From his sermon The Bible and the Cross:
HAVING observed last week what are the leading views that have been held regarding the Cross of Christ, we turn now to the Bible in order to discover which of these views is right.Did Jesus on the Cross really take our place, paying the penalty of God’s law which justly rested upon us? That is the orthodox or substitutionary view of the atonement.
Or did He merely exert a good moral influence upon us by His death, either by giving us an exhibition of the love of God or by inspiring us to sacrifice our lives for the welfare of others as He sacrificed Himself? That is the so-called moral influence theory of the atonement.
Or did He by His death merely conserve the good discipline of the world by showing that, in the interests of the welfare of the greatest number, God cannot simply allow His law to be transgressed with complete impunity? That is the so-called governmental theory of the atonement.
We shall try to test these three views of the Cross of Christ by comparing them with what the Bible actually says. But before we do so, there are two preliminary remarks that we ought to make.
Our first remark is that the three views of the atonement really reduce themselves to two. Both the moral influence and the governmental view of the atonement really make the work of Christ terminate upon man, rather than upon God. They both proceed on the assumption that, in order that man shall be forgiven, nothing but man’s repentance is required. They both of them deny, at least by implication, that there is such a thing as an eternal principle of justice, not based merely upon the interests of the creature but rooted in the nature of God—an eternal principle of justice demanding that sin shall be punished. They both of them favor the notion that the ethical attributes of God may be summed up in the one attribute—benevolence. They both of them tend to distort the great Scriptural assertion that “God is love” into the very different assertion that God is nothing but love. They both of them tend to find the supreme end of the creation in the happiness or well-being of the creature. They both of them fail utterly to attain to any high notion of the awful holiness of God.
No doubt the governmental theory disguises these tendencies more than the moral influence theory does. It does show some recognition of the moral chaos which would result if men got the notion that the law of God could be transgressed with complete impunity.
But, after all, even the governmental theory denies that there is any real underlying necessity for the punishment of sin. Punishment, it holds, is merely remedial and deterrent. It is intended merely to prevent future sin, not to expiate past sin. So the tragedy on Calvary, according to the advocates of the governmental view, was intended by God merely to shock sinners out of their complacency; it was intended merely to show what terrible effects sin has so that sinners by observing those terrible effects might be led to stop sinning. The governmental view, therefore, like the moral influence view, has at its centre the notion that a moral effect exerted upon man was the sole purpose of the Cross of Christ.
Very different is the substitutionary view. According to that view, not a mere moral effect upon man but the satisfaction of the eternal justice of God was the primary end for which Christ died. Hence the substitutionary view of the atonement stands sharply over against the other two. The other two belong in one category; the substitutionary view belongs in an entirely different category. That is the first remark that we desire to make before we begin to consider the Biblical teaching in detail.
That remark, however, would be decidedly misleading unless we went on to make a second remark. Our second remark is that the substitutionary view of the atonement, though it makes the work of Christ in dying upon the Cross terminate primarily upon God, yet does at the same time most emphatically make it terminate also upon man. What a distortion of the substitutionary view it would be to say that Christ, when He died, did not die to produce a moral effect upon man!
Of course He died to produce a moral effect upon man. If He had not died, man would have continued to lead a life of sin; but as it is, those for whom He died cease to lead a life of sin and begin to lead a life of holiness. They do not lead that life of holiness perfectly in this world, but they will most certainly lead it in the world to come, and it was in order that they might lead that life of holiness that Christ died for them. No man for whom Christ died continues to live in sin as he lived before. All who receive the benefits of the Cross of Christ turn from sin unto righteousness. In holding that that is the case, the substitutionary view of the atonement is quite in accord with the moral influence theory and with the governmental theory.
*Machen, J. G. (1949). God Transcendent and Other Selected Sermons (N. B. Stonehouse, Ed.) (181–183). Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.