The error of the Moral Government view of the atonement
by Matt Slick
The moral government view of the atonement is a teaching proposed by Hugo Grotius (1583-1645). On one hand, it is a denial of the Legal Substitutionary view of the atonement held by the Reformers. On the other hand, it is more than the Example Theory which said that the sacrifice of Christ was an example of the obedience that should move people to repent of their sins and live like Christ.
In the Moral Government view of the atonement, God is not an offended party in regards to individual sins, nor is a debt owed to him due to individual sins, nor is there an equating of sin with death, and there is no correlation between debt and sin. Instead, God is a moral governor who oversees proper moral truth and action, and he reconciles people to himself without paying their legal debt on the cross. The cross, then, is an example of the horror of sin and a demonstration of its effect upon mankind, as well as an exhibition of God’s displeasure with sin. The cross is to motivate people to believe in Christ (by seeing the horror of the effect of sin on God in flesh) and moves the sinner, by his free will, to choose to believe in God and repent of his sins.
Elements of Moral Government Theory of the Atonement
- Jesus suffered on the cross on behalf of humanity, but did not bear the sins of individuals.
- Jesus did not pay the legal debt to God for the sins committed by anyone who has broken God's law.
- There is no correlation between sin and debt.
- Jesus’ sacrifice of Christ was not substitutionary for any individual; rather, it was a corporate sacrifice.
- Jesus’ sacrifice of Christ was a demonstration of God’s displeasure with sin.
- The sacrifice of Christ is a teaching example that is good for society as a whole and demonstrates God’s benevolence to mankind.
- The sacrifice of Christ reconciles us to God without paying our sin debt.
- Denies Original Sin; that is, we do not have a sinful nature.
- Jesus died to make salvation possible and is dependent on man’s free will choice to repent of his sins and believe in God.
You should know that not all elements of Moral Government Theology are held by everyone in that camp. But, in short, the Moral Government view of the Atonement is wrong since it denies the legal, substitutionary sacrifice of Christ.
Debt and sin
Is there a correlation between debt and sin in the Bible? Absolutely! Consider the words of Christ in his instructions on how to pray, which are found in Matthew and Luke.
- Matt. 6:9-13, "Our Father who is in heaven, Hallowed by your name. 10 Your kingdom come. You will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. 11 Give us this day our daily bread. 12 And forgive us our debts (epheilo), as we also have forgiven our debtors. 13 And do not lead us into temptation, but deliver us from evil. [For yours is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, forever. Amen.]"
- Luke 11:2-4, "Father, hallowed be Your name. Your kingdom come. 3 Give us each day our daily bread. 4 And forgive us our sins (hamartia), for we ourselves also forgive everyone who is indebted (epheilo) to us. And lead us not into temptation.”
Notice that Jesus said forgive us our debts in Matt. 6:12, and forgive us our sins in Luke 11:4. This is proof of the correlation between debt and sin. Furthermore, in Luke 11:4 Jesus says forgive us our sins as we forgive those indebted to us. Sin and debt are again related.
The word "debt” in Matt. 6:12 and Luke 11:4 (i.e., indebted) is from the Greek work ὀφείλημα, opheilema. It means…
- ὀφείλημα opheílēma, to owe. Debt, that which is owed, which is strictly due (Rom. 4:4). Also an offense, a trespass which requires reparation (Matt. 6:12).”1
- ὀφείλημα (opheilēma), debt, amount owed (Ro 4:4)…sin, moral debts (Mt 6:12+).2
- “that which is justly or legally due, a debt. 2 metaph. offence, sin. 3
- “literally, of that which is legally due, Rom. 4:4; (b) metaphorically, of sin as a debt, because it demands expiation, and thus payment by way of punishment, Matt. 6:12.” 4
- “only in Mt. 6:12 is sin specifically equated with debt.” 5
Can it be any more clearly stated that debt and sin are related by Christ himself? I cannot see how anyone could deny it, but people do.
Sin is breaking the Law of God (1 John 3:4). Therefore, when someone breaks God’s law he has violated that law. And, what law is a law that has no punishment? There is none. Law breaking necessitates a payment, a penalty of some sort that corresponds to the breaking of that law. If I get a speeding ticket, I must legally pay a fine. If I get convicted of robbing a bank, I must pay the legal penalty of going to jail. There is a debt incurred when a person breaks the law. To deny this is unbiblical, as well as illogical.
Breaking God’s law results in a legal debt, a debt which was paid by Christ to the Father. Consider the following verse.
Jesus cancelled out our debt
“having canceled (exaleipho) out the certificate of debt (cheirographon) consisting of decrees (dogma) against us and which was hostile to us; and He has taken it out of the way, having nailed it to the cross,” (Col. 2:14, NASB).
The significant part of the verse is “having canceled out the certificate of debt consisting of decrees against us.”
Let’s examine three important words in the verse: “canceled” (exaleipho); “certificate of debt” (cheirographon); and decrees (dogma).
- Exaleipho means to cancel, to wipe away.
- Cheirographon means a certificate of legal debt.
- “χειρόγραφον, ου n: a handwritten statement, especially a record of financial accounts (similar in meaning to γράμμαd ‘account,’ 33.39, but perhaps with emphasis upon the handwritten nature of the document)—‘account, record of debts.”8
- “record of debts” (Col 2:14+).”9
- “Χειρόγραφον occurs in the NT only in Col 2:14. Since the simple meaning handwritten document makes no sense here, it should be understood as a legal technical term for a certificate of indebtedness personally prepared and signed by the debtor…”10
- χειρόγραφον , an iου, record of one’s debts.” 11
- Dogma means decrees, legal demands, δόγμασιν from δόγμα, Noun, Dative, Plural, Neuter.
- δόγμα, ατος, τό (1) as a fixed and authoritative decision or requirement decree, command (LU 2.1; AC 17.7); (2) as a fixed rule or set of rules law, ordinance (AC 16.4).12
- “as a decree or command (Luke 2:1; Acts 17:7); of the Mosaic Law, i.e., external precepts (Eph. 2:15; Col. 2:14; Sept.: Dan. 2:13; 3:10; 6:8, 13, 15). Used concerning Christianity, it means views, doctrinal statements, principles.13
- a formalized rule (or set of rules) prescribing what people must do—‘law, ordinance, rule.’14
- Luke 2:1, “Now it came about in those days that a decree (dogma) went out from Caesar Augustus, that a census be taken of all the inhabited earth.”
- Acts 16:4, “Now while they were passing through the cities, they were delivering the decrees (dogmata), which had been decided upon by the apostles and elders who were in Jerusalem, for them to observe.”
- Acts 17:7, “and Jason has welcomed them, and they all act contrary to the decrees (dogmaton) of Caesar, saying that there is another king, Jesus.”
- Eph. 2:15, “by abolishing in His flesh the enmity, which is the Law of commandments contained in ordinances (dogmasin, noun, dative, plural, neuter), that in Himself He might make the two into one new man, thus establishing peace..."
- Col. 2:14, “having canceled out the certificate of debt consisting of decrees (dogmasin, noun, dative, plural, neuter) against us and which was hostile to us; and He has taken it out of the way, having nailed it to the cross."
Notice that these five verses (every occurrence of “dogma” in the Bible) each deal with official, legal, binding laws. Col. 2:14 is telling us that the debt (cheirographon) that we owe, based on the legal decrees/law of God (dogma), is cancelled (exaleipho) by Jesus when he nailed it to the cross. This proves that the sacrifice of Christ was a legal act that dealt with the debt of sin as it relates to breaking the Law of God.
Consider how other Bible Versions translate the verse.
- having canceled out the certificate of debt consisting of decrees against us, NASB
- Blotting out the handwriting of ordinances that was against us, KJV
- having wiped out the handwriting of requirements that was against us, NKJV
- Blotted out the bond written in ordinances that was against us, ASV
- canceling the record of debt of debt that stood against us with its legal demands, ESV
- having canceled the written code, with its regulations, that was against us and that stood opposed to us, NIV
- having canceled the bond which stood against us with its legal demands, RSV
There is no doubt that the Lord Jesus paid the price of our redemption on the cross, in that he dealt with the legal debt we owe to God due to our breaking God’s law.
“by abolishing (katargasas) in His flesh the enmity, which is the Law of commandments contained in ordinances (dogmasin), that in Himself He might make the two into one new man, thus establishing peace,” (Eph. 2:15).
Paul again speaks of Christ’s legal work of atonement that he accomplished on the cross. In Eph. 2:15 he tells us that Jesus abolished the enmity which is the Law of commandments contained in ordinances (dogma). Let’s take a look at katagrasas.
- “to be idle. To render inactive, idle, useless, ineffective.”15
- “put an end to, put a stop to, invalidate.”16
Paul is telling us that Christ, via his crucifixion, abolished the Law of commandments against us. Now, this does not mean that he cancelled the Law itself. Rather, it means he cancelled the debt of the Law that we earn by sinning (Col. 2:14). After all, Jesus did not come to abolish the Law, but to fulfill it (Matt. 5:17).
Redemption is legal
More legal terminology is used in regards to our sin and redemption. Consider the following verses.
- “Be on guard for yourselves and for all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God which He purchased (periepoiasato) with His own blood," (Acts 20:28).
- “For you have been bought (agarazo) with a price: therefore glorify God in your body,” (1 Cor. 6:20).
- "You were bought (agarazo) with a price (timay); do not become slaves of men," (1 Cor. 7:23).
- "Christ redeemed (exagarazo) us from the curse of the Law, having become a curse for us—for it is written, 'Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree,'” (Gal. 3:13).
- "so that He might redeem those who were under the Law, that we might receive the adoption as sons," (Gal. 4:5).
- "knowing that you were not redeemed (lutroo) with perishable things like silver or gold from your futile way of life inherited from your forefathers," (1 Pet. 1:18).
- "And they sang a new song, saying, “Worthy are you to take the book, and to break its seals; for You were slain, and did purchase (agarazo) for God with Your blood men from every tribe and tongue and people and nation," (Rev. 5:9).
The word “bought” in Greek is agaradzo. It means, "purchase, do business in the marketplace.”17
Agaradzo, ἀγοράζω impf. ἠγόραζον; 1aor. ἠγόρασα; 1aor. pass. ἠγοράσθην; literally buy, purchase, do business in the marketplace (MT 13.44); figuratively, as being no longer controlled by sin set free; from the analogy of buying a slave’s freedom for a price paid by a benefactor redeem (1C 6.20). Also, “In the pass. in 1 Cor. 6:20; 7:23, declaring that believers “are bought with a price” or “for a price” (a.t.). The consequence of something or someone having been bought is that the buyer has the right of possession. In the redemptive work of Christ the idea is that Christ, by offering Himself for us as due satisfaction, freed us from our liability in paying it ourselves (1 Cor. 6:20; 7:23; Gal. 3:13; 2 Pet. 2:1; Rev. 5:9; 14:3, 4). He, having paid the price, binds us to Himself. Other references: Mark 11:15; Luke 17:28; 19:45; John 13:29; 1 Cor. 7:30; Rev. 3:18; 13:17; 18:11.18. Also, “buy, acquire as property of believers, for whom Christ has paid the price w. his blood: w. gen. of price ἠγοράσθητε τιμη̂ς you were bought for a price 1 Cor 6:20; 7:23.19
Exagarazo,ἐξαγοράζω, "Paul uses ἐξαγοράζω in Gal 3:13 and 4:5 to designate the universal redemptive act of Christ: with his vicarious death Christ has redeemed us from the law (4:5) and from the death-producing curse (3:13), which is the enslaving burden on humanity."20 Also, "Christ bought us in this slave market of sin by His own blood; believers are His bondslaves; exagorazō (ἐξαγοραζω), “to buy out of the slave market” (Gal. 3:13, 4:5)."21
Lutroo, λυτρόω, "free someone by paying a ransom price (Lk 24:21; Tit 2:14; 1Pe 1:18+; Ac 28:19 v.r.)." 22 Also, "in 1 Pet 1:18f. the image of the payment of ransom presupposes early Christian interpretation of the death of Jesus."23
Timay: The word "price" in 1 Cor. 7:23 is τιμή, timay. It means "honor, respect, status (Jn 4:44); 2. LN 65.1 value, worth (1Co 12:23); 3. LN 57.161 price, amount, the cost (Mt 27:9; Ac 5:2; 1Co 7:23); 4. LN 57.167 pay, compensation for a service (1Ti 5:17)." 26 Also, "honor, respect, recognition; price, value ( τ. αἵματος blood money Mt 27.6); sum (of money); proceeds (of a sale); place of honor, honor (He 5.4); perhaps pay, compensation (1 Tm 5.17)."27
Christ bought us. He offered a legal transaction on the cross by which we are redeemed from the consequence of breaking the Law. We know this is true for yet another reason.
"It is finished"
“When Jesus therefore had received the sour wine, He said, “It is finished!” And He bowed His head, and gave up His spirit,” (John 19:30).
In the Greek, the words “It is finished” are a single word: tετέλεσται, tetelestai. It is most significant because it comes from the Greek word teleo, which means “complete, fulfill; carry out, pay out.”28
What is important in our discussion is that the word has been used in regard to paying a legal debt. Please consider this…
“The sixth word or saying that Jesus spoke from the cross was the single Greek work tetelestai which means It is finished. Papyri receipts for taxes have been recovered with the word tetelestai written across them, meaning “paid in full.” This word on Jesus’ lips was significant. When He said, “It is finished” (not “I am finished”), He meant His redemptive work was completed. He had been made sin for people (2 Cor. 5:21) and had suffered the penalty of God’s justice which sin deserved.29
Did Jesus make a legal payment on the cross? It certainly would seem so.
The Moral government idea of the atonement, where there is no correspondence between sin and legal debts of the law, is clearly not biblical. It denies summary Scriptures and is heretical. Please be aware that Christ took our place on the cross (Isaiah 53:4-6). He bore our sins in his body on the cross (1 Peter 2:24). He canceled out the legal certificate of debt (Colossians 2:14). In short, he is the one who satisfied the requirements of the law, paid the debt of the law, and gives us his righteousness. This is why the Bible says we are justified (declared legally righteous) by faith (Romans 5:1).
To God be all the glory.
Questions for those who deny a correlation between debt and sin, and/or say there is no terminology of debt used in regards to sin, and/or deny that Jesus paid a legal debt on the cross...
- 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?
- 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?
- If he did not legally bear our sins and pay the penalty of sin (death), then how does his sacrifice save us?
- Would you say that the sacrifice of Christ did not save anyone?
- According to Col. 2:14, what did Jesus cancel if not our sin debt?
- If you say the Law, then you are saying that the Law itself is canceled.
- If Christ did not pay the legal debt for our sins, then the cross cannot be a payment for our sins. Doesn't this mean that there is no legal necessity of the cross due to our sins?
- Doesn't the Moral Government theory of the atonement mean that God can forgive without requiring a payment for sin?
- 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?
- If faith in God and our repentance from sin is all that is necessary for salvation, then how is this not works righteousness?
- Doesn't the Moral Government theory of the atonement negate the necessity of our punishment due to our breaking the law?
- If it does, then why do you say Jesus did not satisfy the law which punishes us for breaking it?
- 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?
- 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?
- 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?
- 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.
- Doesn't the Moral Government theory of the atonement mean that Christ did not actually earn our forgiveness on the cross?
- 1. Zodhiates, S. (2000). The complete word study dictionary : New Testament, Chattanooga, TN: AMG Publishers.
- 2. James Swanson, Dictionary of Biblical Languages With Semantic Domains: DBLG 4052, #3.
- 3. James Strong, The Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible: G3783.
- 4. W.E. Vine and F.F. Bruce, Vine's Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words, 1996, 2:277.
- 5. Gerhard Kittel et al., Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, Grand Rapids, Mich.: W.B. Eerdmans, 1995, c1985, 747.
- 6. Vol. 4, Analytical Lexicon of the Greek New Testament by Timothy Friberg, et. Al, Baker's Greek New Testament library, Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Books, 2000, p. 153.”
- 7. H.G. Liddell, A Lexicon : Abridged from Liddell and Scott's Greek-English Lexicon, 1996, p. 269.
- 8. Johannes P. Louw and Eugene Albert Nida, Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament : Based on Semantic Domains, New York: United Bible societies, 1996, c1989), vol. 1, p. 393.
- 9. James Swanson, Dictionary of Biblical Languages With Semantic Domains : DBLG 5934
- 10. Source: Horst Robert Balz and Gerhard Schneider, Exegetical Dictionary of the New Testament (Translation of: Exegetisches Worterbuch zum Neuen Testament.; Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1990-c1993), Vol. 3, p. 464.
- 11. Source: The Greek-English Dictionary of the New Testament, by Barclay M. Newman, Jr. 1971, United Bible Societies, p. 198
- 12. Source: Timothy Friberg et al., vol. 4, Analytical Lexicon of the Greek New Testament, Baker's Greek New Testament library, Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Books, 2000, 118.
- 13. Zodhiates, S. (2000). The complete word study dictionary: New Testament (electronic ed.). Chattanooga, TN: AMG Publishers.
- 14. Louw, J. P., & Nida, E. A. (1996). Vol. 1: Greek-English lexicon of the New Testament: Based on semantic domains (electronic ed. of the 2nd edition.) (425). New York: United Bible Societies.
- 15. Zodhiates, S. (2000). The complete word study dictionary: New Testament (electronic ed.). Chattanooga, TN: AMG Publishers.
- 16. Source: Louw, J. P., & Nida, E. A. (1996). Vol. 2: Greek-English lexicon of the New Testament: Based on semantic domains (electronic ed. of the 2nd edition.) (135). New York: United Bible Societies.
- 17. Timothy Friberg et al., vol. 4, Analytical Lexicon of the Greek New Testament, (Baker's Greek New Testament library,Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Books, 2000), p. 33.
- 18. Spiros Zodhiates, The Complete Word Study Dictionary : New Testament (electronic ed.; Chattanooga, TN: AMG Publishers, 2000, c1992, c1993), G59.
- 19. William Arndt et al., A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature : A Translation and Adaption of the Fourth Revised and Augmented Edition of Walter Bauer's Griechisch-Deutsches Worterbuch Zu Den Schrift En Des Neuen Testaments Und Der Ubrigen Urchristlichen Literatur (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996, c1979), p. 13.
- 20. Horst Robert Balz and Gerhard Schneider, Exegetical Dictionary of the New Testament (Translation of: Exegetisches Worterbuch zum Neuen Testament.;Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1990-c1993), 2:1.
- 21. Kenneth S. Wuest, Wuest's Word Studies from the Greek New Testament : For the English Reader (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1997, c1984), Ro 3:24.
- 22. James Swanson, Dictionary of Biblical Languages With Semantic Domains : Greek (New Testament) (electronic ed.; Oak Harbor: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 1997), DBLG 3390.
- 23. Horst Robert Balz and Gerhard Schneider, Exegetical Dictionary of the New Testament (Translation of: Exegetisches Worterbuch zum Neuen Testament.;Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1990-c1993), 2:366.
- 24. Timothy Friberg et al., vol. 4, Analytical Lexicon of the Greek New Testament (, Baker's Greek New Testament libraryGrand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Books, 2000), 309.
- 25. James Swanson, Dictionary of Biblical Languages With Semantic Domains : Greek (New Testament) (electronic ed.; Oak Harbor: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 1997), DBLG 4347-4348, #1.
- 26. James Swanson, Dictionary of Biblical Languages With Semantic Domains : Greek (New Testament) (electronic ed.; Oak Harbor: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 1997), DBLG 5507, #4.
- 27. Barclay Moon Newman, Concise Greek-English Dictionary of the New Testament. (Stuttgart, Germany: Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft; United Bible Societies, 1993), 182.
- 28. Horst Robert Balz and Gerhard Schneider, Exegetical Dictionary of the New Testament (Translation of: Exegetisches Worterbuch zum Neuen Testament.; Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1990-c1993), 3:346.
- 29. John F. Walvoord et al., The Bible Knowledge Commentary : An Exposition of the Scriptures (Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1983-c1985), 2:340.
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