Several weeks ago I mentioned the difference between these theological terms: satisfaction and atonement. By way of reminder the word “atonement” specifically has to do with Jesus’ death in the place of sinners (his passive obedience). The word “satisfaction” means that Christ satisfied the demands of God’s justice in the place of sinners (he lived and died for them; this is his active and passive obedience).
In the past, Reformed theologians usually used the term satisfaction when talking about Christ’s saving work for us. Charles Hodge, for example, preferred the term “satisfaction” to the term “atonement.” His objection to using the term “atonement” when talking about the work of Christ is three-fold. First, he said the term itself is ambiguous; it means several different things (reconciliation, compensation, expiation). Second, he said the term isn’t comprehensive enough to define Christ’s work of salvation: “His saving work includes far more than his expiatory sufferings.” Third, Hodge argued that the term wasn’t a common one in Reformed theology (back in the mid-19th century): “It is important to adhere to old words if we would adhere to old doctrines.”
So Hodge preferred the word “satisfaction” when talking about Christ’s work to save sinners:
“The word satisfaction is the one which for ages has been generally used to designate the special work of Christ in the salvation of men. With the Latin theologians the word is ‘satisfactio,’ with the German writers, ‘Genugthun,’ its exact etymological equivalent, ‘the doing enough.’ By the satisfaction of Christ is meant all He has done to satisfy the demands of the law and justice of God, in the place of and in behalf of sinners. This word has the advantage of being precise, comprehensive, and generally accepted, and should therefore be adhered to.”
Hodge goes on to explain how Christ, in his obedient life and sacrificial death, satisfied the justice of God fully in the place of his people. Christ’s satisfaction isn’t only about justice, it is also a covenantal matter that has to do with grace, justification, and divine love. The term “satisfaction” includes all of these things, which is why Hodge says it is preferable to the term “atonement.”
I’m not suggesting we drop the term “atonement” here, but I do want to note that the term “satisfaction” is a good one. It should be used (and explained!) more often, since it is a helpful term that captures Christ’s perfect work of salvation: his active and passive obedience for his people. I suppose then, instead of or alongside of “limited atonement,” we should talk about “definite satisfaction.” As Machen said,
“[Jesus] paid for us the law’s penalty, and he obeyed for us the law’s commands. He saved us from hell, and he earned for us our entrance into heaven. All that we have, then we owe unto him.”