Thursday, January 24, 2008

Pierced for our Transgressions, a review

Pierced for our Transgressions: rediscovering the glory of penal substitution,
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!


Jon said...

"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)

Do you think that the cross is a form of cosmic child abuse?

Neither does Steve Chalke...

Looks like you agree...

Guy Davies said...

Hi Jon,

I think we've been over this one before. In an online article, Chalke makes it clear that in his view, penal substitution makes the cross into an act of cosmic child abuse:

Rachel said...

I think it's really interesting that the Eastern church has never accepted penal substitution the way the Western church has. They see Jesus' life and death as more of a rescue mission than God ransoming us from the devil. For them, the issue is more about death than guilt. Their model of the atonement is "incarnational"...Jesus became human so that we may once again be united to God and participate in the divine life of God. I think this is emerging more clearly in Western theology as the "Christus Victor" theory of the atonement. Admittedly, I sort of like that view more than a God who can't forgive without killing something first.

Guy Davies said...

Hi Rachel,

I think that the Bible is pretty clear that God forgives sin on the basis of blood sacrifice. That is certainly the message of the Old Testament sacrificial system as summarised by Hebrews 9:22, "without the shedding of blood there is no remission". See also Ephesians 1:7, "In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins according to the riches of his grace." God pardons sin on the basis of sacrificial death, because he forgives justly.

Christ triumphed over the devil because he bore the penalty of sin on the cross, fulfilling the law so that we might be forgiven (Colossians 2:13-15). As Sinclair Ferguson said recently, "We cannot have Christus Victor without Christus Propitiator."

The incarnation on its own could not have saved us. Christ became man to die for our sins. The Eastern model does not necessarily exclude penal substitution. The book reviewed cites formative Eastern theologians Athanasius and Gregory of Nazianzus in this respect. But the West has not always given due emphasis to the fact that believers partake of the divine nature in Christ. See my posts on this under Favourite Posts and Series on the main blog page.

The book itself gives a more detailed response to the issues you raise.

Jon said...

The fact of the matter is, is that there are not really many (if any) outright penal metaphors of atonement without other pictures used - i.e. sacrifice (as you yourself show), Christus Victor (as mentioned), propitiatory, etc., etc.

I ascribe to penal substitution whole-heartedly but I don't place it in hegemony over the others. It is a useful metaphor for conceiving of the atonement but it is not a pervasive image. The problems arise when you seek to squeeze God's action within human language - that, in every case, will reduce down the full scale of the divine act.

Family Blogs said...

Hi Guy,

I've enjoyed your review of this excellent book, andl also the comments here in the thread. I think that what may be lacking in the meta here is a serious engagement with the authors' arguments. For me Pierced for Our Transgressions represents a major hurdle for anyone who would deny/demote/question the doctrine of penal substitution, precisely because of the way in which it allows the Bible to speak for itself. The message of this book is the message of the Bible, and of historic evangelical Christianity to boot.

I reviewed the book on my own blog a couple of weeks ago, and my conclusions are exactly the same as your own.

Thanks for giving this superb book such good airtime here at Exiled Preacher.

God bless you,

Anonymous said...

I am definitely going to read the book. This is core to the gospel.

Guy Davies said...


The book is careful to not to allow PSA to swamp all other biblical perspectives on the cross.

Thanks Andrew! I saw your review. Glad you enjoyed the book too.

Jon said...

"The book is careful to not to allow PSA to swamp all other biblical perspectives on the cross."

Which is precisely what your readers are suggesting it should do in their comments...

Guy Davies said...

I'm not sure that anyone is saying that, Jon. But some strange people do sometimes turn up here...

Jon said...

"The message of this book is the message of the Bible"

"This is core to the gospel"

Sorry to bang on Guy but the implication is that PS is the only true notion of atonement upon which all the others rely...

Guy Davies said...

Well, if death is the penalty for sin (which it is - Rom 6:23), then the fact that Christ died for our sins is a core gospel truth (1 Cor 15:1-5). This is not the only thing that should be said about the cross, neither is it the entire gospel, but it is pretty important. Wouldn't you agree?

Jon said...

I think you have to be careful when you construct any notion of PSA. I agree yes that Jesus takes the sin of the sinner upon himself. Yes that is a core doctrine of the Church. However, the notion of Christus Victor is equally important - Christ died to conquer sin. Without this any notion of PSA would be, ultimately, fruitless. Repeat this for any metaphor or model of the atonement and you lose something of the wonderful richness of Christ's death on the cross.

Where I do agree with Chalke (although this is probably only an agreement of attitude - please do not misconstrue me - I hardly follow everything he says) is that the notion of PSA should NOT make the cross into a form of cosmic child abuse. Were it to do this, you must agree, there would be a problem with it.

I see the problems as dual - the doctrine is being pulled apart from two sides. On one side, there are those who seek to defend their evangelicalism to the death by staking their all upon PSA - that is not only bad theology, but detrimental to the gospel. To reduce down the atonement to PSA (which is amazing I know but the cross is so much more than the sum of its parts - this should really make us worship God! Imagine the many different ways he has saved us!) is to reduce down the gospel. Secondly, we have those evangelicals who are committed to PSA not thinking through the issues which are raised by PSA, assuming that AFFIRMATION is everything. One should not just construct a theory and leave it hanging but must work through it.

Sorry to be rambling and long and to seem polemic. My desire is that the atonement is not reduced down to a pithy evangelical formula.

Jon said...


You should really get hold of and review Stephen Holmes' new book "The Wonderous Cross" - he looks at various issues surrounding the evangelical notions of the atonement.

Guy Davies said...


I've seen a review of Holmes book over at Jason Goroncy's blog. But I haven't got it yet.

Have you actually read PFOT? The writers are careful to stress that PSA is not the be-all-and-end-all of the cross. They stress the importance of other perspectives such as Christus Victor. They are also careful to explain PSA in a way that does not construe the doctrine as cosmic child abuse. If you haven't already, give the book itself a read, because I think that it will answer your concerns.

Jon said...

I don't have a problem with the book in the slightest. I imagine I would agree with the authors almost completely. However, what I dislike (as I'm sure the authors would too) is the jingoistic, cavalier attitude of those who jump on the bandwagon and promote the book as the saviour of evangelicalism. I appreciate that you are not one of these people Guy and I appreciate the seriousness with which you face the big theological questions so thanks for dialoguing.

I will try to get this book read and will no doubt enjoy it. Thanks for the review!

Family Blogs said...

The crucial importance of penal substitution needs to be emphasised within evangelicalism at present precisely because it is at this point that the gospel is being attacked. It certainly is not the only model for understanding Christ's work, but surely the gospel must be defended where it is attacked.

I think Jon has a point in that it's important that PSA isn't made into a bandwagon, but Chalke has thrown a hand grenade into the Christian world which must be responded to strongly and extensively.

Great discussion here, Guy.