Transaction or Sacrament?

Photo by Mario Marti

Tuesday with Michael Spencer
from 2007

Debates about “transactionalism” have often been debates about the atonement. The Bible places the death of Jesus as the apex of a scriptural thread of sacrificial theology. Sacrifice is plainly transactional. No one can deny that, and I wouldn’t try. But is the death of Jesus a transaction, or is it a sacrament that allows us to think about the unthinkable and unknowable in a way that can be understood humanly and temporally?

Classical theologians argued about who received the “payoff” from Christ’s death on our behalf. Satan? The Father? When did the payment go into effect? Was the transaction between members of the Godhead, or does human faith and/or obedience effect the transaction? Did the atonement’s benefits extend to those who lived before it happened? Transactional questions are endless, leaving some persons weary and wondering, “Is this what the death of Jesus is all about? How many sins can be forgiven by how much blood? The calculation of worth?”

Such debates assume a temporal and transactional understanding of the atonement. They are built on the idea that, at some point in time, our reconciliation in Christ did not exist, but was in the future. Some Christians writers in the early history of the church, giving up the temporal aspect of the atonement, wondered if the “transactional” language of sacrifice was obscuring eternal truths about God. Was the death of Jesus a temporal sacrifice, and therefore a transaction, or was it something else? If God were dealing with another race in another galaxy, would the death of Jesus be the same, for the same reasons? Or could it be different because, in actuality, that death is a sacrament, and not a transaction at all.

Theologian Robert Capon has put forward an alternative to traditional ways of looking at the atonement, one that moves beyond the transactional language by introducing another familiar concept from Christian theology: The death of Jesus as a sacrament of God and the Gospel. This controversial proposal will upset some readers, but it has persuaded me to rethink not only the death of Jesus, but the reality of God as presented in Christ

By sacrament, Capon means a sign of reality. A sign that points to, and allows understanding of reality. The sacrament is not the totality of the reality, but participates in the reality. When a person interacts with a sacrament, he or she participates in the reality on the “other side” of the sacramental window.

Most Christians associate Baptism and the Lord’s Supper with sacraments. Capon says these are true sacraments of Christ. Christ is really present in these signs, but those participating in the sacrament are not “transacting business” with God, but are experiencing the grace of God that is always present for everyone. Those with faith perceive the meaning of a sacrament, and see the reality it presents, but the power of a sacrament is always true, no matter what the circumstance.

The “always present” aspect of the sacrament is the most controversial. Capon is saying that God’s forgiving grace is always present in Christ, always and for everyone who recognizes and believes it. Grace does not “appear” in the sacraments or in preaching and then vanish until the next transaction.

This sacramental understanding goes beyond just those signs mentioned in traditional theology. For Capon, all of reality, all of life is sacramental. The grace of God is part and parcel of creation, according to Capon, because Christ is always mediating the grace of God to His creation. We cannot escape the mediating love of God in Jesus unless we simply ignore it. Even then, Capon muses controversially, our escape from grace may prove to be futile.

Capon suggests that the cross, in fact the incarnation itself, are sacraments through which we see and experience the ever-present grace of God. Creation is a sacrament. All human life and experience is a sacrament. Jesus is the apex of sacramentalism. Once a Christian begins to think sacramentally, there is, in reality, no separation between existence and the love of God.

In this rejection of transactional language, Capon is not belittling the cross, but magnifying it as the epitome of the incarnational sacrament. While Capon does not believe a “transaction” occurred, he does believe the sacrificial- and transactional- imagery of the cross powerfully presents the grace of God in Christ, though it does not exhaust or limit that grace simply to the death of Jesus. Christ himself- God the Son- is the eternal sacrament and the very substance of the grace God extends to us in the Gospel.

I’m quite drawn to this as one who has grown weary of the debate between “limited” and “universal” atonement. Was the atonement effectual for a predetermned number? Or potentially for all, actually for none? Capon says the death of Jesus shows that God, in Christ, reconciles the world, i.e. creation, to himself. At his cost; in Chirst, effectually and graciously. Lift that up and believe it.

By suggesting that the atonement is not a temporal transaction, and that we do not conduct transactions with God as much as we come to realize what God gives us in the Gospel, Capon has helped me greatly. In the “altar call” of my evangelical Baptist tradition, transactions with God were proclaimed right and left, and sincere seekers believed that participation in the “sacrament” of coming to the front of church to pray would move God to do what we would not do otherwise. I now believe this is a profound misunderstanding of the God of the Bible, dishonoring the greatness of the Gospel of Jesus victorious, ever-present love for me.

I now believe the “Gospel” has been there since before the foundation of the world. It is the “eternal Gospel.” It is the Gospel of the Son who eternally offers himself up to God as our mediator. The cross of Jesus is the great “window” through which we see this reality, but all of Christ’s incarnation, and all of the church’s sacraments that point to him are also “windows” through which we see the eternal, unchanging kingdom of our Lord Jesus Christ.

• • •

Photo by Mario Marti at Flickr. Creative Commons License

14 thoughts on “Transaction or Sacrament?

  1. I know that Anselm’s “satisfaction” theory of atonement was exactly that idea – that God could not forgive sins without sufficient weregeld to compensate, or it would somehow damage his authority or impugn his honour or something. (Calvin later turned it into bearing punishment.) I’ve no idea why it failed to catch on in the east – my understanding is that in fact the eastern Orthodox churches were largely unaware of it more than anything, and then pretty horrified by it when they understood it.


  2. Condolences to you and your wife, Robert. I was out of town and only today returned to IM. May the Lord grant your sister-in-law a place with the righteous.



  3. maybe the ‘transaction’ thing of a sacrifice to make up for a transgression came from the Anglo-Saxon ‘weregild’ system of ‘justice’


    in Eastern Christianity, the Incarnation is much more the focus of salvation than in our Western Christianity, but the Eastern Christians didn’t have the ‘weregild’ tradition which was primarily Anglo-Saxon

    again (?)


  4. I am not at all sure “classical theologians” argued over whether Satan or God the Father received the “pay off” for Jesus’s death since as far as I am aware prior to Anselm nobody argued that either did, since the consensus was that it was God’s free gift to us, and we were the ones who got the “pay off”.
    I am also unsure that all, or indeed any, sacrifices are “transactional” in the sense of the quid pro quo of a commercial relationship, since that is exactly what, as I understand the word, calling something a “sacrifice” asserts that it isn’t. I do not “sacrifice” my money to the supermarket for my groceries because I am paying no more than what is due for what I have received, and all obligations are discharged. It is a, indeed arguably the, major theme of many of the prophets in the OT and pretty much the entire NT that an arrangement of God’s favour in return for services rendered in the form of offerings and observances is exactly what our relationship with God should not be.


  5. If a transaction is defined this way, as per Merriam-Webster, I would even say there is little transactional about Christ’s sacrifice when understood as gift: Christ made the sacrifice, and we receive the benefits of it — it’s a done deal. We may respond to that gift, but our response in no way affects its having been given to us, and the response is personal, not a transaction by which God/Christ benefits.


  6. Re: the soldiers or, say, firefighters sacrificing their lives to save others: The sacrifice is personal for them. In fact, a sacrifice cannot be made that isn’t personal, at least for one party, and even when the one who sacrifices does not know the beneficiary of their sacrifice. But in the case of God, who is personal and who knows all of us better than we know ourselves, the sacrifice is infinitely more personal.

    Also, a sacrifice is akin to a kind of gift: would you say the giving of a gift is transactional?


  7. –> “Sacrifice is plainly transactional.”

    I’d almost go one step further and say it’s PURELY transactional. It’s one person giving up something for the benefit of another. I’m not sure there’s “sacrifice” without a receiving party.

    –> “Sacrifice may have a transactional element, true, but it is more personal than it is transactional, and for that reason whatever transaction is involved is subsumed under the personal relation.”

    I’ll disagree a bit with that. There are many, many sacrifices that are quite impersonal. Think about soldiers fighting for our freedom: I don’t know them, they don’t know me, but their sacrifice is quite real. That was one aspect of “Saving Private Ryan” I liked so much: this unit of soldiers, fighting and dying, to go get some kid they didn’t know and save him from the war.


  8. Robert, people that believe in a sacramental system believe that Our Lord is the Source of the blessing. In the Eucharist, that is when Catholics see the Eucharist as ‘the Body of Christ’.

    in a way, this parallels the prophecy of St. John the Baptist who said of Our Lord, ‘Behold the Lamb of God’; and this ties into the ‘foretelling’ of the coming of Christ at the time of the first Passover, when each family cared for a little lamb, and it was slain and its blood put on the door posts and the lamb was then cooked and eaten completely to give the family the strength for the Exodus journey out of Egypt to the land God would show them.
    ‘sign’ and ‘reality’ . . . . all good and all blessing flows from God. There was a sign at the hospital where I worked during college: ‘We bandage the wound; God heals it”


  9. In a sacrament the sign and the reality it represents are the same. The sacrament both communicates the sign, and embodies the realization of what the sign stands for. Christ is the sacrament of God. But really, these matters are beyond my ability to plumb; how do I know what a sacrament is?!? I always end up back with my own theological thoughts and words, and as Capon wrote, “It’s inevitable, and quite harmless; but only as long as you remember that nothing you say is any better than you are, and you’re not so hot…”


  10. Robert, I think this section, from Michael, helped me to understand the post:

    “Capon suggests that the cross, in fact the incarnation itself, are sacraments through which we see and experience the ever-present grace of God. Creation is a sacrament. All human life and experience is a sacrament. Jesus is the apex of sacramentalism. Once a Christian begins to think sacramentally, there is, in reality, no separation between existence and the love of God.”

    Robert, in my tradition, there is a saying from the Book of Wisdom, this:

    “For You love all things that exist, and detest none of the things that You have made;
    for You would not have made anything if You had hated it.
    How would anything have endured, if You had not willed it? Or how would anything not called forth by You have been preserved? You spare all things, for they are Yours, O Lord, You who love the living.”

    I wonder if people who do not have the word ‘sacrament’ in their thinking could maybe understand it better if they got the idea of ‘the Vine and the branches’ . . . . that the branches draw life from the Vine, so to speak . . . . .
    like that poor woman who touched the hem of Our Lord’s garment, and was healed . . . . He said ‘I felt power go out from me’ . . . . the power to heal her wasn’t from the hem of His garment, no; it came ‘out of Him’ to her through the material hem that He was wearing


  11. Sacrifice is plainly transactional.

    I’m not sure what this statement means. Sacrifice may have a transactional element, true, but it is more personal than it is transactional, and for that reason whatever transaction is involved is subsumed under the personal relation. It is God’s love in Christ, which is realized in an utterly personal relation that Christian theology has called the Trinity, that causes, supports, and empowers Christ’s sacrifice for us and the world. Calling what happens in that sacrifice a transaction is an analogical way of describing and analyzing it, but when extended too far metaphorically, as it routinely has in theological speculation over the centuries, it breaks down sooner and yields less insight than metaphors of person and relation. “God so loved the world” says and means far more than “Jesus bought and paid for your salvation”.


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