Atonement theory

Hi all,

I am a convert from protestantism (calvinist) and when I was growing up my understanding of atonement theory, which I was taught in Sunday school, was that of penal substitution; in other words, God the Father offered Jesus Christ over to death and poured all his wrath upon him, and cursed him, basically making Jesus as the scapegoat for all our sins and punishing him for our sins. I have only recently heard that the Catholic Church might have a different teaching than this, and that the atonement theory that I grew up with might be an invention by the reformers. The way Catholic atonement theory was explained to me was that Jesus offered himself as a sacrifice in love, and the only wrath he experienced was that of the people who crucified him; he was always within the Father’s love. There is a distinction made between atonement versus punishment. Is this correct? I haven’t been able to find many resources on this topic.

What I want is to know

  1. What the Catholic Church teaches about atonement theory and Christ’s sacrifice on the cross
  2. Where is this teaching found (in the Catechism?)
  3. What scripture backs up our view of the atonement?

I had brought up the subject of penal substitution and suggested that the Catholic Church did not agree with it and my dad (who is a Presbyterian minister) got very upset. I need some backup materials/information that I can provide in defense of the Catholic faith.

Jesus handed over according to the definite plan of God"

599 Jesus’ violent death was not the result of chance in an unfortunate coincidence of circumstances, but is part of the mystery of God’s plan, as St. Peter explains to the Jews of Jerusalem in his first sermon on Pentecost: "This Jesus (was) delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God."393 This Biblical language does not mean that those who handed him over were merely passive players in a scenario written in advance by God.394

600 To God, all moments of time are present in their immediacy. When therefore he establishes his eternal plan of “predestination”, he includes in it each person’s free response to his grace: "In this city, in fact, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, gathered together against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed, to do whatever your hand and your plan had predestined to take place."395 For the sake of accomplishing his plan of salvation, God permitted the acts that flowed from their blindness.396

God takes the initiative of universal redeeming love

604 By giving up his own Son for our sins, God manifests that his plan for us is one of benevolent love, prior to any merit on our part: "In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the expiation for our sins."408 God "shows his love for us in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us."409

605 At the end of the parable of the lost sheep Jesus recalled that God’s love excludes no one: "So it is not the will of your Father who is in heaven that one of these little ones should perish."410 He affirms that he came “to give his life as a ransom for many”; this last term is not restrictive, but contrasts the whole of humanity with the unique person of the redeemer who hands himself over to save us.411 The Church, following the apostles, teaches that Christ died for all men without exception: "There is not, never has been, and never will be a single human being for whom Christ did not suffer."412

Christ’s death is the unique and definitive sacrifice

613 Christ’s death is both the Paschal sacrifice that accomplishes the definitive redemption of men, through “the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world”,439 and the sacrifice of the New Covenant, which restores man to communion with God by reconciling him to God through the “blood of the covenant, which was poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins”.440

614 This sacrifice of Christ is unique; it completes and surpasses all other sacrifices.441 First, it is a gift from God the Father himself, for the Father handed his Son over to sinners in order to reconcile us with himself. At the same time it is the offering of the Son of God made man, who in freedom and love offered his life to his Father through the Holy Spirit in reparation for our disobedience.442


393: Acts 2:23
394: Cf. Acts 3:13
395: Acts 4:27-28, cf. Psalms 2:1-2
396: Cf. Matthew 26:54, John 18:36, John 19:11, Acts 3:17-18
408: 1 John 4:10, 1 John 4:19
409: Romans 5:8
410: Matthew 8:14
411: Matthew 20:28, cf. Romans 5:18-19
412: Council of Quicery (853), DS 624, cf. 2 Corinthians 5:15, 1 John 2:2
439: John 1:29, cf. 8:34-36, 1 Corinthians 5:6, 1 Peter 1:19
440: Matthew 26:28, Exodus 24:8, Leviticus 16:15-16, 1 Corinthians 11:25
441: Cf. Hebrews 10:10
442: Cf. John 10:17-18, John 15:13, Hebrews 9:14, 1 John 4:10

Hope this helps!

Jesus stood between God the punishing Judge and
us poor sinners and INTERCEDED for us, Is. 53:12.
By His knowledge(of God’s laws and commandments
and promises), He justified us. Is. 53:11.
God’s love is unconditional, and Jesus came to take
away the curse of the law and unmask the ANGRY
face of a punishing God by nailing this curse of the
written word to the cross. Col. 2:14 so that we can
SEE the Love of God our creator-savior!
Jesus died so that the CHURCH can be born, those
who are disciples belong to one another and to God,
by one Spirit we are baptized into one body, and can
thus SHARE our sorrows and joys!!! See 1 Cor. 12:14ff
1 Cor. 6:15; Rom. 12:4ff

I would recommend the following article, along with its combox discussion: calledtocommunion.com/2010/04/catholic-and-reformed-conceptions-of-the-atonement/. In fact, that particular website prides itself on civil and intelligent discussion and debate of key issues that separate Catholic and Reformed theology. Perhaps diving in to some of the discussions might be of some use to you. :slight_smile:

This is a well-balanced article in my opinion from the Catholic Encyclopedia: newadvent.org/cathen/02055a.htm

This was actually the article I had linked on facebook. It created a lot of controversy. One of my friends who commented on it said it made a straw man argument against penal substitution theory by suggesting that this theory excludes the possibility of Christ offering himself as a sacrifice. I also didn’t see a lot of references to the Catechism and I didn’t see a lot of scriptural references.

This is indeed a good article. I’m off to work, I will have to read the whole thing tonight.

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