Pierced for Our Transgressions by Jeffery, Ovey, Sach (Book Review) ~ BitterSweetLife

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Pierced for Our Transgressions by Jeffery, Ovey, Sach (Book Review)

I like to read books that are unabashedly theological. You may not. And let's be honest, that's probably not the only defect in your character. But I've been looking forward to reviewing this book about "penal substitutionary atonement" for some time.

First, a word of definition. "Penal substitutionary atonement" is theological language for what many people regard as the most awful, unbearable aspect of Jesus' death: the fact that he was bloodily executed ("penal") in our place ("substitutionary") to pay for our evil under his Father's just wrath (atonement)--evil that he was completely innocent of.

This understanding of Christ's death grates on contemporary minds for a variety of reasons: How can this be just? How can God "punish himself?" Why couldn't the Father simply "forgive" us, since he is sovereign, after all? How can we consider the cross as anything less that "divine child abuse?" (Steve Chalke) Was Jesus killed against his will? How can we "rejoice" in divine homicide/suicide? Aren't other aspects of what happened to Jesus more important? (his exemplary life, his victory over Satan) Ultimately: Why do some people persist in talking up the bloodiest, most painful aspect of Christianity's bloodiest, most painful scene?

You may not be aware of this, but emotions tend to run high in these discussions. Why? Because the "winners" control the historical and spiritual reality that makes up the epicenter of the Christian faith. What exactly happened on the cross, who carried it out, and why? Answers have to be looked for scripturally, with an eye to human logic and emotions, but not mere human logic and emotions. That's what I feel that this book accomplishes.

In Pierced for Our Transgressions, Steve Jeffery, Michael Ovey, and Andrew Sach contend that penal substitutionary atonement represents the heart of the cross and the center of Jesus' mission on earth. They build their case biblically, finding scriptural answers for the questions above. Based on what God reveals in the Bible, what happened on the cross and what was it intended to accomplish?

I was deeply impressed by the book for a variety of reasons. It's well-written and lucid. It's laser-focused on a controversial topic, but it's not contentious. The authors precede with a sense of deliberation and suspense, as if they're investigating a complex crime scene--which in a sense they are. The book is sharply focused, but not narrow, because Jeffery, Ovey and Sach are acutely aware of other position on Christ's death, and they speak to them.

The book is tough-minded (allow me to personify) in that it deals directly with a widely representative, if not exhaustive, series of objections to penal substitutionary atonement--and does so fairly but firmly. The authors don't disparage other perspectives or voices, they attempt to place them in correct alignment with the cross. Often this means taking a concern that has been made of paramount importance (Christ as our role model, for example) and demonstrating that such truths are dependent on the more foundational, scriptural reality.

I opened the book with a pretty thorough biblical backing, but no special study on the topic of the atonement, so I was prepared to read with an open mind. I felt the weight of the questions that the authors tackled. Closing the book, I felt that I'd been taken on an investigative journey that succeeded in being both levelheaded and impassioned. The battle that's being fought over this "theological" issue has implications for every area of life, and is surely one of the most important questions on the table in the 21st century.

Pierced for Our Transgressions
is far more than an opening salvo in this fight. It may well be a defining work, one that defends the heart of the cross while respectfully and thoroughly refuting those who would end up bleeding off the paradoxical glory of what Christ accomplished by dying.

*** I give this book three out of three stars: Don't miss it.

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R. Sherman said...

Perhaps I'm being naive, but the idea of penal, (in the sense of punishment) substitutionary atonement has always been easy for me to grasp. One need only look at the orderly way in which the universe behaves to realize that that God is many things, but arbitrary is not one of them. When sin entered the world (an action) the universe God created required a reaction, i.e. atonement, specifically ours. That God in his mercy, He who is "outside" his creation, chose to provide that himself, in the form of His own incarnation, is the mysterious thing.

(BTW, does the book examine the aspects of the creed about Christ's descent into Hell as a part of the penal aspect?)

I'm off to slap this one on my Amazon wish list.


Will Robison said...

I think this would make a good read as the first ever acquisition of the Bittersweet Book Club.

I feel a bit like Randall. I've never really had a problem with the concept, though I admit to never really giving it much thought. There are other things that challenge my faith, but the idea that a bunch of pig-headed, self important, human beings might go so far as to kill God's son because their too obtuse to see Him for what He is - no, not that far-fetched, I'm afraid.

Ariel said...

@ R. Sherman: The concept wasn't a hard one for me either, probably because I was brought up hearing about it, and didn't think to question the divine il/logic of it for a couple decades. Most of the arguments against penal sub atonement rise from a worldview thoroughly soaked in postmodernism as opposed to "traditional" (orthodox?) theological perspectives. This means that biblically, they tend to not be very well formed, but they tend to have considerable emotional weight.

I don't think the book tackles the "descent into hell" issue.

@ Will: BSL Book Club? Bring it on. If you want to discuss anything I own or am currently reading, I'm ready to go. :)


Culture. Photos. Life's nagging questions. - BitterSweetLife