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Pierced for our Transgressions: Rediscovering the glory of penal substitution (1)

Pierced for our Transgressions:

Rediscovering the glory of penal substitution




Steve Jeffery, Mike Ovey, Andrew Sach

(Nottingham, England: IVP, 2007, 373pp.)


Part One


On my recent ministry trip to Scotland I was determined to obtain a copy of this remarkable book. It wasn’t easy, as it was sold out in the first two stores I visited. Finally, while in Edinburgh, I located a copy at the Wesley Owen bookshop. I immediately immersed myself in it, by-passed the in-flight movie on the way home, and concluded it about the time I landed in Chicago. Trust me, it was time (and money) well spent.

I wont’ rehearse the history behind this volume, other than to say that it was largely provoked by the controversial comments of Steve Chalke in his book The Lost Message of Jesus and the discussion in the U.K. that ensued concerning the nature of Christ’s atoning sacrifice. The debate had been raging in America for some time before this, due in large measure to the book Recovering the Scandal of the Cross (IVP) by Joel Green and Mark Baker (see my brief summary of this book at my blog) and the occasional comments in speech and print of Brian McLaren.

This is a large (373 pp.) and substantive treatise that I hope Christians will take the time and apply the effort to ingest. It has been endorsed by a wide range of Christians from a diversity of theological and ecclesiological backgrounds. In addition to John Piper’s Foreword, it carries the endorsement of D. A. Carson, Mark Dever, Sinclair Ferguson, John Frame, Timothy George, Kent Hughes, Tremper Longman, C. J. Mahaney, I. Howard Marshall, A. T. B. McGowan, Roger Nicole, Peter O’Brien, J. I. Packer, Mike Pilavachi, Tom Schreiner, Ian Stackhouse, Mark Stibbe, Stuart Townend, Carl Trueman, Terry Virgo, and Gordon Wenham, just to mention a few.

The book is divided broadly into two parts. In Part One, titled “Making the Case,” the authors provide a rich and robust defense of penal substitutionary atonement from a Scriptural, theological, pastoral, and historical perspective. Part Two, “Answering the Critics,” is devoted to an extensive response to the criticisms of penal substitution. Due to the extensive nature of this volume, I’ll divide my review into two parts, corresponding to the two major divisions of the book itself.

Let me begin with the Foreword. Count on John Piper to say it straight and true. He pulls no punches as to why this issue is necessarily at the forefront of evangelical dialogue: “For if God did not punish his Son in my place, I am not saved from my greatest peril, the wrath of God” (14). That may strike some as odd language, but only because we have lost sight of that from which we most need to be saved and delivered: God! We have only one hope, says Piper and it is “that the infinite wisdom of God might make a way for the love of God to satisfy the wrath of God so that I might become a son of God” (14).

I suppose I should begin as the authors do with a definition of penal substitution. In the opening paragraph of the Introduction, they write: “The doctrine of penal substitution states that God gave himself in the person of his Son to suffer instead of us the death, punishment and curse due to fallen humanity as the penalty for sin” (21). You may find it shocking that this would even be up for debate, for “this understanding of the cross of Christ,” say our authors, “stands at the very heart of the gospel” (21).

There simply can be no Christian gospel apart from the truth that Jesus Christ has endured and suffered in himself, on the cross, the wrath of God due to sinners, thereby propitiating or satisfying said wrath on behalf of those for whom he died. Yes, indeed, it is shocking that professing evangelicals should call it into question or, worse still, describe it as tantamount to “cosmic child abuse.”

Among those who have questioned or utterly rejected penal substitutionary atonement (hereafter, PSA), thus calling for this book to be written, are C. H. Dodd (from a generation ago), Stephen Travis, Eleonore Stump, Colin Gunton, Paul Fiddes, Vernon White, Stephen Sykes, Timothy Gorringe, Tom Smail, Joel Green, Mark Baker, J. Denny Weaver, John Goldingay, Steve Chalke, Alan Mann, and Brian McLaren.

Those who in past years have come to the exegetical and theological defense of PSA include Leon Morris, Roger Nicole, John Murray, J. I. Packer, John Stott, Mark Meynell, Henri Blocher, David Peterson, D. A. Carson, Tom Schreiner, A. T. B. McGowan, Robert Reymond, and numerous others, all of whose books are mentioned in the Introduction. One volume in particular, written to honor the life and ministry of Roger Nicole, is especially important: The Glory of the Atonement, edited by Charles E. Hill and Frank A. James III (IVP, 2004).

The focus of Pierced is summarized by its authors: “In brief, we argue that penal substitution is clearly taught in Scripture, that it has a central place in Christian theology, that a neglect of the doctrine will have serious pastoral consequences, that it has an impeccable pedigree in the history of the Christian church, and that all of the objections raised against it can be comprehensively answered” (31).

In their chapter, “Searching the Scriptures: The Biblical Foundations of Penal Substitution” (the longest one in the book, I might add), the authors focus on such crucial texts as Exodus 12 and the Passover, Leviticus 16, the Day of Atonement, and the Scapegoat, the teaching of the Psalms and Prophets on PSA, with an especially helpful and exhaustive treatment of Isaiah 53 and its fulfillment in the death of Jesus in the NT.

In this chapter they also survey several well-known NT texts, with special attention given to the book of Romans and the reality of divine wrath. They do a wonderful job of demonstrating, contra Dodd (drawing on the work of Morris and Nicole, that the noun hilasterion in Romans 3:25-26, and the verbal form hilaskomai mean, respectively, “propitiation” and “to propitiate”, and that the focus of this action is God himself and the manifestation of his wrath against sin.

They summarize this chapter as follows: “The Bible speaks with a clear and united witness. Christ our Passover lamb has been sacrificed. The Servant was pierced for our transgressions. He died, as Caiaphas prophesied, in the place of the people. He was set forth as a propitiation for our sins. He became a curse for us, bearing our sins in his body on the tree, drinking for us the cup of God’s wrath, giving his life as a ransom for many” (99).

The authors then turn to provide what they call “The Theological Framework for Penal Substitution” by setting PSA in the larger context of what the Bible says about such themes as creation, fall, sin, death, and wrath. The most important feature of this chapter is their discussion of how PSA relates to the unified work of the Trinity, for its critics have argued that any notion of the Father punishing the Son is to divide the Godhead, pitting one person against another. More on this later.

As noted above, I can’t delve into every chapter, so let me leap forward to their discussion of PSA in the history of the church. “The question of historical pedigree,” they write, “has acquired a further significance in recent years, for increasing numbers of people are suggesting penal substitution is a novel doctrine, invented around the time of the Reformation by a church that was (it is alleged) drifting even further from the biblical faith of the early church Fathers” (162).

In response to this charge, the authors of Pierced cite representative thinkers from the past who clearly defend PSA. Included are Justin Martyr (c. 100-165), Eusebius of Caesarea (c. 275-339), Hilary of Poitiers (c. 300-368), Athanasius (c. 300-373), Gregory of Nazianzus (c. 330-390), Ambrose of Milan (339-397), John Chrysostom (c. 350-407), Augustine (354-430), Cyril of Alexandria (375-444), Gregory the Great (c. 540-604), Thomas Aquinas (cf. 1225-74), John Calvin (1509-64), Francis Turretin (1623-87), John Bunyan (1628-88), John Owen (1616-83), George Whitefield (1714-70), Charles Spurgeon (1834-92), D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones (1899-1981), as well as John Stott and J. I. Packer.

As noted, in Part Two they turn their attention to providing extensive answers to every major objection to PSA. I will take that up in the second installment of this review.