An Overview of the Atonement/God’s Active or Permitted Will?

Scripture tells us three times in the Garden of Gethsemane Christ prayed to the Father to allow the cup of his passion to pass from him; that he would not have to drink it.  And all three times he also prayed that not his will, but the Father’s will be done.  It becomes a model of prayer for us as Christ submits his human will to the Divine will.  This is what my human will desires, needs, wants.  But not my will, but Your will be done.  And with confidence that God knows better what we truly need more than we ourselves do.

Most of us over our lives will grapple with the concept of God’s will, especially in the face of trial or despair.  Is what is happening to us God’s will?  Is everything that happens God’s will?  How do we resolve a belief that God is all-good and all-knowing with many of the things that happen to us or others that clearly are not “good”?

Catholic teaching affirms that all that happens is God’s will.  That does not mean that God actively causes everything to happen.  We view God’s will in two ways – His active will (that which He causes) and His permitted will (that which He allows).  It is from His permitted will that our faith can be most challenged, especially when evil manifests in our life and the lives of those we love.  This is why an essential component of faith is trust.  Trust that God will ultimately heal all wounds, right all wrongs, that even the worst atrocity can be used to bring forth a greater good, and that in all aspects of our lives God is truly working for our good and the good of His people (Romans 8:28).

One of the exercises we do in class is to look at the great moments in salvation history and understand whether they are attributed to God’s active will or his permitted will, and in general they are fairly obvious.

The Creation of the World – God’s Active Will

The Fall of Man into Sin – God’s Permitted Will

The Incarnation – God becoming man in Christ – God’s Active Will

The Crucifixion — ?

The Resurrection – God’s Active Will

Heaven – God’s Active Will

Hell – God’s Permitted Will

I place a question mark after the crucifixion because if there is ever one that causes people to pause, it is this one.  Does God actively will the crucifixion of Christ?  Or does he permit it for a greater good?

One oft repeated phrase we can hear is that “Jesus paid a debt he did not owe, because I owed a debt I could not pay.”  This is not necessarily a Catholic phrase but many Catholics have adopted it from our broader Christian culture.  But have we asked the questions – what is the debt?  To whom is it owed?  These answers can vary depending on differing theologies about the atoning work of Christ on the cross.

Over the next many posts I will be covering just this topic – the Atonement.  The Atonement is the reconciliation of God and humankind through the sacrificial death of Jesus Christ on the cross.  But exactly how does Christ’s death bring about this reconciliation?  How does his sacrifice save us?  When Protestantism is formed, there is a foundational difference in how this is viewed and it’s important that we as Catholics understand this difference and why we reject some of the thinking that develops.  So stick with me please….

There are some basic terms throughout any discussion about the atoning work of Christ that we will hear used.  One is the word “atonement” itself, which as I said refers to the reconciliation of God and humankind through the sacrificial death of Jesus.  It can also mean “reparation for an offense or injury,” or “satisfaction.”

Another term is the word “expiation.”  This simply refers to the act of making atonement.  We see it used in Scripture a few times.  St. Paul refers to Christ as the one “whom God put forward as an expiation by his blood, to be received by faith” (Romans 3:25)Hebrews 2:17 says of Christ “Therefore he had to be made like his brethren in every respect, so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make expiation for the sins of the people.”  St. John writes of Christ that he is “the expiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world” (1 John 2:2) and “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” (1 John 4:10).

“Satisfaction” is another term that while not found in Sacred Scripture is often used in speaking of the atonement.  It refers to reparation for sin that meets the demands of divine justice.  But what is meant by divine justice?  More to come on that topic.

And within that definition we find the word “reparation.”  The root of this word comes from an understanding to “repair.”  It is my favorite word on the topic as we seek to understand the meaning of Christ’s work on the cross.  He has come to repair the damage done by sin.

The Church uses all of these terms.  A nice summary is found in CCC616 that says “It is love ‘to the end’ that confers on Christ’s sacrifice its value as redemption and reparation, as atonement and satisfaction.  He knew and loved us all when he offered his life.  Now ‘the love of Christ controls us, because we are convinced that one has died for all; therefore all have died.’ No man, not even the holiest, was ever able to take on himself the sins of all men and offer himself as a sacrifice for all.  The existence in Christ of the divine person of the Son, who at once surpasses and embraces all human persons, and constitutes himself as the Head of all mankind, makes possible his redemptive sacrifice for all.”

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