Pierced for our Transgressions: rediscovering the glory of penal substitution,
by Steve Jeffery, Mike Ovey and Andrew Sach, IVP, 2007, 373pp.
by Steve Jeffery, Mike Ovey and Andrew Sach, IVP, 2007, 373pp.
The doctrine of penal substitutionary atonement was once one of the distinguishing features of evangelical Christian theology. It could almost be taken for granted that evangelical theologians and preachers taught that Christ died on the cross, bearing the penalty of his people's sin. This consensus has recently been called into question by a number of influential figures in the evangelical world. We find a case in point in the now notorious comments of Steve Chalke and Alan Mann on penal substitution,
"The fact is that the cross isn't a form of cosmic child abuse - a vengeful Father, punishing his Son for an offence he has not even committed." (The Lost Message of Jesus, Zondervan, 2003, p. 182)
Such remarks demand a response. Does penal substitution really construe the cross in those terms? Messrs Jeffrey, Ovey and Sach have risen to the challenge of explaining and defending the biblical teaching on penal substitutionary atonement. Their book was probably one of the most discussed theological works of 2007. Tom Wright (who endorsed The Lost Message of Jesus) entered the fray with a highly critical review. This, and the writers' response can be found here. Pierced for our Transgressions comes with ten pages worth of ringing endorsement of from some top evangelical luminaries including Don Carson, Jim Packer, John Piper, Sinclair Ferguson and John Frame. Given all the attention that the book has already received, why bother with a review? Well, it is possible that some people may not have read it yet!
What I liked about this book can be expressed in three words: style, structure and substance. The authors write in an easy, accessible style. Undue technicalities are avoided. But this does not mean that a depth of theological reasoning has been sacrificed for easy simplicities. The book has been designed to be read by any thoughtful Christian who wishes to grapple with the controversy over penal substitution. Although the work is polemical, you will find no carping criticism of the views the opposed by the writers.
The book is helpfully structured. It comes in two main parts, Making the Case and Answering the Critics. In part one, the controversy is introduced. Then the biblical material examined at some length. A pretty formidable case is made that the Bible does indeed teach that Christ died bearing the penalty of sin. Next, attention devoted to the theological framework for penal substitution. This view of the cross is related to the themes of creation, sin, the covenant of grace and intertrinitarian relationships within the Godhead. Due emphasis is given to the different biblical perspectives on the atonement. The cross was an act of victory over sin and the devil. By the death of Jesus, we are also redeemed and reconciled to God. Penal substitution lies at the heart of each of these biblical concepts. The doctrine of union with Christ ensures that cross does not amount to the legal fiction of guilt being arbitrarily transferred from sinners to the Son. Jesus died for his people, to whom he was united in the eternal purposes of God. The authors' defence of definite atonement gives strength to this argument.
The writers reflect on the pastoral implications of penal substitutionary atonement. Knowing that God sent his Son to bear the punishment of our sins assures us of the depth of his love for us. This also teaches us that God will always be true to his word. He said that sin always leads to death. The only way that we could be saved from death and condemnation was for Jesus to die in our place. God did not "bend the rules" to save us. By the cross, he saves in truth and justice. Knowing this should give us every confidence in God's promises and a passion for justice in God's world.
It is often argued that the penal substitutionary understanding of the cross stands at odds with the teaching of much of the Church throughout the centuries. This point is not decisive. What Scripture says is the thing that really matters. But a chapter on historical pedigree of penal substitution gives the lie to the oft repeated suggestion that the teaching was invented by Anselm, only to resurface in a modified form at the Reformation. A whole host of quotations is produced, spanning the the Patristic, Medieval, Reformation and Modern periods. Figures like Athanasius, Augustine and Calvin, as well as more recent evangelicals such as John Stott and Martyn Lloyd-Jones, all taught penal substitution in the clearest terms. We should think very carefully before abandoning this historic doctrine. So ends part one. A masterful case has been made for penal substitutionary atonement. But can that case withstand the many criticisms that have been levelled against the doctrine? Part two seeks to answer the critics.
Various objections are considered and responses given. Some argue that penal substitution is not really taught in the Bible, others that it sanctions "the myth of redemptive violence", and is unjust. It is said that the doctrine distorts our view of God, and undermines the Christian life. The writers take these criticisms seriously. They engage with their opponents fairly, firmly and with grace. Almost every conceivable objection to penal substitution is stated and then countered. Misunderstandings are cleared up and false aspersions challenged, while the clear biblical teaching is set forth. The structure of the book, where the constructive theology of part one is followed by the critical dialogue of part two, enables the reader to assess whether penal substitution is in fact grounded in the witness of Scripture. I'm sure than on reading Pierced for our Transgressions, you will agree that it certainly is!
When it comes to matters of substance, the writers have given us a clear, biblically grounded and theologically rich exposition of penal substitution. Here we encounter the triune God of the gospel. His just wrath is provoked by human sin. We deserve to be punished for transgressing his holy law. Yet in his love for us, God took our punishment upon himself in the person of his Son, Jesus Christ. Jesus willingly offered himself to God as a propitiatory sacrifice on behalf of his people. In the cross we see God's justice and love working together harmoniously for the salvation of sinners. By his penal substitutionary death, Christ triumphed over Satan and redeemed the people of God from slavery to sin. Here is the ground of the believer's justification and the basis upon which God has reconciled the world to himself. The eschatological renewal of the cosmos is rooted in fact that on the cross, Christ was made a curse for us. In him, God's curse upon our fallen world is removed. In the many splendored cross, we see the glory of God displayed as never before.
I heartily commend this well-argued and compelling account of penal substitution. If you are sceptical about this doctrine, but have an open mind, then pick up this book and give it a fair hearing. If, like me you don't need convincing of this truth, then Pierced for our Transgressions will enrich your understanding of the cross. It will also equip you to refute many of the objections that are currently being raised against the teaching. An appendix gives preachers some valuable advice on avoiding unhelpful illustrations that will detract from the true meaning of the cross of Jesus. See here for dedicated website.
Read this book and rediscover the glory of penal substitution!