Aspects of the Atonement

It has been my privilege to hear Professor Howard Marshall address a variety of different events, from a family conference where he did not use a word of Greek, to a Theological students conference where we were struggling to follow his use of Greek! In all situations he communicated in a way to suit the group. In this book he addresses a vital and contemporary contentious issue in a way that displays his mastery of the subject in the Biblical and contemporary context. It is distilled Biblical wisdom that does need concentrated thinking but not a knowledge of Greek!

In recent times many books and articles have been written about “Why Christ died?” but few will better this well researched and expressed work. Howard’s humble mastery of the subject is a delight to read after some of the poorly researched and hurtfully expressed articles, lectures and books I have read. MET is greatly blessed by having this gracious Christian as one of our members.

Paul Juby in the Winter 2007 issue of METConnexion challenged us to write more about evangelism and less on theology. Unless we have people and books like this one our evangelism will not be rooted in Scripture. All Christians do theology as they think about God and the Lord has generously given us gifted people, like Howard Marshall, so that we are true evangelical, Biblical, cross-centred people who evangelise with the true Gospel and not a false Gospel. (Incidentally Howard does get involved in front line evangelism with overseas students in Aberdeen.)

Chapter 1 ‘The Penalty of Sin’ helps us get clear definitions of important words that are often misunderstood or not seen in the wider Biblical context e.g. wrath, punishment, justice and judgement. This is particularly true with regard to the Final Judgment.

His basic affirmations on pages 9 and 10 are worth noting before we enter any debate on theories of the Atonement- how we are reconciled to God. He concludes this chapter by writing “it is appropriate for God to respond to those who cut themselves off from him by excluding them from his kingdom. Final judgment is the execution of such a penalty after God, in his mercy, has provided a way of salvation that has been persistently refused and rejected.”

In Chapter 2 ‘The Substitutionary Death of Jesus ‘ Howard faces the issues that are being debated head on. He shows his mastery of the New Testament and writers, historical and contemporary, who have hotly debated this vital understanding of the Cross. He looks at key New Testament words with a clarity that shows how hazy thinking sometimes obscures the key biblical teaching. He looks at ‘sacrifice’ and ‘curse’; “Believers are delivered from the curse of the law by Christ dying on the cross as one accursed.” (Page 45) He goes on to write “..the element of penalty is conspicuous.” As we would expect the crucial words for evangelism ‘redemption, ransom, reconciliation’ and ‘forgiveness’ are also addressed. Howard concludes that the metaphors belong together and have various nuances “but the central action can be regarded as God doing something in Christ that involves Christ’s death while bearing our sins.” (Page 51). He does agree that the phrase many object to may need improving but insists that at root we must continue talking of ‘penal substitution’ when explaining what happened on the cross in Biblical terms.

The writer then goes on to address criticisms of ‘penal substitution’ under the sub heading ‘An angry and violent God?’ He believes the criticisms can be answered by understanding the death of Christ correctly. Extended footnotes sometimes help address the questions. When considering the grace of God ‘the divine initiative’ is of course crucial and in this section we get these key words “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 motive for the death of Jesus is stated to be the loving purpose of God, and there is not the faintest hint in the New Testament that Jesus died to persuade God to forgive sinners.” (Page 55) He goes on later to say; “This is God himself bearing the consequences of sin, not the abuse of some cosmic child.” In the tercentenary year of Charles Wesley it was good to be reminded of the profound theology in his hymns: Tis mystery all, the immortal dies – Tis He Tis He, my God who suffers there. The word ‘mystery’ is vital because we are dealing with the mystery of the Trinity when we study the Cross. God is both ‘present’ and ‘absent’ at the cross. “..Father and Son together take upon themselves all the suffering and judgement caused by and due to sin, and bear them for us.” (Page 58) Later he argues “.. the action of Jesus does not propitiate God in order to make him willing to forgive, but rather provides the means by which God deals with the sin that forms a barrier between himself and sinners.” (Page 59) In similar vein we read “The Father is not persuaded to show mercy by the Son; rather, the Father sent the Son and they act together. There is no conflict between justice and mercy.”

The helpful summary in the conclusion of the chapter leads into Howard’s commitment to the key element of ‘penal substitution’ in a Biblical understanding of the atonement even if we need to look at better ways of expressing it. Reverent thanksgiving and praise is the concluding signature Bearing shame and scoffing rude, In my place condemned he stood; Sealed my pardon with his blood: Alleluia, what a Saviour.

As well as the various metaphors to try and grasp the mystery of the Cross there is also the issue of how the death and resurrection of our Lord belong together. Chapter 3 Raised for our Justification gets to grips with typical gracious, humble scholarship with Romans 4 verse 25 in the context of both New Testament and Old Testament. We are shown clearly the different ways in which the cross and resurrection appear in the Biblical literature and how some evangelistic preaching did not specifically mention the cross. All preachers would benefit from studying the way New Testament writers refer to either cross or resurrection and how they relate them to each other. Again we are reminded of the paradox and mystery there is bound to be when mere humans seek to grasp the gracious work of the Almighty God: for example- Only one member of Trinity dies- not all three. Only the Son becomes Incarnate. One day it will become clear to us but in the meantime we thank God for theologians who help us walk in truth.

Howard shows how in Romans 4 verse 25 the resurrection of Jesus is integrated into the saving event. The Father raising Jesus is an essential part of the saving act.

“Reconciliation: Its Centrality and Relevance” is the title of chapter 4. Here it is argued that Reconciliation, and related words like peace and forgiveness provide us with a model that “expresses clearly the basic pattern of human need, God’s action, and the resultant new situation that shapes all the biblical imagery of salvation, ..”.This central model is shown in relation to other images like, redemption, justification, salvation and sacrifice. In a fragmented and individualistic society the social implications of reconciliation are highlighted. A very inspiring and thought provoking chapter.

As all theology should, reading this book has led me to worship and thanksgiving and a greater desire to preach Christ and Him crucified and raised in my ministry. May it do so for others as I am sure Howard would want it to.

So who should buy and read this book? I would suggest all ministers and local preachers would be blessed and be better equipped to preach and live the cross through reading this book. Not just because of its content but also by the way it is written- one writer said recently that it is a shame that many writers on the centrality of the cross do not live crucified lives. This book could help us all to preach and live the cross of our blessed Lord Jesus. Perhaps a group of Local Preachers could buy a copy and pass it around.