The Governmental theory of the atonement (also known as the moral government theory) maintains that Christ was not punished on behalf of the human race. Instead, God publicly demonstrated his displeasure with sin by punishing his own sinless and obedient Son as a propitiation. Because Christ's suffering and death served as a substitute for the punishment humans might have received, God is able to extend forgiveness while maintaining divine order, having demonstrated the seriousness of sin and thus appeasing his wrath.
This [governmental atonement] view holds that Christ by His death actually paid the penalty for no man's sin. What His death did was to demonstrate what their sins deserved at the hand of the just Governor and Judge of the universe, and permits God justly to forgive men if on other grounds, such as their faith, their repentance, their works, and their perseverance, they meet His demand. ... But this is just to eviscerate the Savior's work of all its intrinsic saving worth and to replace the Christosoteric vision of Scripture with the autosoteric vision of Pelagianism.—Robert Reymond , A New Systematic Theology of the Christian Faith (Thomas Nelson, 1998), p. 80
This view of the atonement was developed by Hugo Grotius (1583-1645) in his writing against the Socininans expounded in "Defensio Fidei Catholicae de Satisfactione Christi adversus F. Socinum (1636). Grotius, a theological Arminian, utilized "governmental" semantics due to his training in law and his general view of God as moral governor (ruler) of the universe. Grotius sought to demonstrate that the atonement appeased God in the divine role as cosmic king and judge.
This view is contrasted with that of the Satisfaction theory formulated by Anselm (1033-1109), and the subsequent Penal substitution theory held by the Reformers which argues that Jesus received the actual punishment due to men and women.
Governmental Atonement became the prominent view in Arminianism and has prospered in traditional Methodism where it has been detailed by 19th century Methodist theologian John Miley in his Atonement in Christ and his Systematic Theology (ISBN 0943575095) and more recently by Nazarene theologian J. Kenneth Grider in his 1994 book A Wesleyan-Holiness Theology (ISBN 0834115123).
Additional details of the Governmental Theory
1. God is holy and righteous and has established laws in his moral government. Sin is the violation of those laws. The dominant attribute of God in this theory, however, is love.
- "God loves the human race. Although he has the right to punish it for its sin, it is not necessary or mandatory that he do so. He can forgive sin and absolve humans of guilt". He has chosen to [forgive sin] in such a way that it manifests at once both his clemency and severity. God can forgive sin, but he also takes into consideration the interests of his moral government. 'It is possible for God to relax the law so that he need not exact a specific punishment or penalty for each violation.'" (1)
2. Christ's death served as a substitute for punishment.
- It was in the best interests of humankind for Christ to die. Forgiveness of their sins, if too freely given, would have resulted in undermining the law's authority and effectiveness. It was necessary, therefore, to have an atonement that would provide grounds for forgiveness and simultaneously retain the structure of moral government. Christ's death served to accomplish both ends.
- Christ's death was a substitute for a penalty, not "an actual penalty inflicted on him as a substitute for the penalty that should have attached to the breaking of the law by individual sinners."
- God demonstrated through Christ's death "what God's justice will require us to suffer if we continue to sin."
- It demonstrates what will occur if humans continue to sin against God's law. "The spectacle of the sufferings Christ bore is enough to deter us from sin." (2)
3. If humans will turn from sin, God will forgive them and preserve His moral government.
- "Because of Christ's death, then, it is possible for God to forgive sins without a breakdown of the moral fiber of the universe." (3)
4. "The death of Christ was not a punishment; on the contrary, it made punishment unnecessary."
- God does not inflict punishment as a matter of strict retribution. Sin is not punished simply because it deserves to be, but because of the demands of moral government. The point of punishment is not retribution, but deterrence of further commission of sins, either by the one punished or by third parties who have observed the punishment. Sin is deserving of punishment and God would not be unjust to apply the penalty for sin in every case. But punishment need not be applied in every case nor to the fullest extent. (4)
5. A major presupposition of this view is that a vicarious penal substitution is impossible (although supporting penal substitution, see Leviticus 16, Isaiah 53:4-6, 8, 11-12, Matthew 20:28, John 1:29, 2 Corinthians 5:21, Galatians 3:13-14, Colossians 2:13-14, Hebrews 1:3, 9:11-15, 27-28, 10:1-18, 1 Peter 2:24, 3:18, 1 John 2:1-2, Revelation 5:9-10).
- No penalty could be attached or transferred to Christ, for punishment cannot be transferred from one person to another. Punishment is personal to the individual. If it could be transferred, the connection between sin and guilt would be severed. Christ's suffering, then, was not a vicarious bearing of our punishment, but a demonstration of God's hatred of sin, a demonstration intended to induce in us a horror of sin. As we turn from sin, we can be forgiven. Thus, even in the absence of punishment, justice and morality are maintained.
- The death was a real offering made by Christ to God. By this act God was once and for all made able to deal mercifully with humanity. The atonement had an impact on God. But in the main the governmental theory is a subjective theory of the atonement "the chief impact was on human beings. The purpose of Christ's death was not to satisfy the demands of God's just nature so that he might be enabled to do what he otherwise could not have done, namely, forgive sins. Rather, Christ's death enabled God to forgive sins or remit punishment in a way that would not have unfavorable consequences or adverse effects on humans. Christ's suffering serves as a deterrent to sin by impressing on us the gravity of sin. As we turn from sin, we can be forgiven. (5)
- This view of the atonement denies that Christ was a penal substitute and that he died in the sinners place to atone for sins and satisfy divine justice on behalf of the elect. Rather it severs the direct covenantal link between the believer's salvation and Christ as his substitute. In its place it postulates that God arbitrarily forgives man's sins without reference to the work of Christ satisfying divine justice, and that, to preserve his status as Moral Governor of the Universe he made a public demonstration of his displeasure with sin by punishing it in his own Son, Jesus Christ. How it can pretend to uphold God's moral government by having the Son punished without having our sins imputed to him is somewhat inexplicable.
- The governmental theory redefines the significance of the cross: rather than emphasizing what Christ objectively accomplished there, proponents of this view must define the cross in terms of how it can subjectively change the human heart.
- Since Christ's death in this view serves as a moral example, salvation is defined in terms of what the sinner must do leading to perfectionism, moralism, or other works-based forms of religion.
- This view fails to recognise the substitutionary motif in Christ's death as revealed in Matthew 20:28, 26:28; John 10:14-15; 2 Corinthians 5:21 and Ephesians 5:25.
- This theory fails to explain the reason for choosing a sinless person to demonstrate God's desire to uphold the law. Why not put to death the worst of all sinners? Why Christ and not Barabbas?".
- This view creates an injustice within the character of God, who rewards, and not punishes perfect righteousness (Jesus Christ). Thus, God would have been unjust in punishing His Son, in whom was nothing deserving such, without taking upon Himself the sins of the elect.
- Finally, this theory does not take into account the depravity of mankind -- it assumes a mere example will be sufficient to enable man to perform a law-abiding way of living.
1. Millard Erickson, Christian Theology, 2nd Edition, (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2002), 806-7.
2. Ibid. 807.
3. Ibid. 807.
4. Ibid. 808.
5. Ibid. 808-809.
- The Governmental Theory of the Atonement by John Miley
- The Governmental Theory: An Expansion by J. Kenneth Grider
- God's Moral Government by Charles Finney
- Lectures on the Moral Government of God Nathaniel W. Taylor