God of the Cross: 5 Recommended Books on the Atonement
If you grew up in church, there’s a decent chance that you take penal substitution for granted. In other words, if your background is solidly evangelical, you might assume that everyone naturally affirms the atonement as the act by which Christ satisfied the law’s demands, assuaged the wrath of God, and cleansed guilty sinners of all their unrighteousness.
But this assumption isn’t necessarily true. For many, commitment to penal substitutionary atonement (PSA) has eroded. Our paganized culture rejects the fundamental tenets of the Christian worldview, particularly the biblical doctrine of God that undergirds PSA. This erosion has had major effects on the evangelical movement. Pastors, therefore, need to help their people understand God’s justice and holiness as well as the central tenets of PSA. To do that, you might consider recommending these five books on this precious doctrine to your people.
The Holiness of God | This classic by R. C. Sproul is not a technical monograph on the cross. But it unpacks the doctrine behind the doctrine. In other words, our doctrine of God undergirds our doctrine of the cross. God’s holiness necessitates the death of the Son of God. Unless the covenant people are washed white as snow, they cannot come into God’s presence. Our discussions of the cross are not just about the dynamics of Jesus’ death. They are first about the character of God who must act justly and desires to act mercifully.
Sproul unpacks this doctrine of God, even as he treats a closely-connected doctrine: justification by faith alone. Note this carefully: without the work of Christ, there is no justification by faith. If God is not perfectly holy and also perfectly loving, there will be no atonement, and thus no salvation at all.
We could put it this way: show me your doctrine of God, and I’ll show you your doctrine of atonement. In order to build trust in the doctrine of the atonement, we must do more than talk only about the cross. We must show our people the biblical and theological backdrop of the cross of Christ. Sproul’s book helps establish the character of God, and thus sets us up to marvel at the beauty of the death of God’s Son.
The Cross of Christ | Among John Stott’s many contributions to the church, this book may be his greatest. Stott increased the evangelical understanding of Christ’s cross-work and—as much as anyone has—standardized it. But his work is far from staid and stale. It is clearly written by a pastor who knows the weight of glory found in this doctrine, and knows as well just how badly fallen humanity needs it. Stott understood, as we all must, that the cross of Christ is not one chapter in the incarnation of the Son of God, but the turning point of history. At a personal level, the cross is the hinge of every human destiny. The cross, after all, is not a matter of so-called “academic theology”; it was our sin that drove Christ to his death. Do we look there to find our forgiveness? Or do we look there and see only an accident of history, unrelated to our daily goings-on?
Beyond his pastoral burden, Stott found a way to integrate both the motif of expiation (the cleansing of sinners) and the motif of Christus Victor into a theology of the crucifixion that features PSA at the center. In doing so he navigated deftly the debates some decades prior over whether the cross achieved the propitiation of divine wrath or washed away the sins of the guilty. Stott’s overarching point on this matter: Jesus’ death accomplished both these ends. Subsequent scholars and pastor-theologians have concurred, resulting in a vision of the atonement that shimmers with glory, quivers with head-crushing intentionality, and drips with grace—grace for sinners just like us.
In My Place Condemned He Stood | Stott aside, no twentieth-century writer penned more penetrating reflections on the cross than J. I. Packer. This volume, edited by Mark Dever, features several of Packer’s most illuminating and influential essays on the atonement. These are “The Heart of the Gospel,” “What Did the Cross Achieve,” and Packer’s justly famous introduction to John Owen’s The Death of Death in the Death of Christ.
All of Packer’s books deserve to be bought and studied. (Read Leland Ryken’s marvelous J. I. Packer: An Evangelical Life to get context.) He rarely showed his colors better than in his occasional speaking and writing on the cross of Christ. Note as well that this volume bears Dever’s outstanding cover article for Christianity Today, “Nothing but the Blood.” If a pastor had little time to read, this would be the one volume to digest.
Pierced for Our Transgressions | Steve Jeffery, Michael Ovey, and Andrew Sach represent watchmen on the wall who saw that the atonement was under attack. This book, published in 2007, is a gift to Christ’s blood-bought church. Their study is a scholarly treatment of the core biblical texts on the death of Christ, a historical treatment of important doctrinal contributions by past voices, and a response to numerous objections raised against the cross. This book is a work of profound courage and profound learning. In the example of these men—one thinks of the now-departed Mike Ovey in particular—we see what theology should be: a service to the church for the church.
I cannot overstate the helpfulness of this volume. No pastor should enter ministry today, when attacks on the work of Christ proliferate, and fail to study this book, going page by page, working slowly through every line. The last 100 pages cover nearly every major argument leveled against PSA. The authors not only consider “academic” challenges, but also more popular arguments. As those who minister truth to the people of God each week, pastors should devour this material, and thus be ready to “dismantle strongholds” mounted against God’s Word, including the crown jewel of all history and all Scripture: Christ’s atoning death (see 2 Cor. 10:3–6).
The Crucified King | This book is a little different than the four previous recommendations. Jeremy Treat authored a rich and eye-opening study on how Christ’s cross and Christ’s kingdom are linked. These two doctrines are often isolated from one another, but they shouldn’t be. The cross brings the kingdom; the kingdom of the Son of God is a kingdom of the cross. Treat also helpfully reflects on the resurrection, which he rightly sees as bound up with Scripture’s doctrine of the atonement. Too often, theologians in our day seem to think that they can choose either the cross or the empty tomb as the lodestar of their theology. In truth, the two events stand or fall together.
Treat’s study is an example of what Kevin Vanhoozer calls “theological imagination.” It does not, in other words, make something up out of biblical items, but rather weaves together doctrines in Scripture that are crying out for synthesis. The earlier volumes serve the church by defending the cross; this text serves the church by helping us see all biblical teaching as a seamless garment, with accurate biblical theology leading into magisterial systematic theology.
Other Commendable Books
It’s almost humorous to recommend just five books about the central event of human history. In truth, students, pastors, and laypeople should go far beyond these books. They should buy and study texts like D. A. Carson’s popular (but extremely shrewd) Scandalous , which makes the important point that we cannot divide Christ’s teaching ministry from his atoning ministry as many try to do. Instead, all Christ’s teaching points toward his atoning work. Carson’s chapters were originally sermons and talks, as was the material in It is Well by Dever and Michael Lawrence. This book is an excellent resource for pastors tackling key biblical texts on the atonement.
Reaching back into history, Anselm’s classic study Cur Deus Homo (Why Did God Become Man?) does not offer the full-orbed atonement doctrine referenced above, but it’s a valuable text that nonetheless makes important contributions to our understanding of the cross, among them the insight that only God can save, but only a human being can represent other human beings—hence the coming of the man Christ Jesus. At the technical level, Brian Arnold’s study of Ignatius’s view of the work of Christ satisfactorily rebuts the idea promoted widely by T. F. Torrance and others that the early church abandoned the Pauline focus on the atonement. Arnold’sJustification in the Second Century is both extremely expensive and very important; one hopes that he will publish a more accessible volume in days ahead, as his study (completed under Michael Haykin) is a valuable one, an example of high-level intellectual labor that has great relevance to the church’s life, practice, and confession.
The doctrine of the atonement is the heart of Scripture. This doctrine doesn’t boil down to one verse, or three verses, or ten verses, or forty verses. Penal substitutionary atonement is a whole-Bible doctrine. It proceeds from theology proper, derives from the promise of a head-crushing deliverer in Genesis 3, and culminates in the eschatological dwelling of the blood-bought people of God in the New Jerusalem. The cross solves the problem of how a just God, a God wrathful against sin, can be a merciful God, a God who saves sinners to the uttermost. The book above every book to read is the book that exalts Christ above every name, but not a Christ of unblemished solitude—a Christ of the cross.