Governmental Theory of The Atonement

Read also this article to understand Hugo Grotius (the inventor of the Governmental Theory)’ view on the Governmental Theory of The Atonement.


Source: Jesse Morrell, OpenAirOutreach (photobucket)

This can be summarized in the words of Charles Finney:

“God is love, and prefers mercy when it is safely exercised. The Bible represents him as delighting in mercy, and affirms that judgment is his strange work.”

Source: Charles Grandison Finney. Lectures on Systematic Theology (London: William Tegg and Co., 1851), p. 355.

And the words of Gordon Olson:

“The sufferings of Christ were necessary to the Divine government, rather than to the Divine nature”

Source:  Gordon Olson. Historical Opinions as to the Nature of Christ’s Atoning Death (Illinois: Franklin Park: Bible Research Fellowship, 1980), p. 2.



“The penal sanction, or threatened punishment, must have the same benevolent design with the promissory sanction, and with the preceptive part of the law itself.

To answer this benevolent design, the penalty must be:

(a) suffering;
(b) suffering to be inflicted by the lawgiver;
(c) suffering to be inflicted, by the lawgiver, upon the violator of law, and for the violation of law;
(d) suffering to be inflicted, by the lawgiver, upon the sinner, proportioned to the degree of his sinfulness;
(e) suffering to be thus inflicted, by the lawgiver, as an expression of his hatred of sin and estimate of its intrinsic ill desert. Such a penalty is an essential part of the moral law; and, without it, law would be, not law, but mere unauthoritative advice. It is just as important as the precept itself; just as necessary as moral government is; unless there can be found a substitute which will be equally efficacious as a sanction of law. For the sole function of penalty is that of a legal sanction. Its sole value is its efficacy to enforce the law and maintain its authority, and so ultimately help promote the great benevolent ends of moral government.”

– Rev. Daniel Taggart Fiske, The Necessity of The Atonement, The Governmental Theory

“According to this theory, the atonement was necessary in order to vindicate and sustain the divine law, and thus enable God, as a wise and benevolent Ruler, to remit the penalty due to sin, and save sinners, on condition of their repentance and faith.

Some of the principles involved in this general statement are:

(1) That God is a wise and benevolent ruler.
(2) That, as such, he must vindicate and maintain the authority of his law.
(3) That the annexed penalty is for the purpose of vindicating and maintaining his law.
(4) That the sufferings of Christ were not, literally and strictly, the penalty of the law, but a substitute for it, and an equivalent, i.e. had the same efficacy in respect to the divine law and government that the penalty was designed to have, and would have if inflicted, in cases where it is remitted.
(5) That the atonement renders the salvation of all men possible: removing those obstacles which law and justice interposed, and leaving nothing but impenitence and unbelief to hinder any from being forgiven and saved.
(6) That the atonement does not obligate God, in the exercise of justice, to save any; but enables him, that is, makes it safe and consistent for him, in the exercise of sovereign grace, to save the penitent and believing.”

– Ibid.

This book does a great job in defending the philosophical aspect of The Governmental View of The Atonement and the conclusion explains that view very well (you can skip to that part if you want to know only how). it is well worth reading it. Although it is a long read, I believe it is the most thorough way of explaining the governmental view of the atonement. You can get it here.


“Pardon and forgiveness cannot be brought to pass unless God’s righteous obligations as Moral Governor can be satisfied. Nor can it happen unless man is willing to repent and embrace the conditions of mercy. It is here that the blessed atonement of Christ enters as the greatest fact of world history:

  1. It upholds God’s moral government by showing forth the awful nature of sin and its just due of eternal punishment.
  2. It reveals God’s inner hatred of sin and how terrifying have been the effects of sin upon the Members of the Godhead.
  3. It furnishes the crushing force to subdue the tremendous structure of human pride, humbling man to the place where God can pour out His storehouse of blessings in tender kindness.
  4. It provides the means for man’s complete transformation and affectionate motivation in a newness of life.

The only thing left is for man to repent of all sin and stupidity and seek the face of God in proper humbleness. Man must identify himself in a committal of faith to the sufferings of Christ for his sins, as the only hope of his forgiveness and spiritual restoration from a state of ruin. God, then, can become joyful in loving forgiveness, consistent with His righteous obligations, “because He delights in unchanging love” (or loving-kindness) (Micah 7:18-19).”

– Gordon Olson, The Truth Shall Make You FreeThe Truth About The Nature and Character of God; p 35-36 (Illinois, Bible Research Fellowship Inc., 1980).

Hear Gordon Olson explain this:

Source: my youtube channel (check for primary source and more videos by Gordon C. Olson)

OF THE ATONEMENT (partial – only the merciful side is quoted)

”It may be demanded that there shall not be a false impression made by the atonement in regard to the mercy of God. If he is merciful, then the atonement should so represent his character. It should leave that as a fair impression on the minds of all who contemplate it. There should be in that atonement a real and not an imaginary display of mercy. There should not be a mere transfer of guilt; there should not be a mere infliction of wrath on the innocent instead of the guilty; there should not be mere punishment and nothing but punishment, the punishment of the innocent instead of the guilty; there should not be a mere stern demand of the ‘last farthing,’ demanded of the offender or of a substitute; there should be real mercy, real forgiveness, a real lessening of the infliction of pain. If this were not so, then, whether a pretended atonement were made or not, the entire representation of the character of God in the case would be that he was only severely and absolutely just, or that there was no mercy blended with justice in his character. If God is merciful, then this would be a wholly unfair representation of what he is.”

Source: Albert Barnes, The Atonement (1860), Chapter 4: The Objects to be Secured by an Atonement, p. 113-114 (emphasis his).


The scheme of Jesse Morrell is a very good conclusion for Daniel Taggart Fiske’s and Gordon Olson’s Governmental View of The Atonement:

Source: Jesse Morrell, OpenAirOutreach (photobucket)

I believe that this theory of the atonement is definitely part of what the atonement means but I believe it is only one aspect of the atonement. It is not the only correct one.

Read also this article to understand Hugo Grotius (the inventor of the Governmental Theory)’ view on the Governmental Theory of The Atonement.

Other theories of the atonement:
Ransom Theory
Moral Influence Theory
Recapitulation Theory (coming soon)
Extra article by Gregory Boyd

If you are interested in Moral Government Theory, IT IS VERY IMPORTANT TO READ the “Imputed Righteousness” article, since many in seem to make God more a Person who delights in taking vengeance instead of the God of the Bible who likes to forgive for

“The Lord is not slow in regard to the promise, as certain count slowness, but is long-suffering to us, not counselling any to be lost but all to pass on to reformation.” – 2 Peter 3:9 (YLT, emphasis mine).

The Governmental View of the atonement seems to do just that:
God can freely remit your sins when you come to Him with genuine faith and  genuine repentance. 🙂

Read also this article to understand Hugo Grotius (the inventor of the Governmental Theory)’ view on the Governmental Theory of The Atonement.


Source: Robin T Greene; Norman Geisler, Systematic Theology II; Theories of The Atonement; Governmental Theory of The Atonement


4 thoughts on “Governmental Theory of The Atonement

  1. Nice summary of what I believe to be the correct view of the “atonement” (though it is a mistake to call it an “atonement” as it is actually a “propitiation”.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. Jesus’ death is never referred to as an “atonement”. An atonement is a gesture made by a sinner to express remorse and appeal to God for mercy. Jesus’ death was a gesture made by God to indicate that he was not being derelict in forgoing vengeance upon sinners by freely forgiving them since He took has “skin in the game” in that he was also a victim of sinners in that his own son was murdered by sinners. For example, God, as Judge of all the earth is obligated to avenge the Jews for their innocent suffering under the Nazis (“vengeance is my job, I will repay”) but since God was a victim as well because his son suffered innocently he shows that his mercy is at a personal cost, not just asking the Jews to bear the cost of his failure to punish any Nazis or others that believed the gospel. That is a “propitiation”. “God is justified and the justifier”. As Romans 3 says, “whom God set forth publicly that he [God] might be justified and the justifier of him that believes”.


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