Review Of Position Paper On Moral Government By Tom Nettles

Firstly, Kenneth Good referred to and quoted on page 2 is actually George E. (Jed) Smock and his article “Is God Good By Nature Or By Choice?” in September 1992 issue of “Notes & Quotes.”

The Nature Of God

Nettles refers to our view that God’s holiness is a voluntary state as a claim that God’s holiness is increasing. Since God chooses not to sin, he has made more choices by this point of history than he had at the time of Paul. The obvious intent of this observation is to imply the moral government view denies God is “infinitely perfect” in his holiness. If his holiness is growing, it is not without limit. This infinite perfection is part of the Evangelical Free Church creed, apparently. On a timeless view of God, he could never be less or more holy, since all his acts would simply be given. With a view God’s nature prevents the possibility of sinning, he could never improve his ability to be holy. The implication is the moral government God is “improving,” hence is not as perfect as he could be.

Probably one could study the historical context of this part of the confession and find that the meaning of this “infinity” is left undefined. That this is likely can be assumed by the difficulty we have, even today, of defining what we mean by an infinite attribute. Infinity is a negative concept which means no limit, but its application and meaning depend on the context. If God is as holy as he can be, he could be said to be infinitely holy. This limitless holiness is possible on both views of God’s nature. If God is timeless, he could never choose otherwise, and being holy, must be so. If God is a being of duration, he also would be infinitely holy if at this point in time he is doing everything doable for a holy being. There would be no lack. In the same way, infinite knowledge would be knowledge with no limit. This need not mean the number of things which can be known is without limit, but that each item of possible knowledge would be known by an infinitely knowing being. The confession’s “infinite perfection” statement would fit either view.

Where Does God Get Moral Law?

A major concern of our view of voluntary holiness is that there must be some standard “outside” of God which he submits himself to, if he could choose otherwise. The more common view is that God’s nature determines his choices, is a “holy” nature, and therefore God’s holiness is self contained. Surely an “infinitely perfect” being would not have a standard outside himself which he must submit to. The moral government position insists that such a view of God’s nature and holiness confuses metaphysical catagories with moral ones. Metaphysics has to do with what God is, with his natural attributes, morality has to do with what God does with what he is. Does this mean the moral law must be outside God and above him? This understanding neglects the ethical view with the longest history, that of natural law. In natural law ethics is derived from a being’s nature, not in the sense of determining what a being will do, but in dictating what it ought to do. Moral government advocates normally see the moral law to be inherent in God’s nature in this way. God cannot arbitrarily choose what will be right and wrong, but neither does the moral law of his nature determine his will. Rather, his understanding of his nature and existence indicates what he ought to choose. He has infinite knowledge of the dictates of this law, from within himself, and conforms his will to it. There is no implicit dualism here where something besides God’s nature determines ethics, but there is a recognition that God has free choice as well as natural attributes. This is where moral government theologians perceive the moral law comes from.

Responsibility And Moral Causation

Nettles goes on to disagree with the moral government belief that moral responsibility is inconsistent with moral causation. He claims the Bible contradicts this idea by indicating that moral actions always flow from moral disposition. Verses referring to good trees bearing good fruit, and bad trees bearing bad fruit are brought forth as examples. Moral government advocates do not deny that the moral status of individual actions is determined by the moral disposition of a person, nor do they deny that such disposition is a settled, habitual state of character from which a person’s actions flow. But moral government theologians would still point out that such a disposition is a voluntary state of will, an ultimate intention, rather than an unchangeable metaphysical state. The Bible speaks of those with pure hearts and those with impure hearts, and of the possibility of changing our hearts. Habits influence the persistence of such a state of will, but it must always remain voluntary if it is to have a moral status.

Moral government advocates point out that voluntary disposition is the only understanding consistent with the call to repentance, to change our hearts. It also is the only explanation for why Christians still can sin. We are referred to as “good trees” and “pure in heart” and are told that such trees do not bear bad fruit, that such hearts do all things purely. Unless we can change our intentions voluntarily and act out of character, we ought never to be able to sin once our hearts have been changed by God. We must be able to change our hearts and choose to sin, make ourselves “bad trees” again.

Nettles also displays the common Calvinist confusion over the distinction between moral influence and causation. Jonathan Edwards is brought forth to defend their equivalence. Finney deals extensively with Edwards’ argument in the section of his systematic theology dealing with “Inability.”

Nettles confuses the claim that the will must be free, and able to choose contrary to any and all influences brought to bear upon it, with the idea that any such influences must limit the will’s freedom.

If actions do not arise from motivation and really are uncaused in the ultimate sense, then reasoning, preaching, and argumentation of any kind is absurd. And if there is something in the motivation that hinders an action’s being truly responsible then the least amount of motivation hinders moral responsibility to that degree. But if argument and producing motives for action do not destroy responsibility, then the greatest degree of motive or moral persuasion cannot hurt one’s responsibility and, thus, liberty. [1]

The assumption of equivalence between physical causation and moral persuasion is obvious. Motives cause action just as a billiard ball hitting another ball would cause motion. If motives do not cause action, what would be the point of using reasons and motives to seek to produce action? No advocate of free will would claim action can be taken without a reason for action. All action is purposeful, chosen in the light of possibilities. Saying this need not lead one to conclude that whatever possibility is chosen determined the choice. Such a view is like claiming that because the billiard ball must move across a certain part of the table, that part of the table caused the ball to move. The force behind the ball caused it to move in the direction it did, but it had to move in some direction. All choices are made under the influence of reasons and motives. No choice can be made without some motive for action. If motion takes place without motivation and reasoned choosing, it is not action, but caused motion, like the billiard ball. What advocates of free will are insisting on is no motive can ultimately determine what course of action a person chooses. This is why we can blame or praise free moral agents for their actions. Given the view of Edwards and Nettles such moral assessment must be ultimately confused.

Nettles is correct in saying reasoning and preaching would be pointless if actions were truly uncaused in the ultimate sense, but wrong in assuming motives cause actions. Action is a reasoned response to the influences of motives; the agent himself is the ultimate cause of the action.

This confusion of catagories, confusing metaphysical principles of causation, with moral principles of persuasion taints all of Nettles’ arguments and explains his failure to understand how moral government advocates can insist on the fact of freedom to the contrary while still using character and disposition as an explanation of the reasonable predictability of people’s conduct. People usually do act consistently, according to character, but are not predetermined to do so, since this character is partly habit and partly a present state of will, persisted in but influenced strongly by past habits of choice.

These observations indicate how off track Nettles is when he says

Moral Government thought places God in the position of destroying virtue by presenting strong motives for it. For in the presenting of motives, he prejudices the choice destroying pure liberty and thereby destroying virtue. [2]

We would agree that virtue is greater when right good conduct is performed without the need of extensive persuasion. The more persuasion required to convince a moral being to do right, the less praiseworthy he is. Rather than strong motives reducing responsibility, they increase it. The reality of free choice is a mystery which has often been denied in the name of soft (compatibalism) or hard versions of determinism. One can deny its reality, but to keep the concept of responsibility at the same time is to stretch categories beyond their limits.


Nettles’ concerns about the moral government view of scripture focus on the highly rationalistic element in moral government teaching. Finney’s early struggles with the Calvinism of his teachers is brought forth to show how he insisted the Bible must fit his rational preconceptions. Moral government advocates do insist the Bible will not contradict reality, since it is a revelation from the creator of reality as we know it. Moral government advocates do not thereby lift up their own reason as the standard. Rather, we recognize that we can be subject to error, both in how we are reading the Bible, and in how we are seeing reality. Failure in either area can lead to mistaken conclusions. What moral government advocates insist on is the Bible cannot be teaching truly irrational things. If they appear irrational, either we are not yet seeing what it says properly, or our knowledge is incomplete. If contradictory, irrational things can be accepted as taught in the Bible, we are left with no guideline for determining which irrational things someone claims are taught in the Bible are correct. Since rationality is abandonded as a standard, no basis for such determination remains.

Nettles recognizes the necessity of “internal consistency” and the use of “right reason” [3] but does not define how these are to come into play. That internal consistency is insufficient is evident by the number of interpretations which exist and claim internal consistency as their evidence. Words can be read different ways. With other literary works such interpretational problems can be left undecided, since we have no reason to believe a human author is correct about how the real world is. With the Bible we have the extra advantage of insisting on external consistency. Since it is written by the creator, it will not contradict what we know of the world from other sources. While this extra test can never be final either, our knowledge of the world being incomplete, it does provide an additional basis for determining truth. It allows us another court of appeal when biblical interpretation alone does not suffice. If scriptures can be read in more than one way, it makes sense to read them in the most sensible way available, the way that best fits what we know about the world and ourselves.

Nettles criticizes Finney’s willingness in the Rochester revival to discuss God’s moral government without use of the Bible, this being obvious rationalism. Romans 1 and 2 and Acts 17 appear to show Paul using this same method. Those of Calvinist persuasion often criticize this and claim Paul was least successful in this method and learned otherwise, but this is debatable. That there is no biblical example of such a method is a falsehood. Finney did not always do this, nor did Paul.

Can Rationalism Be Avoided?

Nettles takes exception to my claim in the September 1992 “Notes & Quotes” article “The Assurance Of God’s Faithfulness” that all theologians rationalize sometimes. He insists that the details of my argument are unimportant for his point but my method of argument is. I allegedly argue rationalistically from what we know of ourselves to what God must be like. I insist Jesus could sin because otherwise the verse in Hebrews 4 would give me no comfort, my having rationalistically predetermined what would comfort me. It is unfortunate Nettles chooses to leave out the details of my argument, as they do bear on the method being used. Nettles implies he does not rationalize, he just “takes scripture at face value.”

What I sought to insist upon in my article on God’s faithfulness is the Bible does not claim God is faithful by having a nature that causes his choices, as Nettles would insist. This is a rationalization to explain the simple biblical claim God is faithful, cannot sin. Nettles’ view is not taught in scripture, it is a rational construct which he brings to scripture to explain its statements. As Nettles insists, one’s rational constructs influence one’s entire theology. Moral government’s views on these things consistently impact various areas of theology. So do Nettles’ views, as is evident from what we have discussed to this point. I indicate in the article several biblical reasons why we are concerned with Nettle’s viewpoint, and how this impacts what we understand of man’s responsibility, God’s glory, and the victory we ought to expect.

Moral government advocates do interpret what God must be like regarding his moral nature from what we know of ourselves, as Nettles observes. What Nettles fails to note is the biblical source of our rational construct. We recognize from scripture that man is said to be created in God’s image, therefore we feel justified in extrapolating backwards from ourselves. This is a biblical justification of method. I do not doubt Nettles would insist something similar since he seems to believe we, like God in his estimation, have natures which determine our moral choices. Where did he determine this is the case? The Bible makes no statements of metaphysical theory here. As we have seen above, passages that speak of moral disposition which Nettles feels prove this theory need not be read that way. We also feel our view explains the Christian’s problem of temptation and sin. On Nettles’ view the Christian with the new nature ought not to be able to sin. Our view seems more in harmony with the whole scriptural picture.

That those who oppose moral government theology do not take note of their own rational constructs which they bring to scripture, that they do not consciously admit the necessity of doing so from the lack of scriptural detail of underlying metaphysical and moral theory, in no way changes the fact they do so. That moral government advocates freely admit this necessity, and the fact that we do so, makes us easier prey to those who claim such practice is illegitimate. They need simply to accuse us of such activity and throw our thoughts out without further consideration. That their own thoughts could be thrown out for such reasons were a more honest assessment of their own methods carried out does not come into view.

Even though I admit the necessity of some rational constructs, Nettles does injustice in his accusations. He suggests I bring to the Hebrews 4 passage a belief that Jesus must be able to sin or else I would not find the passage a comfort. My actual point is to ask what other comfort the passage could be seeking to offer. If Nettles’ view is true and Jesus could not have sinned, why should it comfort me that Jesus was tempted just like me but did not sin? Why does someone who could not sin being tempted and failing to sin provide someone like me who can sin with the comfort that he knows how to help me in my time of need? My point is the passage reads most naturally if Jesus could have sinned. What other sort of comfort could it be offering? I am open to suggestions. Any suggestion from Nettles’ perspective would no doubt bring to the passage an understanding that Jesus could not have sinned, with which the comfort of the passage would then be harmonized. The passage does not explicitly teach either of our viewpoints. This illustrates the necessity of rational constructs I have been emphasizing. We may, as I do in this passage, believe the scripture implies a particular rational construct. The fact remains the passage does not explicitly say so.

All this does not mean one cannot argue internally from scripture that one rational construct better fits the volume of the biblical message. I believe, as no doubt Nettles does for his own position, that moral government better harmonizes all passages and their apparent meaning.

God’s Emotions

Typical of theologians who do not agree with the moral government perspective, Nettles criticizes Gordon Olson’s belief we should read statements about God repenting, and having emotions, in a literal sense. He asks why such language should not be read as anthropopassive, in the same way Olson would agree passages saying God has arms, hands, eyes, feet and so forth are anthropomorphic. The biblical answer is scripture explicitly states God is spirit, suggesting anthropomorphic language is in play when physical descriptions are used. The Bible nowhere suggests God is not personal, so that attribution of emotion and changes of mind cannot be taken literally. While analogy must certainly be operative between man and God, Nettles’ approach would have us lose God completely if we cannot see his emotions to be similar, if not identical to ours. If God is not angry with the children of Israel, what is he?

Nettles displays the usual confusion of categories in this area when he says “these words describe various states of mind and affection . . . the way God’s character unalterably relates to the changing and fluctuating relationships within the finite created order.” [4] Does God experience no alteration of his mental life when relationships in the created order flux? Is he both angry and not angry at the same time with his children, or does he become angry when they sin? Nettles suggests God experiences changes of reaction. If he means by unalterable that God can be relied on to react consistently to the same kinds of things, we would have no problem with this. If he means God experiences no change of emotion when a new event occurs for which such a change is appropriate, we part company. If all these passages are anthropopassive, we need to discard most of the scripture as telling us anything we can understand about God. Of course God is above us, beyond us, and does not react as do “finite, sinful, dependent creatures.” This does not mean the types of reactions are not the same. I can get angry irrationally when something someone has unintentionally done has wronged me. God would not be that silly. But he would feel wronged if it was done intentionally, just as I would. God’s character is dependable, it is not totally other.

Moral And Metaphysical Freedom

George E. (Jed) Smock’s article “Is God Good By Nature Or By Choice”, which Nettles attributes to Kenneth Good, claims we know by intuition we have freedom. Nettles criticizes this placing of rational intuition ahead of biblical statements that freedom is never freedom to the contrary, but freedom from sin. We are always slaves, either to sin or to righteousness, according to Romans 6 and Galatians 5. Here Nettles is failing to distinguish between metaphysical and moral freedom. The moral freedom and bondage dealt with in these passages assumes a position concerning metaphysical freedom, but it is not speaking of the latter. Nettles says Romans 6 claims we become free “when our decisions arise from our being mastered by holiness and righteousness rather than sin.” [5] He does not explain how they can do so unless we may choose to do so. Assumably Nettles would vie for the traditional Calvinist perception God must cause this to happen. Romans 6 actually says we do so by becoming obedient to the form of teaching to which we are entrusted. This appears to be a choice. The passage nowhere indicates we could not make this choice, but simply that we were slaves to sin until we made it. This is consistent with moral government teaching.

I do not accept intuitionist teaching, though such phraseology was common in Finney’s day and is probably the source of George Smock’s own usage. The fact we seem free to ourselves is certainly a good reason to believe we are, though we could be wrong in what we perceive, and the Bible might be claiming otherwise (The passages Nettles brings forth need not be seen to claim this). Given our natural perception of freedom, it is certainly valid to look twice at whether the Bible is really denying this or can be read consistently with it. Moral government advocates believe it can. No doubt Nettles’ reading of the biblical teaching of freedom is strongly influenced by the difficult battle with habits of sinning which Christians can face. While we feel free often, we also have recognized great slavery at other times. Such difficult experiences do not dictate the meaning of freedom described in scripture either.

God’s Faithfulness And Biblical Reliability

The most glaring failure to understand our view of scripture is displayed when Nettles addresses my central argument on the source of our assurance of God’s faithfulness. I should say by way of preface here, I have never read any other moral government advocates who discuss this issue, and I do not perceive my view to be distinctly moral government on this point. My argument for biblical reliability is directly evidential, in contrast to positions like those of the presuppositionalists. Probably many moral government advocates would approach this issue similarly, but they need not.

My central point was our assurance of God’s faithfulness is not derived from a metaphysical belief of how God could be said to be faithful. The two metaphysical views are 1) God is faithful because his nature causes him to be faithful (the common view), and 2) God is faithful because he consistently chooses to be so, though he could do otherwise (the moral government view). My paper attempted to deal with the supposedly embarrassing fact that the moral government view undermines assurance in God’s faithfulness since God’s freedom to sin means he could yet prove unfaithful. I attempted to counter this accusation by demonstrating that both our opponents and ourselves derive our assurance of God’s faithfulness from the same source, and that source is not our metaphysical beliefs concerning how God is faithful. It is rather from the evidence of God’s faithfulness in his dealings with man.

In essence I argued that even if the Bible stated God is metaphysically unable to be unfaithful (which it does not state), this statement could still only be considered reliable if the Bible was reliable. Biblical reliability does not come out of the air. If we believe the Bible to be God’s reliable word, it is because we have evidence this is so. Nettles pays lip service to this by saying “Surely we do not close our eyes to the nature of the evidence which establishes biblical infallibility.” [6] He goes on to ask “once that is established can we believe” what God tells us? The answer is a definite yes. I said so in my article. My words were as follows:

Since we have evidence of God’s faithfulness by what we know of his doings, we could obtain assurance of the common theory’s truth, were God to reveal it. [7]

Nettles seems to believe I was suggesting every doctrine taught in scripture is in question unless we have proof outside of scripture that God will do it. He concludes the only proof is when God has finally done what he said, since on our view God could always change his mind until he has acted. This leaves us with no assurance of anything God has declared.

Nettles has failed to recognize my article was aimed specifically at the doctrine of God’s faithfulness and the basis of our assurance in this faithfulness. I was not directing my attention at other doctrines. My point was this doctrine stands in a unique relationship to the inerrancy question precisely because inerrancy has to do with God’s spoken word. Its very reliability is founded significantly, though not solely, on the fact God has not lied. Because of this, its statements cannot be used to establish its reliability, this must be found through evidence. I would insist this evidence must be both internal and external to the scriptures. Unfortunately Nettles does not clarify what he feels the nature of the evidence is that establishes biblical reliability. I sought to show that such evidence must consist in part of proof God is faithful from what God has done. Because of this and other evidences, both internal and external, we can rely on scripture and can believe everything God has told us.

The nature of this foundation for biblical reliability shows the justification of our belief in God’s trustworthiness is pre-biblical, is part of the argument to establish biblical reliability. Because God is faithful, we can trust his word. We believe his word partially because he has shown us he would not lie to us. The net effect of this argument is our assurance God is faithful comes from the evidence he is faithful, not from any metaphysical view on just how he is this way. As I pointed out above, had God specifically declared in his word he is faithful because his nature prevents him from being otherwise, we could believe this was so. But this assurance would only be as good as the evidence God is faithful and is not lying. Assurance would ultimately flow from the evidence of God’s conduct, which is the same way a moral government advocate would obtain his assurance.

Nettles demonstrates his dissatisfaction with this conclusion since all this proves is God has not sinned yet or broken a promise yet. This gives us no assurance he will not do so in the future. My response is twofold. First, evidence someone has never lied or been unfaithful is strong evidence they will not lie or be unfaithful. Second, Nettles wants better evidence God will be faithful than the available evidence will allow him. It may be a fact God cannot sin by metaphysical necessity. If this was true, and we knew it, this would be a more sure assurance than having to rely on a God who had shown himself perpetually faithful, but could do otherwise. But how would we know it except by God telling us? This would still leave us trusting his word on the evidence he had not lied to us so far. In what other way can Nettles arrive at his stronger assurance? We have the best assurance the case could allow. God has shown himself faithful. We can rely on him. We can trust he will do everything he says he will.

Predictive Prophecy

Very naturally Nettles moves now into the area of predictive prophecy, and the moral government claim God has failed to carry out certain prophecies he has made. If we can only trust God is faithful if he has not let us down, how can we believe he is faithful when he has failed to do things he prophesied he would? Assumably here is one of the “inconsistencies, imprecisions, and confused definitions” [8] Nettles claims moral government theology is ridden with. The examples from Howard Elseth are largely disagreed with by moral government advocates, though the central point remains despite differences in detail. We do claim predictive prophecies have sometimes been turned from by God.

It is important to note, even if all the specific examples moral government advocates use to show God has changed his mind and not carried through with prior intentions were satisfactorily explained, this would not in itself destroy the central ideas of moral government theology. We recognize such things present in scripture and seek to understand them. Nettles is obviously concerned with how such a belief harmonizes with the biblical claim that evidence of a false prophet is when the word he declares does not come to pass. How can such an internal evidence be operative if God can and does change his mind about what he said he would do? Gordon Olson makes statements in his writings that God is not worried about appearing inconsistent. He lets love rule his decisions. Since this test is an important part of the internal evidence for reliability given in scripture, Nettles’ concern is legitimate.

Moral government advocates explain the consistency with the internal test of a prophet given in scripture first by pointing to Jeremiah 18 and its distinction of conditional prophecy. Jeremiah suggests God’s prophecies of judgment or blessing are conditional on the people’s response. He reserves the right to change his mind, subject to the people’s conduct. The Old Testament is filled with examples of people who assumed God’s stated intention could be changed. Even in passages not dealing with judgment, as where Hezekiah was told his sickness would lead to death, and God told him to put his house in order, we find Hezekiah assuming it was reasonable to plead with God for more time. He got it! Did this prove Isaiah was a false prophet? Not at all. It was also Isaiah who told Hezekiah God had changed his mind and given him 15 years. Had Hezekiah died in 7 years we would have a problem. This does not remove the fact God’s original statement through the prophet was Hezekiah would die. Both in cases where God changes because of people’s changes, or cases where God simply changes what he said would be, God indicates the changes prior to when the fulfillment would have occurred. There would only be a problem if God let a prophecy of his intentions stand without alteration and it did not occur, or if the prophet sought to correct the prophecy after the event did not occur. God never indicated his prophets could not convey changes in God’s plans, only that when a prophet proclaims what was supposedly God’s word, and that word was let stand, its failure to happen would disqualify the prophet. Our view does not appear inconsistent with the Deuteronomic test, nor does it remove the evidence of God’s faithfulness.


Many of Nettles’ problems with the governmental view of the atonement are shared by myself. My discussions with several moral government theologians leads me to believe that dissatisfaction with this theory of atonement is not lacking in our ranks. While his perception of this theory is mistaken at points, his central problems with it are not far off. What needs to be recognized, however, is why such a view has been preferred to the traditional penal view he advocates. Moral government advocates and Arminians believe scripture teaches a universal atonement with limited efficacy. Jesus died for everyone but everyone is not being saved. While we have problems with the governmental view, we find it inexorable logic that the penal view as traditionally held would require universal salvation unless it was only enacted for those who will be saved. Nettles correctly recognizes the moral government view of God’s foreknowledge would not allow God the luxury of knowing in advance whose sins to pay for. This is not the central problem we find with penal atonement. Most Calvinists have not shied away from limited atonement. Disagreement on this has led most others to embrace the governmental view for lack of a better attempt to explain the universal offer of salvation which is not universally effective.

Nettles once again feels the words of scripture “obviously” bear the meaning he gives them, but this is debated by more Christians than simply moral government advocates. Here also underlying rational constructs on the nature of morality, atonement, and forgiveness operate in how Nettles comes to see these passages. That he feels they require his reading is clear. That they require it is not. Surprisingly he suggests we fail to allow the words of scripture regarding the atonement to have the meaning they would have had to the original audience. Nettles felt no qualms in failing to do so in the name of anthropopassism only a few pages earlier.

All this aside, his accusation that the governmental view has “mercy triumph at the expense of justice” [9] is almost a fair assessment of the problem with this position. The distinction between public and retributive justice necessary for a governmental view of atonement to get off the ground seems a central problem with the view.

Even though I would agree the governmental view is inadequate, I do not find myself in agreement with Nettles that such a view is inconsistent with the words of the Free Church confession “He died on the cross as a sacrifice for our sins,” and “the shed blood of Jesus Christ and His resurrection provide the only ground for justification and salvation.” These words could be affirmed by any governmental atonement advocate. While underlying philosophy on the meanings of these words would no doubt be present, Jesus is seen as a sacrifice for sins, and the only ground for justification and salvation by both camps.


The view of atonement held by moral government advocates, whether or not a governmental one, does share a common feature with the view of Arminians on the subject. The fact Jesus died for someone does not alone mean that person will be saved. He also must lay hold of this provided salvation through an act of faith. Short of this, he can fail to be saved, though he could have been. Moral government theologians seem more consistent with the implications of this than do Arminian theologians. Arminians recognize the role of personal responsibility initially in conversion, and recognize some kind of possibility of apostasy should the believer persist in a sinful kind of life, but give no justification for the view that believers are not under condemnation whenever they sin. Nettles recognizes the implication that an atonement which has not guaranteed anyone’s conversion cannot guaranty anyone’s acceptance before God unconditionally. This is the significance of penal atonement, which Nettles so strongly urges.

If literal payment of guilt for all the believer’s sins, past – present – future, has been made, no guilt can possibly come to the sinning Christian. If Jesus’ righteousness is attributed to the believer, he stands in total acceptance before God. Moral government denies the atonement paid for sins in this sense, and denies God can treat a sinning believer as if he is actually living as Jesus did. We do not disagree justification is a legal declaration, but the continuance of this status is still conditional upon remaining repentant just as the initial declaration was dependent upon repenting. That God must draw the line at any single sin seems consistent with the fact he did so initially with Adam and Eve. Moral government advocates see no basis in morality where God could choose to allow some sin before condemning a believer. God has no right to do so because the moral law is not subject to his arbitrary will. Nor could God have the right to carry out a transaction which now turns the moral universe upside down so people can be living without condemnation, in a manner which before required him to condemn them. The penal view with its perpetual imputed righteousness results in such a view.

Nettles accuses the moral government view of denying forgiveness is “objectively related to the death of Christ.” [10] By this he means we deny anyone is saved irrespective of their own repentance, simply because Jesus died. He is correct. Only a limited atonement could accomplish this, if true justice would allow such a thing. He is incorrect to suggest we perceive the atonement as unnecessary for God to offer salvation. God could not offer salvation simply from his “pure benevolence, uninfluenced by satisfied justice, solely on the basis of the deep, sincere repentance of the sinner.” [11] We do believe with Nettles the atonement was necessary or God could not forgive even repentant sinners, even if he wanted to out of the goodness of his heart. In some sense justice needed to be satisfied for forgiveness to occur. What we insist, on various biblical and rational grounds, is the simplistic view of satisfaction expressed in the penal view advocated by Nettles and others is inadequate. It does violence to all sense of justice to suggest God can now allow sin without condemnation. The Bible does not indicate people are saved irrespective of the necessity of repentance and continuance therein.

Catholic Or Protestant?

Nettles accuses the moral government view of being more Catholic than Protestant, since it rejects the perpetual imputation of Christ’s righteousness to the believer, and insists on the necessity of literal transformation of the believer into a holy, obedient person, if continued and final salvation is to occur. Nettles recognizes such a view hedges against “easy-believism.” One is tempted to ask Nettles where his hedge is. Nettles declares our view of justification being conditional upon inner transformation is “deadly synergism and legalism.” If what we were speaking of was the “process of sanctification that follows justification as an inevitable activity (emphasis mine) of true faith” [12] this would be fine. He recognizes accurately we see sanctification to be anything but an inevitable process. Here Nettles’ mechanical view of salvation, fitting the Calvinist view of man’s nature and need, is clear. He is correct we reject any such view. Present sanctification is a condition of present salvation, though not its basis. We are not considered righteous because of what we do, but we cannot be considered righteous our doings.

Is the moral government view of justification Catholic? The view is similar, but distinct on some very Protestant grounds. The quote Nettles offers from the Council of Trent comes close to the moral government view. When a person is justified before God, he has repented and been made holy through the work of the Holy Spirit. There is no sin in a repentant heart. Continuation in this state through the sanctifying work of the Spirit is a necessary condition of continuing justification. Where our view differs from the Catholic view as it has sometimes been presented is, we would deny our continuing obedience is a work of merit which causes God to reward us with continuing favor. Although we cannot stand justified while sinning, obedience in the future does not merit forgiveness of past sins. These are forgiven through Christ’s atonement. Our present obedience simply prevents further condemnation.

Even this obedience does not bear the same self justifying status as works prior to our having sinned would have. Before Adam sinned, he stood justified by works, his own works, just as we did. When we sinned our lives were forfeit, since the wages of sin is death. God need not have saved us. Because he did save us, our present works are works of his grace. Even though we must obey now or be condemned, our obeying now does not deserve reward because our lives were forfeit through sin. Any further grace and help God gives us, any reward he extends to us for obedience offered after salvation, are gifts of God, totally undeserved by us. God chooses to reward the works which are the fruit of his Spirit within us, even as Calvin suggested in the Institutes.

While Nettles correctly sees the moral government view to part ways with the usual Protestant view of perpetual justification (Finney spoke of such a view as a different gospel than his own, and recognized it went hand in hand with penal atonement), he offers no statement from the Free Church confession defining the church’s position on this issue. Probably he is fair in assuming the Free Church would follow the more common understanding, but without a clear confessional statement it would be unfair to condemn the contrary view as going against the confession. Moral government’s teaching of justification is more Catholic in its understanding of the requirements of personal transformation, but more Protestant in the view of what status personal works play in terms of meriting salvation.

Nettles concludes his summary by suggesting the moral government view of justification creates “an unnecessary spiritual turmoil and insecurity.” [13] This is only the case if the moral government position is wrong. If it is correct, perhaps it is Nettles’ view which gives people a dangerous false security which can lead to spiritual complacency.


1. Nettles, pg. 4.
2. Nettle, pg 6.
3. Ibid, pg. 7.
4. Ibid., pg. 10.
5. Ibid., pg. 12.
6. Ibid., pg. 13.
7. Notes & Quotes, September 1992, pg. 14.
8. Nettles, pg. 2.
9. Ibid., pg. 22.
10. Ibid., pg. 23.
11. Ibid., pg. 24.
12. Ibid., pg. 25.
13. Ibid., pg. 28.

Copyright 2019 Kel Good. This publication may be copied freely as long as no alteration is made to the text. For more information write: Kel Good via What I Believe This Week (

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