XXXI — OF THE ONE OBLATION OF CHRIST FINISHED UPON THE CROSS
The Offering of Christ once made is that perfect redemption, propitiation, and satisfaction, for all the sins of the whole world, both original and actual; and there is none other satisfaction for sin, but that alone. Wherefore the sacrifices of Masses, in the which it was commonly said, that the Priest did offer Christ for the quick and the dead, to have remission of pain or guilt, were blasphemous fables, and dangerous deceits.
Article 31 is the last of the articles dealing with the sacraments (25-31). Yet the first sentence is so obviously related to the work of Christ and its soteriological significance that it almost feels like it belongs with the articles which deal with the doctrine of salvation through Christ alone (11-18). This is an example of the interrelated nature of Christian doctrine and the way the sacramental teaching of the church has the potential to undermine wider theological foundations.
The practices of the medieval church, and the conciliar endorsement they received at Trent in the years immediately preceding Cranmer’s composition of this article, are an apt example of this potential becoming a reality. The Roman church held—indeed, it continues to hold—that in the Mass, the substance of the bread and the wine changes to become the body and blood of Jesus Christ. As such, in the event of the Mass, the sacrifice Christ made is offered again to God and its benefits are received by those present. The Reformers rejected this teaching as both unbiblical and blasphemous. On the contrary, as Article 31 makes abundantly clear, the offering of Christ was made once and that unique event alone is the ground of a sinner’s salvation.
The notion of continually offering sacrifices for sins is established by God for the Israelites in the Old Testament. However, the author of Hebrews makes clear that Jesus’ sacrifice was unlike those made in the Levitical sacrificial system. ‘He does not need to offer sacrifices day after day, first for his own sins, and then for the sins of the people. He sacrificed for their sins once for all when he offered himself’ (Hebrews 7:27). Jesus is now in heaven, but ‘he did not enter heaven to offer himself again and again… But he has appeared once and for all at the culmination of the ages to do away with sin by the sacrifice of himself’ (Hebrews 9:26-27).
In other words, Jesus fulfils the system of perpetual offerings in his unique sacrifice where he was both priest and victim. To suggest that he needs to be offered over and over again undermines the achievement of the cross.
WHAT DID THE CROSS ACHIEVE?
Article 31 describes Jesus’ offering as achieving ‘perfect redemption, propitiation, and satisfaction, for all the sins of the whole world, both original and actual.’ This succinct expression of deep theological truths could hardly be stated with more acuity. It makes clear three achievements of the cross.
1. Perfect Redemption picks up the biblical idea being bought out of slavery. An important aspect of this concept is that there has been a transfer of ownership. The Hebrews in Exodus once belonged to Pharaoh but, after crossing the Red Sea, God made clear that they were now his treasured possession (Exodus 19:5). So also Paul states that Christians were once slaves to sin but they have been set free from sin to be slaves to God which leads to holiness and results in eternal life (Romans 6:22, cf. John 8:31-36).
2. Propitiation refers to the appeasing of God’s wrath. In much that passes for theology these days, this concept has been repudiated. The truth that God is love is juxtaposed with the biblical testimony that God is angry at sin. Despite the offence it causes to modern sensibilities, both the Roman church and the Reformers were correct in their understanding that God is loving and angry at sin. Indeed, his wrath results from his love. The unloving thing would have been to be apathetic to the disastrous effects of sin. But the testimony of Scripture is that God, motivated by love and mercy, propitiates his own wrath against sinners, by the blood of Christ Jesus (Romans 3:25; 1 John 2:2).
3. Satisfaction is making clear that the just punishment that was borne by Christ for sin has been entirely exhausted. There is nothing left to pay. There is no need for further offerings such as those represented in the Roman Mass. Christ’s once-and-for-all offering of himself on the cross is all that is necessary (Hebrews 7-9).
Article 31 goes on to make clear that these achievements dealt with the problem of sin. Sin enslaved people who needed redemption. Sin caused God’s wrath which needed propitiation. And sin deserved punishment which needed satisfaction.
Christ did this ‘for all the sins of the whole world, both original and actual’. This phrase is pointing to the fact that because of who Christ is—God incarnate—one man’s act of obedience could make many righteous (Romans 5:19). There is no sin a Christian can commit that is not atoned for in Christ’s death. Furthermore, there is no Christian anywhere in the world whose sin is not atoned for in Christ’s death. It is utterly sufficient for all.
Unlike the opinion prevalent in contemporary society, Article 31 is frank about the reality, the pervasiveness, and the consequences of sin. At the same time, the point of the article is the unique and wonderful achievement of Christ in dealing with the problem of sin.
FREEDOM AND JOY IN CHRIST ALONE!
There are numerous applications from the doctrine articulated in Article 31. These include freedom from feelings of guilt that result from sin and rejoicing fervently at the achievement of Christ’s atoning work.
However, the article was written to combat the notion that something other than Christ’s death (the Mass) could offer remission of guilt and it is at this point we should heed the article’s teaching. We can easily fall into the trap of thinking that when we sin we need to do something to make up for it: we need to read our Bible more, we need to be more involved at church, or we need to give more to charity. These are all good things, but none of them removes the guilt of our sin. Christ’s death alone achieves this and as a result we are called to entrust ourselves to him alone.