Reformation Trust, 2007. (Available in Australia at Koorong Books)
Perhaps the most crucial and basic of Christian doctrines also happens to be the most neglected and overlooked. I refer to the doctrine of the cross – the saving work of Christ as enacted at Calvary. The Apostle Paul could say that he desired to know nothing except Christ and him crucified. Yet today, even in the churches, this fundamental teaching is often neglected, misunderstood or minimised.
R.C. Sproul is greatly concerned about this. He has written this book to correct the trend of a cross-less Christianity. There are of course other more lengthy, detailed and elaborate treatments of the cross available. But this volume very nicely covers all the bases in a compact yet clear presentation. The heart of the gospel is here concisely and thoroughly expounded.
Perhaps one must ignore four aspects to this book to appreciate its true worth: it is brief; it is written for a popular audience; it lacks footnotes and bibliography; and it is packaged in a gift-book format. All this might make one think that this is a lightweight affair – but it is not. Contained in these 168 pages is biblical theology at its best.
In ten brief but solid chapters Sproul lays out the biblical understanding of the cross. He begins by reminding us that the main reason why the atonement is downplayed so much today is because people do not see the need for it. They have little or no sense of sin and of the righteousness and holiness of God.
Therefore they do not recognise that they are “privately, personally, individually, ultimately, inexorably accountable to God for their lives”. The doctrine of the cross only makes sense if we have a proper understanding of who God is, and a proper understanding of who we are as lost sinners.
He examines the great and non-negotiable themes of the Bible: the justice of God, the destructive nature of sin, the need for atonement, and so on. For example, he details the various ways in which sin is depicted in Scripture. We are described as debtors, as enemies of God, and as law-breakers.
The work of Christ in dealing with sin is carefully explored. To cancel our indebtedness to God, Christ became our surety. To end our enmity with God and make reconciliation, Christ became our mediator. To deal with the crimes we have committed against God, Jesus became our substitute at the bar of God’s justice.
The penal, substitutionary understanding of the atonement is here elaborated upon. Sin demands payment. The wages of sin is death. By ourselves we cannot overcome our sin or its penalty. Thus the penalty we deserve is taken upon us by Christ. He takes our place. He becomes our substitute.
Both the mercy of God and the justice of God come together perfectly at the cross. God was under no obligation to any of us. We could have received the just penalty for our sins. But God has not left us in our desperate situation. He took our place, and paid in full the debt we owed.
Sproul looks at the various ways the Bible discusses this. Christ is our ransom. He is our redeemer. He is our saviour. And he is also our propitiation, taking upon himself the wrath of God against sin.
It is this last element that so many people – even within the church – find unpalatable today. But it is hard to escape the clear thrust of Scripture on this. A holy God must forever hate sin, and judge it. We are sinful, under the judgment of God. Jesus took that judgment upon himself, so that we can escape it.
The salvation provided cost Jesus dearly. Says Sproul, this placation of the wrath of God comprises “Christ’s supreme achievement on the cross”. But there is a positive dimension to the cross as well. Not only is the sin question dealt with, but so too is the issue of righteousness.
Another unpopular teaching today is the biblical view of the human condition. We like to think that we are really not such bad chaps. But the Bible clearly says there is none righteous. Indeed, all our righteousness is as filthy rags. But the work of the cross offers the imputation of righteousness. We are given by God what we could not become ourselves.
And this is no mere legal fiction: “God really laid our sins on Christ and really transferred the righteousness of Jesus Christ by imputation”. Also, Sproul reminds us how the entire Old Testament is full of the foreshadowing of the cross, from the Psalmist’s cry of dereliction in Psalm 22 to the Suffering Servant songs of Isaiah.
Sproul is firmly in the Reformed camp, but he does not dodge the tough issues entailed in this theological tradition. Thus he tackles the issue of limited atonement. This is a hotly debated topic, and not all will be satisfied by his treatment of it. But Sproul does as good a job as anyone in trying to make the biblical case for it, answering various objections along the way.
For those who are theologically literate, there will not be too much new or unfamiliar material found here. But that is the problem – far too many believers are woefully unfamiliar with theology in general and the doctrine of the atonement in particular.
As a good, easy-to-read introduction to this most foundational of Christian themes, this slim volume is hard to beat. I recommend it highly, both to theological novices as well as to those who are theologically mature.