Debate concerning Christ’s cross work has become intense of late. The traditional view, often termed penal substitutionary atonement, has been accepted and taught by the evangelical church throughout the ages but is now under open attack. The doctrine of penal substitution states that “God gave himself in the person of his Son to suffer instead of us the death, punishment and curse due to fallen humanity as the penalty for sin” (p. 21). Certainly there is nothing new about this. One only has to note higher-critical attacks which poured out of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries (forming “old” liberalism) to see a parallel. For “old” liberalism to be successful penal substitution had to be jettisoned. As any student of church history knows, as liberalism won the theological and denomination battles, new movements, denominations, churches and organizations were created which maintained fundamental doctrinal stances. Those taking their stand on the fundamentals, including penal substitution, ultimately became known as either fundamentalists or evangelicals, depending on how far one wanted to push separation from unbiblical theology and other corrupting influences. It is this group of conservative Christians that is now being challenged by a new wave of liberalism. On a theological level this attack is being mounted heavily by movements such as the New Perspective on Paul (NPP). At the grassroots level it is the Emergent church which is leading the charge. While the NPP is not synonymous with Emergent, they intercept at the cross—more precisely, at the meaning of the cross. In order for either the NPP or Emergent to be a strong influence in evangelical/fundamental thought and practice it is necessary for penal substitution to be severely minimized if not eliminated altogether. As long as conservative Christians are convinced that Christ went to the cross primarily to save us from our sins by propitiating the wrath of God, dying in our place, and taking our sins upon Himself, even becoming sin for us, the NPP and Emergent have no significant voice. By necessity, penal substitution must be rendered impotent. Hence, the evangelical/ fundamental universe has been flooded of late with wave upon wave of attack on penal substitution and this often from those who claim to be within the conservative camp. Of course this comes as no surprise since the apostle Paul warned of the same in Acts 20:28-30.
With this backdrop it is with open arms that we should welcome Pierced for Our Transgressions. The authors acknowledge that there are other good books dealing with the subject (pp. 26-30), but these works tend to be on a popular level or else highly scholarly, with little in between. The authors wanted to write a book which would bring into one volume all the key biblical passages and provide a detailed yet readable defense against the latest affronts to penal substitution. In all of this I believe they have been successful.
In regard to this latest challenge, the authors know the issues and are up on the latest debates. However, it is in this area that I would offer one minor criticism. The authors are all from England and are most familiar with contemporary British opponents of penal substitution. Thus, there are just three passing comments about Brian McLaren, the leading figure of Emergent, but major encounters with the teachings of Steve Chalke, McLaren’s English counterpart. While the teachings of the two men are in lock-step, few in America have ever heard of Chalke. And if McLaren is glossed over, Rob Bell, Tony Jones and a host of other Emergent leaders are nonexistent. It would have been most helpful to engage these American Emergent leaders. The authors also hold to a limited atonement view (pp. 268-278) which will be bothersome to some.
With these issues aside, Pierced for Our Transgressions is a highly valuable, extremely powerful polemic for penal substitution. In the first part of the book the authors build their front line defenses with a thorough survey of pertinent passages of Scripture. This is followed by explaining the theological framework which makes penal substitution necessary. Next, they guard their flanks by clearly demonstrating that penal substitution has been taught throughout church history and is by no means a modern Western creation as some would propose. All of this is accomplished in Part One, which takes up most of 200 pages. When the authors are done, their opponents have been crushed, in my opinion.
In Part Two the authors answer the critics who are left standing. Even though the biblical, theological and historical evidence is overwhelming there are some who refuse to lay down their arms. Unfortunately, these few are vocal, articulate and find the current generation of biblically illiterate people easy to confuse and manipulate. The authors therefore address some of the most popular attempts by critics to undermine the true meaning of the cross. They deal with other models of the atonement, accusations that penal substitution is a human product, promotes violence, is unjust, offers a distorted view of God and fails to address cosmic evil. When the authors are done, all reasonable (and unreasonable) objections to penal substitution have been exposed and demolished.
I highly recommend this book for anyone encountering challenges to penal substitution. Every pastor should read and digest Pierced for Our Transgressions, for in one form or another he will be confronted with this issue.