Paternoster, 2007. (Available in Australia at Koorong Books)
Christianity is Christ, and what he did for us in his life, death and resurrection. Thus the atonement lies at the heart of Christian beliefs. It is a rich and complex topic which the Bible treats in a variety of ways. In this slim volume New Testament scholar I. Howard Marshall presents some of these biblical understandings of the work of Christ.
Marshall notes that no one image of the atonement is sufficient to cover the variety and fullness of the doctrine. The New Testament presents a number of pictures, models or metaphors of the saving work of Christ, including justification, redemption, and salvation.
He argues that reconciliation might be one of the better, more inclusive models to describe the three-fold work of Christ: “Human need, divine provision in the work of Christ, and a resulting transformation of the situation”.
Perhaps a highlight of the book is Marshall’s defence of the penal substitution understanding of the atonement. Says Marshall, “I shall argue that the doctrine is well-founded in Scripture, and that it is defensible against the objections brought against it”.
The idea that sin angers a holy God and must be dealt with before reconciliation with God is possible is not a popular concept nowadays, even among some evangelicals. But Marshall reminds us that the “reality of final judgment as the active response of God to human sin is an absolutely central part of the predicament from which sinners need to be saved”.
The biblical insistence that ‘the wages of sin is death’ must be maintained, along with the truth that sinners need to be doubly delivered: from the effects of sin as well as the power of sin. Thus Marshall examines the biblical language about God’s anger toward, and judgment of, sin, and the various ways in which the wrath of God is presented in Scripture.
He reminds us that the teaching of future judgment is “more than just a background of thought. It becomes thematic on many occasions, and it lies at the centre of the evangelism carried out in the early church”.
Still, some wish to argue that the wrath of God is not central to who God is, like the love of God is. Some claim it is not an attribute of God. But Marshall replies, yes, in a sense it is not fundamental, and is only called forth when evil is present. But “precisely the same thing could be said about God’s grace which is necessitated only when sin causes his creatures to need it”.
God’s holiness is as much a part of who God is as his love and mercy. Both of these attributes are relational, says Marshall, and are expressed to his creation in grace and mercy as well as “judgement and wrath when that creation is spoiled by sin”.
Yet people still object to the notion of an angry and wrathful God, and see such a God as the antithesis of a loving Jesus. They wrongly understand penal substitution to mean that Jesus persuaded an angry God to somehow appease his wrath, as if the two were working at cross purposes (no pun intended).
Not so says Marshall: “It is absolutely fundamental in the New Testament that it is God the Father who personally initiates and acts in the coming and death of Jesus to bring about redemption.” The cross of Christ must be seen as “the loving purpose of God”.
Indeed, “there is not the faintest hint in the New Testament that Jesus dies to persuade God to forgive sinners”. Rather, “his death is part of the way in which God himself acts in his grace and mercy”. Or as he also writes, “Jesus does not propitiate the Father so as to change his attitude to sinners” and somehow make forgiveness possible. Instead, both Father and Son together “take upon themselves all the suffering and judgement caused by and due to sin, and bear them for us”.
Jesus therefore is not appeasing a Father unable or unwilling to forgive sinners. He is acting in the divinely appointed manner for sinners to obtain mercy by means of his bearing of our punishment.
There is one area of concern in this book however, and it is relegated to a footnote (on p. 30, but also hinted at in the next few pages). Those who have Marshall’s 1983 commentary on 1 and 2 Thessalonians will recall that when he discussed 2 Th. 1:9 he provided strong reasons why that passage cannot refer to annihilationism.
In his footnote he says, “I would be more inclined to argue that this does not mean eternal, conscious punishment, but rather final, irreversible destruction than I was when I listed these possibilities in [the 1983 commentary]”.
Marshall’s apparent capitulation to annihilationism is the only real downside to an otherwise very good volume. One web review of this book that I glanced at by a professor of New Testament did not even mention this matter. Either he did not read the volume very carefully, or he did not think that embracing annihilationism was a major concern.
Having said that however, this is still a fine book. As a brief overview of the New Testament understanding of the atonement, and a helpful defence of penal substitution, this is a very valuable book indeed.