Defending the Governmental View of the Atonement Against False Charges – Jesse Morrell

I posted on  My Facebook a lecture that I recently gave at a conference about how Moral Government Theology (as opposed to Calvinism) actually helps evangelism

In response to this video, someone posted a series of objections and questions about Moral Government Theology on the atonement, also known as the governmental theory of the atonement.

At first I posted this short response:

“If there is no direct correlation between sin and debt, then what do you do with Matt. 6:12 and Luke Luke 11:4 which show that there is such a correlation?”

 Christian, am I right in assuming that you read about Moral Government Theology on the Calvinist CARM website? That website falsely says that MGT denies any correlation between sin and debt. We certainly do, as the Bible says that God has “forgiven” us our debt..

We owed obedience to the law and when we failed in perfect obedience, we then owed eternal damnation to the law. But because of the atonement of Jesus Christ, God can pardon our debt. He forgives our sin and remits our penalty.

The moral government view of the atonement means that God can actually forgive our sins, whereas in the penal substitution view no sins are forgiven as all debts are paid.

The atonement itself was not the payment of our debt, as the law demanded the eternal damnation of the sinner. Christ did not take our penalty as He did not suffer eternally. Rather, His atonement substitutes our penalty and thus renders our penalty remittable.

The atonement accomplishes, under the moral government of God, exactly what our penalty would have accomplished. So the Moral Government theory of the atonement means that Christ has made a way for our sins to be actually forgiven.

God is not obligated to forgive those for whom Christ died (since it was public justice that was satisfied, not retributive justice) and therefore forgiveness is still an act of grace. But if our debt was paid, it would be unjust for God to demand payment from us. He is not gracious in releasing us from obligation to pay a debt that has already been paid. Therefore there is no actual grace in the so called “doctrines of grace.”

However, I then decided to write out a more thorough answer to all of his statements and questions:

“If there is no direct correlation between sin and debt, then what do you do with Matt. 6:12 and Luke Luke 11:4 which show that there is such a correlation?”

There is a correlation between sin and debt. We owe perfect obedience to the law and when we failed in that, we then owed penalty to the law. But through Christ, God forgives us our debt. Moral Government does not deny that sin brings a debt, it simply denies that Christ paid our debt because then there is no forgiveness of debt. The atonement provided a way in which God could forgive our debt without being unjust to His law, His character, and His universe.

“If there is no direct correlation between sin and debt owed to God, then what exactly did Jesus’ sacrifice accomplish for us on the cross regarding our sins?”

 The atonement was made that God might be “just and the justifier” of the those who believe. It would have been unjust for God to set aside our penalty (as that would encourage transgression) unless an atonement substitutes our penalty and takes its place. The atonement has therefore made a way in which God can forgive anyone who repents and believes without Him being unjust.

“If he did not legally bear our sins and pay the penalty of sin (death), then how does his sacrifice save us?”

The penalty of the law is eternal death or eternal damnation. The Bible says that they shall be punished with everlasting destruction. Hell is the penalty of the law and Jesus certainly did not suffer that. The atonement, as a governmental substitution for the penalty of the law, provides a way in which God can justly remit the penalty of eternal hell that we deserve. Christ did suffer on the cross for the forgiveness of our sins. He suffered in such a way as to give the necessary manifestation of God’s regard for His law, so that when He forgives our debt through Christ it does not at all appear as if God is disregarding His law.

“Would you say that the sacrifice of Christ did not save anyone?”

The atonement has made a way in which everyone can be saved if they will but repent and believe. We were not saved at Calvary, but at conversion. The nature of the atonement is not such as to make for an automatic or unconditional salvation. It was rather a governmental substitution of the suffering of Christ for the damnation of sinners, so that God can remit our penalty when we are converted without compromising His justice. He can forgive our debt without dishonoring His law, misrepresenting His character, or endangering His universe by encouraging sin.

“According to Col. 2:14, what did Jesus cancel if not our sin debt?”

That verse says ordinances, not debt. However, Jesus did provide a way through His atonement through which our debt can be justly pardoned. But a debt that is pardoned is not paid. A debt that is paid is not pardoned. Jesus Christ did not pay our debt (as He did not go to eternal hell), because if He did pay our debt that He did not make a way for our debt to be pardoned.

“If you say the Law, then you are saying that the Law itself is canceled.”

The moral law of God is in both Testaments, however the ceremonial and civil law given to Israel is not for New Testament believers. For example, Gentile converts do not need to be circumcised as the law of the Israelites required. We are not under the law of Moses but are under the law of Christ.

“If Christ did not pay the legal debt for our sins, then the cross cannot be a payment for our sins.”

The cross was not a literal commercial transaction. Christ bought us with a price in that our forgiveness cost Him His life. But our debt is forgiven, not paid. The atonement was a substitute for our penalty, not the penalty itself, so that our penalty can be safely remitted by God’s mercy.

 “Doesn’t this mean that there is no legal necessity of the cross due to our sins?”

Penalty serves a governmental purpose. Penalty is designed to uphold the law. To merely remit the penalty would weaken the law and encourage transgression. Therefore is our penalty is going to be remitted in forgiveness, it must be substituted with an atonement. Therefore there absolutely is a governmental necessity for the cross.

“Doesn’t the Moral Government theory of the atonement mean that God can forgive without requiring a payment for sin?”

God was willing to forgive before the atonement, so the atonement was not made to change the disposition of God or to render Him more favorable towards us. And God is capable of forgiveness without an atonement, but it would be unjust for Him to do so. Therefore God is unwilling to forgive without an atonement. Hence the necessity for the atonement – without the shedding of blood is no remission of sins. The only way God can be just in remitting the penalty that sinners justly deserve is because Jesus Christ provided a substitute for their damnation when He died on the cross.

“If God can forgive without requiring a payment for sin, then doesn’t it mean that faith in God and our repentance from sin is all that is necessary for salvation?”

No, because if all you had to do is repent and believe, this does not solve the governmental problem in forgiveness. This would not discourage God’s universe from pursuing sin like mankind did. Because then they can think that they can sin now and then repent later and be saved. If the atonement of Christ was not required to substitute our penalty, but only repentance and faith were required, the law would not be adequately honored, the character of God would be misunderstood, and the welfare of the universe endangered. Therefore it would be unjust to God’s law, God’s character, and God’s universe for Him to forgive without an atonement.

“If faith in God and our repentance from sin is all that is necessary for salvation, then how is this not works righteousness?”

Repentance and faith are required for salvation and they are not works but states of mind and they are certainly not meritorious. However an atonement is also a condition of pardon. God would be unjust in pardoning our debt, forgiving our sin, or remitting our penalty, unless an atonement is provided to substitute our damnation.

“Doesn’t the Moral Government theory of the atonement negate the necessity of our punishment due to our breaking the law?”

How so? The governmental view says that God must honor His law and discourage sin by punishing the sinner. Therefore if God is not going to punish the sinner He must provide a substitute for his punishment if He is going to forgive in a way that does not dishonor His law and encourage transgression.

“If it does, then why do you say Jesus did not satisfy the law which punishes us for breaking it?”

The purpose of penalty is not mere retributive justice, but public justice. If the purpose of penalty were mere retributive justice, then Christ could have made no atonement at all because we deserved to die – not Him. But as the purpose of penalty is to discourage transgression for the sake of the welfare of the community, the atonement of Jesus Christ as a substitute for our penalty certainly satisfied this. Therefore, Jesus did satisfy the spirit of the penalty of the law, though not the letter as the letter demanded the death of the soul that sinneth.

“Doesn’t the Moral Government theory of the atonement mean that the sacrifice of Christ doesn’t need to be a divine sacrifice, since all that is necessary is a good person to die in order to show how bad sin really is?”

No, for the law to be properly honored by the atonement as it would have been by our damnation, it must be made not merely by an innocent party but by someone who stands so closely to the moral government of God or sustains such a relationship to Him, that the sacrifice of such a person is an adequate revelation to the universe of God’s regard for His law, just as much if not more so than the damnation of sinners would have. And the atonement of Jesus Christ, taken as the Son of God or God in the flesh, is such an adequate revelation. It is a greater revelation to the universe of God’s regard for His law than the mere damnation of sinners would have been. So the atonement satisfies the purpose of penalty better than penalty itself would have!

The value of the atonement is not merely found in the sinlessness of Christ’s character, but in the dignity of His person.

“Doesn’t the Moral Government theory of the atonement deny that our sin is imputed to Christ as well as his righteousness imputed to us?”

Christ died for our sins, but He did not become guilty of our sins. Christ never became a sinner. He offered Himself without spot to God. He was a lamb without blemish. He died the just for the unjust. He is the same yesterday, today, and forever. And since the character of Christ was sinless, the atonement could not have been a satisfaction of retributive justice.

So Christ died for our sins or on behalf of our sins – for the purpose of their forgiveness through the remission of their penalty – but He did not become guilty of our sins or become a sinner through imputation.

Furthermore, because of what Christ has done we can be treated and regarded (imputed) as righteous, despite the sins we have committed, when we turn from our sins and put our faith in Him. But that does not mean that Christ’s works of the Torah are transferred to us in order for us to be justified, as we are not justified by works of the law. And that does not mean that if a believer sins, God does not see it but sees the perfect righteousness of Christ instead, because God is not stupid or blind and His eyes are in every place.

“Doesn’t the Moral Government theory of the atonement mean that God forgives the sinner in a way that is not based upon the work of Christ on the cross?”

No. The only reason that God can be just in remitting our damnation is because the atonement of Christ has substituted it. There is a governmental necessity for penalty and therefore, if penalty is going to be justly remitted, the atonement must fulfill that governmental necessity.

“This could imply that our forgiveness of sins, according to Moral Government theology, is not based on the legal work of God on the cross, it is based on something else; namely, our faith and repentance.”

The ultimate ground of our salvation is the mercy of God. It is because God is merciful that He provided the atonement. And it is because God is merciful that our sins can be forgiven. The conditions of our forgiveness, however, are atonement, repentance, and faith.

“Doesn’t the Moral Government theory of the atonement mean that Christ did not actually earn our forgiveness on the cross?”

Forgiveness is made available to all through the cross, but it is automatic to none. God is not obligated to forgive. He forgives graciously. Many of those for whom Christ died will perish, as the Bible explicitly states. So we cannot demand our salvation because Christ died, but because Christ died we can beg God to be gracious and merciful and forgive us through His atonement. We do not deserve forgiveness. Forgiveness has not been earned by works (either ours or Christs). Forgiveness is a gracious act of God, which can be justly offered and granted because of what Christ has done.

See also: Theology Charts Illustrating the Governmental Atonement View – Jesse Morrell

I am still working on my book, “The Vicarious Atonement of Christ” which is a thorough defense of the governmental view of the atonement from scripture, reason, and leaders throughout Christian history. As well as a thorough refutation to the penal view of the atonement that says Jesus paid our debt, suffered our penalty, and satisfied the wrath of God making Him more favorable towards us.

To view the Christian books we have available: Click Here

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