The book Pierced for Our Transgressions: Rediscovering the Glory of Penal Substitution is a timely and welcome resource to anyone engaged in the theological discussion concerning Christ’s atonement. Everyone from pastors to church members, theological students to interested investigator’s can find Steve Jeffery’s, Michael Ovey’s and Andrew Sach’s treatment well worth the time to read – and own.
These authors set out to confront the relatively recent and influential criticism of the penal substitutionary aspect of Jesus Christ’s atoning work; the classic view that Christ died on the cross as a substitute for sinners, with God imputing (or, ascribing) the guilt of our sins to Christ, and he, in our place, bore the punishment that we deserved. This doctrine has recently come under some criticism in a more influential and widespread ways, and these authors set out to interact with the basic criticisms by establishing the reality of penal substitution from Scripture, theology, Church history, and finally they engage with the typical arguments against affirming this doctrine head on. And all the while, bringing the theology down to the very practical playing field of life.
Their first “line of attack” against the criticism of penal substitutionary atonement is to go straight to the Bible and ask the basic question, “Is it in there?” They succinctly and frankly write,
“If God himself affirms penal substitution, if it is part of the explanation that he himself has given for why he sent his Son into the world, then we dare not maintain otherwise,” (p. 33).
They then proceed to look at various passages of Scripture: Exodus 12 and the Passover event; Leviticus 16 and the meaning of atonement within the sacrificial system; the concept as seen in the prophets, particularly Isaiah. What is amazing is even before they reach the New Testament passages the authors have very adequately connected the concept of penal substitution to the bible and have drawn the connecting lines to Jesus Christ. They continue on, and go to the Gospels’ witness, particularly that of Mark and John, and also to the letters of Paul and Peter. Their conclusion is that the Bible – not just one or two obscure references, but a significant thread throughout the Bible – points to the fact that God has expressed that salvation is through substitution, and this is seen ultimately in the person and work of Jesus Christ, who gave His life “as a ransom for many,” (Mark 10:45).
This biblical framework is quickly followed by the building up of a theological framework, which the authors ascribe the doctrine of penal substitution a significant role, calling it the “centre of the [theological] jigsaw to complete a magnificent picture,” (p. 148). Without this concept of salvation through penal substitution, there are many facets of the Bible that become improbable if not impossible to understand; such as the Holiness and graciousness of God, for one example.
They then proceed to answer the criticism that the doctrine of penal substitution is a misguided doctrine that has been steering the historic church astray at least since the time of the Reformation. To answer this charge, Jeffrey, Sachs and Ovey present 23 distinct historical theologians and organization that have upheld the doctrine of penal substitution. Their historic pedigree ranges from Justin Martyr (100-165 AD), Athanasius (300-373 AD), Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274 AD), John Calvin (1509-1564) and J.I. Packer (born 1926). Needless to say, they quite convincingly lay aside the misconception that the doctrine of penal substitution is a novel and misguided concept.
After they have built the case for penal substitution from the Bible, theology, pastoral/practical implications and also historical theology, the authors then begin to engage the specific points of debate. The address how the doctrine of penal substitution addresses and answers the criticisms regarding the Bible, the culture, violence, justice, our knowledge and right understanding of God, as well as our right understanding of the Christian life.
Some of you may be saying, “So what? Everything about this topic and book is only good for theology; what could it possibly mean for me in everyday life?” I actually had that same thought before reading this book. After reading it, I have found that this book is incredibly practical and applicable to my life, as well as anyone else’s. One simple, but very penetrating sentence, that encapsulates the essence of this book, and what the doctrine of penal substitution upholds in its essence is this reality:
“The Lord Jesus Christ did not come into the world to meet with his friends. He came to die for his enemies,” (p. 152).
Pierced for Our Transgressions has helped me to see once again, the glory, wonder and sheer gracious love that is seen in Christ’s death on the cross on my behalf. This cuts away at my pride, superiority and desire for that which would replace my longing for God and His honor. By seeing myself as at one time God’s enemy, I can rejoice and bask in the finished and atoning work of Jesus Christ, who lived and died in my place, and welcomes me into the family of God.
This book is once again, well worth having on the bookshelf. Clear, compelling and comprehensive; I can’t think of a better resource to draw upon when considering the glory of penal substitution and its impact on our lives and ministries.