Governmental theory of atonement

Governmental theory of atonement

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 [1] . 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's 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 emphasizes 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." This view is very similar to the satisfaction view and the penal substitution view, in that all three views see Christ as satisfying God's requirement for the punishment of sin. However, the government view disagrees with the other two in that it does not affirm that Christ endured the precise punishment that sin deserves or its equivalent; instead, Christ's suffering is seen as being simply an alternative to that punishment. In contrast, penal substitution holds that Christ endured the exact punishment, or the exact "worth" of punishment, that sin deserved; the satisfaction theory states that Christ paid back at least as much honor to God as sin took from Him). It is important to note, however, that these three views all acknowledge that God cannot freely forgive sins without any sort of punishment or satisfaction being exacted. By contrast, the Eastern Orthodox view, which the proponents of that view maintain was also held in the early Church, states that Christ died not to fulfill God's requirements or to meet His needs or demands, but to cleanse humanity, restore the Image of God in humankind, and defeat the power of death over humans from within.[1]


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. Under this view, it is, therefore, possible to fall out of the scope of atonement through loss of faith, a consequence which contrasts clearly with the punishment theory, which holds that Jesus's death served as a substitute for the sins of individuals directly (see also limited atonement). And if Christ died for specific individuals and paid the price for their sins, then it may be argued that God would be unjust to punish them even if they did not come to faith. This would lead to the conclusion that those for whom Christ died are predestined unconditionally to life. This means that in Arminianism, there is no difficulty in reconciling the potential scope with the actual scope of the atonement. But if Christ's death is applied to those who are joined into the Church (or into Christ), and not to individuals directly, then this issue does not arise. More specifically, if Christ did not make a one-to-one substitution, but a general substitution, the issue does not arise. It would also not arise if Christ's substitution was considered to be infinite, so that God could apply the substitution to an arbitrary number of individuals and their sins.


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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 incorrect to assert that all Arminians agree with this 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.” Jonathan 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, possibly by Edwards himself (although this is debated)[2] and by 19th century revival leader Charles Grandison Finney.

Scriptural Evidence

Matthew 20:28

Mark 10:45

Romans 5:12 - 21

1 Corinthians 6:19 - 20, 15:28

Galatians 3:13

Philippians 1:29 - 30

Colossians 1:24

1 Timothy 2:5 - 6

Hebrews 9:15

See also


  1. ^ John S. Romanides, The Ancestral Sin, Zephyr Publishing, Ridgewood, NJ, 1998.
  2. ^ For: Allen C Guelzo, Edwards on the Will (Wesleyan University Press, 1989), pp. 135: ' is plain that Edwards had no hesitation about putting his imprimatur upon the New Divinity doctrine of the atonement [i.e. the governmental theory]; to the contrary, he pledged his own reputation on its appearance'. Against: Mark A Noll, 'New England Theology' in Walter A. Elwell (ed.) Evangelical dictionary of theology (Baker Academic, 2001): 'Edwards, by contrast, had maintained the traditional view that the death of Christ was necessary to take away God's anger at sin'. Middle view: The American Presbyterian Church, 'The Governmental Theory of the Atonement': 'Generally, Edwards is acknowledged as the father of this [the governmental] theory, as developed and held in New England, without having held it personally. That is, it is recognized that this theory constitutes a logical development of his theological speculations, but that Edwards was too orthodox to pursue them to such heretical conclusions, although his disciples, being more consistent, generally did so.'; Edwards A. Park, The Atonement (Boston: Gongregational Board of Publication, 1859), p. ix: 'the Governmental theory ... is called " Edwardean," partly from the fact that certain germs of it are found in the writings of the elder Edwards...'

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