What is Moral Government?

[Last Update: 08/01/96]
Edited by Tim Hagemeister 


Moral Government has its foundations in the heart of God himself. All creation, whether of this world or another, fall under its jurisdiction. Its potential can only be realized with moral agents (those intelligent beings with the ability to choose between good and evil.) The Bible (Old and New Testaments) is filled with its implications upon our society. All other beings in the heavens and earth must recognize its love, relevance and authority or suffer its justice.


Moral Government is a theological term encompassing the system of rule which best suits the Creator and His creation. It is a government which God not only requires obedience of His creation to, but which He also conforms to because its end is the highest good of the Universe.


The term, Moral Government seems to have its originations in the late 1700s with Reformist- Jonathan Edwards writings "Edwards on the Will," 1754. The rise of "The New England Theology" spearheaded by Nathaniel W. Taylor (1786-1858) and explosive ministry of Revivalist Charles G. Finney firmly established this view as "the thinking man's / woman's theology." Credit must also be given to the fundamental writings of Hugo Grotius (1583-1645), a prominent Dutch jurist in international law and an Arminian theologian, greatly advanced the governmental view of the Atonement by conceiving the idea that "God must be regarded, not as an offended party, nor as a creditor, nor as a master, but as a moral governor."


Moral Government Theology can be broken down into 4 basic categories that apply to all God's Creation. Non-Moral Creation- a government of animate creation not endowed with free moral agency by means of internal impulse or tendency, and of the vast natural creation not possessing the life of growth or self-locomotion by means of dynamic energy or divine omnipotence, the law of cause and effect functioning in both areas. Certainty is the law of God's operations here; the cause being brought into existence, the result always follows.
Inanimate Creation- God in omnipotence holds absolute sway over the vast realm of material creation by producing and adequate cause for every desired effect. i.e.(Heavenly bodies: stars, planets, rocks, etc.).
Animate Non-Moral Creation- here the mysterious law of instinct becomes a compelling directive, which must be supplemented by direct divine impulses to stimulate man to God-consciousness, judging from the phenomenal things that are taking place that exhibit more intelligence in certain details than man possesses. i.e. (Animal and plant kingdoms).


Moral Creation- a government of free moral agents by motives presented to the mind for the will to make choice between, except for necessary providential interruptions of this normal moral freedom to maintain a tolerable world order and accomplish certain divine plans, all of which was made necessary by the entrance of sin into the world with the impending chaos resulting from selfishness.
Free Moral Action- the normal course of accountable, self-caused action, where man is allowed to choose between motives presented to the mind to form his own moral character and be sole author of his destiny. Here God says: "I have called, and ye refused; I have stretched out my hand an no man regarded" (Proverbs 1:24). The Old Testament. i.e. (human beings).
Governmental Providence- the abnormal or unusual operation of God's wisdom in inciting men's wills to actions in various particulars through external events or internal persuasion, temporarily setting aside mans normal moral freedom and accountability under a law of cause and effect by coercing or constraining mans will. Note: Such causes cannot be solely attributed to individual salvation. *Excerpts from, "The Truth Shall Make You Free", by Gordon C. Olson.

Why Moral Government?

  "Government must be founded in a good and sufficient reason, or it is not right. No one has a right to prescribe rules for, and control the conduct of another, unless there is some good reason for his doing so. There must be a necessity for moral government, or the administration of it is tyranny. Moral government is indispensable to the highest well-being of the universe of moral agents. The universe is dependent upon this as a means of securing the highest good. This dependence is a good and sufficient reason for the existence of moral government. Let it be understood, then, that moral government is a necessity of moral beings, and therefore right." - Excerpts from, " Finney's Systematic Theology", by Charles Finney.

Physical Law

Physical Law must be distinguished from Moral Law. A law is a rule of action. Physical Law is the law of the material universe and of the mind where all mental states or actions which are not free and sovereign actions of will, must occur under and be subject to physical law.

Moral Law

Moral Law is a rule of moral action with sanctions. It is a rule to which moral agents ought to conform all their voluntary actions, and is enforced by sanctions equal to the value of the precept. It is a rule for the government of free and intelligent action, as opposed to necessary and unintelligent action.

Main Attributes of Moral Law 1. Subjectivity. It is, and must be, an idea of reason developed in the mind of the subject.

2. Objectivity. Moral law may be regarded as a rule of duty, prescribed by the supreme Lawgiver, and external to self. When thus contemplated, it is objective.

3. Liberty, as opposed to necessity. The precept must lie developed in the reason, as a rule of duty-a law of moral obligation-a rule of choice, or of ultimate intention, declaring that which a moral agent ought to choose, will, intend. But it does not, must not, can not possess the attribute of necessity in its relations to the actions of free will. It must not, cannot, possess an element or attribute of force, in any such sense as to render conformity of will to its precept unavoidable. This would confound it with physical law.

4. Fitness. It must be the law of nature, that is, its precept must prescribe and require just those actions of the will which are suitable to the nature and relations of moral beings, and nothing more nor less; that is, the intrinsic value of the well-being of God and the universe being given as the ground, and the nature and relations of moral beings as the conditions of the obligations, the reason hereupon necessarily affirms the intrinsic propriety and fitness of choosing this good, and of consecrating the whole being to its promotion. This is what is intended by the law of nature. It is the law or rule of action imposed on us by God, in and by nature which he has given us.

5. Universality. The conditions and circumstances being the same, it requires, and must require, of all moral agents, the same things, in whatever world they may be found.

6. Impartiality. Moral law is no respecter of persons-knows no privileged classes. It demands one thing of all, without regard to anything, except the fact that they are moral agents. By this it is not intended that the same course of outward conduct is required of all; but the same state of heart in all-that all shall have one ultimate intention-that all shall consecrate themselves to one end-that all shall entirely conform, in heart and life, to their nature and relations.

7. Practicability. That which the precept demands must be possible to the subject. That which demands a natural impossibility is not, and cannot be, moral law. The true definition of law excludes the supposition that it can, under any circumstances, demand an absolute impossibility. Such a demand could not be in accordance with the nature and relations of moral agents, and therefore practicability must always be an attribute of moral law. To talk of inablility to obey moral law is to talk nonsense.

8. Independence. It is an eternal and necessary idea of the divine reason. It is the eternal, self-existent rule of the divine conduct, the law which the intelligence of God prescribes to himself. Moral law, does not, and cannot originate in the will of God. It eternally existed in the divine reason. It is the idea of that state of will which is obligatory upon God, upon condition of his natural attributes, or, in other words, upon condition of his nature. As a law, it is entirely independent of his will just as his own existence is. It is obligatory also upon every moral agent, entirely independent of the will of God. Their nature and relations being given, and their intelligence being developed, moral law must be obligatory upon them, and it lies not in the option of any being to make it otherwise. Their nature and relations being given, to pursue a course of conduct suited to their nature and relations, is necessarily and self-evidently obligatory, independent of the will of any being.

9. Immutability. Moral law can never change, or be changed. It always requires of every moral agent a state of heart, and course of conduct, precisely suited to his/her nature and relations. Whatever their nature is, their capacity and relations are, entire conformity to just that nature, those capacities and relations, so far as they are able to understand them, are required at every moment, and nothing more or less. If capacity is enlarged, the subject is not thereby rendered capable of works of doing more than the law demands; for the law still, as always, requires the full consecration of their whole being to the public interests. If by any means whatever, their ability is abridged, moral law, always and necessarily consistent with itself, still requires that which is left-nothing more or less-shall be consecrated to the same end as before. Whatever demands more or less than entire, universal, and constant conformity of heart and life, to the nature, capacity and relations of moral agents, be they what they may, is not, and cannot be moral law.

Moral law is not a statute, an enactment, that has its origin or its foundation in the will of any being. It is the law of nature, the law which the nature or constitution of every moral agent imposes upon themselves and which God imposes upon us because it is entirely suited to our nature and relations, and is therefore naturally obligatory upon us. It is the unalterable demand of the reason, that the whole being, whatever there is of it at any time, shall be entirely consecrated to the highest good of universal being, and for this reason God requires this of us, with all the weight of his authority.

10. Unity. Moral law proposes but one ultimate end of pursuit to God, and to all moral agents. All its requisitions, in their spirit, are summed up and expressed in one word, love or benevolence. Moral law is a pure and simple idea of the reason. It is the idea of perfect, universal, and constant consecration of the whole being to the highest good of being. Just this is, and nothing more nor less can be, moral law; for just this, and nothing more nor less, is a state of heart and a course of life exactly suited to the nature and relations of moral agents, which is the only true definition of moral law.

11. Expediency. That which is upon the whole most wise is expedient. That which is upon the whole expedient is demanded by moral law. True expediency and the spirit of moral law are always identical. Expediency may be inconsistent with the letter, but never with the spirit of moral law. Law in the form of commandment is a revelation or declaration of that course which is most expedient. It is expediency revealed, as in the case of the 10 Commandments, and the same is true of every precept of the Bible, it reveals to us what is expedient. A revealed law or commandment is never set aside by our views of expediency. We may know with certainty that what is required is expedient. The command is the expressed judgment of God in this case, and reveals with unerring certainty the true path of expediency. When Paul says in the New Testament, "All things are lawful unto me, but all things are not expedient," we must not understand him as meaning that all things in the absolute sense were lawful to him. But he doubtless intended, that many things were inexpedient that are not expressly prohibited by the letter of the law,-that the spirit of the law prohibited many things not expressly forbidden by the letter. It should never be forgotten that that which is plainly demanded by the highest good of the universe is law. It is expedient. It is wise. Law proposes the highest good of universal being as its end, and requires all moral agents to consecrate themselves to the promotion of this end.

12. Exclusiveness. Moral law is the only possible rule of moral obligation. A distinction is usually made between moral, ceremonial, civil and positive laws. This distinction is in some respects convenient, but is liable to mislead, and to create an impression that something can be obligatory in other words can be law, that has not the attributes of moral law. Nothing can be law, in any proper sense of the term, that is not and would not be universally obligatory upon moral agents under the same circumstances. It is law because, and only because, under all the circumstances of the case, the course prescribed is fit, proper, suitable to their natures, relations, and circumstances. There can be no other rule of action for moral agents but moral law, or the law of benevolence. Every other rule is absolutely excluded by the very nature of moral law. Our nature and circumstances demand that we should be under moral government; because no community can perfectly harmonize in all their views and feelings, without perfect knowledge, or to say the least, some degree of knowledge on all subjects on which that are called to act.

 These are excerpts from, " Finney's Systematic Theology", by Charles Finney.

Who's right is it to Govern?

  Our nature and circumstances demand that we should be under moral government; because no community can perfectly harmonize in all their views and feelings, without perfect knowledge, or to say the least, some degree of knowledge on all subjects on which they are called to act. But no community ever existed, or will exist, in which all possess exactly the same amount of knowledge, and where the members are, therefore, entirely agreed in all their thoughts, views, and opinions. But if they are not agreed in opinion, or have not exactly the same amount of knowledge, they will not, in every thing, harmonize, as it respects their courses of conduct. There must, therefore, be in every community, some standard or rule of duty, to which all the subjects of the community are to conform themselves. There must be some head or controlling mind, whose will shall be law, and whose decision shall be regarded as infallible, by all the subjects of the government. However diverse their intellectual attainments are, in this they must all agree, that the will of the lawgiver is right, and universally the rule of duty. This will must be authoritative, and not merely advisory. There must of necessity be a penalty attached to, and incurred by, every act of disobedience to this will. If disobedience be persisted in, exclusion from the privileges of the government is the lowest penalty that can consistently be inflicted. The good, then, of the universe imperiously requires that there should be a moral governor. We have just seen that the highest well-being of the universe demands, and is the end of moral government. It must, therefore, be his right and duty to govern, whose attributes, physical and moral, best qualify him to secure the end of government. To him all eyes and hearts should be directed, to fill this station, to exercise this control, to administer all just and necessary rewards and punishments. It is both his right and duty to govern.


That God is a moral governor, we infer-


1) From our own nature. From the very laws of our being, we naturally affirm our responsibility to him for our conduct. As God is our creator, we are naturally responsible to him for the right exercise of our powers. And as our good and his glory depend upon our conformity to the same rule to which he conforms his whole being, he is under a moral obligation to require us to be holy, as he is holy. 2) His natural attributes qualify him to sustain the relation of a moral governor to the universe. 3) His moral character also qualifies him to sustain this relation. 4) His relation to the universe as creator and preserver, when considered in connection with the necessity of government, and with his nature and attributes, confers on him the right of universal government. 5) His relation to the universe, and our relations to him and to each other, render it obligatory upon him to establish and administer a moral government over the universe. It would be wrong for him to create a universe of moral beings, and then refuse or neglect to administer over them a moral government, since government is a necessity of their nature and relations. 6) His happiness must demand it, as he could not be happy unless he acted in accordance with his conscience. 7) If God is not a moral governor he is not wise. Wisdom consists in the choice of the best ends, and in the use of the most appropriate means to accomplish those ends. If God is not a moral governor, it is inconceivable that he should have had any important end in view in the creation of moral beings, or that he should have chosen the best or any suitable means for the promotion of their happiness as the most desirable end. 8)  he conduct or providence of God plainly indicates a design to exert a moral influence over moral agents. 9) His providence plainly indicates that the universe of mind is governed by moral laws, or by laws suited to the nature of moral agents. 10) If God is not a moral governor, the whole universe, so far as we have the means of knowing it, is calculated to mislead mankind in respect to this fundamental truth. 11) We must disapprove the character of God, if we ever come to a knowledge of the fact that he created moral agents, and then exercised over them no moral government. 12) The Bible, which has been proved to be a revelation from God, contains a most simple and yet comprehensive system of moral government. 13) If we are deceived in respect to our being subjects of moral government, we are sure of nothing.


What is implied by the right to govern?


1) From what has just been said, it must be evident, that the right to govern implies the necessity of government, as a means of securing an intrinsically valuable end. 2) Also that the right to govern implies obligation, on the part of the subject, to obey. It cannot be the right, in this case, without the corresponding obligation; for the right to govern is founded in the necessity of government, and the necessity of government imposes obligation to govern. 4) The right to govern, implies the right and duty to dispense just and necessary rewards and punishments-distribute rewards proportioned to merit, and penalties proportioned to demerit, whenever the public interest demands their execution. 5) It implies obligation, on the part of the subject, cheerfully to acquiesce in any measure that may be necessary to secure the end of government, and in case of disobedience, to submit to merited punishment, and also, if necessary, to aid in the infliction of the penalty of law. 6) It implies obligation, on the part of both the ruler and the ruled, to be always ready, and when occasion arises, actually to make any personal and private sacrifice demanded by the higher public good-to cheerfully meet any emergency, and excercise any degree of self-denial, that can, and will, result in a good of greater value to the public than that sacrificed by the individual, or by any number of individuals, it always being understood, that present voluntary sacrifices shall have an ultimate reward. 7) It implies the right and duty to employ any degree of force, which is indispensable to the maintenance of order, the execution of wholesome laws, the suppression of insurrections, the punishment of rebels and disorganizers, and sustaining the supremacy of moral law. It is impossible that the right to govern should not imply this; and to deny this right, is to deny the right to govern.


The limits of this right.


No legislation can be valid in heaven or earth-no enactments can impose obligation, except upon the condition, that such legislation is demanded by the highest good of the governor and the governed. Unnecessary legislation is invalid legislation. Unnecessary government is tyranny. It can, in no case be founded in right. It should, however, be observed, that it is often, and in the government of God universally true, that the sovereign, and not the subject, is to be the judge of what is necessary legislation and government. Under no government, therefore, are laws to be despised or rejected because we are unable to see at once their necessity, and hence their wisdom. Unless they are palpably unnecessary, and therefore unwise and unjust, they are to be respected and obeyed as a less evil than contempt and disobedience, though at present we are unable to see their wisdom. Under the government of God there can never be any doubt nor of course any ground for distrust and hesitancy as it respects the duty of obedience.

Moral Obligation

  The idea of obligation, or of oughtness, is an idea of the pure reason. It is a simple, rational conception, and, strictly speaking, does not admit of a definition, since there are no terms more simple by which it may be defined. Obligation is a term by which we express a conception or idea which all men have, as is manifest from the universal language of men. All men have the ideas of right and wrong, and have words by which these ideas are expressed, and perhaps, no idea among men more frequently reveals itself in words than that of oughtness or obligation. The term cannot be defined, for the simple reason that it is too well and too universally understood to need or even to admit of being expressed in any language more simple and definite that the word obligation itself.


The conditions of moral obligation.


There is a distinction of fundamental importance between the condition and the ground of obligation. The ground of obligation is the consideration which creates or imposes obligation, the fundamental reason of the obligation. For example, obligation to choose an ultimate end of life as the highest good of the universe; obligation to choose the necessary conditions of this end, as holiness, for example; and obligation to put forth the executive efforts to secure this end. A condition of obligation in any particular form is that, without which, obligation in that form could not exist, and yet is not the fundamental reason of the obligation. For example, the possession of the powers of moral agency (choice between good and evil) is a condition of the obligation to choose the highest good of being in general, as an ultimate end, or for its own sake. But the intrinsic value of this good is the ground of the obligation. This obligation could not exist without the possession of these powers; but the possession of these powers cannot of itself create the obligation to choose the good in preference to the ill of being. The intrinsic difference between the good and the ill of being is the ground of the obligation to will the one rather than the other.


Attributes upon which all obligation depends.


1.) Intellect- Includes among other functions which I need not name, reason, conscience, and self consciousness. In short, it is the facility that intuits moral relations and affirms moral obligation to act in conformity with perceived moral relations. It is the faculty that postulates all the foundational truths of science whether mathematical, philosophical, theological or logical. Conscience is the faculty or function of the intellect that recognizes the conformity or disconformity of the heart and life to the moral law as it lies revealed in the reason, and also awards praise to conformity, and blame to disconformity to that law. It also affirms that conformity to the moral law deserves reward, and that disconformity deserves punishment. It also possesses a propelling or impulsive power, by which it urges the conformity, and denounces the nonconformity of will to moral law. It seems, in a certain sense, to possess the power of retribution. Consciousness is the faculty or function of self knowledge. 2) Sensibility- This is the faculty or susceptibility of feeling. All sensation, desire, emotion, passion, pain, pleasure, and in short, every kind and degree of feeling, as the term feeling is commonly used, is a phenomenon of this faculty. 3) Free-will- this is intended the power of choosing, or refusing to choose, in every instance, in compliance with moral obligation. Free-will implies the power of originating and deciding our own choices, and of exercising our own sovereignty, in every instance of choice upon moral questions-of deciding or choosing in conformity with duty or otherwise in all cases of moral obligation. That man cannot be under a moral obligation to perform an absolute impossibility, is a first truth of reason. The sequences of choice or volition are always under the law of necessity, and unless the will is free, man has no freedom; and if he has no freedom he is not a moral agent, that is , he is incapable of moral action and also of moral character. Free-will then, must be a condition of moral agency, and of course, of moral obligation. Let it be distinctly understood then, that the conditions of moral obligation, in the universal form of obligation to will the highest well-being of God and of the universe, for its own sake, are the possession of the powers, or faculties, and susceptibilities of a moral agent, and light or the development of the ideas of the valuable, of moral obligation, of right and wrong.


- Excerpts from, " Finney's Systematic Theology", by Charles Finney.

If you have comments , Tim Hagemeister can be reached at tim@nacomm.org 

These articles are no longer available on the web, other then here. At least this is my impression after having spent several hours searching. Vern Manson

"Victory over sin."  New on line list of links to old time holiness views  - plus articles that appear to be contradictory.  Faith produces compliance to God's will. 

Putting effort into obedience is not the problem. Placing your hope in your obedience is.

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