Argument against Penal Substitution and in Defence of the Vicarious Governmental Atonement

The following is an excerpt of an article by Jesse Morrell. In it, he gives arguments for why he holds to the Vicarious Governmental Atonement View and not to the Penal Substitution View. While I agree with his arguments, which are valid, I do not necessarily hold the Vicarious Governmental Atonement over the Penal Substitution View. I believe that they can be seen as spotlights shedding a different light on the atonement at Calvary. At the bottom of this page you can find links to other “spotlights” enlightening the meaning of the atonement.


‘If it were true that Christ took the punishment for all of the sins of all of the elect, then the elect could never by any means be damned. In which case, repentance and faith would no longer be conditions of salvation as Christ already took the punishment for their impenitence and unbelief. His atonement, in the penal view, is not the means through which unbelief and impenitence can be forgiven when they are forsaken but is the actual punishment for them. In which case, while the elect are impenitent and unbelieving they are in no real danger at all and do not abide under the wrath of God. This overthrows the doctrine of justification by faith as the elect would be justified by the atonement even while in their unbelief.

It would also mean that God does not actually forgive any sins as all sins are punished. It would mean that no penalty is remitted as all penalty has been executed. So Jesus could not have died for the forgiveness of sin, as the penal theory excludes forgiveness all together.

It would also mean that salvation is now a matter of justice, not grace. The elect can demand their salvation as opposed to begging for mercy. It would be unjust for God to punish the same sins twice. Therefore, those for whom Christ died for cannot be punished for their sins. On the grounds of justice, therefore, they can demand their salvation. And it is not an act of grace for God to grand them salvation as there is nothing gracious about it once the atonement has been made.

These, amongst other reasons, is why I reject the Penal theory as inconsistent with biblical fact.

I instead hold to the vicarious governmental view of the atonement which states that the atonement was not the punishment for our sins but a substitute for our punishment – that which fulfilled the same governmental office as our penalty so that now our penalty can be graciously remitted by God when sinners meet the conditions of salvation i.e. repentance and faith. But prior to their conversion, they abide under the wrath of God despite the atonement that has already been made for them.

The penalty for our sins is not mere physical death or crucifixion but eternal damnation. Jesus did not suffer eternal damnation and therefore He did not suffer the penalty for our sins. His atonement is a substitute for our penalty, not the penalty itself. Through his shedding of blood, our penalty of damnation for our sins can be remitted.

The scriptures state emphatically the Jesus tasted death for every man and died for all men, but that his death does not make an automatic salvation for a few but provides a conditional salvation available for all. The penal theory excludes this as it logically leads to either universalism or limited atonement – both of which are heretical.

Jesus died for the remission of sins yet after the atonement men are called to repent for the remission of sins. Jesus died to reconcile us to God and yet after the atonement men are told to be ye reconciled to God. Evidently the atonement of Christ was a provision through which men can be reconciled and have their penalty remitted but not necessarily or automatically so.

The Bible is also clear that God had mercy before the atonement and that God still has wrath after the atonement. In fact, those who reject the gospel have more wrath or sorer punishment than those who merely sinned against the law – so God has more wrath after the atonement than before.

Biblical propitiation is not rendering God more favorably disposed towards man, for if God were not already favorably disposed towards man before the atonement He never would have made the atonement in the first place. It is not that the atonement gave us a merciful God but that a merciful God gave us the atonement. The atonement was not a satisfaction of His wrath but a justification of His mercy. It is propitious because it is the means through which God can justly exercise His mercy and turn from His wrath, which He only does when sinners are actually converted.’

Source: Jesse Morrell, “Penal Substitution vs. Vicarious Governmental Atonement” (biblicaltruthresources)


For more on the Governmental Theory of The Atonement, click here and here.

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