Rebecca Stark is the author of The Good Portion: God, the second title in The Good Portion series, a series written to encourage women to immerse themselves in the depths of Christian doctrine.

The Good Portion — God explores what Scripture teaches about God in hopes that readers will see his perfection, worth, magnificence, and beauty as they study his triune nature, infinite attributes, and wondrous works. 

Rebecca also blogs at Out of the Ordinary.


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Theological Term of the Week

governmental theory of the atonement
The view of the atonement that maintains that the death of Christ does not strictly satisfy God’s justice, since God can relax the claims of the law as he pleases; he can also accept something less than perfect obedience (like faith, for instance, or imperfect obedience) as the basis for forgiveness of sin. The primary purpose of Christ’s death, then, is to show how abhorrent sin is in order to deter people from sinning so that moral order can be maintained in the world.

  • From J. Kenneth Grider, a proponent of a governmental theory of the atonement, on what it does not (and cannot) include

    The Governmental theory can not incorporate into itself the main elements of two major Atonement theories: the payment of a debt (Satisfaction) and Christ’s being punished (Punishment).

    Whereas Calvinists teach boldly that Christ paid the penalty for us-that He took our punishment-and believe their view to be biblical, it is altogether opposed to the teaching of Scripture. Neither the Hebrew Old Testament nor the Greek New Testament ever teach this view. The NIV, translated by Calvinists in the main, renders the Hebrew musar in Isa. 53:5 with “punishment,” which is unusual. The KJV, even though translated by 54 Calvinists, does not once use any form of the English word for “punishment” to describe what happened to Christ. Always the word is “suffering” or certain synonyms of that word. Scripture teaches that Christ suffered for us, not that He was punished for us. Three versions state 28 times that Christ suffered for us: the KAVA [1] , the NASB [2], and the NIV [3] ; and the RSV says it 27 times. [4]

    The reason Scripture teaches that Christ suffered for us in stead of being punished is in part, as mentioned earlier, because He was sinless and therefore guiltless. It is in part also because God the Father really does forgive us——whereas, if He punished Christ instead of us, He could not then have forgiven us. In Christ’s substitutionary punishment, justice would have been satisfied, precluding forgiveness. One cannot both punish and for give, surely.

    The other aspect of Atonement theory that the Governmental theory cannot incorporate into itself is that Christ’s death paid a debt for us. Even as one cannot punish and then also forgive, one cannot accept payment for a debt and still forgive the debt. Scripture indeed says, “You are not your own; you were bought at a price” (1 Cor. 6:19-20). This no doubt means that we are bought with the price of Christ’s suffering, not the price of a debt being paid for us. Neither a human being nor God, surely, can accept payment for a debt and still forgive the debt. And forgiveness, sheer forgiveness, is unique to Christianity, of all the religions, and must be protected.

  • On the main elements of the governmental theory of the atonement, from Systematic Theology by Charles Hodge: 

    1. That in the forgiveness of sin God is to be regarded neither as an offended party, nor as a creditor, nor as a master, but as a moral governor. A creditor can remit the debt due to him at pleasure; a master may punish or not punish as he sees fit; but a ruler must act, not according to his feelings or caprice, but with a view to the best interests of those under his authority. Grotius says that the overlooking the distinctions above indicated is the fundamental error of the Socinians. …

    2. The end of punishment is the prevention of crime, or the preservation of order and the promotion of the best interests of the community. …

    3. As a good governor cannot allow sin to be committed with immunity, God cannot pardon the sins of men without some adequate exhibition of his displeasure, and of his determination to punish it. This was the design of the sufferings and death of Christ. God punished sin in Him as an example. This example was the more impressive on account of the dignity of Christ’s person, and therefore in view of his death, God can consistently with the best interests of his government remit the penalty of the law in the case of penitent believers.

    4. Punishment, Grotius defined as suffering inflicted on account of sin. It need not be imposed on account of the personal demerit of the sufferer; nor with the design of satisfying justice, in the ordinary and proper sense of that word. It was enough that it should be on account of sin. As the sufferings of Christ were caused by our sins, insomuch as they were designed to render their remission consistent with the interest of God’s moral government, they fall within this comprehensive definition of the word punishment. Grotius, therefore, could say that Christ suffered the punishment of our sins, as his sufferings were an example of what sin deserved.

    5. The essence of the atonement, therefore, according to Grotius consisted in this, that the sufferings and death of Christ were designed as an exhibition of God’s displeasure against sin. They were intended to teach that in the estimation of God sin deserves to be punished, and, therefore, that the impenitent cannot escape the penalty due to their offences.

  • From Systematic Theology by Louis Berkhof, six objections to the governmental theory of the atonement.  

    1. It clearly rests upon certain false principles. According to it the law is not an expression of the essential nature of God, but only of His arbitrary will, and is therefore subject to change; and the aim of the so-called penalty is not to satisfy justice, but only to deter men from future offenses against the law.  

    2. While it may be said to contain a true element, namely, that the penalty inflicted on Christ is also instrumental in securing the interests of the divine government, it makes the mistake of substituting for the main purpose of the atonement on which can, in the light of Scripture, only be regarded as a subordinate purpose.

    3. It gives an unworthy representation of God. He originally threatens man, in order to deter him from transgression, and does not execute the threatened sentence, but substitutes something else for it in the punishment inflicted on Christ. And now He again threatens those who do not accept Christ. But how is it possible to have any assurance that He will actually carry out His threat?

    4. It is also contrary to Scripture, which certainly represents the atonement of Christ as a necessary revelation of the righteousness of God, as an execution of the penalty of the law, as a sacrifice by which God is reconciled to the sinner, and as the meritorious cause of the salvation of sinners.

    5. …[I]t fails to explain how Old Testament saints were saved. If the punishment inflicted on Christ was merely for the purpose of deterring men from sin, it had no retroactive significance. How then were people saved under the old dispensation; and how was the moral government of God maintained at that time?

    6. Finally, this theory, too, fails on its own principle. A real execution of the penalty might make a profound impression on the sinner, and might act as a real deterrent, if man’s sinning or not sinning were, even in his natural state, merely contingent on the human will, which it is not; but such an impression would hardly be made by a mere sham exhibition of justice, designed to show God’s high regard for the law.

Learn more:

  1. Theopedia: Governmental Theory of the Atonement
  2. Sam Storms: Grotius and the Governmental Theory of the Atonement
  3. William Sasser: Erroneous Theories of the Atonement (pdf)
  4. J. Gresham Machen: The Bible and the Cross
  5. Kim Riddlebarger: No Ordinary Death: Jesus Christ, the Propitiation for Our Sins

Related terms:

Filed under Defective Theology.

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    Response: Worth a click
    Check these out: What kind of theologian are you? at Nathan Bingham's blog.

Reader Comments (2)

Dear Rebecca,
What a nice surprise to see that you have linked to one of my dear hubby's articles! I've been reading your blog for a couple of years and I always learn something from your posts, smile at your old family photos, and enjoy the stories about your family. Keep it up! Fondly, in Christ, Micki Riddlebarger

June 15, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterMicki Riddlebarger

Hi Micki,

What a surprise to have you stop by and comment. :)

I hope to start up the old photo posts again soon, but I need to get my scanner working.

June 15, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterrebecca

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