal substitution, I mean the substitutionary work he performs by “standing in”, as it were, for individual persons upon whom are the retributive demands of God justice. By meritorious substitution, I mean the substitutionary work he performs by accumulating the reparative merit of honor that offsets the infinite demerit of sin. For, because God is infinitely holy, sins against God accrue an infinite demerit, as it were, that requires some infinite merit to offset.[*]21. This is referred to in the literature of contemporary philosophical-theology as the status principle. The status principle says that the degree of an offence is measured by the ‘status’ of the one offended. So, a transgression against a being of infinite value accrues an infinite offence. For this reason, and because God is infinitely just, he cannot simply set aside or (ultimately) pass over offences against his nature. God’s justice is inexorable. He must punish sin. For further discussion of the status principle, see: Jonathan L. Kvanvig, The Problem of Hell (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994) and Oliver D. Crisp, ‘Divine Retribution’, Sophia 42:2 (October 2003), pp. 35-52.It seems to me that, at least with respect to the mechanism of the atonement, these are not complimentary accounts of substitution so much as competing ones. For, no honor is restored to God by his meeting out retribution against the Son—paying a debt of punishment does not necessarily pay a debt of honor. In these two ways at least, there is a tension in Edwards’ account of Christ’s atoning work. The question that remains is this: where do we go from here?

A Way Forward?

I conclude with the following proposal. I have tried to make the case that there is a great deal more work to be done on Edwards’ doctrine of atonement. As such, I am no longer convinced that we can make definitive claims about his adherence to the penal substitution model. That Edwards’ commitments about retributive justice appear to stand in tension to his commitments about rectoral justice forces us to rethink our assurances about the model of atonement to which Edwards might have subscribed. It seems entirely possible to me at this point that the early interpretive tradition was on to something, but perhaps they might not have gone far enough in describing that Edwards held to some version of a full-orbed satisfaction model of atonement, according to which the Son dies in order to restore honor to the Father—sacrificing himself in an act of infinite merit—that is somehow, at the same time, able to make sense the penal aspects associated with the Moral Government model of atonement and all this without making Christ absorb the penalty for sin, as in the case of the penal substitution model. Arriving at any detailed structure of such a model is, of course, beyond the scope of this paper. The first constructive step of the model that I have in mind begins with making sense of the rectoral aspect of divine justice.[*]22. I am grateful for Gijsbert van den Brink, Robert Boss, Oliver Crisp, Joshua Farris, Willem van Vlastuin, and Jordan Wessling for comments on previous drafts of this paper.

S. Mark Hamilton is a PhD candidate in Dogmatic Theology at the Free University of Amsterdam, writing his doctoral thesis on ‘Jonathan Edwards and the Person of Christ’. Previously, he studied systematic and historical theology at The University of Bristol, UK (MPhil), Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, USA (MATh), and Oklahoma Baptist University, USA (BA). He is co-editor (with Joshua Farris and Jim Spiegel) and contributor to Idealism and Christian Theology Vol.1 (Bloomsbury, 2015). He is also co-editor (with Marc Cortez and Joshua Farris) and contributor to Being Saved: Explorations in Soteriology and Human Ontology (SCM Press, forthcoming 2017). He has published several articles that have appeared in International Journal of Systematic Theology, Neue Zeitschrift für Systematische Theologie und Religionsphilosophie and Irish Theological Quarterly (forthcoming).