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The governmental view of the atonement (also known as the moral government theory) is a doctrine in Christian theology concerning the meaning and effect of the death of Jesus Christ and has been traditionally taught in Arminian circles that draw primarily from the works of Hugo Grotius. The governmental theory teaches that Christ suffered for humankind so that God could forgive humans apart from punishment while still maintaining divine justice.
The governmental theory arose in opposition to Socinianism  . Grotius wrote Defensio fidei catholicae de satisfactione Christi, in which he utilized "governmental" semantics drawn from his training in law and his general view of God as moral governor (ruler) of the universe. Grotius demonstrated that the atonement appeased God in the divine role as cosmic king and judge, and especially that God could not have simply overlooked sin as the Socinians claimed.
Despite its origin, Grotius' view is most often contrasted with that of the satisfaction theory formulated initially by St. Anselm, which is preferred by the Catholic Church, and developed further into the punishment theory held by most Calvinists. It can also be contrasted with the Christus Victor understanding preferred by most Eastern Orthodox Christians and many Lutherans. The satisfaction and punishment theories argue that Jesus received the full and actual punishment due to men and women while the Christus Victor view emphasises the liberation of humanity from the bondage of sin, death, and the Devil.
By contrast, governmental theory holds that Christ's suffering was a real and meaningful substitute for the punishment humans deserve, but it did not consist of Christ receiving the exact punishment due to sinful people. Instead, God publicly demonstrated his displeasure with sin through the suffering of his own sinless and obedient Son as a propitiation. Christ's suffering and death served as a substitute for the punishment humans might have received. On this basis, God is able to extend forgiveness while maintaining divine order, having demonstrated the seriousness of sin and thus allowing his wrath to "pass over".
A second feature of governmental theory is the scope of the atonement. According to governmental theory, Christ's death applies not to individuals directly, but to the Church as a corporate entity. Individuals then partake of the atonement by being attached to the Church through faith. It is also, therefore, possible to fall out of the scope of atonement through loss of faith. This view contrasts especially with the punishment theory, which holds that Jesus' death served as a substitute for the sins of individuals directly (see also limited atonement).
This view has prospered in traditional Methodism and among most who follow the teachings of John Wesley, and has been detailed by, among others, 19th century Methodist theologian John Miley in his Atonement in Christ and his Systematic Theology (ISBN 0-943575-09-5) and 20th century Church of the Nazarene theologian J. Kenneth Grider in his 1994 book A Wesleyan-Holiness Theology (ISBN 0-8341-1512-3). However, according to Roger Olson, it is incorrectly associated with the governmental theory that all Arminians did agree with that view because as he states: "Arminius did not believe it, neither did Wesley nor some of his nineteenth-century followers. Nor do all contemporary Arminians" (Arminian Theology: Myths and Realities, p. 224).
“The very idea of atonement is something done, which, to the purpose of supporting the authority of the law, the dignity and consistency of divine government and conduct, is fully equivalent to the curse of the law, and on the ground of which, the sinner may be saved from that curse…a less degree or duration of suffering endured by Christ the Son of God, may, on account of the infinite dignity and glory of his person, be an equivalent to the curse of the law endured by the sinner.” Jonathon Edwards Jr. (The Necessity of the Atonement, p. 7)
“His sufferings were in the place of the penalty, not the penalty itself. They were a substitution for the penalty, and were, therefore, strictly and properly vicarious, and were not the identical sufferings which the sinner would himself have endured. There are some things in the penalty of the Law, which the Lord Jesus did not endure, and which a substitute or a vicarious victim could not endure. Remorse of conscience is a part of the inflicted penalty of the Law, and will be a vital part of the sufferings of the sinner in hell - but the Lord Jesus did not endure that. Eternity of sufferings is an essential part of the penalty of the Law - but the Lord Jesus did not suffer forever. Thus, there are numerous sorrows connected with the consciousness of personal guilt, which the Lord Jesus did not and cannot endure.” Albert Barnes (Commentary on Galatians 3:13)
"If free pardon is to be extended to penitent sinners, some great measure must be substituted for the punishment of sinners that will uphold the moral government of God at least equally as well as the pronounced consequences would have done." Gordon C. Olson (The Truth Shall Make You Free, p. 95)
“Atonement is, properly, an arrangement by which the literal infliction of the penalty due to sin may be avoided; it is something which may be substituted in the place of punishment. It is that which will answer the same end secured by the literal infliction of the penalty of the law… The atonement is the governmental provision for the forgiveness of sins, providing man meets the conditions of repentance and faith towards our Lord Jesus Christ.” Harry Conn (Four Trojan Horses, p. 80-81)
“The atonement is a governmental expedient to sustain law without the execution of its penalty to the sinner.” Charles G. Finney (The Oberlin Evangelist; July 30, 1856; On the Atonement, p. 2)
Variations of this view have also been espoused in the New Divinity school of thought (a stage of the New England Theology) by the followers of the 18th century Calvinist Jonathan Edwards, though it is debated if Edwards approved of this view himself, and by 19th century revival leader Charles Grandison Finney.
- Atonement (ransom view)
- Atonement (satisfaction view)
- Atonement (moral influence view)
- Penal substitution
- Substitutionary atonement
- Christus Victor
- Justification (theology)
- Concerning ... the Christian Doctrine of Satisfaction for Sin Edwards' treatise on the atonement, claimed by both Governmental and Punishment theorists.
- Governmental Atonement Articles by multiple authors
- The Governmental Theory of the Atonement by John Miley, arguing for the Moral Government theory
- Theory of Satisfaction by John Miley, arguing against the Satisfaction/Punishment view
- The Governmental Theory: An Expansion by J. Kenneth Grider
- Quotations about Jonathan Edwards' view of the atonement
- The Atonement by Albert Barnes, arguing for the Moral Government theory
- Historical Opinions as to the Nature of Christ's Atoning Death by Gordon Olson, arguing for the Moral Government theory
- The Governmental Theory from Charles Hodge's Systematic Theology, which gives a concise exposition of atonement theories in general and, in this passage, argues against the Governmental theory.
- Modern Views of the Atonement An overview together with an argument for the punishment theory.
- The Atonement in Evangelical Thought, Part IV Critique of Reformed Baptist Andrew Fuller's governmental view; asserts distinction between Edwards and Grotius, with references.da:Forsoning (forvaltningssynet)