Forensic Friday: Making the World Safe for the Governmental Theory of the Atonement

After going on for thousands of comments with theonomic critics of 2k theology, I now have a better sense for why the governmental theory of the atonement is plausible to some Christians. Whenever I teach about New School Presbyterian theology, and its toleration if not advocacy of the governmental view, I joke with students that this outlook treats the cross of Christ as the greatest of all flannel graph lessons: by showing how horrid the punishment for sin is through the suffering and death of Christ, God upholds the righteousness of his law and show sinners how offensive their wicked acts are in his sight. (For the birthday-challenged, flannel graphs were the Greatest Generation’s Luddite version of power point – a flannel board on which teachers and speakers could hang letters or images without even having to use Velcro.)

I have always found this view bizarre because it offers no comfort or consolation from the cross of Christ. It simply reminds me of what I deserve and tells me to sit up, take notice (of all those laws), and fly right.

The reason it now makes more sense as an appealing view to some Christians is that in their sometime wholesome reverence for God’s law and desire to see it prevail in public and private life, theonomists (at least the ones upbraiding me for licentiousness and atheism) do not seem to make much of forgiveness as a central theme in the Christian religion. After all, if God is ultimately going to forgive sinners (ahem – how would salvation be possible without this?), then the law diminishes in importance as the standard for Christian and pagan conduct. Grace and forgiveness, such as that implicit in the vicarious atonement, seemingly take away incentive to follow God’s law. But if the law is what is supreme in God’s character and in Scripture’s teaching, then looking at the atonement as a vindication of God’s righteousness makes sense and also minimizes the kind of antinomianism that might follow if people took mercy seriously.

To illustrate these different conceptions of law and their consequences for the atonement, I offer up a contrast between Charles Finney and John Calvin. Granted, this may not be the fairest of fights, but Finney’s language (which is widely available online) is instructive for those Calvinists who are tempted to stress the law as central to Christianity and even to the gospel. (Theonomists, Federal Visionaries, Bayly Brothers, Rabbi Bret, and Indiana-based Kuyperians, sit up, take notice and fly right.)

First, Finney on law and gospel:

The intention of the Gospel is by no means to repeal the law. “Do we, then, make void the law through faith?” said the apostle; “God forbid; yea, we establish the law.” By his life and death, Christ honoured the law; and thus himself furnished the means of rebuking the rebellious lives of sinners. The spirit of the law pervades the Gospel, and they infinitely mistake the subject who suppose that the moral law is not part of the Gospel. This is the way to make Christ the minister of sin. This is to array Christ against the moral law; for how could he by abrogating the law make it honourable? This would be to weaken the law. Do not mistake me: I do not mean that men are to be saved by their own righteousness–that they are to be restored to happiness by the law, as the ground of their acceptance with God. I mean no such thing as this; but what I do mean is, that this is a condition of their forgiveness, –they must break off their rebellion, and become submissive and obedient to its authority. A man who has once violated a law can never be justified by it; this is both naturally and governmentally impossible. But there must be obedience to the law as a condition of forgiveness for past sins and offences. (Finney, “Christ Magnifying the Law,” 1850)

Yes, Finney really did say that forgiveness depends on obedience. Holy bleep, Batman!

Next Calvin on law and gospel:

The sum of the matter comes to this: The Old Testament filled the conscience with fear and trembling—The New inspires it with gladness. By the former the conscience is held in bondage, by the latter it is manumitted and made free. If it be objected, that the holy fathers among the Israelites, as they were endued with the same spirit of faith, must also have been partakers of the same liberty and joy, we answer, that neither was derived from the Law; but feeling that by the Law they were oppressed like slaves, and vexed with a disquieted conscience, they fled for refuge to the gospel; and, accordingly, the peculiar advantage of the Gospel was, that, contrary to the common rule of the Old Testament, it exempted those who were under it from those evils. Then, again, we deny that they did possess the spirit of liberty and security in such a degree as not to experience some measure of fear and bondage. For however they might enjoy the privilege which they had obtained through the grace of the Gospel, they were under the same bonds and burdens of observances as the rest of their nation. Therefore, seeing they were obliged to the anxious observance of ceremonies (which were the symbols of a tutelage bordering on slavery, and handwritings by which they acknowledged their guilt, but did not escape from it), they are justly said to have been, comparatively, under a covenant of fear and bondage, in respect of that common dispensation under which the Jewish people were then placed. (Institutes II.11.ix)

Now Finney on the atonement::

7. An atonement was needed to inspire confidence in the offers and promises of pardon, and in all the promises of God to man. Guilty selfish man finds it difficult, when thoroughly convicted of sin, to realize and believe that God is actually sincere in his promises and offers of pardon and salvation. But whenever the soul can apprehend the reality of the Atonement, it can then believe every offer and promise as the very thing to be expected from a being who could give his Son to die for enemies.

An Atonement was needed, therefore, as the great and only means of sanctifying sinners:

Rom. 8:3,4. “For what the law could not do, in that it was weak through the flesh, God, sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and for sin, condemned sin in the flesh: that the righteousness of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit.” The law was calculated, when once its penalty was incurred, to shut the sinner up in a dungeon, and only to develop more and more his depravity. Nothing could subdue his sin and cause him to love but the manifestation to him of disinterested benevolence. The atonement is just the thing to meet this necessity and subdue rebellion.

8. An Atonement was needed, not to render God merciful, but to reconcile pardon with a due administration of justice. This has been virtually said before, but needs to be repeated in this connection. (Lecture 31 from Lectures on Systematic Theology)

And Calvin on the atonement:

. . . Christ appeared once for all to take away sin by the sacrifice of himself. Again, that he was offered to bear the sins of many (Heb. 9:12). He had previously said, that not by the blood of goats or of heifers, but by his own blood, he had once entered into the holy of holies, having obtained eternal redemption for us. Now, when he reasons thus, “If the blood of bulls and of goats, and the ashes of an heifer sprinkling the unclean, sanctifieth to the purifying of the flesh: how much more shall the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself to God, purge your consciences from dead works to serve the living God?” (Heb. 9:13, 14), it is obvious that too little effect is given to the grace of Christ, unless we concede to his sacrifice the power of expiating, appeasing, and satisfying: as he shortly after adds, “For this cause he is the mediator of the new testament, that by means of his death, for the redemption of the transgressions that were under the first testament, they which are called might receive the promise of eternal inheritance,” (Heb. 9:15). But it is especially necessary to attend to the analogy which is drawn by Paul as to his having been made a curse for us (Gal. 3:13). It had been superfluous and therefore absurd, that Christ should have been burdened with a curse, had it not been in order that, by paying what others owed, he might acquire righteousness for them. There is no ambiguity in Isaiah’s testimony, “He was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was laid upon him; and with his stripes we are healed,” (Is. 53:5). For had not Christ satisfied for our sins, he could not be said to have appeased God by taking upon himself the penalty which we had incurred. To this corresponds what follows in the same place, “for the transgression of my people was he stricken,” (Is. 53:8). We may add the interpretation of Peter, who unequivocally declares, that he “bare our sins in his own body on the tree,” (1 Pet. 2:24), that the whole burden of condemnation, of which we were relieved, was laid upon him. (Institutes, II.17.iv)

Here’s a revelation: I prefer Calvin. What is more, Calvin understands the Bible.


8 thoughts on “Forensic Friday: Making the World Safe for the Governmental Theory of the Atonement

  1. “Here’s a revelation: I prefer Calvin. What is more, Calvin understands the Bible.”

    Amen brother!!

    After 18 years of living in a home that stressed “the Greatest Generations” morals (along with a hyper-critical mother), then another 19 years of Finney and Rushdoony type sanctification- the good news of Michael Horton’s Putting Amazing Back into Grace was like a breath of fresh air. I had to leave Church for 10 years before I found one that actually preached the Good News of the Gospel on a consistent basis. Thank God for Luther, Calvin and true reformation spirituality which stresses the forgiveness of the Gospel over the condemnation of the Law. Antinomians unite and fight!!! (again, just trying to add a bit of humor)


  2. Nice set of contrasts between Finney & Calvin. We heard a little bit about Finney in the “Modern Age” church history class, but not nearly enough. No required reading of Finney assigned in Modern Age. Could have been very instructive.


  3. Here’s another reputable author to add to the block quote forum …

    “Therefore say to the house of Israel, Thus says the Lord GOD: It is not for your sake, O house of Israel, that I am about to act, but for the sake of my holy name, which you have profaned among the nations to which you came. And I will vindicate the holiness of my great name, which has been profaned among the nations, and which you have profaned among them. And the nations will know that I am the LORD, declares the Lord GOD, when through you I vindicate my holiness before their eyes. I will take you from the nations and gather you from all the countries and bring you into your own land. I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules.” Ezekiel 36


  4. That first Calvin quote sounds a major emphasis of Cocceius’s covenant thinking a century later, i.e., the surpassing joy and liberty of the Gospel vs. the “fear of death” experience by OT saints, who had the curse of the law hanging over them. I think it’s a real insight of Cocceius that if you don’t grasp the difference in the life of faith before and after the cross, then you don’t really get the Gospel. Oh, and by the way, it’s also useful polemically against Jews.


  5. Precious Blood: The Atoning Work of Christ, edited by Phillips, the chapter by Carl Trueman on “Post-Reformation Developments in the Doctrine of the Atonement.”, p196

    “Socinius says if Trueman’s sin have been punished on the cross, it is not mercy for God to forgive Trueman but justice. But Grotius says, if the punishment on the cross is merey an equivalent of Trueman’s sins, then it is still possible to build mercy into the equation…If Trueman’s sins are not imputed to Christ, then it’s possible that Christ’s righteousness is not imputed to Trueman. That fits well with an Arminian view of justification, but I can assure you that Truemanhas a problem with it.”


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