And when you were dead in trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made you alive together with him, when he forgave us all our trespasses, erasing the record that stood against us with its legal demands. He set this aside, nailing it to the cross. He disarmed the rulers and authorities and made a public example of them, triumphing over them in it.

-Colossians 2:13-15

Preliminary Considerations

In the Colossians passage cited above, there seems to me to be an intimate relation between the cancellation of our penalty, or debt, and the disarming of the rulers and authorities. Throughout Isaiah 53 there is also a strong theme of Christ being subject to the judgement of his oppressors only to triumph over them in the end. How can we fill in the missing gap between the forgiveness of our sins, the cancellation of our debt, the Cross, and the disarmament of the authorities and powers?

I think a seed of an idea for filling the gap could be grounded on the intuition that most of us, usually, would demand the punishment of others who have wronged us, and whereby the responsibility for enforcement falls upon the authorities and powers. What if Christ was given, not so much to satisfy God’s wrath, but to satisfy our wrath instead, our claims to our rights, our demand that those who have wronged us be punished?


This post is dedicated to developing what I shall call the “Just Government Theory of the Atonement” which is the thesis that the Sacrifice of Christ is meant to vindicate the God’s Government over all Mankind by, paradoxically, doing justice to the claims of mankind upon the divine law which governs all mankind, especially for punishing those who has wronged them, and at the same time disarming their claims for retribution when they ended up punishing the innocent Son of God instead who steps into the place of the truly guilty soul, thereby at the same time “satisfying” and dissipating their vengeance and putting them at the mercy of Christ who can exercise mercy over all.

Summary of the Just Government Theory of the Atonement

(1) There are two kinds of sins: Sins against God and sins against man.

(2) God is always free to forgive sins against himself without restitution or recompense. However, he is not as free to absolve the sins of man against man without threatening the honour and integrity of the divine law and the image of God which such laws are meant to protect and vindicate.

(3) When one person has been wronged or sinned against by another, they have a just and legitimate claim upon the divine justice and law to visit vengeance upon their wrong-doers. If God however does not follow through on their claims the justice of God in upholding the honour of his own law will be called into question.

Wang-Si Town. In Chinese mythology even the damned gets to watch those who had wronged them in their previous life get their just deserts at the hands of demons.

(4) While some victims may choose to forgive some of the wrongdoings of those who have wronged them, universally however we all cannot forgive all who have wronged us of everything. Many of us will choose not only to demand retribution upon our enemies or those who have wronged us, but also may not even forgive ourselves for the wrong we have done against others and ourselves. A spirit of vengeance and sense of justice calls out not only for the blood of our wrong-doers but also for our own blood. The surprising conclusion therefore is that it is us, rather than God, who needs propitiating.

(5) Since all man will want to make claims upon the divine justice to visit vengeance upon sinners and other wrong-doers, God upheld their claim by first, giving them the power to execute judgement upon wrong-doers, and second, by giving his Son to stand in the place of all sinners, as both their representative and substitute, shielding the condemned sinner from the “rightful” wrath of their judges and the divine law and bearing their sins in his own body.

(6) Once all mankind exercised their power of judgement, by their representative authorities and the Sanhedrin, who claim the power to mediate the divine justice, and carried out their execution of “sinners” and law breakers in the person of Christ, their claims to the divine vengeance, and their authority, is disarmed because in condemning sinners they have condemned Christ himself who is one body with his Church of Sinners. (Matthew 25:40 “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”) Thus, first, their claims upon the divine justice has been fulfilled since they have already punished those who have wronged and sinned against them in the person of Christ who stands in the place of the condemned sinner and as their substitute. Second in wrongfully condemning an innocent man now that man, Jesus Christ, have claims upon those who wrong him and now has authority over authorities themselves having unjustly executed an innocent man. Thus all mankind now is, literally, at the mercy of Christ for having wronged him and Christ has a legitimate claim to the same divine justice that they claimed in the first place.

(7) However, instead of choosing punishment and vengeance, Christ chooses to forgive his wrong-doers and makes intercession for them. Thus having placed all the world at his mercy, and disarmed all the authorities who might pretend the authority to execute judgement, is free to have mercy upon all instead.

One can note that his is a slightly more sophisticated version of the “governmental theory of atonement” except for the division between sins against God and sins against man.

Let’s proceed to develop and justify each point in turn.

(1) Sins against Man vs. against God

I don’t think too much time needs be spent on this point as the distinction should be clear enough from the following verses:

“Then the son said to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.””

-Luke 15:21

“If one person sins against another, someone can intercede for the sinner with the Lord; but if someone sins against the Lord, who can make intercession?'”

-1 Samuel 2:25

However there is one point of interest and that is whether, in some sense, sins against man are in some sense sins against God as well. I think when we consider the strong identification of God with the poor and oppressed, there is a robust sense in which sins against the images of God are sins against God himself.

Of course while sins against the first four commandments have to do with sins against God himself proper, sins against the other six commandments, or sins against our neighbours, are still, in some sense, sins against God. However, the wrath of God executed for such sins are executed on behalf of the victim or injured party. This is an important point to keep in mind when considering verses to do with “propitiating” the wrath of God and so on where such wrath could be exercised as much for sins against Himself as for sins on behalf and in defence of victims of wrong-doing. All these leads us to our next point.

(2) & (3) Claims upon the Active and Living Divine Justice

One of the most popular misconceptions about divine justice is that it is a set of abstract rules or standard whereby we might evaluate actions or persons. However the divine justice and judgement is not about some platonic or abstract law or moral standard but is a living and active agent which defends the poor, the victims, the wronged, and the oppressed. Divine judgement doesn’t always have the connotations of retribution or punishment, people prayed for divine judgement to restore what properly belongs to them when they are unjustly taken away or if they have been unjustly deprived of the privileges and protection afforded by the law.

As such when we speak of the divine justice, we are referring not only to our conformity to the laws of God, we are fundamentally referring to the divine enforcement of his own law and justice. Therefore following on our point about how sins are not only committed against God but also against our fellow man, when this is so, the wronged party does have a claim upon the divine justice to “right the wrong” against them. Widows, orphans and the poor are represented as crying out to God for justice. If the divine justice does not so act or fulfil the promises of its own expressed laws, the honour and integrity of the divine law and justice will be called into question.

Now although Athanasius advanced a stronger proposition that God must punish all sins, including sins against him (Athanasius: “It would, of course, have been unthinkable that God should go back upon His word and that man, having transgressed, should not die”) I take the weaker position that God is always free to forgive sins against himself personally. However, what God isn’t so free to do is to simply wink at the wrong which man do to other man. While God, being immortal and divine and transcendent, cannot be harmed by sins against himself, other creatures are concretely harmed by sins and wrongs against them. As such, the justice of his divine governance will be threatened if he simply ignores all the wrongs which is done against his own creations under his governance.

It would be useful to pause here for a moment to discuss a medieval distinction between God’s potentia ordinata and potentia absoluta. Roughly speaking, the potentia absoluta, or God’s absolute power, refers to everything which God can do considered in himself. Thus, here God’s power is “absolute” and without limit. His potentia ordinata, or ordained power, refers to what God can and does actually ordain to do given the order and system he has set up or “ordained”. As such, considered in himself, God, in the absolute sense, doesn’t have to honour the claims to the divine justice made by his wronged creatures, for he could just obliterate the whole world and everyone in it and start all over. However considered according to the order which God has ordained and set up, if God wishes to continue to maintain this order, it is necessary for God to enforce and vindicate the divine justice by answering the claims of his creatures against those who have wronged them.

(4) Propitiating the Wrath of Men

Ironically as such, it would be our own sense of justice, both against those who have wronged us, as well as against ourselves who have wronged others and ourselves, who would call out for the blood and condemnation of others and ourselves. This is why forgiveness is a theme constantly emphasised throughout the Gospels. Christ repeatedly insists that we forgive as we have been forgiven, and that if we do not forgive neither will we be forgiven. For forgiveness and grace, both from God and by us towards each other, is how we can break out of this circle of sin and vengeance against each other. As the cliche goes, an eye for an eye and the whole world goes blind. Christ himself specifically targets the eye for an eye rule and replaces it with pray for your enemies and bless those who curses you, etc.

The unfortunate fact however is that in our sin and selfishness we are more keen to assert our rights and demand our pound of flesh than to exercise mercy and grace towards those who have wronged us. Since it is us who lays claim upon the divine justice to punish our enemies and those who have wronged us, this leads to the somewhat startling conclusion that it is our wrath which needs propitiating. Consider this curious passage from 2 Samuel 21:1-9

Now there was a famine in the days of David for three years, year after year; and David inquired of the Lord. The Lord said, “There is bloodguilt on Saul and on his house, because he put the Gibeonites to death.” So the king called the Gibeonites and spoke to them. (Now the Gibeonites were not of the people of Israel, but of the remnant of the Amorites; although the people of Israel had sworn to spare them, Saul had tried to wipe them out in his zeal for the people of Israel and Judah.) David said to the Gibeonites, “What shall I do for you? How shall I make expiation, that you may bless the heritage of the Lord?” The Gibeonites said to him, “It is not a matter of silver or gold between us and Saul or his house; neither is it for us to put anyone to death in Israel.” He said, “What do you say that I should do for you?” They said to the king, “The man who consumed us and planned to destroy us, so that we should have no place in all the territory of Israel— let seven of his sons be handed over to us, and we will impale them before the Lord at Gibeon on the mountain of the Lord.” The king said, “I will hand them over.”

But the king spared Mephibosheth, the son of Saul’s son Jonathan, because of the oath of the Lord that was between them, between David and Jonathan son of Saul. The king took the two sons of Rizpah daughter of Aiah, whom she bore to Saul, Armoni and Mephibosheth; and the five sons of Merab daughter of Saul, whom she bore to Adriel son of Barzillai the Meholathite; he gave them into the hands of the Gibeonites, and they impaled them on the mountain before the Lord. The seven of them perished together. They were put to death in the first days of harvest, at the beginning of barley harvest.

James Alison in his essay God’s Self-Substitution and Sacrificial Inversion gives the following illuminating commentary:

The interesting thing about [the story] is that it makes clear something we often forget: how expiation worked. Here King David is expiating something, offering propitiation to the Gibeonites. In other words, the Gibeonites have a right to demand vengeance; they are owed something, and David is offering it to them. St Paul seems to know about this story since he says in Romans, “What then shall we say to this? If God is for us, who is against us? H who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, will he not also give us all things with him?” Do you see what St. Paul is pointing to here? St. Paul is saying that God, unlike King David, did not seek someone else as a stand-in sacrifice to placate us, but gave his own Son (which, for a monotheist like St Paul, means himself) to be the expiation, putting forth the propitiation.

In the Samuel text, who is propitiating whom? King David is propitiating the Gibeonites by means of Saul’s sons. God is propitiating us. In other words, who is the angry divinity in the story? We are. That is the purpose of the atonement. We are the angry divinity. We are the ones inclined to dwell in wrath and think we need vengeance in order to survive. God was occupying the space of our victim so as to show us that we need never do this again.

While I would not be as quick to exclude God’s wrath from the atonement given the connection I made earlier about how God’s wrath can be exercised against the sins of man against man in defence of man, I think the crucial, and correct, insight is that fundamentally there is something to be said that we are the primary objects of propitiation, and only God secondarily. God, as I said before, is both free and willing to forgive sins against himself, however he is not so free to overlook or wink at sins of man against other man, especially when they cry out to him for justice and vengeance. They are certainly well within their rights to demand divine vengeance against those who had wronged them. This however will make things a bit difficult for God to forgive anyone since everyone has definitely wronged someone and there will always exist people who will insist that God execute his justice to execute these people for their sins. (This incidentally explains why Christ was particularly peeved with the Pharisees and the Scribes above the prostitutes and tax collectors: they are the ones above all screwing up his divine forgiveness initiative by insisting upon the letter of the law.)

I think it would be good to buttress this point by considering the Day of Atonement of Leviticus 16:1-34.  Now verse 7-8 speaks of Aaron casting lots for two of the goats being offered for sacrifice, one will be for the LORD, the other shall belong to this mystery entity called “Azazel”. While the blood of the goat “for the LORD” is used to purify the physical sanctuary and the items contained within, it is the goat for “Azazel” which is of greater interest to us:

Then Aaron shall lay both his hands on the head of the live goat, and confess over it all the iniquities of the people of Israel, and all their transgressions, all their sins, putting them on the head of the goat, and sending it away into the wilderness by means of someone designated for the task. The goat shall bear on itself all their iniquities to a barren region; and the goat shall be set free in the wilderness.

(Verse 21-22)

As such there is a clear transfer of sins unto this goat who is then sent to “Azazel”. The question is therefore: Who exactly is this Azazel? The Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary postulates the following:

The fact that Yahweh, owner of the goat slain as a purification offering (16:9, 15), is supernatural suggests that Azazel, owner of the live goat, is also some kind of supernatural being. Because transporting a load of Israelite toxic waste, consisting of moral faults, to Azazel in the wilderness and abandoning it there by the command of Yahweh (16:10, 22; cf. Zech 5:5-11) is a singularly unfriendly gesture, it appears that Azazel is Yahweh’s enemy. Therefore Azazel is most likely some kind of demon (so Jewish tradition recorded in 1 En. 10:4-5), who dwells in an uninhabited region (cf. Lev 17:7; Isa. 13:21; 34:14; Luke 11:24; Rev. 18:2)

Assuming that Azazel is some supernatural being, what is clear is that “Azazel” isn’t the “wrath of God” or the divine retribution or whatever. To identify Azazel with the devil may lead us into something like the ransom theory of the atonement where the death of Christ is given to the devil as a ransom for us. However, we can postulate an alternative reading which fits into our discussion so far. Maybe we can say that “Azazel” is the satanic spirit of vengeance, destruction, and unforgiveness, who is not some free floating entity flying around the earth but is a present evil in all our hearts crying out for the blood of our enemies. As such the goat to Azazel is ultimately an antitype for the sacrifice of Christ to us to propitiate our vengeful and unforgiving spirit.

(5) Christ our Substitute and Shield

I started this post by talking about the connection between paying our debts and disarming the authorities and powers of this world. It is time to make that connection.

So far we have established that first, wrong-doings of man against man violate the divine laws which governs the world, second, that God’s justice and law makes available remedies for such wrongs, third, any wronged party as such can lay claim upon the divine law and justice to right such wrongs, especially by visiting vengeance. Fourth, the just governance of God over the world will be called into question if God winks or overlooks the claims for justice by his creatures who have been wronged.

So how does God make good upon claims to his divine justice? God does by empowering his ordained authorities in this world to execute his vengeance. As per Romans 13, the powers and authorities in this world wield the sword to visit God’s vengeance upon the wicked and evil doers. The problem of course with any worldly authority is that they are mediated authorities. They are not literally God on earth, but are imperfect enforcers and mediators of God’s governance. We recall from the Old Testament that even the establishment of an Israelite monarchy was a grave affront to God for fundamentally an earthly governor, even one as august as the Davidic line, was in tension with the direct divine governance of God himself. Worldly authorities, far from remembering their derived authority from God, may lay claim to monopoly upon the totality of all of divine justice itself and as its sole mediator on earth. They may be more interested in shoring up their own authority, power and their own brand of justice than seeking to enforce the justice of God.

Remember that the primary problem is that mankind is not willing to forgive sins and, rightfully, lays claim upon the divine justice to visit retribution upon those who wrong them. The authorities are the legitimate divinely ordained instruments for precisely carrying out that vengeance against evil. Thus if God is to be able to save mankind from their own wrath and the wrath of the authorities, who are their representatives, they have to be disarmed somehow.

In the quoted passage from James Alison speaks of God “occupying the space of our victim”. What if God, in the person of Christ, took the place of all the sinners, and the condemned? This is of course exactly analogous to penal substitution, but instead of bearing the wrath of God against us (at least not directly), Christ now protects us by bearing the wrath of man against us and shielding us against their punishment. 


The picture above is a famous one of Keshia Thomas who shielded a person, who was thought to be a member of the KKK, against an angry mob. Thus, in a sense, she took the place of the victim against the righteous vengeance of the mob against a member of the KKK. In this sense, she “bore the sins” due to the person whom she was protecting by taking on this rightful punishment due to him administered by the mob.

We can add to this the point about how the “wrath of God” isn’t some “naked unmediated wrath” which Christ suffered on the cross during the cry of dereliction, the “wrath of God” suffered by Christ is mediated  by the earthly authorities.

The fact of the matter is that we are both the condemned sinner and wrong-doer, as well as the accuser and vengeance seeker. We are both the unforgiven and the unforgiver. Christ could not simply summon his legions of angels to punish his executioners because he was precisely supposed to embody God’s willingness to forgive and have mercy and not to visit vengeance or demand retribution as the authorities and the Jews were doing. Thus all Christ could do was what Keshis Thomas did, he stepped into the place of all sinners, all the condemned, and all those who were not shown mercy everywhere, and bore the brunt of the justice of the authorities and the vengeful, shielding them from their punishment with his own body, bearing the sins of sinners in his own flesh. While all the world exacted the penalty due to sinners upon Christ, he prayed to God to forgive the merciless and his own tormentors, for he bore the sins of all mankind, including his own judges, who will no doubt be judged some day by someone else with a claim upon them.

In a sense this is a penal substitution theory, but unlike conventional penal substitution theories, Christ was not primarily bearing the wrath of God against himself, he was bearing the wrath of man insisting upon the penalties of the divine law, and indirectly the wrath of God working through the law, and taking the place of the condemned sinners against the wrath of vengeful man with merciless claims upon the divine justice and retribution against their enemies.

(6) & (7) Christ’s Supremely Authoritative Forgiveness

I think it will be useful at this juncture to quote a passage from Luther illustrating the union of Christ with his Church and to buttress the point about how Christ can take the place of condemned sinners and bear their punishment as their representative, shield and substitute.

The third incomparable benefit of faith is that it unites the soul with Christ as a bride is united with her bridegroom. By this mystery, as the Apostle teaches, Christ and the soul become one flesh [Eph. 5:31–32]. And if they are one flesh and there is between them a true marriage — indeed the most perfect of all marriages, since human marriages are but poor examples of this one true marriage — it follows that everything they have they hold in common, the good as well as the evil. Accordingly the believing soul can boast of and glory in whatever Christ has as though it were its own, and whatever the soul has Christ claims as his own. Let us compare these and we shall see inestimable benefits. Christ is full of grace, life, and salvation. The soul is full of sins, death, and damnation. Now let faith come between them and sins, death, and damnation will be Christ’s, while grace, life, and salvation will be the soul’s; for if Christ is a bridegroom, he must take upon himself the things which are his bride’s and bestow upon her the things that are his. If he gives her his body and very self, how shall he not give her all that is his? And if he takes the body of the bride, how shall he not take all that is hers?

Thus as per Ephesians 5:31-32, the sinner is one flesh with Christ, and this is a great mystery. Whatever is done to the sinner, is done unto Christ, they are as one flesh. As such, the penalty which is due to us by virtue of our sins, has been borne by Christ who stood in our place before the authorities and powers of the world when they visited their vengeance upon the Christ. Whatever claims our accusers may make against us have already been answered and suffered by Christ.

Thus, in this sense, the power of the authorities, the power to exact punishment and to visit vengeance, has been disarmed, for their vengeance has already been met and shouldered by Christ. Furthermore the authorities are doubly disarmed for having crucified the Son of God and the Lord of Glory, an innocent man. Thus their attempts to claim the power or authority to condemn sinners or visit vengeance has been disarmed by their own sins and their own wrongful condemnation. In fact, now Christ has a claim upon all mankind, who in seeking retribution and vengeance against those who sin against them, has wrongfully condemned Christ who is the sinner’s friend. We are now at Christ’s literal mercy with regards our sin against Christ.

Having “disempowered” all authorities everywhere from exacting divine retribution, and now at Christ’s mercy for having wrongfully crucified and condemned Christ, Christ is therefore free to exercise mercy towards all in a manner consistent with his divine law and justice, for the claims of all mankind upon the divine justice has been satisfied by his own death and bearing of our sins, and they themselves are now subject to the claims of Christ against them.

Conclusion: An Inverted Penal Substitution

There is still a lot more work to be done on this account, especially in mapping its points unto the Biblical texts. However, as a preliminary sketch, I think it would be easy to do so for Isaiah 53 because, in some ways, this is a penal substitution account, the only difference with the conventional penal substitution account, as already mentioned, is that the penalty comes from man rather than God. As such, most of the “bearing our sins/transgressions” language can be mapped easily since Christ did bear the penalty of our sins and transgressions, except that the penalty is insisted upon and exacted by mankind and the powers of the world, not by God himself. It fits in very nicely of course with the accounts of Christ bearing oppression and judgement from the authorities and taking the place of transgressors, etc.

As for propitiation language, as I said before, if this is understood in the secondary sense of the wrath of God against us in defence of victims of our wrong-doings, then that “wrath” is in some sense satisfied when the claims for retribution by those victims has been satisfied by the Cross.

Finally, I think the advantage of this account is that while it appropriates much of the penal substitution language and even concepts, it is without one of the more problematic theological problems, e.g. such as why could God not simply forgive sins, the idea of the death of his Son to solve a problem within God rather than with us, etc.


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