“Therefore the righteousness which is imputed to faith or to the believer out of pure grace is the obedience, suffering, and resurrection of Christ, since He has made satisfaction for us to the Law, and paid for [expiated] our sins.” (Solid Declaration, Article 3, par 14)
The Atonement is the answer to our inability to fulfill the law. St. Paul says in Romans 8:3, “What the law could not do in that it was weak through the flesh, God did by sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, on account of sin: He condemned sin in the flesh.” Some have argued that defining the atonement as Jesus fulfilling the law on behalf of sinners makes our salvation dependent upon the law.1 They argue that Jesus could not possibly have fulfilled all of the rules for all kinds of stations in life. After all, Jesus wasn’t married, and there were many vocations in life He didn’t hold. Jesus, they say, could only fulfill His own personal vocation, which was to carry out God’s mission to reveal His kingdom. They go so far as to say that Jesus was simply obligated as a man to fulfill the law for Himself and that He could not therefore do it on behalf of all sinners. So why did Jesus die? According to Gerhard Forde, the late ELCA theologian still popular among radical Lutherans today, Jesus’ death was not a sacrifice to appease God’s wrath at all. Instead, he taught that Christ’s death did no more than show the extent to which He was willing to go in order to reveal that God isn’t angry with sinners.2
However, those who make these arguments show themselves to misunderstand what the law is. It isn’t just a line-upon-line list of arbitrary rules for living (Is 28:10-13). Much more than that; it is God’s eternal will (Solid Declaration V, 17). The law requires us to love God above all things with our entire being. It requires us to love our neighbor as ourselves. Of course, this includes various duties in this life, depending on one’s particular station. Are you a husband, wife, father, mother, son, daughter, master, or worker? These are all situations in which God would have us love our neighbor. We call this the second table of the law. And yet, without the first table of the law (Love God above all things!), these situations are no more than that—situations. They remain random moral acts with no vision or purpose.
But Christ, the only begotten Son of the Father, fulfilled His earthly duties with a clear vision and purpose toward His Father. He came to do the will of his Father, entrusting Himself to His good judgment (1st Commandment), confessing His name and Word (2nd Commandment), and teaching what alone gives sinners spiritual rest (3rd Commandment). It was in fulfilling this first table of the law that Jesus also honored His parents and other authorities (4th Commandment) while saving and healing His neighbor (5th Commandment), blessing and defending the institution of marriage (6th Commandment), being generous with what He had (7th Commandment), defending the defenseless and speaking the truth (8th Commandment), becoming poor with nowhere to lay His head in order to bless even those who cursed him (9th Commandment), and urging people to do their duties with a good conscience (10th Commandment). Jesus didn’t need to meet the criteria as a butcher, a baker, or a candlestick maker in order to fulfill all the rules for living. He is the eternal Son of the Father who came to do His eternal will.
It isn’t legalism to insist that the law must be fulfilled. It is the comforting gospel that the law has in fact been fulfilled for us. As Jesus says, “I did not come to destroy the law and the prophets, but to fulfill them” (Matt 5:17). The law can’t give life. It was never meant to. And yet, this is not because there are too many rules and regulations to follow. It is rather because of our own sinful flesh, which is hostile to God. It all goes back to the 1st Commandment.
So when the law is rightly accusing you in your failure to honor those in authority (4th Commandment), to help your neighbor in his body and possessions (5th and 7th), to love your spouse (6th), to speak well of your neighbor (8th), and to be content with what God has given you (9th and 10th), this is all a witness that your flesh does not have God as its only treasure (1st), confession (2nd), and rest (3rd). They aren’t merely rules. They are God’s witness against you (Deut. 31:26). But Jesus, who is begotten of the Father with perfect and eternal love, fulfilled this law for you. Love is the fulfillment of the law (Rom 13:10). This love of Christ—this obedient fulfilling of the law—is the very basis of the righteousness your faith receives. You can therefore be confident in all your duties and learn from the law despite its accusations against you. It has been fulfilled in Christ. It must finally say Amen to the Atonement and to the righteousness your faith receives by God’s grace.
The teaching that Jesus fulfilled what we were obligated to fulfill, that he bore our sins and satisfied God’s wrath against us, is simply the gospel. Many Lutherans who imagine that they are rather smart claim that this is only one theory of the Atonement with another theory being that Jesus defeated the enemies of sin, death, and the devil. But it is either stupid, dishonest, or both to pit these two so called “theories” against one another. The truth of the gospel is that Jesus has silenced the devil’s accusations precisely by fulfilling the very law of God. This is all summed up in what the prophet records Jesus saying: “The Lord rebuke you, O Satan.” He rebukes Satan by appealing to the Lord, submitting to the Father, obeying His law, and thereby winning reconciliation for all sinners (Zech 3:1-5; cf. Jude 9).
You may be certain of God’s favor for you. You may be certain that sin, death, and the devil cannot claim you. This is all because Jesus is the propitiation (Atonement) for your sins. And not just for your sins, but for the sins of the whole world (1 John 2:2). This full and complete righteousness fills heaven and earth, and it is revealed for you in the gospel, which is the power of God to salvation for everyone who believes (Rom 1:16-17).
1 Such a caricature of Lutheran teaching of the atonement was espoused by the 20th Century Swedish Bishop, Aulén. See Christus Victor: An Historical Study of the Three Main Types of the Idea of the Atonement, trans. A. G. Hebert (Austin: Wise Path Books, 2016). Aulén’s line of argument has at times been accepted even by those who otherwise faithfully teach the vicarious satisfaction.
2 Gerhard Forde, “Caught in the Act: Reflections on the Work of Christ,” in A More Radical Gospel: Essays on Eschatology, Authority, Atonement, and Ecumenism, eds. Mark C. Mattes and Steven D. Paulson, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2004), 85-97.