It should come as little surprise to learn that the doctrine of the substitutionary atonement of Christ has come under renewed criticism in recent decades. The Reformers dealt with such criticisms and attacks from the Socinians. Our more recent forefathers in the faith dealt with such criticisms and attacks from rationalists and liberals. Today we hear such criticisms and attacks from a wide variety of sources. We are surrounded by so much anti-Christian rhetoric, however, that it is hardly a shock to hear the doctrine of substitutionary atonement referred to derisively as “cosmic child abuse” by a popular contemporary Christian author. Such comments reflect a widespread discontent with the traditional doctrine. If we are not troubled by such attacks, we should be, for the atonement is at the heart of Christ’s redemptive work and thus key to a proper understanding of the Gospel.
Steve Jeffery, Mike Ovey, and Andrew Sach, all associated with Oak Hill Theological College in London, have done the church a great service by restating and defending the doctrine of the penal substitutionary atonement of Christ. Their book, Pierced for Our Transgressions: Rediscovering the Glory of Penal Substitution (Inter-Varsity/Crossway, 2007), stands in the tradition of great works on the subject by men such as A.A. Hodge and Leon Morris. It is, however, distinctive in several ways. It seeks to present in one volume a detailed study of the relevant biblical texts, a study of the important theological issues, and a survey of the teaching of the church over the course of the centuries. This is no simple task, but the authors largely succeed. The book is also distinctive in that it successfully steers a course between introductory level works and those of a more technical nature. The fact that it is deliberately aiming to steer such a course means that the discussions in the book are not exhaustive. But it also means that any interested reader should be able to follow the arguments with little difficulty.
The authors provide a summary definition of penal substitution at the very beginning of their book: “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.” The remainder of the book is devoted to explaining, clarifying, and defending this doctrine. The authors 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.”
In Part One, the authors make the case for the doctrine of penal substitution. They begin with a detailed study of the most important biblical texts relevant to the subject. They then look at the whole of Christian theology and seek to demonstrate that the doctrine of penal substitution has a central place. A final chapter surveys the teaching of great theologians throughout church history in order to demonstrate that the doctrine of penal substitution is not a novelty.
In Part Two, the authors present every conceivable objection raised by critics and proceed to answer them one by one. They categorize the objections under several helpful headings: Penal Substitution and the Bible; Penal Substitution and Culture; Penal Substitution and Violence; Penal Substitution and Justice; Penal Substitution and our Understanding of God; and Penal Substitution and the Christian Life. The authors conclude with a brief word for pastors encouraging them to preach this doctrine faithfully.
As helpful as the book is, it is no surprise that it comes with ten full pages of endorsements by prominent evangelical scholars from around the world. I add my voice to those who would enthusiastically recommend this book. If you are a believer, saved from the wrath of God, you are so only because of the atoning work of Christ. If you are a Christian, destined for eternal life, you are so only because Jesus died in your place bearing the penalty due to you. He was wounded for our transgressions, and He was crushed for our iniquities. It is by His stripes that we are healed. The doctrine of substitutionary atonement, then, is not another doctrinal football intended to be kicked around on the playground of ivory tower academics. It is a truly amazing and awe-inspiring thing to contemplate. Were we to grasp more fully everything that Jesus did for each of us on the cross, our prayer, our worship, our entire lives would be transformed forever.