The Satisfaction Theory is a theory of atonement that was developed by the scholar and theologian Anselm of Canterbury. Anselm lived in the 11th century and is known for defining the work of a christian philosopher as “faith seeking understanding” and for his formulation of the ontological argument for the existence of God. But it is his satisfaction theory that I would like to look at now.
In this theory, man, by our sin, has offended the honor of a holy God. Because of our transgressions we own a debt to God, a “debt of honor” to use Anselm’s phrase. For us to repay this debt means punishment by death and torment in Hell. However, Anselm argues that it is unfitting for God’s creatures to not fulfill the purpose He created them for, which is happiness and enjoyment of Himself. So, God’s honor must be restored and only man can restore it by paying back what is owed, yet to pay it back would frustrate God’s intentions for humanity. To solve this dilemma, Jesus became a man and died to pay back the debt of honor, allowing us to be in fellowship with God once more.
For most people today, Anselm’s language of restoring honor seems strange and, well, medieval. It arouses images of feudal lords and knights and honor duels. But honor is not so far removed from us as we might think. Honor is quite literally defined by respect and respect is something that is still very important to us today. Many people work hard to earn respect. Sometimes we defer to others out of respect. Some even attempt to demand respect. If respect or honor is something that we desire to have ourselves and if we acknowledge that it is right to treat others with respect, then how much more right and fitting and proper is it that we respect or honor God.
The Bible speaks frequently about honor. In the English Standard Version, “honor” is used 130 times. Different places in Scripture command us to honor God. “But the Lord of hosts, him you shall honor as holy” Isa. 8:13. “but in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy” 1 Pet. 3:15. “Worthy are you, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power” Rev. 4:11. We sin when we do not give the Lord the honor He deserves.
Even earthly kings rightfully expect a degree of honor to accompany their position. How much more for a heavenly King. And the Lord is our King, our Sovereign, who sits enthroned on high in majesty. He speaks worlds into existence. He gives a word of command and it is accomplished. Radiance and beauty and light flow down from His throne and engulf those found in His presence as a river over flows its banks into a flood plain. To stand before our God is to stand in awe. Even the angels who are in His presence are so overwhelmed by His glories and goodness, they are helpless but to fall before Him crying “Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord God almighty!” And they never tire of offering adoration. Day and night they praise the One seated on the throne.
We were made for this sort of worship. In giving honor and praise to our Sovereign, we find ourselves more filled with ecstatic joy than in any other activity that we can engage in, in all the universe. In those rare moments here on Earth when we break into the presence of our God and, with hearts purified by the blood of Christ, are given a vision of the splendor of His holiness, praises lift from our lips as effortlessly as embers floating from the flames of the altar of sacrifice.
The Satisfaction Theory reminds us of the fact that the Lord deserves our honor. Sin steals from God the honor He is due and steals from us His presence and the joy that accompanies it. As Jesus’ death sets all things right and settles all accounts, we are once again able to offer our Sovereign Lord a sacrifice of praise, honoring and glorifying His name.