The cross is the heart of the Christian faith. It is the center of the gospel. It is, pardon the pun, the crux of the matter. There really is no need to justify another look at the death (and, of course, the resurrection) of our Lord Jesus Christ. Consideration of the atonement is essential to properly understanding the faith and indeed to experiencing salvation. How-ever, we live in a day when all that is solid is melting away and vanishing into vapor. We have seen it with the doctrine of justification; we are seeing it now with the doctrine of Scripture. Should we really be surprised that the doctrine of the atonement is now also a bone of contention? Certain Christian traditions have never appreciated the penal substitutionary understanding of the atonement. For instance, Arminians and Anabaptists are none too fond of the view. But now, within the evangelical camp, we find calls to reassess or reject penal substitutionary atonement. Over in Great Britain the publication of Steve Chalk and Alan Mann's The Lost Message of Jesus (where we are told that penal substitutionary atonement amounts to "cosmic child abuse") and the response of Pierced For Our Transgressions (a stellar defense of the doctrine by members of the faculty of Oak Hill College in London) has provided the contours of the controversy. The debate has crossed the Atlantic under the influence of such notables as Bishop N. T. Wright and has gained momentum with the rise of the Emerging church. Of course, there have been calls to reject penal substitutionary atonement on this side of the pond for many years now (one thinks of Joel Green and Mark Baker's Recovering the Scandal of the Cross), but the controversy as it now stands is just one more piece of evidence that the fabric of evangelicalism is unraveling before our eyes.
Into this volatile context steps In My Place Condemned He Stood. What we have here is a gem of a little book. It is good to find the truth of penal substitutionary atonement so positively and winsomely presented here. The book opens with a forward by the men who comprise Together 4 the Gospel (Ligon Duncan, R. Albert Mohler, Jr., Mark Dever, and C. J. Mahaney), where each in turn they narrate the story behind the publication of In My Place (13-16). Ligon Duncan provides the fullest account of how these four friends birthed the book. First came the recognition that all four had benefitted from J. I. Packer's introduction to the paperback edition of John Owen's The Death of Death in the Death of Christ (indeed, this is at least the third appearance of this true classic-first with the Owen work, then with Packer's Quest for Godliness, and now as an integral part of In My Place). Later followed another Packer entry, What Did the Cross Achieve? The Logic of Penal Substitution. Finally, it was recalled that Packer had eloquently unpacked the atonement in a chapter in his Knowing God, "The Heart of the Gospel." These undoubtedly form the heart of the book.
In addition to these three Packer classics, In My Place contains a helpful preface and introduction-and Mark Dever's 2006 Christianity Today article, "Nothing But the Blood," an epilogue. Ligon Duncan does yeoman's service in providing us with both a tremendously useful graduated list of books on the cross and an annotated bibliography that provides illuminating background information on the various authors and works included. As one who has taught courses on the atonement in both the college and church setting, I can say that this volume is a veritable vade mecum of classic short essays.
Let's consider the four central essays in more detail. We will go in the order in which they appear in the book. First, we read "The Heart of the Gospel" (29-52), which is drawn from Packer's tremendously popular Knowing God. This book, which has attained nearly iconic status in evangelical circles, contains this powerful and persuasive chapter that discusses the centrality of the death of Christ and the propitious nature of that work. Packer begins with a reference to the tragedy of the Trojan War (29), which serves as an illustration of pagan propitiation where capricious gods and goddesses have to be placated by semi-ignorant humans. This is not the kind of propitiation that the Bible presents as the heart of the atonement. In the Old Testament, propitiation undergirds the whole sacrificial system. And in the New Testament, as Packer notes, we find four word groups that stress, respectively, Paul's discussion of God's rationale for the justification of the sinner, the author of Hebrews' discussion of the rationale for the Son's incarnation, John's treatment of the heavenly ministry of the Lord, and finally, John's definition of the love of God (30-32). Packer continues to note that propitiation-the placation of the wrath of God the Father in the Son's perfect offering of himself as a sacrifice-is more than expiation, although a proper biblical understanding of propitiation takes up into itself the reality of expiation (which is the covering over of sin, the source of God's wrath). Packer rightly discusses the nature of God's anger and describes propitiation in three ways: (1) propitiation is the work of God himself; (2) propitiation was made by the death of Jesus Christ; and (3) propitiation manifests God's righteousness (35-40). In discussing the death of Christ more closely, Packer unpacks the death in terms of it being the driving force in Jesus' life, by considering the fate of those who reject God, in thinking about the gift of peace that Christ's death brings, a demonstration of God's love, and as it brings glory to God (43-52). At the conclusion of this chapter one has to agree with Packer that the atonement, properly understood, is the heart of the gospel.
If we thought that "The Heart of the Gospel" was stellar, "What did the Cross Achieve? The Logic of Penal Substitution" (53-100) shines like the noonday sun. I was so impressed with this material, originally given as a lecture at Tyndale Hall in the 1970s, I required my college students to read and digest its details. When Packer originally gave this lecture, his stated goal was to explicate the quintessential evangelical belief concerning the atonement (53). Oh, how the mighty have fallen! One can readily ascertain that Packer intends to explicate what it means for Christ's death to be both substitutionary and penal. He begins with a discussion of method where he chides the Protestant Scholastics for falling into a form of rationalism in their attempt to answer Socianism's aberrant views of the atonement (54-64). I wonder if Packer would need to reassess his sentiments expressed here in light of the groundbreaking work of Richard Muller. Confident charges of rationalism brought against Protestant Scholasticism look less convincing to us who have been exposed to the cool and bracing astringent of the Muller school. It is true that we find plenty of mystery in the atonement. Substitution, Packer notes, is a model derived from biblical exegesis. Christ dies in the place of others. That is substitution in a nutshell.
But substitution repels some because it is usually coupled with penal considerations. Christ stood in our place and bore our penalty. Packer reminds us that there have been alternative explanations of the atonement, one involving the effect of the cross on man alone and the other as affecting only spiritual forces outside of man (71-73). Penal substitution denies none of these concerns but points out that the atonement involves much, much more. Penal substitution recognizes that the atonement has its first effect on God. Packer points out that to add the "qualifier" penal to substitution is to anchor substitution in the world of "moral law, guilty conscience, and retributive justice." Packer then explores penal substitution under five headings: substitution and retribution, substitution and solidarity, substitution and mystery, substitution and salvation, and substitution and divine love (82-96). Packer then sums up the insights of penal substitution into the atonement in nine principles (97). Packer concludes this lecture by asking two questions: (1) Is this way of understanding of the atonement inconsistent with the faith and religion of the New Testament? (2) Is this model for understanding the death of Christ truly based on the Bible (98)? By answering these questions, Packer brings this comprehensive consideration of penal substitutionary atonement to a conclusion. This chapter is must reading.
Mark Dever then offers us a useful summary of what we have been getting in more detail in the Packer chapters with his "Nothing But the Blood," an article that originally appeared in Christianity Today in May 2006 (101-10). I think it is always useful to have summary discussions of such deep and significant doctrines as penal substitutionary atonement. If you are like me, there can be a tendency to lose the forest for all the trees. I tend to get lost in the details. Dever serves us as a sure guide. Answering the charge that some Christians can be too "atonement centered" (101), Dever points us to the fact that with the atonement we have reached the very essence of the faith. As he begins to answer the charge that we can be too cross-centered, Dever references Packer's "What Did the Cross Achieve?" and the discussion there of three kinds of crosses. The atonement has been understood to affect man, spiritual forces, and God's wrath respectively (102-03). Dever then goes on to address several charges: (1) some have suggested that penal substitution is an inadequate explanation of the cross; (2) others have said that penal substitution is irrelevant; (3) that it is too individualistic; and (4) that penal substitution is too violent (103-06). Dever then goes on to show how penal substitution is absolutely scriptural, points out the "problems with the problems," and closes noting that penal substitution ought not to be set against other complementary views of the atonement. When all is said and done, however, penal substitution is not merely one view of the atonement among many, but the heart and center of a properly biblical view.
Finally, we come to Packer's introduction to John Owen's classic, The Death of Death in the Death of Christ, in "Saved By His Precious Blood" (111-44). What can I say about this that would do it justice? How often does an introduction to a classic become a classic itself? Packer explains Owen's lumbering Latinized English style, his historical context (defending a Reformed view of the atonement against Amyraldianism, Socianism, and Arminian-ism), and the fact that explicating and defending the Calvinistic view of the atonement just is explicating and defending a biblical view of the same (114-24). The central thrust of Owen's project is a defense of limited atonement (or particular redemption or definite atonement). Ultimately, we want to know: Has the triune God accomplished redemption or has he made it only possible? Packer and Owen provide as thorough a treatment of the topic as you will find anywhere.
I cannot speak too highly of this fine book. About the only criticism I can offer about the book as a whole is that it lacks any indices. Scripture, name, and subject indices would have made this a more useful volume. In the overall scheme of things, however, this is a minor point. The fact is that this little book focuses our minds and hearts on the center of the gospel and that is where we really ought to be centered! May we never glory in anything other than the atoning work of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. I dare say (apart from the Scriptures themselves) this book is just the right place to start.