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Yet again today we try to understand a little-known theory of the atonement that has actually re-emerged in our own day.

(1) The primary proponent of the governmental theory was Hugo Grotius (1583-1645). Law, according to Grotius, is a positive statute or enactment. “It is not,” he says, “something inward in God, or in the Divine will and nature, but is only the effect of his will” (iii). Law is thus a product of God’s will by which not even he is bound. He may change it or abrogate it entirely as he sees fit. 

(2) Here is Grotius’s view of divine law:

“All positive laws . . . are relaxable [emphasis mine]. Those who fear that if we concede this we do an injury to God, because we thereby represent him as mutable, are much deceived. For law is not something internal in God, or in the will itself of God, but it is a particular effect or product of his will. But that the effects or products of the Divine will are mutable is very certain. Moreover, in promulgating a positive law which he might wish to relax at some future time, God does not exhibit any fickleness of will. For God seriously indicated that he desired that his law should be valid and obligatory, while yet at the same time he reserved the right of relaxing it, if he saw fit, because this right pertains to a positive law from the very nature of the case, and cannot be abdicated by the Deity” (iii). 

(3) W. G. T. Shedd analyzes Grotius’s view of law:

“By this idea and definition of law, Grotius reduces everything back to the arbitrary and optional will of God, and thus differs from Anselm and the Reformers. According to them, the Divine will cannot be separated from the Divine nature, in this manner. God’s law is not positive and arbitrary but natural and necessary, because it flows out of his essential being. The Divine will is the executive of the Divine essence. Law, therefore, is not the effect or figment of mere and isolated will, but of will in immutable harmony with truth and right. Both law and penalty, consequently, in the theory of the Reformers are the inevitable and inexorable efflux of the Divine Essence, and contain nothing of an optional or mutable nature. They can no more be ‘relaxed’ or waived than the attributes of omnipotence or omniscience can be” (Dogmatic Theology, II:355).

(4) As with law, the penalty that it carries is also a positive and not a natural or necessary component. It does not spring inevitably out of the nature of law nor from God’s being, but is attached to the statute by a positive decision of God’s will, which decision is mutable and optional. In other words, just as law is capable of being rescinded, so also the penal sanctions connected with it.

(5) That all sin deserves punishment, Grotius would not deny. But it does not follow that all sin must be punished. Nothing, not even God’s nature, necessitates the actual enactment of the penal sanctions of the law. God must disapprove of and condemn sin, but it does not follow that he must punish it. Why he must disapprove and condemn sin will shortly be explained.

(6) When we speak of God in relationship to the world, man, and sin, Grotius insists that we view him not as an offended party, i.e., as One whose character has been violated by the transgressions of his creature. Neither are we to view God as creditor (Anselm) to whom the sinner now owes the debt of satisfaction and obedience. Rather, we are to view God as the Supreme Moral Governor of the created order, who always acts in the interests of the common good.

(7) Grotius then proceeds to describe God’s reaction against sin not in terms of retributive justice which arises from God’s character, but in terms of rectoral justice as related to the interests of public law and order, by whose maintenance alone the general good can be conserved.

(8) From the preceding considerations, Grotius contends that it is entirely feasible for God to relax the claims of his law and save the sinner apart from any satisfaction or punishment. Why, then, if there is nothing in the being or attributes of God that demands strict and exact infliction of punishment on the sinner, does not God dismiss the sinner from all obligation and save him by a mere act of will? In other words, why did Christ have to die at all? 

Grotius argues that although God can remit the penalty of sin without satisfaction, as far as his own inner nature is concerned, he cannot do so in view of the welfare of the created order. God has created all things, in relation to which he now stands as Ruler and Governor. The necessities of such a moral order make it unsafe for him to exercise his power and right of remission of penalty. William G. T. Shedd thus explains that “on the ground, therefore, that the interests of the creature need it, and not on the ground that the attributes of the Creator require it, must there be an atonement in order to remission” (II:358).

(9) The final cause of atonement, therefore, is external to God. The cause is what the interests of the universe require, not what the nature of God might demand. Christ’s death is thus primarily a tribute to the sanctity of divine government. His death demonstrates that while God remits (or relaxes) the penalty, he detests sin and desires to deter its spread within the created order. A good governor cannot allow his subjects to sin with impunity, for to do so would encourage them to continue in sin. Thus Christ died as a penal example (but not a penal substitute), an exhibition of God’s displeasure with sin designed to encourage us to forsake our evil ways. Cave explains:

“The concern of this theory is not the expiation of divine justice, but its manifestation; its interest is prospective, not retrospective” [in other words, the stress is on the prevention or deterrence of future sin, not the forgiveness of past sin] (The Doctrine of the Work of Christ, 177). 

(10) Anselm and the Protestant Reformers understood vicarious satisfaction to be the substitution of a strict equivalent for the penalty incurred by human sin. The sufferings and death of Christ are equal or adequate to the eternal penalty which all humans deserve. There is no relaxation of the claims of divine justice: the punishment which was deservedly ours was borne in full measure by Christ.

Grotius, on the other hand, while speaking of Christ being “punished” in our place, does not mean what the reformers meant. He simply means that Christ’s afflictions were accepted by God in the place of our punishment. His sufferings were not equal in value or kind to what we would have received, but were “accounted” as such by God as he “relaxed” the claims of justice. This theory has been called the Acceptilation Theory of the atonement. This word refers to the action of a creditor who discharges his debtor without full or literal payment being made. He may cancel the debt entirely by declaring it paid or by receiving a partial payment in lieu of a full one. Thus God is conceived as forgiving humanity or eliminating their debt by receiving instead the payment offered by Christ in his sufferings. His death is not a strict equivalent to what man owed, but God accepts it as such.