“This is the best book we have read in this group.”
So commented a faculty member recently in a campus book group that discussed Stott’s book. And we’ve discussed some pretty significant books by the likes of Augustine, Pascal, Calvin, Kierkegaard, Barth, and others!
I think what marks this book by John Stott, that I first read when published nearly 30 years ago, is a combination of theological clarity and pastoral application that help one deeply root one’s understanding of the work of Christ on the cross not only in belief but in Christian devotion and practice.
The book consists of four sections. The first is introductory, “Approaching the Cross” and explores the centrality of the cross in Christian belief and practice and considers why such an instrument of torture would become so central that it even shapes the architecture of our great cathedrals. This leads to a focus on why Christ died, considering not only the historical events but the deeper reasons in the purposes of God and the need of human beings.
This brings us to what I think is the central section of the book, which is appropriately enough titled, “The Heart of the Cross.” It is here that Stott carefully lays the groundwork for his defense of the substitution as foundational to our understanding of how Christ atoned for sin. But this isn’t Jesus simply “taking one for the team” that leaves itself open to questions of divine child abuse. Allow me here to quote Stott at some length:
“Our substitute, then who took our place and died our death on the cross, was neither Christ alone (since that would make him a third party thrust in between God and us), nor God alone (since that would undermine the historical incarnation), but God in Christ, who was truly and fully both God and man, and who on that account was uniquely qualified to represent both God and man and to mediate between them. If we speak only of Christ suffering and dying, we overlook the initiative of the Father. If we speak only of God suffering and dying, we overlook the mediation of the Son. The New Testament authors never attribute the atonement either to Christ in such a way as to dissociate him from the Father, or to God in such a way as to dispense with Christ, but rather to God and Christ, or to God acting in and through Christ with his whole-hearted concurrence.” (p. 156 in the 1986 edition)
The third section then moves on to describe “The Achievement of the Cross” in the salvation of sinners, the revelation of God, and the conquest of evil. Particularly striking was his focus on what we see of the glory, justice, and love of God coming together in the cross. Equally wonderful is his explanation of how the victory of the cross frees us from wrath, sin, the law, and death.
The last section then considers “Living Under the Cross.” He begins with a discussion of how we are a community of celebration and how our worship and the Lord’s table indeed celebrate the work of the cross. I was surprised in this chapter with the extended discussion of differing views of the eucharist where he distinguishes Anglican from Catholic practice. He then moves to how the cross helps us understand ourselves as both sinners and redeemed and of great worth in a way that releases us for great service. This even empowers us to love our enemies and find meaning in suffering.
Stott then concludes with a summary of the pervasive influence of the cross in a chapter that summarizes the book using the letter to the Galatians as a means of review.
What John Stott gave us here, as in all of his writing is a theologically rich but evangelically orthodox account of the cross. He is gracious and pastoral and yet willing to surface theological differences and to clearly set forth arguments from the scriptures for his own positions in a way that demarcates the matters that need to be honestly faced if the Church is to be one not merely in sentiment but truth. Above all, he shows us how the work of the cross is indeed central to the message and life of the Church when we may be tempted to get caught up in moralism, activism, or speculative theology. This may be a word we need as much in our day as when Stott wrote in 1986.