Pierced for Our Transgressions: Rediscovering the Glory of Penal Substitution

In his 2003 book The Lost Message of Jesus, Steve Chalke referred to the historic doctrine of substitutionary atonement as “a form of cosmic child abuse” (182). Not surprisingly, this touched off a firestorm among evangelicals, but it was just the latest, loudest, and most provocative example of a tendency since the late nineteenth century to shun this doctrine in favor of other less “violent” understandings of how the death of Jesus saves us.

The gospel really does hinge on the doctrine of penal substitutionary atonement-the truth that Christ died on the cross as a sinless substitute, taking on himself the guilt and the punishment for our sin, so that we could be given his righteousness. This doctrine, of course, does not deny that there are other aspects of the atonement-Christ’s victory over the powers of death and hell, his demonstration of self-sacrificing love, and many more-but penal substitution is the foundation of all the other glories of the cross.

This is the burden of the book Pierced for Our Transgressions: Rediscovering the Glory of Penal Substitution. Jeffery, Ovey, and Sach (a professor and two students at Oak Hill Theological College near London) have compiled what will surely become the go-to resource for explaining and defending the doctrine of penal substitutionary atonement. At least, that’s the impression you get from reading the endorsements from D. A. Carson, John Frame, John Piper, Mark Dever, Thomas Schreiner, David Wells, Timothy George, C. J. Mahaney, Sinclair Ferguson, Tremper Longman, and about a dozen others. (Good grief!)

In all seriousness, this book is excellent, covering just about all the ground to be covered in a defense of substitutionary atonement. The first half presents the case for the doctrine from Scriptural, theological, pastoral, and historical perspectives. Appropriately, the section on Scripture is by far the biggest, and it is excellent, showing how the idea of penal substitution is a clear biblical category going at least as far back as the Passover. The exegesis of each passage treated is thorough and clear. The next largest section is that on history, with particular emphasis on the first few centuries of the church. This is important because the charge is often leveled that the doctrine of penal substitution didn’t arise until the Reformation or later, and that it flattened out other views of the atonement. The authors show that not only did early writers exposit the doctrine in detail, but they also referred to it casually while discussing other topics, showing the concept was familiar enough that they could make passing reference to it and expect their hearers to understand.

The second half of the book is devoted to answering the critics of penal substitution. This is handled by addressing specific objections grouped into several broad categories, including penal substitution and the Bible, penal substitution and violence, penal substitution and justice, and others. These categories each have several specific objections, most of which are answered in 2-3 pages. Whether you’re struggling yourself with some of the implications of this doctrine or looking for resources in talking to others, this second section has great material that’s laid out in an easy-to-navigate order, and the detailed table of contents makes it a quick resource.

Pierced for Our Transgressions is a tremendous resource. It shows the biblical foundations for this important doctrine, shows its significance in the Christian life, and gives great responses to common critiques. Most of all, it will cause you to rejoice (in great detail!) over our Savior, who has paid a debt for us that we could never pay ourselves.


7 thoughts on “Pierced for Our Transgressions: Rediscovering the Glory of Penal Substitution

  1. Chalke guest co-taught (with Brian McLaren) one of our introductory classes that all students have to take. While I liked his stance on social justice, some of his theological statements were alarming, along with McLaren. I came across the same statement you mentioned above by Chalke, and then McLaren basically said Heaven and Hell are the same… what?!? Luckily, it was a one-weeker and the work load fairly light.

  2. I was interested in knowing if/how this book dealt with the following particular Scriptural problems one runs into if you take Penal Substitution as your paradigm for atonement:

    i) Paul writes that Jesus is the savior “of the whole world, especially believers.” John writes that Christ is the “propitiation” of not just believers but “the whole world.” Does the author offer any understanding of these verses within the framework of penal substitution? Other viewpoints on atonement/salvation deal better with these.

    ii) On the Day of Atonement, there were two sacrifices made. One for cleansing (healing) of the temple, the other for removal of the debt of sin from the Israelites. The odd thing is that it was the live sacrifice, the scape-goat, that was used for the debt sacrifice. One has a hard time arguing that Jesus, killed on a passover (the passover sacrifice had nothing to do with debt) could someone be best considered as taking the role of the living sacrifice for the day of atonement. [The “healing” version of atonement, obviously, has an easier time describing this.]

    iii) We of the 21st century see all these things through the glasses of 2 thousand years of Christian teaching and culture. A case could be made that we see in Scripture what we choose to see in Scripture…or what others tell us is there. With this in mind, the fact that the penal substitution option of atonement (in its more or less current form) was not fully formed until after 1000 years of human theologic scaffolding suggests it is the not the most obvious or straight-forward explanation based on an unbiased reading of the Word.

    iv) One has a hard time understanding penal substitution as the method of reconciliation in light of Col 1:20. How can the blood of Christ serve to reconcile everything in earth and heaven, including angels and animals, when we do not principally believe those creatures have sin for which substitutionary atonement needs be made?

    Are any of these discussed?

  3. Yes, all of these misconceptions are addressed, and the authors show that the very earliest writers taught substitutionary atonement, and thus that your “fact” in (iii) is incorrect.

  4. What “earliest” writers does the author cite as teaching substituionary penal atonement? Both Schaff’s Encyclopedic History of the Christian Church and R.N.D. Kelly’s Early Christian Doctrins indicate otherwise.

    And, if such were the case, does the author explain how the church managed to then be so easily sold on Ransom Theology, even against the protestation of St. Gregory of Nazianzus?

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