For I determined not to know any thing among you, save Jesus Christ, and him crucified.

-1 Corinthians 2:2

simonIn this post I will be outlining a version of the “Rectoral Theory of the Atonement” which combines elements from both the “Governmental theory of the Atonement” and the “Vicarious Penitent theory of the atonement”. The term “rectoral” comes from the idea of a “rector” or head teacher or cleric with teaching authority over an institution. Thus the emphasis in this theory is about the atonement as a means of effective communication or teachings of various truths.

The basic idea behind the “Rectoral Theory of the Atonement” is that the Cross demonstrates the love of God for all sinners by Christ maintaining his love for the them despite their sins against him as well as “satisfying” the rectoral, or pedagogical, ends of punishment in teaching sinners the consequences and gravity of their sins by bearing it in his own person. God is thus enabled to forgive sinners when they place their faith in God’s love exhibited in Christ, and in empathetic union with him, learn the consequences and gravity of their own sins vicariously through him, thus satisfying the rectoral ends of punishment and releasing them from any further condemnation.


Preliminary Historical Notes

To give a brief historical background, the “governmental theory of the atonement” was developed in the wake of the Calvinist-Arminian controversy with regards the question as to whether Christ died only for the Elect (the “Limited Atonement” point in the contemporary Calvinist TULIP). If Christ literally bore the punishment of all man, how could those who are eventually damned be punished again since Christ ex hypothesi has already borne their punishment and transferred it away from them? To do so would be a matter of double jeopardy.

One solution was to simply say that Christ did not bear the punishment of the non-elect, he took the punishment only for the elect. This is the “strict” Calvinist solution. Another solution was the “governmental theory of the atonement” where Christ did not literally bear the punishment of everyone transferred unto him but bore the evils and sufferings of their punishment to exhibit the strictness of divine retribution and uphold the moral government of God’s law. Through such an exhibition of the divine displeasure against sin, God’s honour is protected and God is enabled to forgive everyone of their sins, if they believed. It is in this sense that Christ died for everyone, to enable or clear the obstacle of the divine justice against forgiving them.


Eventually the “Governmental theory of the Atonement” would be developed by two different traditions, the Arminian-Methodist tradition and the Moderate and New England Calvinist tradition. The moderate Calvinist by and large rejected the “limited atonement” teaching of the stricter Calvinists and argued that Christ did indeed make atonement “for all”. Some of the moderate Calvinist, particularly the New England Calvinists, but not all, would go on to develop the governmental theory of the atonement as a way of explaining the mechanics of Christ’s death as it related to the ends of exhibiting divine justice and our justification, etc.

Albrecht_Dürer_-_The_Penitent_-_WGA7169The “Vicarious Penitent theory of the Atonement” was, intriguingly, suggested by the great Jonathan Edwards himself when in his Satisfaction for Sin he mentions, in passing, that God is obliged to punish sin “unless there be something in some measure to balance this desert; either some answerable repentance and sorrow for it, or other compensation.” To be clear, Jonathan Edwards did not think that there exists such an infinite repentance or sorrow. However the Scottish Reformed theologian John Mcleod Campbell took up the suggestion and argued that Christ precisely was capable of such an infinite sorrow and repentance which he vicariously provided on our behalf. This account was further developed by the Anglican theologian Robert Moberly and popularised by C.S. Lewis in his Mere Christianity.

The primary purpose of this post is to develop my own theory, not to exegete accurately what these other theologians really thought or believed about the atonement. I shall simply be picking up strands of their atonement theory and using it to develop my own account of how the atonement works. Whether or not they would have accepted the deductions which I have taken from their premises would be a separate question altogether.

Lesson One: The Demonstration of God’s love for Sinners

I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked; but that the wicked turn from his way and live: turn ye, turn ye from your evil ways; for why will ye die, O house of Israel?”

-Ezekiel 33:11

Let us pick up from “limited atonement” controversy amongst the Calvinists. For whom did Christ die or make atonement for? The moderate Calvinists by and large wanted to say that the Cross was somehow applicable to everyone, yet they did not want to fall into the criticisms of the stricter Calvinists for implying that Christ failed to accomplish the purpose of saving everyone when in the end some are lost.

The moderate Calvinists managed to have their cake and eat it by arguing for two stages of the atonement. The first stage is that the Cross enables all  to be saved by making available and offering salvation to all sinners. The second stage of the atonement is whereby the Cross effectually secures salvation only for elect who actually believe and repent. We shall first discuss how the first stage of the atonement works and makes available salvation to all sinners.

So how does the Cross make available salvation to all sinners? It does this by exhibiting or demonstrating the love of God for sinners in historical events of Jesus Christ’s life, and based on that living demonstration, enable God to issue a call to faith in his love and repentance.

Wk 1 clipart

God exhibits his love throughout the whole of Christ’s life in his words, healing, miracles, ministry, exorcisms, etc. However it is particularly in enduring the horrible crimes committed against him without retaliation and praying to the Father to forgive them for they know not what they do, that God demonstrates to all sinners as sinners that their sins or crimes against him or his son does not diminish God’s love for them nor does God take pleasure in their destruction, revealing his heart’s disposition to love and forgive sinners. Thus the Cross does is show sinners that sin is not a barrier or impediment for their returning to God and enables God to issue a genuine offer to all sinners to repent and externally call and encourage all sinners to return back to him and be saved.

The Intent to Offer Salvation and the Intent to Effectually Secure it

What the primary historical events of Christ’s life and death does is to exhibit God’s love for sinners and his disposition to forgive them all. Based on those primary events of Christ’s life, God issues the call to all to believe in his goodness and repent.

However it is clear that the sheer death and historical events of Christ’s life, although intended to exhibit to all his disposition to forgive them all, does not by itself automatically save them all. The love of God exhibited in the historical events of Christ’s life, and the call rooted in it, enables sinners to be saved, in the sense that both the Cross and the call to repentance “clears the road” for the sinner to return back to God. However to effectually secure this salvation, the sinner must actually obey the call, believe in the love of God for sinners, and take the road to repentance. The offer of salvation is genuine, but the securing of salvation itself is conditional, premised upon our obedience to the call rooted upon the exhibited love.

The Sower - Luke 8:4-15
The Sower – Luke 8:4-15

Therefore there is a two fold purpose to the Cross. First, it was intended to make available salvation to all sinners, this is done by exhibiting God’s love in the historical events of Christ’s life and issuing the call to all to repentance. Secondly, it was intended to effectually secure the salvation of those whom God has elected to save and whom he has sent the Holy Spirit to enable them to fulfil the conditions of the offer by granting them the gift of faith to believe the Gospel and repent. There is however no positive reprobation of God intending to prevent anyone from being saved. God positively intends to make the Cross available to all and offer salvation to all. However, seeing how mankind’s corrupt nature is disposed to reject his offer, God then further decrees to give those whom he has elected unto salvation the Holy Spirit to enable them to fulfil the conditions of the offer and believe.

50 predestination[1]The two extremes are thus avoided. On the one hand, the offer of salvation is genuine, well meant, and earnestly pressed. God did intend to make available the Cross to all and save all who would believe and repent. There is no positive intention to exclude anyone from the salvation. On the other hand, the strict Calvinist charge, that God’s purpose to save all is frustrated, is avoided because the Cross was intended to effectually secure the salvation of only the elect.

So far we have seen how the Cross and historical events of Christ’s life exhibits God’s love for sinners and grounds the call to turn back to him, fulfilling the first stage of the atonement in making salvation available to all. Next we need to explain how the second stage of the atonement work and how the Cross effectually secures the salvation of the believing elect.

Lesson Two: A Lesson in Sin’s Consequences

In praying for his sinner’s forgiveness and not retaliating against them, Christ shows God’s heart and disposition to love and forgive all sinners. However, how does Christ effectually secure the salvation of the elect believers? Of course we can simply go down the voluntaristic route and say that God simply decided to effectually save the elect who believes in his Gospel and his exhibited love in Christ and that’s the end of it.

However we think that the Cross and historical events of Christ’s life must have something to do with effectually securing our salvation beyond merely showing us God’s love for us sinners and calling us to repentance. The historical events of Christ’s life and death cannot just consist of generally exhibiting to all God’s love for sinners, both elect and non-elect, but must be intrinsically involved in the particular salvation of the elect. How is it so involved?

To go into this we need to take a step back and ask some general questions about the nature and ends of punishment. What is the point of punishment? Our first instincts is simply to say, retributive, punishment is simply what sinners deserves and it is “fitting” that they should be so punished and treated according to who and what they are, sinners or disobedient creatures of God.

However, even retribution itself is subordinated to even greater ends, the good of the creature. Thus, treating sinners as they deserve could potentially serve an even better purpose, to teach sinners the consequences of their sin and to cause them to repent and turn away from sin and become better. This is the “rectoral” function of punishment, to teach sinners a lesson in sin’s consequences that they might no more sin and turn away from it. Once the rectoral function is fulfilled, the sinner turned away from sin, that sinner would no longer be a sinner and thus can be released from punishment which no longer “fits” him.


(As a side note, this sort of reasoning would need us to reject the idea “infinite desert” arguments whereby a person’s sin against God deserves “infinite punishment” which can never end no matter the future state or repentance of the sinner in question. That would however require another discussion altogether.)

The problem however is two fold. Being under the wrath of God and suffering his punishment first induces despair. While the loving face of God is hidden behind the dark clouds of his anger, we no longer are able to believe that God truly seeks our good or is willing to save or forgive us. Therefore we lack the motivation to turn away from sin and back to God, continuing to languish in sin and his wrath. Secondly, while our natures and minds remains corrupted and darkened by sin, we are unable to appreciate or recognise the magnitude of our sin’s consequences as well as its gravity. Selfishly turned in upon ourselves, we care nothing about the effects which our actions have upon others. As such, it seems as if there is no hope of us ever fulfilling the rectoral function of God’s punishment and being forgiven and released from his wrath.

On the Proper Distinction between “Suffering a Punishment” and “Being Punished”

It is here where a vicarious perfect penitent who “suffers our punishment” would be the solution to our problems. However, we will need to be very careful in our description of what it means exactly for Christ to “suffer our punishment” if it is not simply to collapse into the common caricature of a mechanical penal substitution theory whereby our sins are removed simply by transferring that punishment to Christ.

I have found the following story from Enid Blyton to be particularly helpful in illuminating the sense in which Christ “suffered our punishment”:

A class conspires to play a dangerous trick on their teacher. One girl alone speaks out against this. She is immediately shushed as being priggish and prudish. The trick involves releasing a vapour to induce severe sneezing. The teacher falls ill after a sneezing fit. The trick is discovered and the whole class punished by being made to work during a holiday, but the girl alone who spoke out against it is excused from the punishment. However, the innocent girl chooses to be punished along with the class, in solidarity with her friends.


The resemblance of this analogy to Christ’s life and deeds should be quite evident. Even though the girl who spoke up was innocent, she choose to bear the punishment of her class and have a share in their sufferings. However, and let us be clear, the innocent girl was not being punished. She suffered the “same” punishment, but she was not being punished. It is not like the punishment of the class was simply “transferred” to her and the rest were left off. There is often some ambiguity with how we use the phrase “same punishment”. Let’s say that two person were caught committing a crime, we say of one that he had “the same” punishment as the other, not in the sense that the punishment of the other was “transferred” to him and he had the other criminal’s own personal punishment, but that he was given the same kind of punishment. Likewise the girl did not suffer her class’s own punishment in the sense of it being transferred over to her, she suffered the same kind of punishment.

Christ the Vicarious Penitent 

So in what sense of the word did Christ “suffer our punishment” and how does this serve the rectoral functions of punishment?

First, our punishments were not simply “transferred” over to Christ such that Christ was punished in our stead and we are let off. However, Christ did suffer the same kind of punishment which we undergo in this world. He suffered not only natural evils like physical wounds and social betrayal and abandonment, but he experienced in his very soul spiritual horrors like what it is like to be alienated from God himself. In this sense, he suffered the “wrath of God” and the “punishment of God” was laid upon him.


However, and we need to be clear about this, Christ never suffered any wrath directed at himself personally for he was innocent and guilty of nothing. What he did experience intimately in his own body and soul was God’s wrath against sinners in general and the same kind of punishment they would undergo.

So how does Christ suffering “our punishment” solve the two problems stated above? First, Christ delivers us from despair in showing us that even though we go through such terrible evils inflicted by God’s wrath, there is light at the end of the tunnel, a new day dawns, death and all the sufferings in this world has its end and we shall be raised to newness of life just as Christ survived the wrath and punishment of God, until its ultimate end in death, and rose again from it. Thus Christ exhibits to us that no matter how terrible our sins, how heavy the judgement upon our souls, there is always hope in a new and renewed life.

Secondly, Christ being innocent and perfect, he alone is able to grasp the magnitude and gravity of our sins, both which we inflict upon others and which we inflict upon ourselves. Especially since his soul was pure and his connection to God united in the closest and most mysterious manner possible, he alone could appreciate and understand the full horror of our sins effects upon ourselves, what we are deprived of in our severance from God’s communion and the debilitating corruption which our sins have upon our own souls. Since he was perfectly innocent and just, he alone could appreciate, the outrage of betrayal, the viciousness of treachery, and the sheer injustice which our unjust deeds inflict upon the innocent.

Fulfilling the Rectoral Function of Punishment

So far we have seen how the suffering and death of Christ enables the fulfilment of the rectoral function of punishment. By his emerging into new life after undergoing the fires of God’s wrath, he motivates and encourages us to repent and turn from sin for there is a like hope for us who live under wrath that we too can be saved. As the perfect penitent and the only innocent one, he is able to both understand and exhibit the gravity and magnitude of sin and its consequences.

However the question is how is Christ going to communicate these insights to us? It is here that we may need something very much like the Eastern Orthodox “participatory” understanding of the atonement whereby we “somehow” share or participate in Christ’s sufferings and death and thereby learn the magnitude and consequences of our own sins vicariously through Christ.

To be a little more precise, based on the first stage of the atonement, we see the love of God exhibited in Christ’s life and obey the call to believe and repent. By obeying this call and believing, we are spiritually united with Christ and on the path of repentance. Through faith apprehending and beholding the life of Christ we begin to understand and apply his death and sufferings to our own lives, seeing our sins in the light of his wounds which exhibits their full depth, and with a renewed conscience stricken, we begin turning away from them and fulfilling the rectoral function of our punishment.

By Christ’s bearing our punishment in his own soul and body and the communication of their gravity to us through faith unto repentance, the rectoral ends of punishment are satisfied and, as such, it is consistent with divine justice to forgive us our sins and to cancel his punishments against us for we are on the path to a full appreciation of our sin’s consequences through faith in Christ.


This is of course but a mere outline of a more complete theory. There are still a lot of loose ends to tie up such as showing why the atonement was “necessary”. (A sketch could go along the lines of, only a full human can suffer the punishments of humans and the consequences of sins against each other and only a pure, innocent, and holy God can exhibit and understand the full injustice of those sins.)

However I wish to conclude by making some brief observations as to how my account differs from both the governmental theory of the atonement and the vicarious penitent theory of the atonement.

As far as the governmental theory of the atonement is concerned, the suffering and death of Christ enable God to forgive sinners because they exhibit to the world the divine displeasure towards sin and upholds the dignity and honour of the divine law which end is to maintain the moral government of God. In my account the suffering and death of Christ enable God to forgive sinners because they exhibit, not the divine displeasure against sin to the world, but to the sinner personally and individually, through an empathic faith union, the gravity of their sins which answers to rectoral end of punishment to teach them about sin and thereby enabling them to be released from it. There is no vague general moral order or government in my account which requires the death and suffering of God to uphold, only a particular rectoral function of punishment fulfilled in individual believers personally through faith.

As far as the vicarious penitent theory is concerned, the idea is that somehow, Christ repents, apologises, and does penance on our behalf by his own suffering. In my account, Christ does not repent on our behalf nor does he even do penance on our behalf. Christ undergoes the same kind of punishment we go through in his soul and body in order to give us hope that, us being under the wrath of God, does not preclude the possibility of our resurrection unto new life, and to convict and exhibit to us of sin and its consequences, thereby enabling our forgiveness by letting us “tap” into his own experience of sin’s consequences on our body and soul and fulfil the rectoral function of punishment.

In the end, the sum of this theory of the atonement could be summed up by the bible verse at the start. To know nothing but Christ and him crucified. And all that that means.

2 thought on “A Rectoral Theory of the Atonement”
  1. A very helpful sketch of the theory. I need to process the matter more . Really appreciate you work which has helped me to better follow this view.
    Patrick Boyle

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