Review: Christ Crucified

Christ Crucified

Christ Crucified: Understanding the Atonement, Donald Macleod. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2014.

Summary: A thoughtful, contemporary restatement of the classical doctrine of the atonement including different contended terms in reference to the atonement including substitution, expiation, propitiation, satisfaction, and victory.

The cross is not only the most significant symbol of Christianity, but this act, and its meaning is central to Christian hope. The cross also raises telling questions, of which the most significant are: Why did Jesus die? Was this truly necessary? What did this accomplish? And, what does this mean for us? When we get beyond the vague sentiments that this “shows us the love of God” (how does the cruel death of a man on a Roman gibbet show love?) or that “he died for us” (why did he choose to die when he could have avoided it? how can one die for us all? why was this death necessary? what about us needed dying for?) we are faced with questions like these whose answers take us into the deep purposes of God and the raw truth about the human condition. Hard questions, and yet at the end, profound good news.

Donald Macleod in this work explores the death of Christ and its significance. The book is in two parts. The first is a meditation upon the events of Maundy Thursday and Good Friday and their theological significance. Of particular value in this section in light of questions raised about the idea of Christ’s death as a substitution for us, which some have alleged to be “divine child abuse” Macleod provides this striking defense:

“…the child-abuse charge ignores the clear New Testament witness to the unique identity of Jesus. Not only was he not a child; he was not a mere human. He was God: the eternal Logos, the divine Son, the Lord before whom every knee will one day bow (Phil. 2:10). This is no helpless victim. This is the Father’s equal. This is one who in the most profound sense is one with God; one in whom God judges himself, one in whom God condemns himself, one in whom God lets himself be abused. The critics cannot be allowed the luxury of a selective use of the New Testament. It is the very same scriptures which portray the cross as an act of God the Father which also portray the sufferer as God the Son, and the resulting doctrine cannot be wrenched from its setting in the Christian doctrine of the Trinity. The ‘abused child’ is ‘very God of very God’. It is divine blood that is shed at Calvary (Acts 20:28) as God surrenders himself to the worst that man can do and bears the whole cost of saving the world.” (p. 64)

The second part then takes seven words that are used to describe different aspects of Christ’s atoning death: substitution, expiation, propitiation, reconciliation, satisfaction, redemption, and victory. A number of these are often contended against as well, yet he defends these with careful textual study and devotional eloquence. His discussion of the use of hilasterion as the word used for ‘mercy seat’ in the Greek Old Testament is an example, giving us the vivid image of the place where sin is expiated and the judgment of God against sin propitiated. I am hardly new to such discussions, but Macleod’s clear, theologically acute, and devotionally rich writing left me pausing to rejoice again in familiar truths understood with freshness, and in some instances greater depth.

The uses of this book, it seems to me are several. First, it is one to be used devotionally in measured, thoughtful reflection, perhaps reading a section of a chapter at a time. Second, it is a significant book for any who bear witness to the good news of the cross. Any thoughtful person will raise questions similar to those I mentioned at the beginning of this review, and to be able to speak biblically, clearly, and joyfully of the work of Christ is our great responsibility and privilege. Finally, those who raise the question of the cross as divine child abuse, or repudiate the idea of penal substitution need to engage with Macleod’s writing, and not the straw men representations of the doctrine of the atonement often cited in their arguments. I would set this alongside John Stott’s The Cross of Christ (reviewed here) as one of the very best books I’ve read on the cross.

Review: Defending Substitution

Defending SubstitutionDefending Substitution: An Essay on Atonement in Paul, Simon Gathercole. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2015.

Summary: Gathercole defends the oft-maligned doctrine of substitutionary atonement, responding to the criticisms and challenges raised and demonstrating from key biblical texts that it can be argued from scripture that “Christ died in our place.”

The idea of “substitution”, that Christ died in our place, for our sins has come in for criticism from many quarters. Some claim this amounts to “divine child abuse.” Others argue that substitution has not necessarily been the church’s understanding of how Christ’s death on the cross atoned for human sinfulness. In this brief “essay”, Simon Gathercole engages this criticism and gives a modest but important argument for the biblical foundations of the idea of substitution.

First of all he contends that substitution is important both for our theological grasp of the gospel, the message of Christ and also pastorally vital in providing Christians assurance of their pardon before and acceptance by God. He defines substitution as “Christ’s death in our place, instead of us.” and sets this apart from other views such as representation and satisfaction. He also defends this idea against various criticisms, particularly that this is immoral by arguing that this was fully an act of Jesus own will, out of love for us, and not forced upon him.

Then he engages three exegetical challenges to substitution. The first is that of Harmut Gese proposing the atonement occurring through “representative place taking.” The second is Morna Hooker’s idea of “interchange” in which Christ becomes what we are so that we become what he is. The third is J. Louis Martyn’s idea of apocalyptic deliverance from Sin. In addressing this latter, he also provides textual evidence that Christ died not only for Sin but for the sins of people. In engaging each of these theories he shows what is of value in our understanding of the work of Christ, what is problematic or actually suggestive of substitution, and at the same time approaches these in such a way that substitution need not exclude other insights into the nature of Christ’s death.

The latter part of the book is concerned with careful exegesis of two key texts, I Corinthians 15:3, and Romans 5:6-8. In the first, he argues for the substitutionary understanding of the idea that Christ died for us, and makes a compelling case that the scriptures according to which this is so include Isaiah 53, where the idea of the servant’s death for Israel is, on the basis of his word study, very clear. In his study of Romans 5:6-8, he takes a very different approach in arguing that the idea of one who would scarcely die for a good man has parallels in the literature of Paul’s day. He appeals to the tale of Alcestis, and also to Philonides, Epictetus, and Seneca for proposing similar “substitutionary” ideas.

In between these two chapters, he includes an excursus on the question of why, if Christ’s death is indeed substitutionary, do Christians still die. His argument considers various senses of “death” and argues that while we die, we do not perish. 

In concluding, he argues for the continuing importance of substitution and that this idea, along with representation, and liberation might be understood as part of Paul’s thought. Perhaps the most winsome aspect of the “defense” he makes is that it is an argument for the “inclusion” of substitution rather than for the “exclusion” of other ideas.

This is a short book, only 128 pages with bibliography and indices. The reason for this is that it is more or less a transcript of Gathercole’s Hayward Lectures at Arcadia University. This concise and readable account, while not covering with the depth some might want all the texts and theories of the atonement, serves as a theological resource for adult education in a variety of contexts, both lay and seminary, around this important Christian doctrine. Above all, it graciously argues why substitution matters, how it may be defended, and pastorally, how important these truths are to proper Christian confidence.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 : “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

Review: The Cross of Christ

The Cross of Christ
The Cross of Christ by John R.W. Stott
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

“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.

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