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)

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

IV. Theory and Scripture Interpretation

We have previously stated that any theory of atonement, to be true, must be true to the Scriptures. It must also fairly interpret the more specific terms of atonement, and be consistent with all truths and facts having a determining relation to it. We freely submit the theory here maintained to this test. It will answer to all the requirements of the case. Nor will an elaborate discussion be necessary to make the fact clear.

1. Terms of Divine Wrath

The Scriptures abound in expressions of the divine wrath. Our theory fully recognizes the fact. And these terms of expression have not their full sense simply as rectoral or judicial. Nor have we any need of such a restriction.

There is ground for a distinction as we think of God personally and rectorally. There is the same distinction respecting a human ruler. He has his personal character and also his rectoral sphere. Judicial obligation may constrain what the personal feeling not only fails to support, but strongly opposes. Yet a personal disposition in condemnation of crime is very proper in a minister of the law. It is necessary, and must extend to the criminal, if law is to be property maintained. And the denial of all personal displeasure of God against sin and against sinners would be contrary to his essential personal righteousness. Even with men, the higher the moral tone the profounder is the reprobation of sin. In the moral perfection of God it has its profoundest depth. Yet it is not vindictive or revengeful, and coexists with an infinite compassion. These dispositions, so diverse in tone and ministry, are harmonious in God.

It is in no contrariety to this, that, while punishment is with God in sacrifice of his disposition of clemency, his punitive disposition is in moral support of the sacrifice. Without a retributive disposition in man, law has no sufficient guarantee of enforcement. Mere benevolence toward the common welfare would not answer for the protection of society through the means of penalty. We will not allege such a disability in the divine benevolence: but it is clear that without a retributive disposition in God, the punishment of sin would impose a far greater sacrifice upon his compassion. And his punishment of sin is not simply from his benevolence toward the common welfare, nor from the requirement of judicial rectitude, but also from the impulse of a personal punitive disposition. Hence the terms of the divine wrath have a personal as well as an official sense. The doctrine we maintain so interprets them, and thus shows their consistency with itself.

But the divine wrath, so interpreted, asserts no dominance in the mind of God, and is in fullest harmony with his love. It has no necessity for penal satisfaction either in personal contentment or judicial rectitude. As personal, it neither requires nor admits a substitute in penalty as the ground of its surrender. It is in the nature and necessity of such a disposition that any penal satisfaction be found in the retribution of the actual sinner. To exaggerate it into a necessity for satisfaction, and then to find the satisfaction in the retribution of Christ as substitute in penalty, is to pervert Scripture exegesis, and equally to pervert all theology and all philosophy in the case. In entire consistency with his personal displeasure, God may and does wish the absence of its provocation and the repentance of the rebellious, that he may receive them in clemency. And real as the divine displeasure is against sin and against sinners, atonement is made, not in its personal satisfaction, but in fulfillment of the rectoral office of justice. Hence, on the truth in the case, our theory fully interprets the terms of divine wrath.

2. Terms of Divine Righteousness

The Scripture texts which in different ways attribute righteousness to God, form a very numerous class. He is righteous; righteousness belongeth unto him; and his doings are righteous. These terms, so applied, are often synonymous with holiness; often, with goodness; sometimes, with justice. And they give no place to the narrow view which mostly restricts the divine righteousness to the retribution of sin.

If, as asserted, the punishment of sin according to its demerit is an absolute requirement of judicial rectitude in God, so that he is righteous only as he so punishes, or unrighteous in any omission, it follows that our doctrine will not properly interpret these terms. But, as we have previously shown, the divine righteousness has no such necessity.

In that God legislates, not arbitrarily or oppress. ively, but wisely and equitably, as with respect to his subjects-inflicts no unjust punishment, but by means of just penalty protects all rights and interests which might suffer wrong from the impunity of sin, except as forgiveness is granted only on such ground as may equally secure the same end-and rewards his children according to the provisions and promises appertaining to the economy of grace-he is righteous in the truest and highest sense of judicial righteousness which the Scriptures attribute to him. But these facts are in the fullest accord with our doctrine of atonement. It, therefore, fairly and fully interprets the Scripture terms of the divine righteousness.

3. Terms of Atonement

The more special terms of atonement, as previously given, are, atonement itself, reconciliation, propitiation, redemption, and the appropriated term substitution. All these terms have a proper interpretation in the Governmental theory. As an expression of the office and results of the redemptive mediation of Christ, they are properly rectoral terms. Yet in a deeper sense they imply the personal displeasure of God against sinners, and a change in his personal regard in actual reconciliation. Now they are no longer held in reprobation, but accepted in a loving friendship. Yet the atoning sacrifice of Christ neither appeases the personal displeasure of God nor conciliates his personal friendship. These facts are required and verified by the further fact, that, although the subjects of reconciliation in the death of Christ, yet as sinners we are none the less under the personal displeasure of God, and so continue until, on our repentance and faith, there is an actual reconciliation. The atonement, therefore, is in itself provisory. It renders us salvable consistently with the rectoral office of justice. But these personal regards of God respect man simply in his personal character, condemning him in his sinning, and accepting him in friendship on his repentance and obedience.

Such an exchange of personal regard is not only a consistency in God, but a necessity of his nature. Hence, the case is supposable, and with men sometimes actual, where personal friendship and judicial condemnation are co-existent. And could a sinner, without the helpful grace of redemption, sincerely repent and render a true obedience, there would be a coincidence upon him of the divine regards of personal friendship and judicial condemnation. Hence, these terms of atonement, while deeply implying the personal displeasure of God against sinners as such, represent the sufferings of Christ, not as appeasing such displeasure, nor as conciliating his personal favor, but as the ground of his judicial reconciliation; yet -always and only on such conditions of a new spiritual life as to carry with his judicial forgiveness his personal reconciliation and friendship. Such is their true sense; and such is their interpretation in the Governmental theory.

4. Terms of Atoning Suffering

Any issue on these terms respects neither the intensity of the sufferings of Christ nor the fact of their atoning office, but the question whether they were in any proper sense penally retributive.

This may be noted first, that there is neither term nor text of Scripture which explicitly asserts the penal substitution of Christ in atonement for sin. It is a noteworthy fact: and the assertion of it will stand good until the contrary be shown. As a fact, it is against the theory of atonement by penal substitution, and in favor of that of vicarious suffering.

The punishment of Christ as substitute in atonement is rendered familiar by frequency of utterance in theological discussion; but this is the utterance of theology, not the assertion of Scripture. Exegesis often asserts the same thing; but this is interpretation, not the texts themselves. They neither require nor warrant the interpretation. Redemption by vicarious suffering, without the penal element, will give their proper sense. Nor is there any term or text of Scripture expressive of the atoning suffering of Christ which this doctrine cannot freely appropriate in its deepest sense. Yet we do not think it necessary to review all the texts in question. It will suffice briefly to notice a few of the stronger.

"For he hath made him to be sin for us." A common rendering of the original is sin-offering. This has ample warrant, and avoids the insuperable difficulties attending any restriction to a primary or ethical sense of sin. That the Scriptures often use the original term in the sense of sin-offering there is no reason to question. In the references given, after a description of the sin-offering, we have for it the simple phrase, "hamartia esti," and so used several times; also, after the preceptive instruction respecting the daily sacrifice of atonement, we have the phrase, "to moscharion to tes hamartias poieseis," the last two words being the very same used in the text under review. On hamartia, as used in the references given in Leviticus, Sophocles says that "it is equivalent to "Thuaia pepi humartias." Thus we have in Scripture usage ample warrant for rendering the same term in the text under review as sin-offering. Nor do we thereby surrender any vital truth or fact of atonement. Christ is all the same a sacrifice for sin.

If this rendering be denied, what then? Will sin be held in any strictly ethical sense, or under any legitimate definition of sin proper? Certainly not. Christ could not so be made sin for us. No one who can analyze the terms and take their import will so maintain. Sin must still be subject to interpretation. Shall the rendering be the turpitude or demerit of sin? Even Satisfactionists must discard this, as they deny the possibility of its transference. Shall it be the guilt of sin? This some will allege. But guilt as a punishable reality cannot be separated from sin as a concrete fact in the person of a sinner. Only punishment remains as a possible rendering. But here is a like difficulty, that sin as punishable is untransferable.

"Christ hath redeemed us from the curse of the law, being made a curse (katara) for us: for it is written, Cursed (epikataratos) is every one that hangeth on a tree." The more literal sense is obvious, and is specially emphasized by the citation in the text. Nor would we conceal or avoid any force of the terms used. The curse of the law on us, and from which Christ redeems us, is the law's condemnation and the imminence of its penalty. And he redeems us by being made a curse for us in his crucifixion. But in what sense a curse? In the literal sense of the terms, and as emphasized by the quotation? This in the Hebrew text is, "for he that is hanged is accursed of God.

The doctrine of Satisfaction requires this full sense. If the curse is the divine punishment of sin, then whoever is so punished is accursed of God. So, if our sins were thus punished in Christ, then was he accursed of God. Will the doctrine of Satisfaction hold the literal sense, with its inevitable implications? Only in a sense consistent with the facts in the case is he that hangeth on a tree the subject of a divine curse. In many instances the most holy and beloved of the Father have been so executed. They were not accursed of God. And along with the fact of the divine malediction we must ever take the criminality of the subject. As such, and only as such, is any one accursed of God. Thus it is written of odious criminals, executed for their crimes and then exposed in suspension upon a tree, that they are accursed of God. Was Christ so accursed? Did the malediction of God fall upon him in his crucifixion as upon a criminal in the expiation of his sins under a judicial punishment?

We must depart from such a sense of this text. Its implications in the case of our Lord and Saviour would be violative of all truth and fact, and repugnant to all true Christian sentiment. We never again can go back to Luther's shocking exposition of the text; which, however, is in the order of its more literal sense, and within the limit of its inevitable implications. And that Christ in our redemption submitted to a manner of death which, as the punishment of heinous crime was in the deepest sense an accursed death, will, without the curse and wrath of God on him, or any penal element in his suffering, answer for all the requirements of a proper exegesis.

"Who his own self bare our sins, in his own body on the tree." The apostle no doubt had in mind the words of the prophet uttered in his marvelous prevision of the redemptive work of Christ. Hence the two passages here stand together.

They are much in the style and sense of those previously considered. That they fully mean the fact of an atonement for sin in the vicarious suffering of Christ there is no reason to question. And but for the insuperable difficulties previously stated, we might admit an element of penal substitution. The texts neither assert nor require it. Nor will the doctrine of Satisfaction appropriate them literally. Let it put upon "our sins" any proper definition according to the literal sense, and then answer to the question, whether Christ really bore them in his own body on the tree? It will not answer affirmatively. From such a sense the strongest doctrine of penal substitution will now turn aside, and proceed to an interpretation in accord with its more moderate views.

As previously stated, we have in these texts the fact of an atonement for sin in vicarious suffering. This fact justifies the use of their strongest terms of substitution, and answers for their interpretation. With the sufferings and death of Christ as the only and necessary ground of forgiveness and salvation, we can most freely and fully appropriate them. Nor do we need the penal element for such appropriation. And on no other doctrine than on that which we maintain can it be said of Christ more truly, or with deeper emphasis, that "he was wounded for our transgressions, bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed," "who his own self bore our sins in his own body on the tree."

V. Theory and Scripture Facts

There are a few special facts, clearly scriptural and with decisive bearing on the nature of the atonement, which may be noted here. They will be found witnessing for the theory which we maintain, and against that in special issue with it.

1. Guilt of Redeemed Sinners

It is an obvious fact both of the Scriptures and of the reason of the case, that sinners as such are under divine condemnation and guilt. There is no exception in favor of elect sinners, whose sins are alleged to have suffered merited punishment in Christ as substitute in penalty. Even admitting the Calvinistic distinction between the elect and non-elect, redeemed and non-redeemed, there is no such exception so long as sin is their habit. The divine law condemns all alike. The penalty of justice threatens all alike.

Why should this be true of any one whose sins have suffered merited punishment in Christ as his accepted substitute? It cannot be true. Whoever suffers the just punishment of his own sins is thereafter as free from guilt or answerableness in penalty as though he had not sinned. If such punishment be possible and actual by substitution, the same consequence must follow. And we have previously shown, by quotations from the highest authorities on the doctrine of Satisfaction, that justice itself imperatively requires the discharge of all sinners the just punishment of whose sins Christ has suffered in their behalf.

On such a scheme the discharge of redeemed sinners must take place at once. Indeed, guilt is never actualized in them. The punishment anticipates their sin. Then so must their justification or discharge. And all that is said to the contrary respecting the requirement of proper conditions or the divine determination when the discharge shall issue is either irrelevant or inconsistent, and therefore nugatory. Guilt and punishment are specific facts. The penalty of justice once inflicted, the subject is free. And on the scheme of Satisfaction redeemed sinners can no more be answerable in penalty for their sins at any time than Christ as their substitute can be answerable again for the same after he has once suffered their merited punishment. "So far as the guilt of an act-in other words, its obligation to punishment-is concerned, if the transgressor, or his accepted substitute, has endured the infliction that is set over against it, the law is satisfied, and the obligation to punishment is discharged." This is consistent, and to the point.

The illogical jumbling which asserts an atonement for sin by actual penal substitution, and then makes it over into a kind of deposit, to be drawn upon or dispensed at the option of the depositary, and that may be utterly refused to any and all, should be done with. It is in utter contrariety to the Reformed soteriology, into which the doctrine of Satisfaction by penal substitution is so deeply wrought, as it is to that doctrine itself. Yet we are constantly meeting this very jumbling. Here is a specimen: "God is under no obligation to make an atonement for the sin of the world; and, after he has made one, he is at perfect liberty to apply it to whom he pleases, or not to apply it at all. The atonement is his, and he may do what he will with his own." We have no adverse criticism, except upon what is so palpably inconsistent with the doctrine of Satisfaction, as it is with the citation just now given from the same author and taken from the same discussion. Whenever the payment of a debt is accepted, and from whomsoever, the debtor is free. Whenever a sin is justly punished, and in whomsoever, the sinner is free. Any detention, either in punishment or in liability to it, is an injustice. And the atonement of Satisfaction is not a deposit which may go to the payment of our debt of guilt, but the actual payment; not something that may be accounted to us for the punishment of our sins, but their actual punishment. The making of such an atonement is the application of it. And now to represent it as a deposit that may be drawn upon-to write of its optional application, and of its rightful refusal to any or to all-is to jumble egregiously.

It is still a fact of the Scriptures, as also of the reason of the case, that sinners as such, though the subjects of redemption, are in a state of guilt. It is a fact contrary to the theory of Satisfaction and in its disproof, as we have previously shown. But the atonement in substituted suffering, not in substituted punishment, and a provisory ground of forgiveness, not only agrees with such a fact, but requires it. Therefore, as the only alternative to the doctrine of Satisfaction for a real atonement in Christ, the fact of guilt in redeemed sinners witnesses with all the force of its logic to the truth of the Governmental theory.

2. Forgiveness in Justification

As sin in the redeemed has real guilt, and no less on account of the redemption, therefore justification, whatever else it may be, must include an actual forgiveness of sin. There must be a discharge from guilt as then real, a remission of penalty as then imminent. There is such a forgiveness. Nor is it really questioned, except for the exigency of a system, by truly evangelized minds. The Scriptures are full of it. It is in all the warnings against impending wrath; in all the urgent entreaties to repentance and salvation; in all the requirement and urgency of faith as the necessary condition of justification; in the deep sense of guilt and peril realized in a true conviction for sin; in the earnest prayer springing from such distress of conscience, and importuning the mercy of heaven; in the peace and joy of soul when the prayer is answered and the Spirit witnesses to a gracious adoption.

Justification is not merely the information, given at the time of such experience, of a discharge from guilt long before achieved through the merited punishment of sin in a substitute. As up to this time the guilt is real, so the forgiveness is now real. And it is much against the theory of Satisfaction that it cannot give us a true doctrine of forgiveness in justification. But the doctrine which we maintain encounters no such objection. Such an atonement, while a sufficient ground of forgiveness, leaves all the guilt with the sinner until his justification by faith. Then his sins are really forgiven. So witness the Scriptures; and so witnesses many a happy experience.

3. Grace in Forgiveness

The Satisfactionist thinks his own doctrine pre-eminently one of grace. Is it such in the forgiveness of sin? This is the special point we make here. Forgiveness is in the very nature of it an act of grace. That the divine forgiveness in our justification is such an act the Scriptures fully testify. Still, it is true that a debt paid, and by whomsoever, is not forgiven; that a penalty inflicted, and upon whomsoever, is not remitted. And let it be remembered that the absolute irremissibility of penalty is the groundprinciple in the theory of Satisfaction.

But since the economy of redemption is of God; since it originated in his infinite love; and since he provided the sacrifice in atonement for sin, is not his grace in forgiveness free and full? So the Satisfactionist reasons. Nor would we abate aught of the love of God in human redemption. There is infinite grace in his forgiveness of sin; but on the doctrine of atonement which we maintain, and not on that of Satisfaction.

If a doctrine is constructed, as that of Satisfaction, in the fullest recognition of a distinction of persons in the divine Trinity, and also of the specific part of each in the economy of human salvation, then it must not, for any after-exigency, ignore or suppress such distinction. If in the atonement, and as the only possible atonement, the Father inflicted the merited punishment of sin upon the Son, and the Son endured the punishment so inflicted, then they fulfill distinct offices in redemption. Yet the fact is often ignored or suppressed, in order to defend the doctrine of Satisfaction against the objection that it denies to the Father a gracious forgiveness of sin. Even Marshall Randles finds it convenient to do this in the defense of his own doctrine of a conditional penal substitution against the same objection.

If, in the obligation of an absolute retributive justice the Father must inflict merited punishment upon sin-and if in the atonement he inflicted such punishment upon his Son as the substitute of sinners-then he does not remit the penalty. No dialectics can identify such infliction with remission. And where there is no remission of penalty there can be no grace of forgiveness. Hence, the doctrine of Satisfaction does not admit the grace of the Father in forgiveness; which fact of grace, however, is clearly given in the Scriptures.

But this great fact of grace is in full accord with the Governmental theory. A provisory atonement in substituted suffering, rendering forgiveness consistent with the rectoral office of justice, yet in itself abating nothing of the guilt of sin, as its punishment must, gives place for a real and gracious forgiveness. There is a real forgiveness in our justification, and an infinite grace of the Father therein. And the Rectoral theory, agreeing with these facts so decisive of the nature of re-demptive substitution, and the only theory of a real atonement so agreeing, gives us the true doctrine.

4. Universality of Atonement

We have previously noted the fact that the doctrine of Satisfaction requires, on the ground of consistency, a limited atonement; and also that its universality, as given in the Scriptures, is fatal to the scheme. But the Governmental theory is consistent with the universality of the atonement, with a real conditionality of its saving grace, and with the fact that the subjects of redemption may reject its overtures of mercy and perish. It is the only theory of a real atonement in accord with these facts, and, therefore, the true one.

5. Universal Overture of Grace

Who will hesitate in such an overture? Who will question its obligation? But without a universal atonement the offer would be made to many for whom there is no grace of forgiveness: hence there could be no such obligation. And if the atonement be for all, it must be of a nature to render its universality consistent with all the facts of soteriology. It is such only on the Rectoral theory.

6. Doctrinal Result

The fact of a real atonement in Christ is with the Satisfaction and Governmental theories. Hence the question of its nature is between them. We appeal it to the decision of the facts given in this section. Here are five scriptural facts, all prominent in soteriology, and all vitally concerning the very nature of the atonement. They are inconsistent with the doctrine of Satisfaction, but in full accord with the Rectoral theory. They, require such an atonement, and, therefore, certify its truth.

7. Relation of Atonement to Childhood

We may not entirely omit the question of this relation. Yet it is not directly in the line of our discussion, and is, therefore, to be passed with little more than a reference. And the reference is properly to a particular phase of the question. There are questions of a common infant justification and regeneration, but these we entirely omit as irrelevant. The reference we make is to the atonement in its relation to the salvation of such as die in infancy.

But even this aspect of the question is only incidental to our discussion. We treat the atonement in view of the fact of sin and the requirements of moral government. It is a provision for the salvation of sinners, and necessary for them as sinners. On the ground of such facts rests the validity of our argument for the necessity of an atonement, and the correctness of our theory of its nature. Hence the question of its relation to childhood is irrelevant to this discussion; or, if relevant, not peculiar, and, therefore, requiring no separate consideration. If there be a native guilt and damnableness as well as a native depravity-ever two distinct questions, however jumbled in theological treatment-then the relation of the atonement to the salvation of dying infants is the same as to that of adult sinners. But if, with the reality of a native depravity, there be not a native demerit and damnableness, then this relation is peculiar, and, therefore, not relevant to our discussion of atonement.

From the facts thus brought into view it is apparent that the question of this relation is, first of all and chiefly, a question of anthropology, particularly of original sin, and not in the sense of a native depravity, but in the far deeper sense of a native demerit and damnableness. The view taken of this question must consistently determine the view respecting the relation of the atonement to the salvation of such as die in infancy.

With a native guilt and damnableness, dying infants would, as just noted, require for their salvation the same atonement and forgiveness as adult sinners. This is really the Calvinistic position, and without difficulty at this point. There is no peculiar relation of the atonement to the salvation of infants, and hence no place for any perplexing question respecting it. There is still, however, a very great difficulty in this system, but lying back in the matter of a native demerit and damnableness.

But if, with a doctrine of native depravity, that of a native demerit and damnableness is denied--the really consistent Arminian position-then the redemptive economy has some peculiarity of relation to the salvation of such as die in infancy. The question is not without its difficulty. But we are not disposed to replace it with the far greater difficulty in the Calvinistic position. We must confess that the usual Arminian treatment of this question is not very satisfactory. It often hesitates, vacillates. There is a native guilt, but not guilt as of actual sin. There is a native demerit and damnableness, and there is not-especially not such as might, consistently with the divine justice, be visited with endless judicial wrath. The indecision is from an attempt to hold Calvinism and Arminianism together beyond the point of a real divergence, or from a failure to give scientific completeness to the latter. But demerit and damnableness are such specific facts, and facts in such positive relation to justice and law, that they cannot be and not be at the same time. Hence the answer respecting them should be categorical-yea or nay, not yea and nay. It must be so before we can conclude the question whether the atonement has any peculiar relation to the salvation of such as die in infancy.

We have previously noted the real distinction between the two questions of a native depravity and a native demerit and damnableness. The former we hold fully and firmly; the latter we do not hold. It is not in our article "Of Original or Birth Sin." The fact has the deeper doctrinal significance because of the history of the article as adopted into our creed. The original article from which it is taken-ninth of the thirty-nine articles of the Church of England-is very strong in the assertion of a native demerit and damnableness; and the very significant fact is, that all this part was authoritatively omitted from the article on its adoption as our own symbol. But our native depravity is in itself a moral ruin. Deliverance therefrom is only through the economy of redemption. Infants dying in infancy are saved in Christ. This we fully and gratefully believe. But the relation of his redemptive mediation to their salvation is peculiar. Their salvation has not the same sense in every fact as that of adult sinners. The question is a mystery as yet without solution. The Scriptures are quite silent respecting it. We have no clear light to give; as certainly we have received none from others.

For ourselves we make this concession of mystery in the question before us without the slightest hesitation. Every great doctrinal system encounters serious, even insoluble difficulty at some point. When the case arises let it be frankly confessed. In this our Calvinistic brethren are worthy of most honorable mention. Yet some Arminians, accustomed to think every thing very clear on this question, will regard our position with surprise and dissatisfaction. They are probably not such as have studied the question most deeply.

A proper discussion of this question, as previously noted, would require a discussion of anthropology, especially of original sin. It would also require a treatment of the application of redemptive grace in salvation. But these questions belong to other divisions of theology, and would lead us quite aside from the discussion in hand.