Banner of Truth Trust, 2016, 250pp
At the Banner of Truth Ministers' Conference it is customary for speakers to recommend titles that attendees might like to purchase from the bookshop. I believe it was on the strength of Sinclair B. Ferguson's recommendation that I bought The Shadow of Calvary by Hugh Martin. Ferguson spoke warmly of Martin's penetrating insight into the biblical text and of his rigorous use of 'holy reason' to draw out the precious truths contained therein. I must confess that having flicked through the book, I placed it to one side in my study and didn't pick it up again for a year or so.
I had been preaching a series of sermons loosely based on the words of 1 Peter 1:10-12, which speak of the 'sufferings of Christ and the subsequent glories'. I had devoted several messages to various aspects of Christ's suffering and then wanted to zero in on the events leading up to Calvary. Namely, our Lord's prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane, his arrest and trial. Yes, I have various commentaries on the Gospel accounts of these events, but they can sometimes be lacking in theological reflection, which is what I was after.
A bit like when Pharaoh's cup bearer remembered his fault in forgetting to put a word in for Joseph, I also recalled Hugh Martin's neglected book near the bottom of a 'to read' pile in my study. I'm glad I did. Reading Martin is like entering another world. His handling of the biblical narratives of Gethsemane, the arrest and trial of Christ is freshly original without being quirky. Martin had the knack of bringing out the doctrinal meat of a passage that had always been there, but you had not necessarily noticed it before. If Martin's reading of Scripture is theological, don't take that to mean his material is in any way dryly abstruse. Here you will find 'theology on fire' as the author unfolds the logic of gospel truth and warmly applies it to his readers.
A few examples will have to suffice. At one point in his consideration of Jesus' prayer in the Garden, Martin ponders why our Lord was in such an agony over the prospect of bearing his people's sin. Why did he pray repeatedly to the Father, 'If it be possible take this cup from me, but not my will, but yours be done'? After all, Jesus was not about to become personally sinful and face the judgement of God upon his own sin. Rather he was going to bear the weight of his people's sin imputed to him. Martin's use of gospel logic is astounding at this point. He asks the believer whether having Christ's righteousness imputed to them fills them with great joy, even though it is not their own righteousness, but an alien righteousness that is put to their account? And so similarly, our Lord felt agonising sorrow over the prospect of 'becoming sin for us', with the cup of God's wrath pressed to his lips in our place. 'It is difficult to understand the sorrow and amazement of agony of a holy being in having sin thus by imputation imposed upon him'. (p. 26).
Again, Marin considers why our Lord had to die having been arrested by legitimate authorities and then duly tried, rather than at the hands of an angry mob? Because, he explains, our Lord had not come to die as a martyr to a cause, but as a sin-bearing sacrifice. As Romans 13 tells us, the 'governing authorities' are 'instituted by God'. The ruler is 'an avenger who carries our God's wrath on the wrongdoer'. Jesus was to be 'numbered with the transgressors', arrested, tried and condemned in our place. That is why he did not resist arrest. That is why he remained silent before his accusers and judge. Jesus could not plead his own case and that of his people's before heaven's throne.
As Martin reasons,
There must be an explanation that will gloriously vindicate the justice of God in pursuing and prosecuting legally the man of sorrows. There must be an explanation which will not merely vindicate the character of God, in the sense of showing that this process or prosecution which the divine 'determinate counsel' carried on, is no impeachment of divine justice... There must be an explanation which will even swallow up the scandal in glory and make the very offence of the cross a fountain and a revelation of his high moral excellence and triumph - not only not the eclipse, but the victory of righteousness.
The doctrine which thus at once vindicates the personal innocence of Jesus and the public righteousness of God, and transforms the scandal into glory, and the shame into moral loveliness, is the suretyship and substitution of Jesus in the room of his people, with the imputation to him, thereon, of his people's transgressions. (p. 95-96)
The writer did not content himself with mere exegesis of the details of the text. He perceived and set forth the driving theological message the Evangelists wished to convey. He was also profoundly aware that his readers had an eternal future ahead of them. In Chapter 12 Martin contrasts believing Nathan to whom Jesus says, 'hereafter you will see heaven opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man' (John 1:51), with unbelieving Caiaphas, to whom Jesus says, 'Hereafter you will see the Son of Man sitting on the right hand of power, and coming on the clouds of heaven'. (Matthew 26:63-64). Martin presses the point home, 'You must either stand with Caiaphas in rejecting the Christ or with Nathaniel on receiving him. Each of them has a 'Hereafter'. And the question is, which of these two 'Hereafters' do you prefer? 'Today, while it is called today', you have your choice. 'Behold, now is the accepted time: behold, now is the day of salvation.' (p. 232-233).
We can certainly go to Hugh Martin (1822-85) for an enriched understanding of Scripture, but he is also a fine model of warm-hearted doctrinal preaching. How often do contemporary preachers 'stand as if they pleaded with men' to receive the offer of salvation in Christ?
I hoped to be able to buy a copy of The Atonement by Hugh Martin at this year's Banner Ministers' Conference, but it was one of the many events that had to be cancelled due to the coronavirus outbreak. Martin's work on the cross of Jesus was the next title we were due to discuss in our local theological study group. Who knows whether June's meeting will be able to go ahead? One thing is sure, time spent in the Shadow of Calvary and contemplating Christ's Atonement is never wasted. We look to the one who 'took our illnesses and bore our diseases', that 'with his stripes' this sin-sick world might be healed (Matthew 8:17, Isaiah 53:5).