The Governmental Theory of the Atonement

By John Miley

(John Miley, D.D., 1813-1895, was a Methodist theologian and professor of systematic theology at Drew Theological Seminary in Madison, New Jersey.  These series of artices are taken from Chapter 8 of his work, "The Atonement in Christ", originally published in 1881)

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III. Theory and Necessity for Atonement

1. An Answer to the Real Necessity.

The redemptive mediation of Christ implies a necessity for it. There should be, and in scientific consistency must be, an accordance between a doctrine of atonement and the ground of its necessity.

The Moral theory finds in the ignorance and evil tendencies of man a need for higher moral truth and motive than reason affords; a need for all the higher truths and motives of the Gospel. There is such a need-very real and very urgent. And Christ has graciously supplied the help so needed. But we yet have no part of the necessity for an objective ground of forgiveness. Hence this scheme does not answer to the real necessity for an atonement.

Did the necessity arise out of an absolute justice which must punish sin, the theory of Satisfaction would be in accord with it, but without power to answer to its requirement, because such a necessity precludes substitutional atonement.

We do find the real necessity in the interests of moral government-interests which involve the divine glory and authority, and welfare of moral beings. Whatever will conserve these ends while opening the way of forgiveness, answers to the real necessity in the case. Precisely this is done on the doctrine of atonement which we maintain. In the requirement of the sacrifice of Christ as the only ground of forgiveness the standard of the divine estimate of sin is exalted, and merited penalty is rendered more certain respecting all who fail of forgiveness through redemptive grace. And these are the special moral forces whereby the divine law may restrain sin, protect rights, guard innocence, and secure the common welfare. Further, the doctrine we maintain not only gives to these salutary forces the highest moral potency, but also combines with them the yet higher force of the divine love as revealed in the marvelous means of our redemption. Thus while the highest good of moral beings is secured, the divine glory receives its highest revelation. The doctrine has, therefore, not only the support derived from an answer to the real necessity for an atonement, but also the commendation of a vast increase in the moral forces of the divine government.

2. Grounded in the Deepest Necessity.

We are here in direct issue with the doctrine of Satisfaction: for here its advocates make special claims in its favor, and urge special objections against ours. We already have the principles and facts which must decide the question.

In their scheme, the necessity lies in an absolute obligation of justice to punish sin, simply as such, and ultimately in a divine punitive disposition. But we have previously shown that there is no such necessity. We have maintained a punitive disposition in God: but we also find in him a compassion for the very sinners whom his justice so condemns. And we may as reasonably conclude that his disposition of clemency will find its satisfaction in a gratuitous forgiveness of all as that he will not forgive any, except on the equivalent punishment of a substitute. Who can show that the punitive disposition is the stronger? We challenge the presentation of a fact in its expression that shall parallel the cross in expression of the disposition of mercy. And, with no absolute necessity for the punishment of sin, it seems clear that but for the requirements of rectoral justice, compassion would triumph over the disposition of a purely retributive justice. Hence this alleged absolute necessity for an atonement is really no necessity at all.

What is the necessity in the Governmental theory? It is such as arises in the rightful honor and authority of the divine Ruler, and in the rights and interests of moral beings under him. The free remission of sins without an atonement would be their surrender. Hence divine justice itself, still having all its punitive disposition, but infinitely more concerned for these rights and interests than in the mere retribution of sin, must interpose all its authority in bar of a mere administrative forgiveness. The divine holiness and goodness, infinitely concerned for these great ends, must equally bar a forgiveness in their surrender. The divine justice, holiness, and love must, therefore, combine in the imperative requirement of an atonement in Christ as the necessary ground of forgiveness. These facts ground it in the deepest necessity.

The rectoral ends of moral government are a profounder imperative with justice itself than the retribution of sin, simply as such. One stands before the law in the demerit of crime. His demerit renders his punishment just, though not a necessity. But the protection of others, who would suffer wrong through his impunity, makes his punishment an obligation of judicial rectitude. The same principles are valid in the divine government. The demerit of sin imposes no obligation of punishment upon the divine Ruler; but the protection of rights and interests, by means of merited penalty, is a necessity of his judicial rectitude, except as that protection can be secured through some other means. It is true, therefore, that the Rectoral atonement is grounded in the deepest necessity.

3. Rectoral Value of Penalty

We have sufficiently distinguished between the purely retributive and the rectoral offices of penalty. The former respects simply the demerit of sin; the latter, the great ends to be attained through the ministry of justice and law. As the demerit of sin is the only thing justly punishable, and as unjust penalty may not even be legislated, the retributive element always conditions the rectoral office of justice; but the former does not necessarily include the latter. The distinction of these facts is real.

Penal retribution may, therefore, be viewed as a distinct fact, and entirely in itself. As such, it is simply the punishment of sin because of its demerit, and without respect to any other reason or end.

Now as we rise to the contemplation of divine justice in its infinitely larger sphere, and yet not as an isolated attribute, but in inseparable association with infinite holiness, and wisdom, and love, as attributes of the one divine Ruler over innumerable moral beings, we must think that his retribution of sin always has ulterior ends in the interests of his moral government. We, therefore, hold all divine punishment to have a strictly rectoral function.

Punishment is the ultimate resource of all righteous government. Every good ruler will seek to secure obedience, and all other true ends of a wise and beneficent administration, through the highest and best available means. Of no other is this so true as of the divine Ruler. In the failure of such means, there is still the resource of punishment, which shall put in subjection the harmful agency of the incorrigible. Thus rights and interests are protected. This protection is a proper rectoral value of penalty, but a value realized only in its execution.

There is a rectoral value of penalty simply as an element of law. It has such value in a potency of influence upon human conduct. A little analysis will reveal its salutary forces. Penalty, in its own nature, and also through the moral ideas with which it is associated, makes its appeal to certain motivities in us. As it finds a response therein, so has it a governing influence, and a more salutary governing influence as the response is to the higher associated ideas. As punishment is the ultimate resource of all righteous government, so all the salutary influence of penalty, simply as an element of law, is through motive.

First of all, penalty, as an element of law, appeals to an instinctive fear. The intrinsic force of the appeal is determined by its severity and the certainty of its execution; but the actual influence is largely determined by the state of our subjective motivity. Some are seemingly quite insensible to the greatest severity and certainty of threatened penalty, while others are deeply moved thereby. Human conduct is thus greatly influenced. This, however, is the lowest power of penalty as a motive. Yet it is not without value. Far better is it that evil tendencies should be restrained, and outward conformity to law secured, through such fear than not at all.

The chief rectoral value of penalty, simply as an element of law, is through the moral ideas which it conveys, and the response which it thus finds in the moral reason. As the soul answers to these ideas in the healthful activities of conscience and the profounder sense of obligation, so the governing force of penalty takes the higher form of moral excellence. As penalty is the clear utterance of justice itself, even in its highest rectoral office-the declaration of rights in all their sacredness, and which it must sacredly guard-the reprobation of crime in all its forms of injury or wrong and depth of intrinsic punitive desert-so it conveys the imperative lessons of duty, and rules through the profounder principles of moral obligation. Now rights are held sacred and duties fulfilled because they are such, and not from fear of the penal consequences of their violation or neglect. The same facts have the fullest application to penalty as an element of the divine law. Here its higher rectoral value will be, and can only be, through the higher revelation of God in his moral attributes as ever active in all moral administration. In its simple retributive element, or as an expression merely of the divine wrath against sin, penalty makes its appeal only to an instinctive fear. Therefore, it can govern through nothing else. But this is its very lowest rectoral force. Of course, we speak with respect to quality, not quantity. And however great the amount of such force, the quality is not in the least heightened. Though in such measure as by a moral certainty, or necessitation even, to sway all moral beings, it would still be the lowest governing force. It could still rule only through an instinctive fear or servile dread of punishment. A true moral obedience never could be so secured. There might be the eye-service of slaves, but never the heartservice of sons. Let the common moral consciousness clothe the divine Ruler in an absolute punitive justice, and that justice will hang as a pall of darkness and despair upon the vision of a trembling world. The penalty of such a justice, voiced in the thunders and flashed in the lightnings of Sinai, could have rectoral force only through a servile fear. But God is one. And there is no schism among his attributes, nor isolation of any one. The just One is also holy and good. And justice, as penally retributive, must not be doctrinally isolated, nor made in any case the sole law of divine administration. In his punitive ministries God is still love; and now, under the Gospel, the thunders of Sinai may never silence the voices of Calvary. Thus as in both his legislative and administrative justice God reveals the fullness and harmony of his moral attributes, and himself as looking out upon moral beings pre-eminently, from the mount of love, and as ruling with a view to his own glory and the common good, so does he associate with penalty the highest moral ideas, which find a response in the profoundest facts of our moral nature, and give to penalty its truest, best rectoral force. Now it rules no longer through an instinctive fear, but through the profoundest ideas and motives of the moral reason.

4. Rectoral Value of Atonement

The sufferings of Christ, as a proper substitute for punishment, must fulfill the office of penalty in the obligatory ends of moral government. The manner of fulfillment is determined by the nature of the service. As the salutary rectoral force of penalty, as an element of law, is specially through the moral ideas which it reveals, so the vicarious sufferings of Christ must reveal like moral ideas, and rule through them. Not else can they so take the place of penalty as, on its remission, to fulfill its high rectoral office. Hence the vicarious sufferings of Christ are an atonement for sin, as they reveal God in his justice, holiness, and love; in his regard for his own honor and law; in his concern for the rights and interests of moral beings; in his reprobation of sin as intrinsically evil, and utterly hostile to his own rights and to the welfare of his subjects.

Does the atonement in Christ reveal such truths? We answer, Yes. Nor do we need the impossible penal element of the scheme of Satisfaction for any part of this revelation. God reveals his profound regard for the sacredness of his law, and for the interests which it conserves, by what he does for their support and protection. In direct legislative and administrative forms he ordains his law, with declarations of its sacredness and authority; embodies in it the weightiest sanctions of reward and penalty; reprobates in severest terms all disregard of its requirements, and all violation of the rights and interests which it would protect; visits upon transgression the fearful penalties of his retributive justice, though always at the sacrifice of his compassion. The absence of such facts would evince an indifference to the great interests concerned, while their presence evinces, in the strongest manner possible to such facts, the divine regard for these interests. These facts, with the moral ideas which they embody, give weight and salutary governing power to the divine law. The omission of the penal element would, without a proper rectoral substitution, leaves the law in utter weakness.

Now let the sacrifice of Christ be substituted for the primary necessity of punishment, and as the sole ground of forgiveness. But we should distinctly note what it replaces in the divine law, and wherein it may modify the divine administration. The law remains, with all its precepts and sanctions. Penalty is not annulled. There is no surrender of the divine honor and authority. Rights and interests are no less sacred, nor guarded in feebler terms. Sin has the same reprobation; pen-alty the same imminence and severity respecting all persistent impenitence and unbelief. The whole change in the divine economy is this that on the sole ground of the vicarious sacrifice of Christ, all who repent and believe may be forgiven and saved. This is the divine substitution for the primary necessity of punishment. While, therefore, all the other facts in the divine legislation and administration remain the same, and in unabated expression of truths of the highest rectoral force and value, this divine sacrifice in atonement for sin replaces the lesson of a primary necessity for punishment with its own higher revelation of the same salutary truths; rather, it adds its own higher lesson to that of penalty. As penalty remains in its place, remissible, indeed, on proper conditions, yet certain of execution in all cases of unrepented sin, and, therefore, often executed in fact, the penal sanction of law still proclaims all the rectoral truth which it may utter. Hence the sacrifice of Christ in atonement for sin, and in the declaration of the divine righteousness in forgiveness, is an additional and infinitely higher utterance of the most salutary moral truths. The cross is the highest revelation of all the truths which embody the best moral forces of the divine government.

The atonement in Christ is so original and singular in many of its facts, that it is the more difficult to find in human facts the analogies for its proper illustration. Yet there are facts not without service here.

An eminent lecturer, in a recent discussion of the atonement, has given notoriety to a measure of Bronson Alcott in the government of his school. He substituted his own chastisement for the infliction of penalty upon his offending pupil, receiving the infliction at the hand of the offender. No one can rationally think such a substitution penal, or that the sin of the pupil was expiated by the stripes which the master suffered instead. The substitution answered simply for the disciplinary ends of penalty. Without reference either to the theory of Bronson Alcott, or to the interpretation of Joseph Cook, we so state the case as most obvious in the philosophy of its own facts. Such office it might well fulfill. And we accept the report of the very salutary result, not only as certified by the most reliable authority, but also as intrinsically most credible. No one in the school, and to be ruled by its discipline, could henceforth think less gravely of any offense against its laws. No one could think, either, that the master regarded with lighter reprobation the evil of such offense, or that he was less resolved upon a rigid enforcement of obedience. All these ideas must have been intensified, and in a manner to give them the most healthful influence. The vicarious sacrifice of the master became a potent and most salutary moral element in the government maintained. Even the actual punishment of the offender could not have so secured obedience for the sake of its own obligation and excellence.

Instances have occurred in which an innocent pupil has given himself as a substitute for a guilty one, and received the stripes penally due the offender. We have here like facts to those in the preceding case, and the same philosophy of them. The disciplinary stripes are not penal to the substitute, as they would have been in their infliction upon the offender. There are wanting all the conditions of a veritable punishment. There is no demerit in the substitute. The law of the school has no penalty for him, and must turn aside from its retributive course to reach him. The master has for him no condemnation, and finds no retributive satisfaction in his vicarious suffering. The substitution, therefore, is not for the punishment of sin, but for the sake of the rectoral ends of penalty. These ends are secured through the moral ideas which the substitution conveys.

We may also instance the case of Zaleucus, very familiar in discussions of atonement, though usually accompanied with such denials of analogy as would render it useless for illustration. It is so useless on the theory of Satisfaction, but valuable on a true theory.

Zaleucus was law-giver and ruler of the Locrians, a Grecian colony early founded in Southern Italy. His laws were severe, and his administration rigid; yet both were well suited to the manners of the people. His own son was convicted for violating a law, the penalty of which was blindness. The case came to Zaleucus both as ruler and father. Hence there was a conflict in his soul. He would have been an unnatural father, and of such a character as to be unfit for a ruler, had he suffered no conflict of feeling. His people entreated his clemency for his son. But as a statesman, he knew that the sympathy which prompted such entreaty could be but transient; that in the reaction be would suffer their accusation of partiality and injustice; that his laws would be dishonored and his authority broken. Still there was the conflict of soul. What should he do for the reconciliation of the ruler and the father? In this exigency he devised an atonement by the substitution of one of his own eyes for one of his son's.

This was a provision above law and retributive justice. Neither had any penalty for the ruler and father on account of the sin of the son. The substitution, therefore, was not penal. The vicarious suffering was not in any sense retributive. It could not be so. All the conditions of penal retribution were wanting. No one can rationally think that the sin of the son, or any part of it, was expiated by the suffering of the father in his stead. The transference of sin as a whole is unreasonable enough; but the idea of a division of it, a part being left with the actual sinner and punished in him and the other part transferred to a substitute and punished in him, transcends all the capabilities of rational thought.

The substitution, without being penal, did answer for the rectoral office of penalty. The ruler fully protected his own honor and authority. Law still voiced its behests and penalties with unabated force. And the vicarious sacrifice of the ruler upon the altar of his parental compassion, and as well upon the altar of his administration, could but intensify all the ideas which might command for him honor and authority as a ruler, or give to his laws a salutary power over his people.

This, therefore, is a true case of atonement through vicarious suffering, and in close analogy to the divine atonement. In neither case is the substitution for the retribution of sin, but in each for the sake of the rectoral ends of penalty, and thus the objective ground of its remissibility. We have, therefore, in this instance a clear and forceful illustration of the rectoral value of the atonement. And such are the instances previously given. But so far we have presented this value in its nature rather than in its measure. This will find its proper place in treating the sufficiency of the atonement.

5. Only Sufficient Atonement

Nothing could be more fallacious than the objection that the Governmental theory is in any sense acceptilational, or intrinsically indifferent to the character of the substitute in atonement. In the inevitable logic of its deepest and most determining principles it excludes all inferior substitution as insufficient, and requires a divine sacrifice as the only sufficient atonement. Only such a substitution can give adequate expression to the great truths which may fulfill the rectoral office of penalty. The case of Zaleucus may illustrate this. Many other devisements were at his command. He, no doubt, had money, and might have essayed the purchase of impunity for his son by the distribution of large sums. In his absolute power he might have substituted the blindness of some inferior person. But what would have been the signification or rectoral value of any such a measure? It could give no answer to the real necessity in the case, and must have been utterly silent respecting the great truths imperatively requiring affirmation in any adequate substitution. The sacrifice of one of his own eyes for one of his son's did give the requisite affirmation, while nothing below it could. So, in the substitution of Christ for us. No inferior being and no inferior sacrifice could answer, through the expression and affirmation of great rectoral truths, for the necessary ends of penalty. And, as we shall see in the proper place, no other theory can so fully interpret and appro-priate all the facts in the sacrifice of Christ. It has a place and a need for every element of atoning value in his substitution.

6. True Sense of Satisfaction

The satisfaction of justice in atonement for sin is not peculiar to the doctrine of Satisfaction, technically so-called. It is the distinctive nature of the satisfaction that is so peculiar. The Rectoral atonement is also a doctrine of satisfaction to divine justice, and in a true sense. The narrow view which makes the retribution of sin, simply as such, an absolute obligation of justice, and then finds the fulfillment of its office in the punishment of Christ as a substitute in penalty, never can give a true sense of satisfaction. But with broader and truer views of justice, with its ends in moral government as paramount, and with penalties as the rightful means for their attainment; then the vicarious sufferings of Christ, as more effectually attaining the same ends, are the satisfaction of justice, while freely remitting its penalties. This is a true sense of satisfaction. Love also is satisfied. And a redemption of love must be in satisfaction of love as well as of justice.

Consistently with these views we may appropriate the following definition, and none the less consistently or freely because of its appropriation by Dr. Symington, although a Satisfactionist in the thorough sense of the Reformed soteriology: By Satisfaction, in a theological sense, we mean such act or acts as shall accomplish all the moral purposes which, to the infinite wisdom of God, appear fit and necessary under a system of rectoral holiness, and which must otherwise have been accomplished by the exercise of retributive justice upon transgressors in their own persons."

|Preliminary Facts| |Public Justice| |Theory and Necessity for Atonement| |Theory and Scripture Interpretation|