[The] governmental theory holds that Christ's suffering was a real and meaningful substitute for the punishment humans deserve, but it did not consist of Christ receiving the exact punishment due to sinful people. Instead, God publicly demonstrated his displeasure with sin through the suffering of his own sinless and obedient Son as a propitiation. Christ's suffering and death served as a substitute for the punishment humans might have received. On this basis, God is able to extend forgiveness while maintaining divine order, having demonstrated the seriousness of sin and thus allowing his wrath to "pass over." This view is very similar to the satisfaction view and the penal substitution view, in that all three views see Christ as satisfying God's requirement for the punishment of sin. However, the government view disagrees with the other two in that it does not affirm that Christ endured the precise punishment that sin deserves or its equivalent; instead, Christ's suffering is seen as being simply an alternative to that punishment. In contrast, penal substitution holds that Christ endured the exact punishment, or the exact "worth" of punishment, that sin deserved; the satisfaction theory states that Christ paid back at least as much honor to God as sin took from Him("The Governmental Theory of the Atonement").Grotius was emphatic that the death of Jesus was in fact a penal act. He wrote:
God was moved by his own goodness to bestow distinguished blessings upon us. But since our sins, which deserved punishment, were an obstacle to this, he determined that Christ, being willing of his own love toward men, should, by bearing the most severe tortures, and a bloody and ignominious death, pay the penalty (emphasis mine) for our sins, in order that without prejudice to the exhibition of the divine justice, we might be liberated, upon the intervention of a true faith, from the punishment of eternal death ")"A Defense of the Catholic Faith Concerning the Satisfaction of Christ against Faustus Socinus" , trans. Frank Foster, in Bibliotheca Sacra, 36 , 106-07).Therefore, Grotius found it necessary to explain how an innocent person, such as Jesus, could be punished. He argues that since God cannot act unjustly and since the Bible affirms that God does sometimes punish certain people for what others have done, therefore, such punishment must be just. He writes:
I affirm that it is not unjust simply, or contrary to the nature of punishment, that one should be punished for another's sins. When I say unjust it is manifest that I speak of that injustice which springs from the nature of things, not that which is founded upon positive law; so that the divine liberty cannot be abridged by it. In proof of this remark: "God visits the iniquities of the fathers upon the children, and upon the children's children" [Ex. 20:5]. "Our fathers have sinned, and we have borne their iniquities" [Lam. 5:7]. For the act of Ham, Canaan is subjected to a curse [Gen. 9:25]. For the act of Saul, his sons and grandsons are hung with the approval of God [2 Sam. 21:8, 14]. For the act of David, seventy thousand perish, and David exclaims, "Lo, I have sinned, and I have done wickedly; but these sheep, what have they done" [2 Sam. 24:15-17]? So for the act of Achan his sons were punished [Josh. 7:24], and for the act of Jeroboam his posterity [1 Ki. 14:10]. These passages manifestly show that some are punished by God for others' sins (Ibid., p. 272).
I commend Grotius for acknowledging that the Bible does teach that God sometimes punishes the innocent for what the guilty has done. Some apologists will attempt to deny this fact. However, I do not agree with him that just because the Bible records such punishments as being ordained by God, they must therefore automatically be just. I think that is begging the question.
Next, Grotius claims that since there is a connection between Jesus and humanity (he assumed their nature), thus it is just for Jesus to suffer the penalty that mankind deserves. He writes:
We might reply that no man is unconnected with another; that there is a certain natural union among men by birth and blood; that our flesh was assumed by Christ. But another and a greater connection between us and Christ was designed by God. For Christ was designated by God himself as the "head of the body" of which we are members. . . .
[T]he mystic connection ought in this case to have a place of no less importance, as very clearly appears in the case of a king and his people. The story of the people of Israel, punished on account of David's crime, has been cited above. The ancient author of Quaestiones ad Orthodoxos(which is circulated under the name of Justin), wisely discoursing upon this topic, says: "As man is composed of soul and body, so a kingdom is composed of the king and his subjects. And as, if a man committing sin with his hands receives punishment on his back he who punishes him does not act unjustly, so God acts not unjustly when he avenges the sins of the rulers upon the people" (Ibid., pp. 274-75).
If Christ is somehow connected with sinful man due to his assumption of man's nature, it would seem that Christ should have assumed human nature as it existed after the fall. In other words, he should have assumed a fallen human nature. Grotius does not teach this (although others later would, such as Edward Irving, Karl Barth, etc.). So, the fact that he is also man does not automatically make it just to punish him for what other men have done.
His analogy of a king and his subjects is interesting. There is a sense in which the subjects of a king or government suffer as a result of what their leader(s) do. However, is this just? It seems it is only if the subjects have specifically endorsed the action of their leader(s) that results in the punishment. But, if this is the case, then the subjects are also culpable for their leader(s) action. A more appropriate analogy would be that the king or leader is punished for what the whole country does. Is this just?
One could imagine a scenario where the leader of a country was punished for what his people did but intuitively it still seems unjust. Punishment as such is designed for the one who is guilty. If the leader is somehow completely innocent of what his people have done, then how can he justly suffer punishment in their place? Only if he is somehow culpable in the evil act, can he be justly punished. Furthermore, if he is punished for what his people have done, how can the people justly forego punishment themselves? How can their evil acts be excused because their leader was punished in their place? Whoever the arbiter of justice is in this case, seems to be interested in some type of symbolic justice, which under closer scrutiny is no justice at all.