Theories of Atonement: Governmental Theory


This theory served as a median between the views of Socinus and the view of the Protestant reformers.  It states that the death of Christ served as a penal example and made a token payment for sin through his death on the cross[1].  God accepted this token payment, set aside the requirements of His own law, and forgave sinners because “principle of his government was upheld[2].”

This view had some followers in the 16th century, but it has its problems.  Where in scripture do we read that God sets aside His law for a payment of this type?  Some may point to Levitical law, but even then the people were still under the requirements of the law.  In his critique of this theory the 19th century theologian Charles Hodge stated, “And the sufferings of Christ, if incurred in the discharge of his mission of mercy, and not judicially inflicted in execution of the penalty of the law, had no more tendency to show God’s abhorrence of sin than the sufferings of the martyrs[3].”  God is unchangeable, but in this theory his changes his punishment for transgression of the law in that he forgives without full payment.  With its flaws it did try to overcome the error of the Example Theory that is not discussed in this essay.  Its fatal flaw is that it does not uphold scriptures view that the death of the Messiah was substitutionary in nature.  God also cannot change his mind and go back on the law that he established[4].

[1] William G.t. Shedd, Dogmatic Theology, 3rd ed, ed. Alan W. Gomes (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&​r Publishing, 2003), 965.

[2] Paul Enns, The Moody Handbook of Theology (Chicago, IL: Moody Publishers, 2014), 335.

[3] Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology (Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2012), 529.

[4] D. Martyn Lloyd-jones, Great Doctrines of the Bible (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 1996), 314.

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