The Governmental Theory of Atonement
In a one room country schoolhouse years ago, a problem arose with someone stealing the lunches of several students. The teacher discussed the problem with the students, and the whole class decided on the punishment that should be given to the thief if he was caught. In time the thief was caught. It was a fairly small and young boy. He was caught stealing the lunch of a much larger boy in the class. The teacher asked the thief to come forward for his punishment. Once he was at the front of the room, the teacher requested that he take off his long coat. It reached down to his knees, and it would be padding for the spanking he was about to receive. He begged her to allow him to leave his coat on. She insisted, however, so he removed it. To everyone's surprise he had no shirt on underneath it, and everyone observed his very skinny build. It was clear that he had not been eating properly for a long time. The teacher asked him why he did not have a shirt on. He responded that he only owned one shirt and this was his mother's day to wash it.

The teacher did not really want to paddle the young boy even though he had stolen something. She felt sorry for him, but if she did not punish him, what kind of message would that send to the rest of the class? They would think she was not really serious about any punishment in the future. They would think that doing something wrong was not really a matter of concern. Reluctantly, she began to paddle the boy. After two licks, though, the larger boy whose lunch had been stolen cried out, "Stop!" He came forward and took the place of the younger boy and received the rest of his licks for him. She broke the paddle on him, and his actions broke the heart of the young thief. He cried and cried, promising that he would never steal again.

This story is similar to the governmental theory of atonement. According to this theory, at least as it is presented by some, God could forgive everyone if it were not for other problems this would create. If God merely forgave us with no punishment being administered, man would not take sin very seriously. Man would continue in sin that grace would abound (cf. Rom. 6:1,2). Man would sin all the more saying, "God will forgive me anyway." In order to preserve a respect for law and order, God needed to punish sin before He could forgive mankind. The cross, therefore, was a warning to man that God takes sin seriously. This theory suggests that since real punishment has been suffered by Christ for sin, God is now free to forgive.

The attractive aspect of this theory is that it emphasizes the fact that sin is serious and not to be taken lightly. Sin is so significant that God allowed His only begotten Son to die on the cross. The governmental theory reminds us that the wages of sin is death (Rom. 6:23). It encourages us to live by God's standard and pursue righteousness because law and order are so important to Him.

There are serious problems with this theory too, however. It is improper to imply that God could have forgiven all mankind but did not do so in order to maintain law and order. There is more to atonement than that! God is righteous and holy and cannot bear the presence of sin. If a maintaining of law and order (government) was God's chief aim in the cross, then the action would be suspected. Man would wonder if the death of Jesus was just done for effect. This could be compared to a mother pretending her feelings were hurt more than they really were by her child. She could cry and attempt to shame her child into the right course of action. If the child discovered that there was a false emotion involved, however, he might feel tricked and rebel. Rather than achieving a respect for law and order, the child might learn to disrespect any rule from that parent in the future. There is much more to the concept of atonement than just the seriousness of sin and maintaining law and order. Additionally, we must be careful not to imply that since Jesus has died for the sins of the world that everyone will one day be saved. Such is simply untrue (Matt. 7:13,14).

We will conclude this series in our next lesson.