The Atonement: A Response To Critics

It is difficult to know how to respond to those who are concerned regarding the teaching of what has become known as “Moral Government Theology.” To some this view of the gospel is synonymous with heresy. On the one hand it is tempting to say we just understand the gospel differently. On the other hand, since Moral Government is diametrically opposed to most of the views such people profess as “orthodox,” it is understandable that they should be concerned about the teaching of that which they consider “heresy.” In their definition, I would be forced to consider their teaching heresy as well, since I do not believe they are correct. But rather than hurl the accusation of “false doctrine,” I think I would be more tempted to accuse such people of mistaken doctrine. The accusation of being a false teacher is too strong for someone we perceive to be seeking to lead people into a relationship with God. While it is true that the apostles contended for the truth as it had been revealed to them against men who were seeking to deceive the flock of God, two points are different in this present day case when compared to its alleged first century counterpart.

The first is that the false teachers of Paul’s day were seeking a following for themselves, not to lead people to God, albeit in a mistaken manner. Such men Paul condemned were on a personal glory trip. Where such a situation exists today it must be confronted and condemned. No one should teach doctrines, whatever they may be, simply to gain a following. The second difference lies in the fact that the apostles’ understanding of the gospel and its doctrines was through direct revelation, something which is not the case for us today. We must read their writings and, through attempting to allow God’s Spirit to guide us, come to understand what they meant. This requires much prayer, sincerity of heart, and diligence of study. This does not however guaranty that our conclusions will be free from error. But such errors, and Christians who seek to propagate errors which have arisen as mistaken results of sincere study, can hardly be called “heretical” and “false.” They are mistaken. How many of us have in all sincerity taken our stand for what we perceived to be God’s truth, only to find at a later date that we were somehow mistaken and had to change our view? I would be surprised to meet any Christian whose views have never changed. No doubt God will hold us accountable for our diligence, or lack thereof, in seeking correct views, but there must be room to differ where we sincerely do not see things the same. Admittedly, the differences between Moral Government and other theologies are not peripheral, but deal with the basic doctrines of the faith. Nonetheless, I cannot believe God is incapable of guiding us through even such fundamental differences, knowing our heart’s sincerity.

It seems to me the principle I have described has functioned between Arminian and Calvinist branches of the church for years. Each has on occasion hurled the “heresy” charge at the other, but each has also come to accept that the other is a sincere, if mistaken, attempt to describe the gospel. The same attitude seems to be in order with the question of Moral Government. Historically the ideas of Moral Government have always existed in the church, even though on the fringes due to the power of ecclesiastical censorship. Today such censorship is more difficult to achieve since our culture is so pluralistic and open to people’s rights of freedom of conscience. I suggest that since for the most part the question of sincerity is clearly in the affirmative (of course there will always be crackpots wearing every label, be it Calvinist, Arminian, or Moral Government), Moral Government Theology should be given the same right as its two other historical counterparts. While obviously only one of the three views can be true, we do not need to seek to eliminate each other’s influence from the church. Truth will be best shown when it is placed beside error. Let the evidence be presented; if we remain unconvinced then let us each respect that our differences do not arise from insincerity and therefore “false” or “heretical” intentions, but from sincere and therefore “orthodox” attempts to understand the truth.

It is with this attitude that I would like to attempt a response to accusations that the Moral Government view of the atonement is in error. While I do not expect easily to convince our critics that I am correct in my perception of this truth, I still hope I may add some clarifying remarks which would make the Moral Government position more apparent. Having done this I will be satisfied to say that I believe the Moral Government view is the correct view. This does not mean people who do not accept it are “heretics” or “false teachers,” but my conclusion will suggest that they are mistaken in their perception of this fundamental doctrine of the faith.

The “Biblical” Versus The Moral Government View

Many writers distinguish the God-ward and Man-ward aspects of the atonement, including Moral Government writers. Critics of the Moral Government view often assert that in the biblical view Christ’s atonement functions on the God-ward side as a propitiation, a satisfaction of God’s wrath against sin. God is eternally angry with sin and must punish it. Thus, if God is not to punish the sinner for his sins, someone else must be punished. This substitution of punishment has taken place through Christ bearing in his body on the tree the punishment due for the sins of mankind. The God-ward side having been taken care of, the debt being paid and God’s wrath being satisfied, the Man-ward side can take place. This happens when a man accepts Jesus as saviour. At this time the sinner is pronounced just before God (justified; treated as though he never sinned), and Christ’s righteous life is imputed, credited to the sinner’s account. There is no requirement of a moral change on the part of the sinner, just a recognition of sin and a reception of the free gift. Since Christ’s righteousness is imputed to the believer, future sin cannot result in condemnation. Such sin has already been paid for on the cross, and is not seen by God since the believer is clothed in the righteousness of Christ. This, according to many writers, is the biblical view to which must be contrasted the Moral Government view.

The Moral Government view is said to fail on all counts in being a satisfactory view of the atonement. First, on the God-ward side, God requires no propitiation, no satisfaction to his wrath against sin. Writers quote Gordon Olson and George Otis Jr. who state that God does not require personal satisfaction against sin, but is willing to overlook it. God does not require payment for sin, he is willing to pardon. Since there appears to be no God-ward requirement which the atonement satisfied, God being completely willing to forgive sin and needing nothing to satisfy his anger, the whole meaning of the Moral Government view appears to focus on the Man-ward side. What the atonement was meant to do it seems was to impress man with how God hates sin and through the force of this moral display, break man down to humility and repentance. Since this is all the atonement does, leaving sin’s penalty unpaid, man must stop sinning if God is to accept him again. Thus man saves himself through his own works, and the purpose of the atonement was to persuade man through this “theatrical display” to save himself through his own obedience.

This brief summary of critic’s caricature of the governmental view brings out some interesting facts. First it shows that they have misunderstood what Moral Government teaches on some points. Second it shows points either where Moral Government writers have been unclear in their expression or have not entirely understood the governmental position themselves. This being the case, I find myself needing to correct errors in how the Moral Government position has been presented by its critics and also thank them for the opportunity to correct past presentations of this doctrine by its advocates.

Critic’s Errors In Understanding

Moral Government’s critics err first in asserting that there is no God-ward aspect to the atonement in this view of the atonement. Where Moral Government differs from other views is in the nature of this aspect. The God-ward problem in our critic’s view is judicial, payment of a debt of guilt. The God-ward problem in the Moral Government view is governmental, the maintenance of the influence of God’s government and authority. Both views present a problem God faced if he were to forgive sin. Neither view claims God was free to forgive sin without the atonement. The difference is in why God could not forgive without an atonement. The answer to this question we will see later, and this will be the God-ward aspect.

Additionally critics err in claiming that Moral Government does not see the atonement as necessary to propitiate (satisfy) God’s wrath. Turning aside God’s wrath from the sinner was the whole purpose of the atonement, as such writers aptly point out. But the nature of this wrath and its reason differs between the two views. In our critics view God’s wrath against sin must be the wrath of the judge who must enforce the letter of the law. There can be no exceptions in such a case. It knows no satisfaction except that it achieve the infliction of punishment. In the Governmental view we will see that God’s anger against sin is a requirement of his role as governor, and can be turned aside through the provision of the atonement. The atonement propitiates God’s wrath while allowing the pardon of the sinner, instead of the infliction of the penalty.

The writers are correct to recognize that Moral Government denies the atonement was a literal payment of the penalty of sin. They are wrong however in concluding that this means Moral Government contradicts scriptures which use payment terminology. Christ is said to have paid the price for our sins, ransomed us, and so forth. The fundamental issue is whether this payment was a satisfaction of judicial justice as in the view of such writers, or a satisfaction of “governmental” considerations which held God back from pardoning. We will see that the latter is the case and that in this sense Christ did pay for our sins.

The Man-ward aspects our critics present for the Moral Government view are usually fairly accurate. On man’s side the atonement shows God’s anger toward sin. We will see this is also essential to fulfill the God-ward side. The atonement also humbles man to repentance. Since the atonement is not a judicial payment for sin, it does not make it possible for man to sin now without condemnation. Sin is sin and God’s role as a governor requires that he judge sin unless a sinner through genuine forsaking of sin and faith in Christ’s atonement, returns to obedience. Critics are incorrect to claim that this constitutes a denial on the part of Moral Government theologians that righteousness is imputed to us through faith. What Moral Government denies is that Christ’s righteous life is imputed to us in such a sense that we can now be considered righteous positionally while we ourselves are sinning experientially. The atonement pronounces us righteous, our past sins being no longer counted against us because we repent and receive God’s forgiveness. But future sin must bring its just condemnation. Future obedience is necessary. That this amounts to salvation by works is a mistaken accusation on the part of these authors since present obedience does not merit forgiveness of past sins. These must either be punished or forgiven. They could not be forgiven outside of trust in Christ’s atonement for forgiveness. But future sin must bring more guilt, which would consequently also require repentance and a new trust in Christ for forgiveness.

The errors elucidated will be more apparent when we examine the Moral Government position in detail.

Misexpressions And Misunderstandings Of Moral Government Teachers

There have been some cases where the teachers of Moral Government Theology could have been more clear. We have seen catches of these already in the above misunderstandings. First, in attempts to deny God’s wrath needed judicial satisfaction, Moral Government teachers have left themselves open to the accusation that God’s wrath in no sense needs to be dealt with. As critics point out, this is blatantly untrue. What Moral Government teachers should have said is that God’s wrath does not need satisfaction in a judicial sense, but does require it in a governmental sense. While neither side is really claiming vindictiveness on the part of God, they are differing in what has given rise to God’s necessary wrath against sin. We can hardly call a judge vindictive for upholding the law by punishing a criminal, but his reason for punishing is quite different from the reason a governor has a criminal punished. God does say he will take vengeance against sinners, but his vengeance will be seen to be primarily for governmental reasons, rather than strict judicial reasons. This confusion which makes Moral Government teachers appear to be denying any satisfaction to God’s wrath may have arisen from a misphrasing of the issue by such teachers, or it could be from a more fundamental confusion which I will try to point up in my detailed presentation.

The denial of a literal payment has also brought some confusion. Moral Government theologians have denied this outright and seldom harmonized such a claim with the statements that Jesus did pay for sin. As we saw earlier, such confusion is easily remedied by seeing that what was required to pardon sin, Jesus paid. What was required, however, was not judicial satisfaction, but governmental. Moral Government theologians need to be more careful to clarify in what sense justice was satisfied in the death of Christ. This misexpression may also, and I believe it actually does, result from a misapprehension of the justice of God, even on the part of Moral Government theologians. If I am correct in this, much misunderstanding between judicial and governmental camps has actually been the result of an inconsistency on the Moral Government side. Moral Government theologians have not searched the foundation of the justice of God thoroughly enough, and on the basis of the view of this subject they have been espousing, the judicial view of the atonement must actually be the correct view. Only through the understanding of the justice of God we will examine shortly can this accusation of inconsistency be alleviated.

To the best of my knowledge these are the main misunderstandings which Moral Government teachers have allowed to arise regarding their teaching on the atonement. We now must seek to explain the atonement itself, and give a systematic expression of its import.

Can We Understand The Atonement?

Many people say we cannot understand how the atonement brings salvation. One person asked me if I did not think the atonement was “an ocean of mystery,” “God’s secret.” I told him I did not believe this at all because his statement was in direct contradiction to what Romans 3:25-26 claims. Here Paul tells us God made Christ an atonement for sin so that we could see that he had been just in not punishing sin in the past, and that he is now just even though he justifies whoever will trust in Christ. Paul claims that the atonement makes this clear and we ought to be able to look at it and see that this is clear.

Advocates of the judicial or exact payment theory have recognized this and said “Yes, Jesus paid the penalty so now we know God is not inconsistent when he does not judge sinners who believe.” But this kind of exact payment theory has been criticized on several counts. First, on a judicial view of justice, you cannot have both pardon and payment. If the debt is cancelled, it is not paid. If paid, it is not cancelled. But scripture shows our debt pardoned, not that God received it from Christ instead. Matthew 18:22-35 shows this clearly. It is this fact which has often produced the confusing statements by Moral Government teachers that God has chosen mercy over justice, since he could not exercise both justice and mercy at the same time. As we will see, the tension in this statement, the suggestion that God sets justice aside in favour of mercy, stems from a misapprehension of the justice of God. But the point is well made. There is no such thing as forgiveness if the debt is paid in this judicial sense. This is a genuine inconsistency with critic’s views when compared with scripture.

A second criticism is the fact that in no sense does it appear that what Christ experienced on the cross is equivalent to what was due to sinners, whatever scenario of hell one holds to. He was not punished eternally, as the traditional view would say. He was not annihilated as in the conditionalist view. Even though Jesus’ death could be equated with a purgatorial view since there was a cessation to his suffering, it is inconceivable that in his short time on the cross he would have experienced what was necessary punishment for all the sins of men. Some conditionalists see physical death itself as sin’s punishment and claim that hence Christ experienced this. The difficulty here is that all men experience merely physical death and would thus be punished for their own sins by experiencing it themselves, even though Christ is said to have experienced this for them. If here the conditionalist replies that sin’s true punishment is eternal death, final death with no resurrection, then again Jesus fails to have accomplished this since he was resurrected. Most payment advocates from the various views answer the accusation that Christ’s death did not provide the equivalent of what was due to sinners by saying that Christ’s person, his infinite nature, makes his death different and significant to accomplish this payment, even though not in the same sense as sinners would have paid their own debt. Such a recourse already recognizes what Moral Government theologians have been claiming. Christ’s death has been substituted for a literal punishment of sins. It has been accepted instead of the literal punishment of sinners.

The third criticism of this view is that on an exact payment view Jesus could only have died for those who will be saved. No one whose penalty is paid can consequently be punished. That would be double jeopardy and unjust. Consequently, either Jesus paid only for the salvation of the elect, a limited atonement, or everyone must be saved. Everyone is clearly not being saved according to scripture, so Jesus must not have paid for the sins of every man if this judicial view of the atonement is correct. Again this is inconsistent with multiple passages which state that Jesus did die for everyone. But if he did die for everyone and everyone is not being saved, the atonement cannot be a literal payment of debt in some judicial sense of paying the penalty for the sins of sinners. It is a recognition of this fact which has led to a comprehension of the governmental view of the atonement. Central to the question is that which our third criticism of the judicial view has brought to the fore. If exact judicial justice is not the justice upon which the atonement pivots, what justice does it pivot on? What is the justice of God?

What Is The Justice Of God?

The crux of the difference between the two views is the view taken of God’s justice. On the judicial view sin has an exact penalty due it in its very nature. This derives from its inherent wrongness compared to God’s holy nature. Wrong is wrong, and it deserves punishment in and of itself. Justice demands this. Justice gives a person what he deserves and sin deserves punishment, period. Thus to set aside the penalty would be to set aside justice. God could not do this without being guilty of wrongdoing himself. This is why the atonement had to be a literal payment. I believe a fundamental error of Moral Government theologians in understanding and presenting a coherent view of the atonement has been to accept this view of justice. If it is accepted, then for God to pardon without requiring payment is a violation of justice on God’s part. This results in God’s mercy and justice being attributes which conflict in God, and causes him to have to choose between them. Accepting this view has led to the difficult statements such as those made by Gordon Olson that God has chosen not to require that justice be satisfied, but that other considerations brought the necessity of the atonement. If this is true then God has compromised justice. The only solution is the assertion that this fundamental idea of justice is in error and is not justice as it pertains to God or man. Only if some other view of justice is correct can God be freed from the accusation of injustice for not requiring a literal payment for sin. If he cannot be so freed then we must concede that the critics are correct.

Unfortunately most 20th Century Moral Government theologians are disciples of Charles Finney. Despite the fact that Moral Government has gone beyond Finney in his view of God’s foreknowledge and so forth, Finney is still properly a Moral Government theologian since his view of moral depravity and salvation prevents his being called an Arminian. Although the general system has evolved, Finney is one of its true sources. But Finney was not its only source. Another major source was Nathaniel W. Taylor. Finney differed with Taylor on the question we are discussing, whether consciously or unconsciously, and consequently presented a slightly different view of the atonement, one which missed a fundamental distinction. Since 20th Century Moral Government Theology has followed Finney instead of Taylor on this point, the confusion has remained to this day and Moral Government theologians are rightly charged with inconsistency in claiming God is just in forgiving sin. I would here like to thank our critics for pointing up this problem, and to use this occasion to clarify the view Taylor presented, calling fellow Moral Government theologians to this more correct view.

Justice Is To Give To Everyone His Due

This is a point which Moral Government theologians would already claim to be presenting. This is also what payment advocates would say. But the question is, what is due to right and wrong action? Most writers in both camps have agreed that right action intrinsically deserves reward and wrong action deserves punishment. This view of justice is often called retributive justice. Making retribution for wrongdoing is punishing wrongdoing. Making retribution for right action is rewarding right action. Moral Government in the 20th Century has distinguished retributive justice from public justice, the latter being a governor’s responsibility to do what is necessary to uphold the public good. They have claimed that retributive justice must be maintained through rewarding good and punishing evil in a society in order to uphold the influence of law. But they have also claimed that such justice can be set aside if something else is done which will as effectively uphold the influence of law as the execution of a penalty would have. If this can be done public justice is still upheld, though retributive justice is set aside. The problem is, if retributive justice stems from the intrinsic ill desert of wrong action, how can this be set aside, even if public justice is upheld? This is the criticism waged against the Moral Government view of the atonement and it is a telling criticism on the view of retributive penalties and rewards which has been espoused by most Moral Government teachers. If wrong action really, in and of itself, deserves punishment, then to set this aside is to violate justice and be guilty of wrongdoing. What does it matter if God’s law is upheld? If he violates justice this must ultimately undermine the legitimacy of his government anyway. This is the claim of the critics. And they are right if this view of justice is right.

But they are not right. There is no such thing as literal wrong desert for wrongdoing, where such wrong desert does not arise from the act having an effect on the public good. Right action does not of itself deserve reward except where such reward is called for by the public good. Far from retributive justice – the reward and punishment of right and wrong action – being something which arises irrespective of the public good, it is only on the basis of its requirement to support and uphold the public good that such justice arises. To punish someone for wrongdoing where such punishment would not do any good, either to the person or to the public, would be merely the infliction of evil for evil’s sake. It would be mere vengeance taking, adding evil to evil. God everywhere condemns such action. We are told to love our enemies and pray for those who curse us. We are to forgive those who wrong us, just as God does. Equally so, we are not to consider our good actions as something which deserve great reward. Jesus said that after we have done our duty, we should consider ourselves unprofitable servants. Who deserves reward for doing what he ought to?

If the view I am suggesting is correct then why does God reward obedience and punish disobedience? Is it right for God to do this if these actions do not in and of themselves deserve such treatment? The answer is that God would not be right to act in this manner if he were not the moral governor of the universe. This role not only gives him the right to treat men this way, it places him under obligation to do so because justice demands it. We will see this is so if we understand the true basis of God’s government and what was needed to make it legitimate.

The Basis Of Right And Wrong

The basis for all morality is the inherent rightness of happiness and the inherent wrongness of misery. These are concepts which develop in our minds through our experience of pleasure and pain. No one has to tell us it is right to be happy and that we ought to choose this for its own sake. Equally so, misery is clearly wrong. We cannot go any deeper than this, but we all know we ought to choose our own, and everyone else’s, happiness. We ought to choose the greatest good of all for its own sake. This is right action, and anything that will promote this good is right action. Equally so, anything which would tend to hinder this good is wrong action. God’s law is not something he made up arbitrarily, it is a revelation of those actions which will promote or hinder our happiness. It is the necessity of God’s government to promote this good which makes it obligatory upon God to rule us, and obligatory on us to obey him. This necessity arises from the fact that we lack the knowledge and power to accomplish what is for our best, but God has the necessary knowledge and power to accomplish this. Since the happiness of all, the public good, is what is absolutely right, and since God’s government is the best means to achieving this good because of his qualifications, the public has a right to expect God to do what is necessary to achieve this end, and God has a right to rule and exercise the influence of his authority over the public.

Authority is the right to rule. God does not have the right to rule because he made us, but because he has the qualifications to rule us properly and because his rule is necessary. But in order for men to recognize God’s rightful authority, he needs to prove he is qualified to rule. This involves proving not only that he has the necessary knowledge and power, but also that he has the right character, that he is dedicated to the public good. He could have the necessary knowledge and power but be a tyrant. Obviously he would have no right to rule in such a case and no one would perceive herself obligated to obey him. God’s creation shows he has the knowledge and power he needs to rule. Anyone who created this universe would have such attributes. What is needed is for God to prove his character qualifies him to rule. He must in some way prove that he is dedicated to the public good, to doing everything he needs to do to uphold and promote this good. Without such proof his law would not have the effect of producing obedience since men would not recognize it to have such authority, his character being in question.

What Would Prove God Is Good?

Since the good of all demands that God use his influence as the best means of obtaining this good, God must somehow testify that he truly has the feelings regarding right and wrong action which he would have if he was perfectly benevolent and dedicated to the public good. God needs to show that obedience has his highest approval, and disobedience has his highest disapproval. It is this requirement which made it necessary for God to sanction his law with the reward of eternal life for obedience and the penalty of eternal death for disobedience. Any retributive sanctions less than these would not have proven God has the real hatred of disobedience and love of obedience which he ought to have if he has the authority to rule. Thus the penalties of God’s law are to prove his authority. Nothing else would do this. Therefore, the public good demanded these sanctions. Wrong action does not in itself deserve this penalty without reference to its necessity as a testimony of God’s authority. Since what is right is what will promote the happiness of all, we are also under obligation to choose the good even of those who do wrong. We should never wish evil on another. The only time such evil can become legitimate is when this evil is required by the public good, to uphold the authority of God’s law, as the best means of accomplishing this good.

Because the penalty and reward of the law are necessary to promote the public good, individuals and the public have a right to their execution. When a person obeys the law, he has a right to reward, not because his act intrinsically deserves a reward, but because this reward is necessary to uphold God’s authority, proving God loves obedience. Equally so the public has a right to his reward, for the same reason. When a person sins, he does not have a right to be punished, since no one can have a right to be hurt. Through his sin the individual has forfeited his right to reward, but has produced a right on the part of the public that he be punished, since God’s hatred of sin must be proven. But this is not a right because his act deserves punishment in itself, irrespective of the public good. If he was not punished the authority of God’s law would come into question since God would not be doing that which would prove he has the public good as his intention. Therefore the public has a right to require God to punish the sinner to prove he has the proper attitude toward sin.

In this sense, and in this sense only, can it be said that justice demands that wrong action be punished and right action be rewarded. Because the good of all requires that God exercise his rule over men through the influence of his legitimate authority, to command men in what actions will secure the public good, God must establish his authority by proving his commitment to the good of all. Nothing will prove this except sanctions that show he has the feelings which a perfectly benevolent being would have toward right and wrong action. This being the case, justice requires that God sanction his law with the reward and penalty he has, and that he carry out their execution when appropriate behaviour has occurred. He must reward the obedient and punish the disobedient. As long as God does this, justice is upheld, since those things necessary to promote the good of all are carried out by God. God is giving to everyone, individuals and the public, their due.

Setting Aside The Penalty

What God sought to do through the atonement was to find a legitimate way to avoid having to inflict his wrath upon sinners. His role as governor demanded that he express his wrath against sin as a governor, but God also wished to be merciful since he loves sinners. Hatred against a person for his sin is not inconsistent with loving him and wanting his good. Parents often are angry with their children when their children disobey, but such anger is not because they do not love their children. The opposite is so. It is because they love them that their children’s disobedience makes them so angry. They want the best for their children. So it is with God. God does not want to punish sin. His anger against sinners arises from the public right that he punish sin, and because sin is so harmful, both to the sinner himself and to others. What God sought through the atonement was a propitiation of his wrath, something which would satisfy its purpose as effectively as punishing the sinner would, allowing him to turn aside from his fierce anger.

But God faced a problem. The purpose of the penalty was to prove his authority, to prove he hated sin as much as he could. If a sinner sinned and God did not punish him, this would throw God’s character in question. It would suggest that he really did not have the public good at heart. This would destroy the influence of God’s law since it would destroy the public confidence in it due to his questionable character. Therefore, if God was to forgive sin, he had to do it in a way which would as effectively demonstrate his hatred toward sin as the infliction of the penalty would have. This God did by becoming a man himself, living by his own law perfectly, dying a terrible public death, and then declaring that only on the basis of repentance from sin and faith in this sacrifice for forgiveness, would he pardon sin. When we see God unwilling to forgive sin through any other means than this terrible cost to himself, we are left with no question as to whether his pardon of sin indicates any lessening of his hatred of sin or his commitment to the public good. Since the atonement accomplishes the same thing which inflicting the penalty would have, God is just in pardoning sinners who repent and trust in Christ for salvation. The critics of Moral Government ask how punishing an innocent man would prove God’s wrath against sin. Such a question entirely ignores that God was this man and he voluntarily suffered (he was not punished) to effect our salvation.

No Conflict Between Justice And Mercy

With this understanding of justice we see that God’s mercy is in no way in conflict with his justice. Justice demands that what is necessary to the public good be done. This required that God rule and that he sanction the authority of his law by rewarding obedience and punishing disobedience. This was necessary because he must prove his attitude toward sin and holiness to show he has the necessary character to rule. When the sinner sinned this produced the right on the part of the public to have the sinner punished. But this right was only because God had to prove he hates sin. Consequently, if the atonement will also prove God hates sin, it will meet this demand on the part of the public, and God can pardon sinners. The atonement does accomplish this, so God is just, and the one who justifies those who have faith in Christ.

The atonement on its God-ward side meets the governmental requirement of upholding the influence of God’s law. The suggestion that it satisfied justice in the sense of a literal payment of debt is the result of the mistaken belief that punishment and reward are inherently due because of the intrinsic demerit and merit of moral actions. While such actions are inherently right and wrong, they cannot inherently deserve reward and punishment without reference to the public good. Since love is the spirit of the law and the greatest good of all that which determines right and wrong action, in no sense can evil be inflicted on another where such infliction is not called for because of some good it will achieve for the person or for the public. It is only in such a case that the infliction of evil would be right. Conversely, reward is not called for except as such reward will support and uphold the public good. No reward is simply due for doing our duty. It is only our duty.

On the Man-ward side the atonement also produces the necessary humbling of man in repentance, making it consistent for God to allow the atonement to be applied to the individual sinner’s case. Since God must uphold the public good, God cannot pardon someone who continues to do things which are harmful to that good. No atonement which pronounces a sinner just while he continues to sin can be a just atonement, since it makes it possible for the sinner to carry on in those very actions which brought his condemnation. They were condemned because they endangered the public good. The atonement from God’s side meets the governmental requirement of proving his wrath toward sin. God’s government required something that would express this. This now makes it possible for God to extend pardon. But this only allows God to pardon sins which are forsaken, and to pronounce the sinner just regarding his past sins. God has no right to allow further sinning since this would again endanger the public good. A man who repents and exercises faith in the atonement has righteousness credited to his account, but he must now obey God. This is not salvation by works because such future obedience is not meriting forgiveness for past sins. These are simply forgiven through Christ. Present obedience ensures that more guilt is not incurred. We are saved through faith alone since it is our sins we must be saved from. These are freely forgiven in Christ.

Equally so, our present obedience now is through God’s grace, since his Holy Spirit works in us to persuade us to obedience through our yielding to his promptings. In this sense Christ is not only our justification but also our sanctification. Our obedience is not self energized but Spirit energized. God works in us to will and to act according to his purpose (Phil 2:12-13). It is in this sense that Paul did not consider himself to have a righteousness of his own (Phil 3:8-9). His past sins were forgiven through Christ and his present obedience was worked in him through Christ’s Spirit. But it must be we who will and act, or it is not we who are obeying. God’s action in us is moral and persuasive, not causal and coercive. A major part of what the Holy Spirit uses to persuade us to these acts of obedience is the atonement and its depiction of the wrongness of our sin in contrast to the love of God. This is why Romans 8:3 claims that Christ’s atonement condemned sin in sinful man. This revelation by the Spirit of the cost of our sin arrests our sinful activity.


This is the Moral Government view of the atonement as I understand it. It does justice to all the passages which critics of Moral Government Theology claim it does not. Jesus paid what was necessary for our release; he propitiated, turned aside and satisfied God’s governmental wrath against sin; through his death righteousness is credited, imputed to our account. All these things are true even though the atonement was not a literal payment of debt. Sin has no such debt. The atonement did the same thing which the penalty would have done in demonstrating God’s character and his absolute opposition to all sin. Justice is completely upheld even though God shows mercy, since God’s government continues to have authority as the best means to secure the public good.

This being the case I must beg to differ with such writer’s accusation that the Moral Government view of the atonement is heresy. On the contrary, it is the only view which harmonizes all scriptural passages dealing with the subject, with a consistent presentation of the claims of justice in the pardon of sinners. God truly does pardon sin. God forgives. It truly is mercy and grace that we are saved through faith alone in Christ’s sufficient sacrifice for our sins. And God accomplishes this complete pardon without in any way compromising the claims of justice.

God presented him as a sacrifice of atonement, through faith in his blood. He did this to demonstrate his justice, because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished – he did it to demonstrate his justice at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus (Romans 3:25-26). [1]


1. Quoted from NIV.

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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