Governmental theory of atonement
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|Types of Atonement:
Unlimited (All other Christianity)
Theories of Atonement:
Christus Victor (Patristic)
Moral influence (Patristic)
Penal substitution (Scholastic - Reformed)
Satisfaction (Scholastic - Anselmian)
Substitutionary (Scholastic - Reformation)
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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 humanity 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 (Defense of the universal faith on the satisfaction rendered by Christ), 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 penal substitution 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 view argues that Christ made satisfaction to the Father for the sins of humanity by His sacrifice on the Cross, penal substitution theory argues 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." 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 paid its sacrificial 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 made the satisfaction owed by humans to God due to sin through the merit of His propitiatory sacrifice). 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. In the words of Gustaf Aulen, the satisfaction view (and, by extension, the governmental and penal views) maintain the order of justice while interrupting the continuity of the divine work, while the Christus Victor view interrupts the order of justice while maintaining the continuity of the divine work.He also draws a distinction between Christus Victor, wherein the atonement is "from above", from the side of God, and other views, where the work is offered up from the side of man.
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 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.
William Booth said, “The Scriptures teach that Christ on the Cross, in virtue of the dignity of His person, the voluntariness of His offering, and the greatness of His sufferings did make and present, on behalf of poor sinners, a sacrifice of infinite value. And that this sacrifice, by showing all worlds the terrible evil of the sin humanity had committed, and the importance of the law humanity had broken, did make it possible for the love and pity of God to flow out to humanity by forgiving all those who repent and return in confidence to Him, enabling Him to be just and yet the justifier of him that believeth in Jesus.” The Doctrines of the Salvation Army, 1892 Edition, Section 6.
William Booth said, “You will sometimes hear people talk about the finished work of Christ. What is meant by it?... That Christ, when He died on the Cross, put Himself in the place of the sinner and bore the exact amount of punishment which he deserved, thus actually paying the debt that the sinner owed to Divine justice. And that if the sinner will only believe this, he is for ever free from the claims of the law, and can never be brought into condemnation either here or hereafter…Is this so?... We think not…. If it were so, if Christ did literally pay the sinner's debt, in this sense, God cannot justly demand payment twice and consequently no one will be sent to Hell, and all will be saved… If a debt is paid, it is paid, and the sinner's unbelief does not in any way affect the fact. If I owe a woman £5, and some one pays it for me, my creditors cannot sue me for the sum. I am all right, seeing the debt is paid, whether I believe it or no… Any one can see that if all the sinner's debt has been paid, all the sin of unbelief must have been paid also, otherwise how can his past unbelief be forgiven, and if all his unbelief has been atoned or paid for, how can he be sent to hell for that, any more than any other sin?” The Doctrines of the Salvation Army, 1892 Edition, Section 6.
William Booth said, "Now, God's heart yearned over man in his transgression, prompting Him to desire man's deliverance from the consequences of that transgression. How was this deliverance to be effected? Something must be done which would make a similar impression upon the mind of man as to the importance of keeping the Law and the evil of breaking it as the infliction of the penalty due would have done; and which would at the same time awaken in him a sense of the shame and guilt of his transgression, and a desire to cease from his disobedience. This was done by the life and death of Jesus Christ, so that now every sinner who will, on God's terms, accept the deliverance provided for him, may go free. ” The Atonement of Jesus Christ, The Staff Review of 1922.
Catherine Booth said, “The Christ of God offered Himself as a sacrifice for the sin of man. The Divine law had been broken; the interests of the universe demanded that its righteousness should be maintained, therefore its penalty must be endured by the transgressor, or, in lieu of this, such compensation must be rendered as would satisfy the claims of justice, and render it expedient for God to pardon the guilty… Christ made such a sacrifice as rendered it possible for God to be just, and yet to pardon the sinner.” Popular Christianity
Catherine Booth said, “His sacrifice is never represented in the Bible as having purchased or begotten the love of the Father, but only as having opened up a channel through which the love could flow out to His rebellious and prodigal children. The doctrine of the New Testament on this point is not that ‘God so hated the world that His own Son was compelled to die in order to appease His vengeance,’ as we fear has been too often represented, but that ‘God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son.” Popular Christianity
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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) and by 19th century revival leader Charles Grandison Finney.
Jonathon Edwards Jr. Said, “God could not have been just in justifying the believer, had not Christ been made a propitiation...If his death were not necessary, he died in vain…if it had been possible that the designs of God in the salvation of sinners should be accomplished without the death of Christ, Christ’s prayer, in this instance, would have been answered, and he would have been exempted from death. And since he was not exempted, we have clear evidence that his death was a matter of absolute necessity…Why is an atonement necessary in order to pardon the sinner? I answer, it is necessary on the same ground, and for the same reasons, as punishment would have been necessary, if there had been no atonement made. The ground of both is the same. The question then comes to this: Why would it have been necessary, if no atonement had been made, that punishment should be inflicted on the transgressors of the divine law? This, I suppose, would have been necessary, to maintain the authority of the divine law. If that be not maintained, but the law fall into contempt, the contempt will fall equally on the legislator himself; his authority will be despised and his government weakened. And as the contempt shall increase, which may be expected to increase, in proportion to the neglect of executing the law, the divine government will approach nearer and nearer dissolution, till at length it will be totally annihilated.” The Governmental View of the Atonement, p. 247, published by Biblical Truth Resources, a ministry of Open Air Outreach.
Jonathon Edwards Jr. said, “The atonement is the substitute for the punishment threatened in the law; and was designed to answer the same ends of supporting the authority of the law, the dignity of the divine moral government, and the consistency of the divine conduct in legislation and execution. By the atonement it appears that God is determined that his law shall be supported; that it shall not be despised or transgressed with impunity; and that it is an evil and a bitter thing to sin against God. The very idea of an atonement or satisfaction for sin, is something which, to the purposes of supporting the authority of the divine law, and the dignity and consistency of the divine government, is equivalent to the punishment of the sinner, according to the literal threatening of the law. That which answers these purposes being done, whatever it be, atonement is made, and the way is prepared for the dispensation of pardon. In any such case, God can be just and yet the justifier of the sinner.” The Governmental View of the Atonement, p. 251, published by Biblical Truth Resources, a ministry of Open Air Outreach.
Jonathon Edwards Jr. said, “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.” (The Necessity of the Atonement, p. 7)
Jonathon Edwards Jr. said, “Retributive justice, therefore, is not at all satisfied by the death of Christ. But the general justice to the Deity and to the universe is satisfied. That is done by the death of Christ which supports the authority of the law, and renders it consistent with the glory of God, and the good of the whole system, to pardon the sinner.” (Inferences and Reflections on Atonement, p. 8)
Jonathon Edwards Jr. said, “If a third person pay a debt, there would be no grace exercised by the creditor in the discharging of the debtor; yet when a third person atones for a crime, by suffering in the stead of a criminal, there is entire grace in the discharge of the criminal, and retributive justice still allows him to be punished in his own person.” (Grace Consistent with Atonement, p. 7)
Jonathon Edwards Jr. said, “If our forgiveness be purchased, and the price of it be already paid, it seems to be a matter of debt, and not of grace.” (The Necessity of the Atonement, p. 1)
Jonathon Edwards Jr. said, “If the atonement of Christ be considered as the payment of a debt, the release of the sinner seems not to be an act of grace, although the payment be made by Christ, and not by the sinner personally. Suppose any one of you, my auditors, owes a certain sum; he goes and pays the full sum himself personally. Doubtless all will agree, that the creditor, in this case, when he gives up the obligation, performs a mere act of justice, in which there is no grace at all….this…places the whole grace of the gospel in providing the Savior, not in the pardon of sin.” (Grace Consistent with Atonement, p. 2)
Jonathon Edwards Jr. said, “If Christ have, in the proper sense of the words, paid the debt which we owed to God, whether by a delegation from us or not; there can be no more grace in our discharge, than if we had paid it ourselves. But the fact is, that Christ has not, in the literal and proper sense, paid the debt for us…Payment of debt equally precludes grace, when made by a third person, as when made by the debtor himself…Grace is ever so opposed to justice, that they mutually limit each other. Wherever grace begins, justice ends; and wherever justice begins, grace ends.” (Grace Consistent with Atonement, p. 3-4, 6)
Scriptures commonly cited as evidence 
- Matthew 20:28
- Mark 10:45
- Romans 3:24-26
- 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
- Hebrews 9:22
See also 
- Atonement in Christianity
- Atonement (ransom view)
- Atonement (satisfaction view)
- Atonement (moral influence view)
- Penal substitution
- Substitutionary atonement
- Christus Victor
- Justification (theology)
- John S. Romanides, The Ancestral Sin, Zephyr Publishing, Ridgewood, NJ, 1998.
- "Christus victor avoids the splitting of the justice of God from the mercy of God as does Anselmian [sic] atonement..."
- Christus Victor: An Historical Study of the Three Main Types of the Atonement.
- For: Allen C Guelzo, Edwards on the Will (Wesleyan University Press, 1989), pp. 135: '...it 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...'