Most of the time when we talk about Jesus’ death for us we use the term atonement. That’s a fitting term which reflects biblical truth about Jesus’ life-giving death. However, there’s another theological term that has also been used with reference to Christ’s work of salvation: satisfaction.
What’s the difference? Basically, the word atonement specifically refers to Christ’s death while the term satisfaction refers more broadly to Christ’s life and death. This is one reason why A. A. Hodge, for example, said the term “satisfaction” was preferable when speaking about Christ’s work to save sinners. Here’s how Thomas Watson explains it when he discusses Christ’s priestly office. He says that Christ’s satisfaction “consists of two branches:”
1) His active obedience. ‘He fulfilled all righteousness” (Mt 3:15). Christ did everything which the law required; his holy life was a perfect commentary upon the law of God; and he obeyed the law for us.
2) His passive obedience. Our guilt being transferred and imputed to him, he suffered the penalty which was due to us; he appeared to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself. …Sin could not be done away without blood (Heb. 9:22). Christ was not only a lamb without spot, but a lamb slain.
Geerhardus Vos, in his third volume of Reformed Dogmatics, speaks similarly:
“What is the best designation to refer to passive and active obedience together? The term ‘satisfaction’ (satisfactio) includes both and emphasizes what is common to both.” (3.4.54).
Both theological words are good and should be used. But it is helpful when we think about Jesus’ death to remember that he did more than die for us – he also lived for us! He obeyed God’s law and paid the penalty for sin in our place; he satisfied the claims of God’s justice for us.