Book Review: The Great Exchange, by Jerry Bridges and Bob Bevington
We all believe something, and what we believe radically impacts how we live and who we worship.That all important link between faith and life is what energizes The Great Exchange by Jerry Bridges and Bob Bevington, a book on the atonement that is accessible to all thoughtful Christians.
This book was written to clarify the current confusion surrounding Christ’s work on the cross within the western church, and in one sense is a refreshingly unoriginal work: the structure is openly borrowed from George Smeaton’s (1814-1889) more exhaustive efforts (The Apostles’ Doctrine of the Atonement and Christ’s Doctrine of the Atonement) while the passionate theological reflection is dependent on John Piper. Besides their gracious and even eloquent use of words, Bridges and Bevington add nothing new to the debate on the atonement, yet they do provide much-needed clarity. In fact, the book is so lucid and edifying that I placed it on our church book table and recommended it to my congregation prior to completing this review.
The Great Exchange is divided up into chapters developed around the books of the New Testament. An overview at the book’s beginning lays out the biblical framework of the atonement, while each succeeding chapter enriches readers’ understanding of Christ’s work from within the doctrinal framework of the various biblical authors.
A mild tone prevails throughout: avowed liberals are mentioned as those who wish to «abide exclusively by the ‘red letter’ words of Jesus» (33), and John Owen’s The Death of Death is briefly praised for demonstrating that «all for whom Christ died also died in him» (145). Yet most of the buzzwords which confuse the discussion of the atonement in the local church are avoided. Instead, biblical terms such as apostles, fulfillment, atonement, and propitiation are carefully defined and often highlighted through italics, and the distinction between Jesus’ active and passive obedience is defined, defended, and applied throughout the book.
In sum, the authors argue for a great exchange which «results from the death of the perfect sacrifice» of Jesus Christ (41), leading to a «twofold substitution: the charging of the believer’s sin to Christ results in God’s forgiveness, and the crediting of Christ’s righteousness to the believer results in his justification. More than being declared not guilty, in Christ believers are actually declared righteous. Redeemed sinners and their Christ have traded places» (41). In other words, Bridges and Bevington believe in works-based salvation, but not fallen humans’ works: it is Christ’s work on behalf of Christians that saves.
Bridges and Bevington urge that the church fervently maintain the orthodox understanding of the atonement for both theological and practical reasons. They write, «No attempt to reform the church can succeed if it departs in any way from the centrality of the message that our sinless Christ actually died on a real cross as the sin bearer for those who are united to Christ by faith in his substitutionary sacrifice and righteousness» (15). Before the church can be reformed, would-be reformers must understand the foundation of the church. Thus the conversation about the church does not begin with the correct response to post-Enlightenment thought or marketing polls, but with the fundamental issue of Christ and the cross.
The crux of Bridges and Bevington’s argument is that all understandings of the atonement and even ways of life that do not have penal substitution at the center are biblically unsound and ultimately unsatisfying to the redeemed heart. They define the «futile ways» of the world (1 Peter 1:18a, ESV) as «the pursuit of our own righteousness in an attempt to satisfy God’s justice by our performance, manmade doctrine designed to make us feel self-sufficient or self-justified, the pursuit of personal agenda designed to maximize pleasure and minimize pain, the overly busy lifestyle lost in the purposeless passing of time» (255). Only a heart of flesh or one desperately confused can find ephemeral rest and joy in beliefs outside of Christ’s alien righteousness and propitiation.
Jerry Bridges and Bob Bevington have invited the church to the lifelong effort of bringing our beliefs in line with the Bible’s teaching on the atonement in all its eternal glory. They are calling on the church to eliminate unbiblical thought and practice by growing in our understanding of Christ and his work. It is admittedly a disciplined effort, but it is both ultimately satisfying and evidence of our salvation. I pray that the church would heed Bridges and Bevington’s call.