Jonathan Edwards Week – Edwards and Atonement

What does Jonathan Edwards believe when it comes to atonement? Well, its nothing terribly interesting – he takes the traditional reformed line when it comes to this doctrine. However – in one of his miscellanies he says something that has been used by other theologians (John McLeod Campbell initially) to argue that he might have theoretically been open to a different theory of atonement. Lets take a look at that miscellany real quick:

oo. Satisfaction. Now some may say why could not God, of his mercy, pardon the injury only upon repentance without other satisfaction, without doing himself any hurt? I also ask, why could he not of his mercy pardon without repentance? For the same reason he could not pardon without repentance without satisfaction. For all repentance man is capable of is no repentance at all; or which is the same thing, it is as little as none in comparison of the greatness of the injury, for it cannot bear any proportion to it. Now I am sure, it would be as dishonorable for God to pardon the injury upon repentance that did not bear the least proportion to the injury, as for him to pardon without any repentance at all. Wherefore, we are not forgiven now because our repentance makes any satisfaction, but because therby we reject the sin and receive the satisfaction already made.

Here he starts with the same sort of question Abelard asks in his commentary to the Romans – why could God just not forgive without satisfaction being made? It seems obvious to me that the his answer to the question is basically – “because that makes no sense whatsoever.” You see this in his second question – why could God not forgive without repentance? The answer is supposed to be obvious – he can’t – just like God cannot pardon when there is repentance without satisfaction. Why can’t God pardon without repentance without satisfaction? Because our repentance is not enough. Our repentance is too small in comparison to the offense we have committed at all. Therefore satisfaction needs to be made.

This is where other theologians come in – McLeod specifically. McLeod picks up on this supposed insight – that our repentance is not enough to merit forgiveness – and he says that if there were a sort of repentance that was equal or greater to the offense committed against God then that would merit satisfaction. McLeod goes on to argue that Christ – our substitute – makes exactly this sort of repentance. Christ repents perfectly on our behalf.

There are a few problems with this though…

1)How can Christ repent for someone else? Repentance can only happen at the hands of the perpetrator. This however is not actually as big of a problem as one might think. If Christ and the elect actually have an organic – real – and not merely legal union – then Christ’s repentance really is his peoples repentance and Christ can really repent for them because they are one metaphysical entity.

However there is a bigger problem…

2)At what point does Christ actually repent? Where do we see Christ’s vicarious repentance in scripture at any point? We don’t. Aside from the fact that vicarious repentance would have been an impossibility in Edwards’ mind, I think the lack of a scriptural basis for this is this particular theory’s fatal flaw.


Published by cwoznicki

Chris Woznicki is an Assistant Adjunct Professor of Theology at Fuller Theological Seminary. He works as the regional training associate for the Los Angeles region of Young Life.

2 thoughts on “Jonathan Edwards Week – Edwards and Atonement

  1. Wasn’t Jesus baptism a vicarious repentance on our behalf? He had no need to repent and yet he underwent john’s baptism, In our skin and for us.

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