A Neglected Theory of the Atonement?

A Neglected Theory of the Atonement? September 25, 2012

A Neglected Theory of the Atonement?

Evangelical theology has fallen into another debate over the atonement. Or perhaps I should say we are in the midst of another phase of that long running debate. One of the central questions is whether the penal substitution theory is central to evangelical belief in the atoning death of Jesus. I’ve discussed the controversy here before, so I won’t go over it again. Let me just say that, as I read the literature of the debate, there seems to be a missing view of the atonement. Most of the surveys of atonement theories (penal substitution, “Christus victor,” satisfaction, moral example/influence, etc.) neglect this one. I’m not sure why since millions of evangelical Christians have been taught some version of it over the past centuries.

Before spelling it out, however, I want to say that the so-called “atonement theories” all have somewhat varying versions depending on who is expounding them. For example, “penal substitution” is more a category of views than a single, monolithic view itself. Every time I read a proponent of it I get a slightly different angle on it. For example, compare Thomas Schreiner’s exposition of it in The Nature of the Atonement (IVP) with, say, Hans Boersma’s in Violence, Hospitality, and the Cross (Baker). Both claim to be expositions and defenses of the penal substitution theory, but their  details and even emphases are different. The same can be said of Greg Boyd’s and Gustaf Aulen’s and J. Denny Weaver’s versions of the Christus victor theory.

So, what follows here is just one version of a particular historical atonement theory. And I’m not going to name it because, I am convinced, its traditional label tends to bias people against it before they’ve even considered it. It’s also an atonement view widely misunderstood and misrepresented and dismissed as what it’s not especially by Reformed critics.

I expound this neglected atonement theory in twenty propositions. And, by the way, the biblical support for it is the same as for the penal substitution theory. It assumes, for example, that Isaiah 53 refers to Jesus. (I discussed the debate about that and we discussed it here recently, so I won’t go into that again.)

My invitation to you is to comment on it. Is it a viable theory of the atonement? Why or why not?

The widely neglected theory:

1. A viable theory of the atonement must take into account and, in some way, explain why Jesus’ death was necessary for salvation (or at least why he did die to save us). Why did Jesus have to die for us to be saved?

2. The cross of Jesus can have had more than one result. A viable theory of the atonement needs to get at the one or more crucial results that address and redress our deepest needs.

3. Scripture talks about our guilt, shame, captivity, ignorance, indebtedness, deserving death, etc. But underlying all is alienation from God—a condition of being estranged from God due to sin.

4. A viable theory of atonement must include an account of how the cross reconciles us with God or makes reconciliation between us and God possible.

5. Put another way, a viable, satisfying theory of the atonement must somehow answer the question “Why didn’t God just forgive us instead of using Jesus’ death as the means of reconciliation?”

6. A viable theory of atonement cannot ignore Scripture’s numerous references to the wrath of God against sin or God’s love for sinners.

7. Without doubt the cross represents a divine victory over Satan (or the powers that enslave), but how does that address the issues of wrath and guilt?

8. Without doubt the cross represents a powerful demonstration of God’s love, but how does that address the issues of wrath and guilt?

9. Something like Anselm’s satisfaction theory and Calvin’s and Wesley’s penal substitution theory is necessary to address the issues of God’s wrath, our guilt and our estrangement from God in light of God’s righteousness and love. Only they seem adequately to answer the question “Why did Jesus have to die for us to be saved?” by incorporating those biblical aspects of our condition and redemption.

10. However, those theories raise profound questions about God’s character, especially God’s love and God’s justice.

11. Is there something like a “law” either inside God or outside of God (but to which God is bound) that requires death as punishment (or satisfaction) for sin? If not, why didn’t God just forgive? Or did he and the cross is simply a demonstration of God’s love? Or a conquest over evil powers?

12. Scripturally, God is holy, righteous and just as well as loving. The combination of our sin and guilt and God’s righteousness creates a problem. God wants to forgive sinners, but cannot merely forgive without appearing to condone sin. (It’s not that God is bound by some law but his character and moral governance of the universe require demonstration of how seriously God takes sin.)

13. God’s main motive in the cross is not anger or retributive justice but twofold: love and desire to uphold his righteousness (and moral government of the universe).

14. The cross is not God taking out his vengeful anger against us by punishing an innocent man instead of us; it is rather God lovingly taking on himself the display of his righteousness in order to uphold his righteous government of the universe (i.e., to not condone sin).

15. In the cross event, God himself, in the person of his Son, voluntarily suffers the consequence of our sin, takes the punishment we deserve (not “our punishment”), pays the penalty we owe, etc.

16. The cross does not change God from angry to loving, from wanting to destroy us to wanting to forgive us. It expresses the true character of God as both loving and just. It is God’s way of relieving the tension between his own love and justice created by our sin.

17. The cross does not reconcile God to the world; God is always already reconciled to the world. The cross vindicates God’s decision to forgive sinners by demonstrating his abhorrence of sin. It is not “merely educative” (as some critics claim).

18. The result of the cross is that God stands ready and able (morally) to forgive anyone who repents.

19. There are other results of the cross: victory over evil powers, demonstration of God’s love, restoration of creation, justification of sinners, etc., etc.

20. All theories of the atonement have an element of truth, but none gets at the heart of Christ’s “work” for our salvation as biblically and incisively as this one which in no way excludes other facets of Christ’s work for salvation.



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  • David Rogers

    Well, isn’t this interesting. I’ve just finished teaching my congregation in the Sunday evening discipleship time (over the last two months), an approach to Jesus’ death that greatly resembles what you have just laid out. I didn’t propose a name for the approach. I just worked out that there are two basic psychological needs in the human heart: a need for love (affirmed by The Beatles) and a need for justice (affirmed by our sense of disturbance when crime is dismissed). The death of Jesus on the cross shows us that God is a God who takes both needs seriously and works to demonstrate and convince hearts that there is atonement for guilt and reconciliation that is substantive.

  • I’ll have to think about this one, Mr. Bellamy, I mean, Dr. Olsen!

    • rogereolson

      Who? I don’t know who “Mr. Bellamy” is. Or “Olsen,” for that matter. 🙂 (I don’t know why, but so many people think “Olsen” is my last name. 🙂

  • Jeff

    You would be talking about the governmental view. The only problem with it is that Galatians 3:13 says that Jesus was made a curse in our place. Many mix up the meaning of this verse by saying that once one gets hung on a tree they are considered cursed. Not true! People assumed that you must have deserved this horrible punishment because of something you did prior to. Also I Peter 2:24 – “He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness.”

    In other words Jesus was a sinner, so to speak (2 Corinthians 5:21, Isaiah 53 – laid on him the sin of us all) when he died on the cross because of the actual sins committed that he took upon him. Whenever we ask forgiveness it is in Jesus’ name because it is through him we are forgiven. But just like in the Old Covenant one can offer as many animals as they want to, but if they are not repentant it is an insult to the sacrifice made on our behalf. That does not mean the sacrifice was a waste. The way God makes up for that is that He keeps the sacrifices of others in a bowl, like the bowl of wrath in Revelation, and will pour it out on those who spurn the sacrifice over and over (Hebrew 10:26-30)

    • rogereolson

      Of course, those who formulated the theory and still believe in it have not ignored those verses. Every theory of the atonement interprets some verses metaphorically. What does it mean to interpret those verses “literally?” What does “laid on him the sin of us all” mean “literally?” In the view I posted here it means he died for the world’s sinfulness and so that God could forgive.

      • Jeff

        In answer to point #11 apparently there is such a law – In fact, according to the law of Moses, nearly everything was purified with blood. For without the shedding of blood, there is no forgiveness. Hbr 9:23 That is why the Tabernacle and everything in it, which were copies of things in heaven, had to be purified by the blood of animals. But the real things in heaven had to be purified with far better sacrifices than the blood of animals.

        Also 2 Cor. 5:21 – he made him sin.
        You said he died for the world’s sinfulness but not if it was not our punishment. I guess I don’t see much of a difference. If I believed in Limited Atonement that would be different.

  • James Petticrew

    Is this variation / exposition of Grotius’s Governmental Theory? I don’t think we actually studied at theological college, except the more reformed College I went to had it under the sort of section of deficient views of atonement. I vaguely remember encountering talk of it when in relation to the Holiness Movement in the UK because General Booth and the early Salvation Army held to it.

    It reads well to me address the issues which I see in more subjective theories have while perhaps avoiding some of the more negative implications of penal substitution.

  • Aaron

    Sounds great to me, can you tell us the name of it in a later post so we can study it more? Thanks!

    • rogereolson

      I will reveal what some people would call it. I’m not sure it fits any traditional theory perfectly, though. Others commenting here have and will name it (with the name it has traditionally been given). My concern, though, is that the name may bias people against it from the start.

  • Closeted Barthian

    What’s interesting is that “New Calvinists” (like Piper, et. al.) tend to have strong similarities to 19th century revivalism as opposed to, say, confessional Presbyterians. John Piper, in his ministry style, probably has a lot in common with William Booth (the founder of the Salvation Army), who held to this view.

    • rogereolson

      I once listened to a sermon by Piper on the atonement and then wrote him an e-mail congratulating him on holding what most people would consider “the Arminian” view of the atonement! I was being cheeky, I know. But his explanation of the cross as “vindicating the righteousness of God in forgiving sinners” sounded a lot like it to me.

      • Closeted Barthian

        I love Piper, by the way. But it’s mostly his commitment to the Bible, Pietism, traditional values, and his sense of love for lost people than his peculiar views on election and providence.

        • rogereolson

          I wonder how he would love a person he was convinced was hated by God (viz., a reprobate)? Oh, yes…he says God loves them, too. I can’t wrap my mind around that. God loves them but predestines them to eternal suffering in hell for his glory. He could save them (because election to salvation and therefore regeneration) but chooses not to. As Wesley said “That is such a love as makes the blood run cold.” If Piper loves the reprobate, he loves them better than God does.

          • Closeted Barthian

            Piper is inconsistent.

    • icthusiast

      As one who has both grown up in, and subsequently committed himself to lifelong service within, The Salvation Army, I’m intrigued that two people have identified this as the Atonement theory to which William Booth subscribed. I did recognise it as a form of Grotius’ Governmental Theory which, as a convinced Arminian, I’m very happy to include among a range of helpful explantaions of the Atonement.

      However, and perhaps I’m betraying a woeful ignorance of my own tradition here, I have never heard that this was the theory favoured by William Booth. Could you point me toward any sources by which that idea is supported?


      • rogereolson

        Nor was I aware of that. But it wouldn’t surprise me. Many 19th century Methodists and Holiness people embraced this view.

        • Closeted Barthian

          There is some stuff on this site: http://biblicaltruthresources.wordpress.com/2012/08/06/william-booth-on-the-atonement-doctrine-of-the-salvation-army/

          It has an article by Rev. Booth and a section of the original Salvation Army doctrinal statement. The maintainers of the site appear to be Pelagian or Semi-Pelagian, but a lot of the reasoning works with Classical Arminianism (I’m not fond of calling professing believers heretics or apostates, though).

          • icthusiast

            Thanks for that. Much appreciated.

            I would note, however, that the section described as being ‘preached’ in 1922, if genuinely by William Booth (I have no reason to doubt it), must have been ‘published’ rather than ‘preached’ in 1922 because William Booth was ‘Promoted to Glory’ in August 1912! 🙂

            Thanks again.

  • Anthony

    Is it usually known as the governmental theory?

  • Jeff Kimble

    I was exposed to this theory of atonement as a young man by a handful of well-educated laymen . . . better educated in theology than most Pastors that I knew. At the time, however, almost nothing was in print so I scoured antiquarian bookstores to find book-length treatments of it. I finally stumbled across the writings of Barnes, Beman, Burge, Miley (assuming, here, that we are referring to the same theory) and a few others who wrote some very theologically sophisticated (and to my mind satisfying) arguments in support of it. But for the most part it’s still buried in the books of older theologians and, in light of the current atonement debates, deserves to see the light of day. Ironically, Jonanthan Edward’s son (also named Jonathan Edwards but distinguished from him by the moniker “President” . . . he was the past president of Union College, Schenectady, New York) wrote three sermons very much in sync with this view of the atonement. It makes me wonder what sort of discussion ensued around the Edwards’ family table during the holidays.
    Thank you, Roger, for drawing attention to the theory . . . you are one of the few to even mention it or to recognized its decided absence from the current discussion. Is there anyone that you know of filling the lacuna with a book-length exposition of the theory?

    • rogereolson

      No, I don’t know of anyone. The last person I knew who promoted the view was Kenneth Grider–a Nazarene theologian. I think it’s still popular among some Nazarenes, but, for the most part, I think it has died out. I, too, think it deserves another look. When most people hear of it by name, if they have any idea what it is, that idea comes from reading about it in Reformed books of theology. They usually get it wrong. The traditional rap on it is that it is “merely educative.” I hope I have shown in my twenty propositions that it is not.

  • Sean

    In point #15, you distinguish between the “punishment we deserve” vs. “our punishment.” Could you elaborate a bit on the difference?

    • rogereolson

      In this theory, the punishment Christ suffered was equivalent to the one we deserve, but it was not our punishment (whatever that would even mean).

  • Sorry about misspelling your name!
    I’m sure you’re familiar with the arguments in favor of the penal satisfaction theory of the atonement, and have probably seen Leon Morris’ work on the subject. To my mind the ritual of the Day of Atonement, and the terminology of atonement, propitiation, and redemption all suggest that the death of Christ was intended to turn away the wrath of a holy God against our sin.
    As for how essential it is for Evangelicalism, I guess the key question here is the idea of imputation, which Bellamy, Hopkins, et al. denied. But Luther’s key insight is that we are justified by an imputed righteousness, not an infused one. And Paul’s discussion of original sin in Rom. 5 lends itself to the idea of imputation — Adam’s guilt was imputed to us, and so was Christ’s righteousness.
    Here’s something to think about. Normally when we think of a vicarious, substitutionary atonement, we think of Christ dying in place of someone else, which raises the nettlesome question, for whom did Christ die? Beza’a answer, as you well know, is that He obviously died only for those whose sins are actually forgiven. But the Bible seems to indicate that when we believe on Christ, and seal that faith in baptism, we are united to Christ and vicariously participate in His death, burial and resurrection. It is at that point Christ’s righteousness is imputed to the believer. I believe that this is known as the “recapitulation theory.” that Christ replaces Adam as our head when we believe in Him. But I would think, that in order for the death of Christ to be just, that our guilt would have to have been imputed to Him at the point of His death, which of course would bring us back to Beza’s point. Whose guilt did He bear on the cross?

    • rogereolson

      Just a brief response. To the best of my knowledge, most of the 19th century theologians (mostly Methodists) who held this view did believe in imputed righteousness. They just didn’t want that taken to an extreme to discount imparted righteousness. And, of course, they believed this view avoided the problem of someone being punished for sin for which someone else had already suffered the punishment.

      • What I was thinking of were the New England “New Divinity” men such as Bellamy, Hopkins, Dwight, and Edwards, Jr., and later such figures as Taylor, Finney, and Barnes. When it was just the governmental theory of the atonement Old School Presbyterians could work with New England Congregationalists such as Dwight. But then Taylor and Finney, and I think Barnes and Beecher, went in a more radical direction, challenging the orthodox Calvinist view of regeneration, and this precipitated the split in the Presbyterian Church of 1837. Charles Hodge could deal with Timothy Dwight, but Nathaniel W. Taylor was another matter!

        • rogereolson

          Bellamy is the only one in that list I’m not familiar with. Always more to learn! Thanks.

          • Joseph Bellamy (1719-1790) and Samuel Hopkins (1721-1803) were both students and close friends of Jonathan Edwards. Bellamy went on to become an influential pastor in Connecticut, where he trained many men for the ministry. Probably his best known work was “True Religion Delineated,” which was first published in 1750.

          • Michael

            The New Divinity of New England would be a good thing to look into as they styled themselves as Calvinists but were conscious that they had a progressive Calvinism which they thought came from Edwards and Bellamy and Hopkins. They were partial to the theory of the atonement you describe here. Douglas Sweeney’s book on Nathaniel Taylor, especially on the theological climate up to and including Taylor’s professorship, is very enlightening on a little known Calvinism. It shows a lot of similarities to Arminianism, though they would have repudiated that label, just as they would have repudiated the label of being old Calvinists.

          • rogereolson

            Thank you. I know all that. I just didn’t know who Bellamy was. A gap in my knowledge of that movement.

  • Jesse Reese

    I think that I tend to lean toward this understanding. I have often also thought that N.T. Wright actually holds something closer to this view, though he still uses the language of penal substitution. Governmental theory still works quite well with his exegesis, IMO, and it addresses both his reasons for adopting PSA and his problems with common articulartions of it. But really, you are right, it is so neglected and misunderstood that it is extremely rare to see anyone openly espousing it.

  • Luke Allison

    I don’t believe in imputed righteousness.

    But I do remember that Paul Eddy and Greg Boyd have a pretty good chapter on this theory in their book “Across the Spectrum.”
    Isn’t the parable in Matt 18:23-27 one of the better examples of the sort of “core” of this theory? That is, that forgiveness erases debt, pure and simple, and that a truly loving King does so out of pity? I feel as though this is what most Christians in the world (and lots of agnostics) believe de facto anyway.

    I lean towards aspects of this theory because of Jesus and Paul’s seeming insistence that the judgment seat is for believers and non-believers alike and based on love and kindness versus intellectual assent to the proposition of Jesus’ lordship. How does the parable of the sheep and goats make any sense if all sins are paid for completely and we have nothing to worry about?
    In fact, nearly all of Jesus’ statements about negative judgment (I don’t like “hell” since it conjures up unbiblical ideas) seem to imply that said judgment is wrapped up in the actions of those who are listening to him. The concept of “repenting and trusting” in a moral and intellectual sense is foreign to the Gospels. Now, “repenting and following” are key components, but those are both action oriented words: don’t follow that Way, follow my Way.

    In my opinion PSA was a conclusion looking for an argument: “we know that all we need to do is intellectually acknowledge Christ’s saving work in our lives, or his divinity etc. and we will be saved, so how can we go back into Scripture and find verses that support that idea?”

    PSA turns the universe into a black & white moral landscape, where “bad” things hang over God’s head until he punishes them. I understand where this idea comes from: Romans 3:25-26. God’s justice is vindicated as he’s shown to be both the one who is just and the one who justifies. This implies that God’s justice somehow had to be vindicated. And yet Paul hardly launches into a detailed explanation of his thought process behind these ideas. Where do all the fanciful notions of substitution come from in that particular passage?

  • B Brown

    I like it. It is comprehensive in its overview.

    I believe that ‘God manifested in the flesh’ teaches us that God takes responsibility for creating free creatures that could sin and rebel and misuse the life He gave to them. It also enables God to take that life away from those refusing to use the gift of life to love.

  • Scott Gay

    I see this as attractive because of the strong tendency today to look at Christianity in community as opposed to individuistic aspects. It certainly brings into question any perserverance position. In fact, I see it as further evidence of the dilemma of determinism.
    I had a dear friend as a younger man who was an Episcopalean priest who admonished me to doubt the leaven of the Salvation Army. I never understood his motivations, but this gives me clues.

  • Donald Fisher

    I don’t get point #17 (the atonement did not reconcile God to the world) in light of 2 Cor. 5 which says “God was reconciling the world TO HIMSELF”, that this was done “in Christ” and was done by “not counting their trespasses against them”.

    • rogereolson

      It (the neglected theory) says God was in Christ reconciling the world to him; he was always already reconciled to the world (by loving it and wanting to forgive sinners). The penal substitution theory implies that God needed reconciling.

  • Dr. Olson:

    Thanks for raising this subject! It has implications far beyond the surface; even to the very nature of God himself and to his relationship to his created humanity. Unless we get this Cross (atonement) thing right, we’ll never appreciate the end results of human sin and the love of God in response to our sin. As for your twenty propositions, I personally come down in favor of #15 and #17. For the discussion, permit me to offer the following scriptural thoughts interspersed with my personal commentary:

    “When you were dead in your sins and in the uncircumcision of your sinful nature (BEFORE WE BELIEVED, REPENTED, BAPTIZED), God made you alive with Christ. He forgave us (ALL OUR SINS: PAST, PRESENT, FUTURE), having cancelled the written code, with its regulations, that was against us and that stood opposed to us; he took it away (2,000 YEARS AGO), nailing it to the cross” (Col 2:13-14).

    My conclusions: (1) The sentance that came upon Adam and his offspring in consequence of the fall would manifest itself in many ways: human distortion of self and purpose, ecological disaster, family disruption, human strife and murder and, finally, physical death. (2) It is not true that Adam’s sin resulted in God separating himself from mankind. In Eden it was Adam and Eve who hid from God; whereas it was God who immediately took the initiative to search out Adam and Eve and atone for them (symbolically) by slaying an animal (shedding of blood) and covering (atoning) their nakedness. (3) In time, “God so loved the world (NOT HATED THE WORLD) that he GAVE his only begotten Son.” (4) The violence of the cross was NOT an eruption of divine wrath upon Christ. Rather, it was the consummation of the pent up wrath of fallen humanity upon itself. Jesus was not killed by his heavenly Father; he was, in fact, killed by order and by act of his fellow man. As it is written: “The end of sin is death.” Finally, it is further written: “For as in Adam ALL die, so in Christ ALL will be made alive” (1 Cor 15:22). The death of Christ resulted in the death of ALL fallen humanity. The resurrection of Christ resulted in the re-creation of ALL humanity. The old is gone, the new has come!

  • Kenny Johnson

    Thank you Mr. Olson!

    I can honestly say that this is the first time I think I’ve seen atonement described in this way and it helps me a lot, because I’ve struggled a lot with this idea that God the Father desperately wants to destroy us, but His Son had to step up and take on our punishment for us. Sure, it makes the person of Jesus look very good, but it doesn’t exactly make The Father sound like someone we want to call ‘Abba.’

  • A. Rose


    Thanks for a really interesting post. I was wondering if you could say some more about what you mean by the cross being a display of God’s righteousness. Does this simply mean that God uses the cross as a means of showing that sin is still serious, despite the possibility of free forgiveness?

    On a related point, you talk about the cross being where the tension between God’s love and justice is resolved. It seems to me that the cross only resolves this tension by effectively abandoning justice. If justice is defined roughly as people getting what they deserve, then the cross is unjust. The cross is where an innocent man dies so that guilty people can go free, which in normal circumstances would be the very definition of injustice. That’s what makes the cross such an incredible act of love and grace. Or do we need to rethink what divine justice would look like?

    • rogereolson

      I wouldn’t impose Aristotle’s view of justice on the gospel, but I would say that justice demands that egregious betrayal have consequences even if only for the person doing the forgiving. Yes, in the neglected view of the atonement (a version of what is sometimes called the governmental theory), God uses the cross to demonstrate how serious sin is and so that he does not just condone sin by forgiving it.

  • Mike Anderson

    Add Seventh-day Adventists to the list of those who hold something like Grotius’ governmental theory of atonement. This should not be surprising considering many of the founders came out of Methodism, and Ellen White described something like it in her “Great Controversy” theory.

  • Completely off the subject, I have to mention how humbled I am that a man with your credentials and busy schedule can actually find the time to consistently blog 3-5 times a week! There are many of us with far less credentials and probably a less busy schedule, who just can’t seem to find the time that you manage to find.

    How do you manage to do it?

    • rogereolson

      I usually sit down and compose the post late at night and sleep on it. Then, early in the morning, I make final revisions and save it. Then I come here and moderate the discussion (which is the most time consuming part of the whole project) and then copy and paste my post here. I’m usually eating breakfast while I do this. 🙂

  • Brandon E.

    Professor Olson,
    I think that these “twenty propositions” are thoughtful, well-written, and seem pretty close to what I personally believe as far as the questions of “wrath,” “guilt,” and “why couldn’t God just forgive us without Jesus dying for us?” are concerned (which, as you pointed out, is not to neglect the other wonderful aspects of what the Lord Jesus accomplished in His crucifixion and resurrection). Point 15 may be the only point about which I am not too clear on the significance of the distinction. In any event, it’s refreshing to see this articulate presentation on your blog, when it seems that so many stress an angry or vindictive Father model of penal substitution or else ignore the “wrath” and “guilt” aspect entirely.

    For what it’s worth, I believe that I first became solidly acquainted with this kind of view by reading The Gospel of God by Watchman Nee. In chapters five and six of this book he says that God truly desires to forgive us our sins but He must do so in a way that upholds His righteousness; and for this it is essential to see the atonement as God (one party) taking up the debt or consequences of our sins upon Himself in the person of the Son on our behalf (a second party). If the Lord Jesus were a separate third party coming in between God the Father and sinful humanity to accept the punishment on our behalf, on the grounds that the Father needed someone, anyone, on which to pour out His anger and wrath (as some penal atonement models would seem to have it), it would be a bargain for us, but it would very hard to see what is righteous or fair for God to condemn an innocent, sinless man. In fact, God alone had the right to suffer the loss and bear the debt of our sins against Him such that we would not have to, but He could not do so without first becoming a man in Christ Jesus.

  • CarolJean

    Thank you for bringing to light this neglected theory.

  • J.E. Edwards

    From a lay-perspective, nothing looks offensive here to me. I’m sure theologians can find the nuances in this theory. This old song verse came to mind.
    “When Satan tempts me to despair and tells me of the guilt within
    Upward I look and see Him there who made an end to all my sin.
    Because the sinless savior died, my sinful soul is counted free.
    For God the just is satisfied to look on Him and pardon me.”
    Anyone who can sing that is a friend of mine.

    • rogereolson

      I just had my class sing it the other day. Are we friends? 🙂

      • J.E. Edwards

        Indeed we are more than friends. We are brothers:) I’d like to think we’ll be singing it together one day, although singing it with your here would be awesome too.

  • Pastor Mike

    Thanks Roger. Greatly enjoyed your book while in ministry school :-).

    As usual, the true view is the minority view. The governmental view not only explains and clarifies the necessity of the Lord’s sacrifice, it gives understanding to the OT Levitical system as well. Calvinists hate it because it obliterates their god-dishonoring deterministic doctrines.

    For me, one of the great mysteries of modern theology is the seeming unquestioned view that Calvinists and non-Calvinists worship the same God. They clearly don’t. A “god” that predestines most to an eternity in agony is fundamentally different from a God who, through great personal sacrifice and anguish, sacrifices His only begotten Son to redeem from all of rebellious humanity those who will humble themselves, repent, and believe. Two fundamentally different Gods. It seems to me that the JWs are read out of orthodoxy for less.

    Evangelist Jesse Morrell recently authored a valuable new book entitled “The Natural Ability of Man: A Study on Free Will & Human Nature.” Exceptionally well-researched. It’s available on lulu.com. Recommended. Blessing in Him!

    • rogereolson

      Inevitably, unless I say this, someone will claim that what you wrote about Calvinists is my view. (Some people can’t seem to tell the difference between what I say here and what commenters say here.) I disagree. Calvinists are Christians and worship the same God I do even thought they seriously misunderstand and misrepresent him. About a year ago I posted an illustration, using an analogy of underground resistance fighters in occupied territory, here. Go back and read that to see why I think it is possible for people worshiping the same God to disagree very seriously about his character.

  • George C. Jensen

    Thank you, Dr. Olson, for your fine explanation of this matter. I am speaking on this very subject (the recent talk about atonement theories) during my message this Sunday for World-wide Communion. Your points will be helpful to me, a fellow Arminian, as I share the Moral Government Theory. Blessings on your ministry.
    -George C. Jensen, Lead Pastor
    Enola First Church of God – Enola, PA
    (and yes, my last name does end with “en”!)

  • Darrin Snyder Belousek

    Roger, I just came across this old post while looking for something else. Hope you’ll tolerate this tardy comment…

    Proposition 18, I think, is false. Two arguments. First, theological…God is, was, and will always be, ready and able to forgive sinners. That God is ready and able to forgive sinners is not, and cannot, be the result of the cross. For God’s readiness and ability to forgive is integral to God’s eternal character and cannot be the outcome of an historical event: it belongs to the immanent reality of God, and as such is the moving cause, not the consequence, of the economy of salvation. Second, and more importantly, biblical…There are numerous texts across Scripture–from Torah to Prophets to Psalms to Gospels–depicting God being ready to forgive and acting to forgive sinners without any prerequisite having to be satisfied to render God able to forgive. I document those texts carefully in Chap 11 of my book Atonement, Justice, and Peace: The Message of the Cross and the Mission of the Church (Eerdmans 2012). Because these texts show that God’s forgiveness of sin does not necessarily require the punishment of sinners (or punishment of a substitute by sacrifice), the upshot here is that God’s moral government of the universe is not dictated or limited by the principle of retribution. The falsity of Proposition 18 is thus the undoing of your theory (or so it seems to me).

    In my book, by the way, you will find worked out a “third alternative” between “penal substitution” (which the book extensively and carefully critiques) and “nonviolent atonement” (a la Weaver, which it also critiques). Whether my alternative satisfies all of your criteria for an adequate theory of atonement (and I don’t claim to have offered a “theory” of atonement that explains everything), you will need to read the book and see!

    • Roger Olson

      If you give me a clue to it here I’ll be more likely to read it. 🙂 I just don’t see why the cross was necessary if God can forgive without it.

      • Darrin Snyder Belousek

        The difference between the governmental theory and the penal substitution theory on this point (Prop 18), as I understand them, is that the PS theory would say that God was neither willing nor able to forgive before the cross but after was both willing and able. The governmental theory would say that, because God was always already reconciled to the world (Prop 17), God was willing to forgive prior to the cross but unable to forgive.

        Whichever of these theories one prefers, they share the same logical implication: because before the cross God was unable to forgive, and because only God can forgive sins, no sins could be forgiven before the cross–and, therefore, no sins were actually forgiven before the cross. Is that, in fact, true? Which is to ask (for an Evangelical), Does that square with the Bible?

        Well, let’s begin with Jesus himself. On multiple occasions in his ministry, prior to his death, Jesus pronounces, “Your sins are forgiven” (Matt 9:1-8//Mark 2:1-12//Luke 5:17-26; Luke 7:36-50). Simple question: Did Jesus speak the truth on these occasions, or not? If he did, then sins were forgiven before the cross. And that implies that both PS and governmental theory are false (at least with respect to this point).

        To save either theory from refutation, one could of course say that Jesus spoke falsely, or that the Gospels falsely attribute these sayings to Jesus, neither of which seems acceptable for Evangelicals.

        To maintain either the PS or governmental theories together with the veracity of both Jesus and the Gospels, therefore, one has to make some further assumption. It seems to me that the only logical possibility is to say something like this: The sins Jesus said were forgiven were not forgiven at the moment but were forgiven retroactively once Jesus died on the cross. Maybe, but that’s not what Jesus actually said: Jesus did not say “Your sins will be forgiven” but “Your sins are forgiven.” In both cases cited above, the Greek text has Jesus using the perfect tense in the indicative mood–the tense implies a past event with present reality, and the mood implies that such is in fact the case, that the sins are in fact now forgiven based on an act of forgiveness already done. So, the “retroactive” assumption contradicts what Jesus actually said.
        To keep consistency with Jesus’ own words, one has to make yet a further assumption, something like this: when Jesus said, “Your sins are forgiven” he meant “Your sins are forgiven (conditional on my future death on the cross).” Again, that’s not what Jesus actually said, but perhaps it is what he meant. The only problem with that assumption is that the people to whom he said “Your sins are forgiven” would not (likely) have understood Jesus as meaning this–and thus would have formed the false belief that their sins had actually already been forgiven. Thus, while this assumption would maintain the truth of Jesus’ words in consistency with these theories, simple belief in Jesus’ plain words would have resulted in a false belief on the part of all who heard Jesus’ plain words and simply believed them.

        So, either Jesus spoke falsely, or Jesus’ words create a false belief. I don’t think either of these are acceptable options for an Evangelical.

        I suggest that we take Jesus at his plain word: that he, on the authority and concurring will of the Father, could and did forgive sins prior to the cross. The logical implication, of course, is that both PS and the governmental theory are refuted by the Bible (at least with respect to this point).

        What do you think?

        • Roger Olson

          I have always thought that sins were forgiven before the cross event in view of it. I don’t have a problem with that.

          • Darrin Snyder Belousek

            Well, sure, you don’t have a problem with forgiveness before the cross, but your theory does–and that’s my point.

            If, as Prop 18 says, the “result” of the cross that God is now “morally able” to forgive sins, then logically that implies that before the cross God was morally unable to forgive sins–such that, were God to actually forgive sins before the cross, God would have done so immorally. If you think your theory does not entail this conclusion, then the term “result” is being used in either a peculiar or equivocal way in your theory.

            So, if you want to stick with your theory, and if your theory is using terms in their ordinary sense, and if your theory is not equivocating on its terms, then you have to say that Jesus was acting immorally in forgiving sins prior to the cross.

            Again, I understand that you would not want to say that–but that means that you disagree with your own theory.

            To have your theory, your beliefs and the Bible all square up logically, either your theory or your beliefs (or both) must be revised. Otherwise, you have an internally inconsistent set of propositions.

          • Roger Olson

            I disagree. You take the “now” too literally. It means “in view of the coming death of Christ.” You’re not just arguing with me, of course, but with the majority of Catholic and Protestant theologians and ordinary Christians who regard the cross as central to the gospel message of forgiveness.

          • Darrin Snyder Belousek

            Three responses:

            First, as it is your theory, you are free to define terms as you wish. But even granting this peculiar definition of an ordinary term, your response misses the point of the second part of my criticism. To wit: It does not matter whether I take the “now” too literally; what matters is that those to whom Jesus pronounced forgiveness would have taken the “now” literally. Those to whom Jesus said, “Your sins are forgiven” (using the perfect tense in the indicative mood), following the plain meaning of ordinary words, would not have naturally understood from Jesus’ words what you take those words to mean in order to fit them to your theory. They would have naturally understood, from the plain meaning of Jesus’ actual words, that their sins were forgiven in the ordinary now as a result of a past act of forgiveness. But, according to your theory, they would have been mistaken in their understanding. In your view, is that an acceptable implication of an atonement theory–that if the theory were true, then those to whom Jesus ministered would have formed false beliefs from the plain meaning of his words?

            Second, my criticism of your theory is based on the careful exegesis of biblical texts. Your response is to appeal to “the majority…” You thus effectively trump a biblical argument by an appeal to tradition. I find that odd for an Evangelical who critiques other Evangelicals for placing tradition on a par with Scripture. If you think your theory is correct on this point, then it seems to me that the proper Evangelical method is to demonstrate that it is so from Scripture, not by appeal to tradition.

            Third, it does not follow from questioning Prop 18 of your theory that I do not “regard the cross as central to the gospel message of forgiveness.” (In fact, I do–which you would discover by reading my book!) Rather, what my criticism implies is that I question your interpretation of the relation between the cross and forgiveness. Your last remark seems to me to conflate your favored theory/interpretation with the gospel itself–again, something which you are quick to criticize in other Evangelicals (especially in recent posts).

          • Roger Olson

            I’ll let you have the last word about this. I’m just not interested in getting into a debate with you about it.