On the Necessity of the Atonement



Is Vindicatory Justice Essential to God?



Order of Contents

Not Necessary
Hypothetical Necessity
Consequent Necessity
Absolute Necessity

Historical  4
.      Commentaries  4



Not Necessary at All

This has been the view of persons and groups who deny that Christ’s death was substitutionary, penal or legal at all, such as the the semi-pelagian nominalists of the Middles Ages (such as John Duns Scotus) and the Socinians.



A Hypothetical Necessity


Louis Berkhof gives a definition of this view:

Systematic Theology, ‘The Cause & Necessity of the Atonement’.

“Calvin says: ‘It deeply concerned us, that He who was to be our Mediator should be very God and very man.  If the necessity be inquired into, it was not what is commonly called simple or absolute, but flowed from the divine decree, on which the salvation of man depended.  What was best for us our merciful Father determined.’ (Institutes, II, 12.1)

The atonement was necessary, therefore, because God sovereignly determined to forgive sin on no other condition.”

See also John Murray, p. 6, for another definition.  This view is related to vindicatory justice not being essential to God.


Early Church


Augustine, On the Trinity, bk. 13, ch. 10 & 16

Theodoret, Orations to the Greeks, 6

John of Damascus, 1.3, ch. 18


Medieval Church

Aquinas, Thomas – Summa, pt. 3, question 46, articles 2 & 3






According to Voet (per Berkhof), Beza changed his view to consequent necessity later in life.



Owen, John – in The Death of Death in the Death of Christ…  (1647)  in Works, vol. 10

This is the “early” Owen.  He changed his view when setting about to counter Socinianism in his Dissertation on Divine Justice (1653), below.

“The foundation of this whole assertion seems to me to be false and erroneous – namely that God could not have mercy on mankind unless satisfaction were made by his Son.” – Owen, Death of Death in Works 10.205

Rutherford, Samuel – pp. 20-34  of ch. 7, ‘It’s not written in the heart of man by nature that God should promise life eternal to man, upon condition of obedience. 2. And that the debt of justice cannot tie God. 3. God punishes not sin by necessity of na­ture. 4. Nor defends He his own declarative glory by that necessity…’  in The Covenant of Life Opened…  (Edinburgh, 1655)

John Owen had critiqued Rutherford in Owen’s Dissertation on Divine Justice (1653), pt. 2, ch. 17  in Works, vol. 16, pp. 607-18.  Here, two years later, Rutherford rebuts Owen without naming him, while paraphrasing statements from his Dissertation.

Rutherford positively sets forth his own view near the end of his discussion in these propositions (p. 34):

“It is safest to say:

[1.] the only wise God decreed that sin should be.

2. That the glory of his justice should appear in taking away sin, not in our way, but in the way of God, to wit, in a way of justice, of mercy, of free grace, in incompa­rable love, of mighty power; and

[3.] in all these so acts the Lord as He should not leave off to be the Lord, but acts most freely, though He had not taken that course.  But far be it from the godly not to adore him in this, as the admirable way beyond the thoughts of men and angels.”




Bavinck, Herman




Institutes, bk. 2, ch. 12, section 1, as provided by Berkhof

“It deeply concerned us, that He who was to be our Mediator should be very God and very man.  If the necessity be inquired into, it was not what is commonly called simple or absolute, but flowed from the divine decree, on which the salvation of man depended.  What was best for us our merciful Father determined.”


Historical Theology

Helm, Paul

‘Analysis 13 – Owen’s Option’  (2008)  17 paragrpahs  at Helm’s Deep

This article is the seed from which the more mature chapter below grew.  In the article Helm does not evidence that he has gone outside of Owen’s Dissertation for understanding the views of Twisse and Rutherford.

“Here Owen appears to waver.  On the one hand he allows that punishments may vary provided that the end of satisfying justice is met.  On the other hand he seems to make an exception of the atonement, arguing or rather implying that there could not be another mode of satisfaction for sin than atonement by the God-man, the surety who has substituted himself in the room of sinners.  Yet he seems to allow the possibility (though one that we are not in a position to know about) that the manner, time etc. of punishment belongs entirely to God, whose counsel we do not know.

Which raises the question of why, if punishments in general, in respect of their nature and circumstances, are in the hand of God, why the punishment for sin may not similarly be.  And if it may similarly be, even if we have not a clue about what an alternative mode of punishment may be in this case, then the atonement by Christ is not necessary in even the restricted sense that Owen has argued for earlier.”

ch. 6, ‘The Atonement’  in Calvin at the Centre  (Oxford Univ. Press, 2010), pp. 163-96

Amongst other things, Helm shows there is a significant internal inconsistency in Owen’s position regarding divine freedom.

Mosser, Carl – Recovering the Classic Concept of Satisfaction, pt. 1, 2, 3



A Consequent Necessity


While it was free and not necessary for God to redeem, yet having purposed to redeem, it was necessary that redemption be accomplished according to certain requisites, specifically that God’s righteousness and his law’s justice be fulfilled through the penal, substitutionary death of the divine Mediator in the human nature.  God could not have forgiven sin without an expiation of sin by human death.

This view is related to vindicatory justice being essential to God.




Anselm – Why God Became Man?



Voet, Gisbert –

a Marck, Johannes –

Turretin, Francis –   Ch. 1, ‘The Necessity of the Atonement’  †1687  16 pp.  in On the Atonement, pp. 14-30.  Also in Institutes  (P&R), vol. 2, Locus 14, Question 10.

van Mastricht, Peter – bk. 5, ch. 7  in Theoretical Practical Theology  (RHB), vol. 4



à Brakel, Wilhelmus – ch. 17, ‘The Necessity of Satisfaction by the Surety Jesus Christ’  in The Christian’s Reasonable Service, vols. 1  ed. Joel Beeke, trans. Bartel Elshout  Buy  (1700; RHB, 1992/1999), pp. 465-93

a Brakel (1635-1711) was a contemporary of Voet and Witsius and a major representative of the Dutch Further Reformation.

De Moor, Bernard – ‘On God’s Essential Vindicatory Righteousness: the Satisfaction of Christ’, pt. 123456  in Theological Disputation on Vindicatory Righteousness as Essential to God  in Continuous Commentary, ch. 4, ‘On God’



Stevenson, George – A Dissertation on the Atonement  (Philadelphia, 1832), pp. 5-98

Hodge, A.A. – The Atonement  (London, 1868), pp. 217-22

Thornwell, James H. – ‘The Necessity of the Atonement’  in Collected Writings  (Richmond, VA: 1886), vol. 2, pp. 205-61



Murray, John

ch. 1, ‘The Necessity of the Atonement’  in Redemption Accomplished & Applied  (Eerdmans, 2015), pp. 3-13  An outline of this chapter is here.

ch. 2, ‘The Necessity’, pp. 2-3  in The Atonement  in An International Library of Philosophy & Theology: Biblical & Theological Studies Series  Buy  (P&R, 1980)  The booklet is also here.

Berkhof, Louis – ‘The Cause & Necessity of the Atonement’  14 paragraphs  in Systematic Theology  (1950)

III. The Cause & Necessity of the Atonement

A. The Moving Cause of the Atonement
B. Historical Views Respecting the Necessity of the Atonement
C. Proofs for the Necessity of the Atonement
D. Objections to the Doctrine of the Absolute Necessity of the Atonement



Owen, John – Dissertation on Divine Justice…  (1653)  in Works, vol. 10, pp. 482-624

Owen had previously taken the hypothetical necessity view in his Death of Death.  He changed his view in further considering the arguments of Socinianism, and here seeks especially to counter them.  In his preface, Owen notes that everyone speaks against his newly-adopted position, this showing that it was very much a minority view among the Reformed at the time, though it grew in popularity to become the majority reformed view by the end of the century.

For an introduction to Owen’s book, and a critique of it, see Paul Helm, ‘Analysis 13 – Owen’s Option’ (2008).

Owen critiques Samuel Rutherford in pt. 2, ch. 17, pp. 607-18 of this work.  For Rutherford’s rebuttal, see above in his Covenant of Life Opened (1655).


Confessional Documents

Heidelberg Catechism, Q. 40

Canons of Dort II, article 1



John ‘Rabbi’ Duncan

“It seems to me a terrible thing to say that there was no intrinsic necessity for Christ’s death, for then we virtually say that He died for sin that He need not have died for.”



An Absolute Necessity for the Atonement


Man having fallen, God was morally necessitated to send and offer redemption.


The Lutherans & Arminians held to this.




On the Early Church

Smeaton, George – pp. 508-9  of ‘Historical Sketch of the Doctrine of Atonement’  an appendix to The Apostles’ Doctrine of the Atonement  (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1870)


On the Post-Reformation

Walker, James – ‘The Necessity of the Atonement’  1888  8 pp.  being section 1 of ch. 3, ‘The Atonement’ in The Theology & Theologians of Scotland: chiefly of the Seventeenth & Eighteenth Centuries, pp. 67-75

A survey of the 1600’s Scottish covenanters on the necessity of the atonement, from a minister in the Free Church of Scotland.

Smeaton, George – p. 530  of ‘Historical Sketch of the Doctrine of Atonement’  an appendix to The Apostles’ Doctrine of the Atonement  (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1870)

Muller, Richard – PRRD, vol. 3, on Vindicatory Justice




Notes on Westminster

1. The WLC uses the term ‘requisite’, not necessity.

2. The WLC does not use the language of a legal atonement or satisfaction, but only that the Mediator should “suffer and make intercession for us in our nature”.

3. The WLC does not clarify or define how these items regarding the Mediator were requisite.

4. Something requisite may be understood as a condition or precondition to the end attained.  There are numerous possible reasons why something may be requisite, one of which is because of the free pleasure of God in decreeing human redemption to occur in that way, with such interrelations.

5. Hence the Westminster’s language could accommodate both the hypothetical and consequent necessity views.


Westminster Larger Catechism

Q. 39. Why was it requisite that the Mediator should be man?

A. It was requisite that the Mediator should be man, that he might advance our nature,[h] perform obedience to the law,[i] suffer and make intercession for us in our nature,[k] have a fellow-feeling of our infirmities;[l] that we might receive the adoption of sons,[m] and have comfort and access with boldness unto the throne of grace.[n]

[h] Heb. 2:16
[i] Gal. 4:4
[k] Heb. 2:14; Heb. 7:24,25
[l] Heb. 4:15
[m] Gal. 4:5
[n] Heb. 4:16

Q. 40. Why was it requisite that the Mediator should be God and man in one person?

A. It was requisite that the Mediator, who was to reconcile God and man, should himself be both God and man, and this in one person, that the proper works of each nature might be accepted of God for us,[o] and relied on by us, as the works of the whole person.[p]

[o] Matt. 1:21,23; Matt. 3:17Heb. 9:14
[p] 1 Pet. 3:6


Commentaries on Westminster Larger Catechism #39-40


Ridgley, Thomas – pp. 485-9  in ‘Why the Mediator Required to be God & Man’  in A Body of Divinity…  (d. 1734; NY: Robert Carter, 1855), vol. 1

This was the first commentary published on the Larger Catechism, being a series of sermons through it.  Ridgley (1667-1734) was a reformed, English Independent, who was the assistant and successor of Thomas Gouge in London.



Vos, Johannes – The Westminster Larger Catechism, a Commentary  ed. G.I. Williamson  Buy  originally written 1946-49

Vos was a mid-western pastor in the RPCNA.



Morecraft, Joe – Authentic Christianity: An Exposition of the Theology & the Ethics of the Westminster Larger Catechism, 5 vols.  Buy   (2009)

Morecraft has been a pastor in the RPCUS.

Moeck, Gregory – Westminster Larger Catechism Lecture Notes  2015-2020  These are handout notes to his weekly Larger Catechism class in an Orthodox Presbyterian Church.

39a, ‘The nature of natural theology, and its need for advancement or perfection by grace’  8 pp.

39b, ‘How our nature is advanced by grace and prepared for the beatific vision’  10 pp.

39c, ‘The Fittingness of the Incarnation as The Means of Advancing Mankind’s Nature’  7 pp.

39d, ‘The Humanity Of Christ & Our Participation In His Sonship’  7 pp.

39e, ‘Merit, Christ’s Human Nature & the Law – Part I’  8 pp.

39f, ‘Merit, Christ’s Human Nature & The Law – Part II’  7 pp.

39g, ‘Merit, Christ’s Human Nature & The Law – Part III’  7 pp.

39h, ‘Merit, Christ’s Human Nature & The Law – Part IV’  8 pp.

39i, ‘The Passible Flesh Of The Impassible God’  11 pp.

40, ‘Two Natures, One Person => Two Operations, One Action’  7 pp.




Related Pages