Substitutionary or Governmental Atonement?

Debates surrounding Christ’s atonement existed since the church’s inception. There are those who hold that Christ’s work on the cross was primarily substitutionary—he took the place of sinners and incurred the wrath of God and subsequent punishment. On the other hand, there are those who hold that Christ’s work was primarily governmental—God used his death to provide an example concerning morality (199). Considering these two positions, Christ’s work on the cross primarily was substitutionary in nature, though not to the exclusion of governmental. In the former, Jesus substituted himself concerning salvation and, in the latter, his work demonstrated the severity of sin.[1] Both positions affirm that Christ suffered and that his death accomplished redemption. The question surrounds whether Jesus incurred the punishment due for sinners or not. The governmental theory of atonement does not communicate a powerful image of atonement—it is insufficient. Following Robert Peterson and Michael Williams, the governmental theory is insufficient because a) the Bible clearly teaches substitution and b) it does not provide a strong emphasis on the extent of Jesus’ work (199-201).


Old Testament Support

The support for substitutionary atonement contains Scriptures from both Old and New Testaments. Both testaments communicate that Jesus is the substitute for he has incurred the sin and subsequent punishment. One of the main supports is found in Isaiah 53. In Isaiah 53:5-6, Isaiah prophecies about the work of the Suffering Servant.[2] This passage contains two important statements: “upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed” (Isaiah 53:5, ESV) and “the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all” (Isaiah 53:6, ESV). Both of these statements communicate that God has taken the sin and punishment due for his people and placed it on Jesus. Thus, God can bestow life and blessings on his people because he has directed punishment upon another sacrifice (193). In the New Testament, Peter writes that “Christ also suffered once for sins … that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit” (1 Peter 3:18, ESV). Peter, like Isaiah, illustrates the double purpose of Jesus’ work: to take the punishment due for God’s people upon himself.  


Gospels Support

The support for governmental atonement is mostly relegated to the New Testament, specifically Christ’s words and ministry. Even then, the evidence for governmental theory is sparse. One of the main supports for this view is found in Mark 10:45.[3] James and John requested to sit at Jesus’ left and right hands (Mark 10:37). Jesus, using this as an opportunity to teach them about humility, cautions them about achieving notoriety (Mark 10:42-44). Instead, they should desire to humbly serve, just as “the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45, ESV). Proponents of governmental atonement will point to this passage and note that Jesus did not say he would take the punishment directed towards sinners. Clearly, he did not intend to incur the punishment due for humanity through his death, but to demonstrate God’s moral expectations.[4]


Canons of Dort Support

Based on how someone views justice will impact whether or not God required a substitute to take on the punishment due for sinner because of their grasp of sin’s severity. The Canons of Dort, in the second main point of doctrine, balances God’s justice and mercy (Canons of Dort 2.1). It is true that he is quick to show mercy through forgiveness, but he demands satisfaction for sins (Canons of Dort 2.2). Humanity is not able to offer this satisfaction because they are the ones who disobeyed God—sin nature prohibits satisfaction. Instead of offering forgiveness without satisfaction, God provided his Son to satisfy justice through his death on the cross (Canons of Dort 2.2).


Justice & Forgiveness

Justice and forgiveness are both necessary in salvation and substitutionary atonement is able to maintain the tension between God’s desire for justice and his ability to forgive sin. Simultaneously, God through Jesus’ death shows justice by punishing his Son instead of sinners (Galatians 3:13). As a result, those who come to God through Jesus, experience his forgiveness rather than his justice (Heidelberg Catechism 27). For those who hold to governmental theory, God exhibiting justice and forgiveness is not possible. If God showed justice, then he would have to punish sinners. If God showed forgiveness, then he would show mercy by not punishing them. God’s justice and forgiveness are unreconcilable in governmental theory. Thus, if both are needed, then substitutionary theory contains the answer.


Jesus’ Obedience in Substitution

Jesus took on God’s punishment “by his obedience and death” (WCF 11.3) Jesus’ obedience to the Law and God proved that he was sufficient to be the atonement. This obedience and perfection were necessary because imperfection is not able to atone for disobedience. In fact, this idea was the whole point behind the guilt offering in Leviticus 5-6 (193). Whether someone sinned intentionally or not, they showed that they were guilty of disobeying God’s law (Leviticus 5:17, 6:2). Therefore, a perfect substitute must be offered to the priest, who would sacrifice it and make atonement for sin (Leviticus 5:5, 18; 6:6, 7). A perfect sacrifice incurs the guilt of the sinner by being the substitute in death.

The necessity for Jesus’ obedience and death is negated in the governmental framework because God cannot both show justice and mercy to people—he must punish or forgive (200). Humanity is not able to show both justice and mercy to a guilty party in a court room—either the guilty party must suffer punishment as penalty or receive mercy and walk away. This dualism is not difficult for God because he can both be just and merciful to his people (Exodus 34:6-7).

The logical conclusion of the governmental view of atonement is that Jesus’ obedience and death are not necessary to incur the punishment because God can simply forgive sinners instead of punishing them or Jesus (201). While this picture attempts to reconcile God’s justice and mercy from a human perspective, it is a skewed picture for, as J. Kenneth Grider, a proponent of the Arminian position, writes, “[Jesus’] death is such that all will see that forgiveness is costly.”[5] Surely, forgiveness is costly, but this is not the whole picture of atonement.


Complements

However, governmental atonement offers a complementary picture that substitutionary atonement could not offer on its own. Whereas substitutionary atonement explains how God and humanity are now able to have relationship again, governmental atonement emphasizes how this atonement could be lived out. For example, for someone who holds to governmental theory, if a fellow Christian wrongs them, they may be more readily able to forgive because Jesus’ atonement shows how costly God’s forgiveness is.[6]


Danger of Government

The hidden danger in governmental theory, though, is that adherents may be more susceptible to even less adequate views of atonement—namely the moral influence theory. This theory posits that Jesus came to set forth an excellent moral example for humanity so that they could be enabled to better follow God’s law. While there are certainly implications of his example,[7] this view also only offers a partial picture of Jesus’ work on the cross and how it satisfied God. Governmental and moral influence theory are easily connected because they are both concerned with the application of Jesus’ work more than substitutionary theory.[8]


Soteriology and Atonement

The question remains why, given the inadequacies and partial story, Christians would still adhere to governmental theory of atonement. The answer to this question lies in the theological framework—namely, Calvinism or Arminianism—someone adopts concerning the extent of atonement. For the Calvinist soteriological system, substitutionary atonement fits nicely because they view God’s atonement as definite, that is, for the elect.[9] Therefore, since the elect are a fixed number (WCF 10.1), then there is no problem for God to be both just and show forgiveness only to a select few. In other words, he can show both because he will only show it to those who definitely will come to him for salvation. For the Arminian soteriological system, governmental atonement fits nicely because they view God’s atonement as indefinite, that is, for the world. Therefore, God cannot show punishment to Jesus because that would mean justice has been served. As a result, Jesus’ death shows the world how costly God’s forgiveness is (199). If anyone comes to God through Jesus, God shows mercy and then justice is satisfied.


Conclusion

Substitutionary atonement is the only theory of atonement that takes seriously sin, Jesus’ work, and God’s justice and forgiveness. While the practical outflow of this theory is not always readily available, it is readily supplemented by governmental theory. This theory cannot be the overarching narrative because it leaves God’s demand for justice in sin unresolved. If substitutionary atonement is not the main framework, then God’s justice is not satisfied because Jesus does not take on the punishment due to sinners. Atonement must be substitutionary because it comprehensively addresses the problem of sin.


Peterson, Robert, and Michael Williams. Why I Am Not an Arminian. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2004.


This post was originally an academic paper submitted to Dr. Robbie Griggs in Sin, Christ, and Salvation at Covenant Theological Seminary. It has been modified from its original version.


Endnotes

  1. L. L. Morris, “Atonement, Theories Of,” Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, Baker Reference Library (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 2001), 118.
  2. Though this passage does not explicitly mention Jesus, it is reasonable to conclude when considering the whole narrative of Scripture that he clearly fulfills this prophecy.
  3. It is important to note that proponents of substitutionary atonement would use this passage as support, too. However, the weight of this support comes down to a matter of emphasis concerning the content. Compare to Peterson and Williams, Why I Am Not an Arminian, 194–195.
  4. J. K. Grider, “Arminianism,” Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, Baker Reference Library (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 2001), 97–98.
  5. J. Kenneth Grider, A Wesleyan-Holiness Theology (Kansas City, MO; Beacon Hill, 1994), 329, 331. Quoted in Peterson and Williams, Why I Am Not an Arminian, 200.
  6. This does not mean that those who hold substitutionary atonement are not more readily able to forgive, but the connection between theology and ethic is a slightly wider than those who hold to governmental theory.
  7. For example, Christian liberty. Rather than insisting on one’s own ways, it more respectable to give up or sacrifice one’s rights for the benefit of another, weaker Christian.
  8. The Canons of Dort, under its second point in its third rejections, touches on this issue. The framers argue that this view is “too low an opinion of the death of Christ … and summon[s] back from hell the Pelagian error.”
  9. This view does not mean that unbelievers cannot experience the benefits of a Christian’s redemption. This idea is known as common grace.