The Truth of the Cross

11 12 2008

I still vividly remember a sermon my pastor preached a while back. Actaully when I say vividly I mean one particular thing he said during his sermon. He said that your theology of the cross will always reveals your theology about sin and salvation. Ask someone what they think the cross accomplished and you’ve got a basic shorthand for what they believe about a number of other things.

Sproul quotes a heckler from one of his lectures who said “[the Cross] is primitive and obscene” (page 11) and its not difficult to see why our culture responds in such a fashion. Today our talk of rights  (devoid of responsibilities mind you)  has bred an attitude that says “I deserve this” or “I’m entitled to this”. The PC movement has lead some to label the cross a form of divine child abuse.  These two attitudes seem to go hand in hand. One denies the need for any atonement – after all people aren’t that bad are they? The other denies the possibility of an atonement taking place in such a “primitive” fashion. Surely our (post)modern minds no longer need to believe this?  Sproul counters these objections with a timeless message. Man is a rebel who owes God a debt he cannot pay (page 35) . Man has violated his personal relation with God, even when God did not show any emnity towards him. (page 37) Man is a criminal who has transgressed God’s law and stands under the judgement of God (page 40). Given all this our salvation must come from a substitute, someone who can pay the price and take our place.

Time and time again Sproul simplified the complex theological ideas and arguments. Take the Ransom to Satan theory (page 57). Sproul gives decisive and air tight dismissal of the Ransom to Satan theory. If God owed Satan something, then Jesus is not victorius over the powers of Darkness; Satan still wins. It reminded me a bit of the Wright on Resurrection. If we are not raised from the dead then death is not defeated. I loved his illustration of the word vicarious. When our favourite sports team wins we often say things like “We won and they lost”. We rejoice in their victory or agonize in their defeat. We think the players are doing something on our behalf. This is a vicariouos experience. I was glad he was not overly dogmatic about the doctrine of PSA either, acknowledging that the Bible does in fact teach Christus Victor too. But I don’t think he went far enough to show the relationship between the two doctrines. Both have relevance in the life of the Christian.

One of the best chapters in the book is the one on “The Blessing and the Curse” (page 127) . These are words Christians use all the time, but we pay little attention to how they were used in the covenant stipulations. Sproul uses the example of the benediction in Numbers 6. The supreme blessing for an Israelite was for God’s face to shine up on you. But a curse, being the opposite of blessing, was for God to turn his back on you. Essentially meaning that you are cut off from the presence of God. This helped clarify some of what happened on the cross. Jesus’ words on the cross make a lot more sense when seen in light of the covenenant.

But as always there are a few things I could think of that would have improved the book. I would have liked a better discussion on some of the more recent books out there, like Chalkes “The Lost message of Jesus” and those who seem to dislike the idea of substitutionary atonement (To be more correct I think these people would dislike the caricatures of a God who is so angry that needs to be appeased by a random sacrifice). I would also have liked to see a greater focus on scripture, but in saying that I realise the book is not an exegetical defence of the Penal Substitionary Atonement Doctrine.
I would have liked a bigger discussion on the significance of the incarnation and resurrection. In our culture today we’re more likely to be asked “What makes Jesus unique?” over which doctrine doctrine of the atonement has better scriptural support. The changes in society and epistemology mean that people are asking new questions. Too many Christians (including myself) have at times categorically rejected the post modern movement.  But with some careful nuancing there is much we can learn.

I’ve come to enjoy Sproul’s books. He writes in a way that takes you into the situation he describes.  He has an ability to take a complex subject like the atonement and simplify it so that anyone can understand it.  His books tend to be more anecdotal and devotional rather than exegetical or theological. They are good introductions to complex theological ideas. For those who want a basic introduction to the theology of the Cross you can’t do much better than this book. Even a seasoned reader like myself had a few moments where the light switch went on.  Its a nice short read that you can probably finish in a couple of hours. What are you waiting for? Get the book and read it !!




2 responses

12 12 2008

Enjoyed the review, sounds like an interesting book.
I have read a few books by Sproul, and usually I would agree that they are well done and thought provoking, occasionally though they have rubbed me the wrong way.
For example “Willing to Believe” (on predestination) and “The Last Day’s According to Jesus” (on partial preterism) were both very interesting book which made a lot of good points and, in classic Sproul style, made the concepts he discussed very accessible.
On the other hand his “Faith Alone” was far to hostile and heavy handed in dealing with Arminianism and the Roman Catholic church for my tastes.
That said, this one sounds like it would be a good read, even if I too wish it would have spent time clearing up the issues of how PSA is misportrayed at times, and giving more time to other atonement theories (a book that does a great job with utilizing PSA, Christus Victor, and a number of other takes to get a richer understanding of the atonement is “A Community Called Atonement” by McKnight). The work of the cross certainly includes PSA as a central element, but goes far beyond it as well.

“One of the best chapters in the book is the one on “The Blessing and the Curse” (page 127) . These are words Christians use all the time, but we pay little attention to how they were used in the covenant stipulations.”

Thats a pretty interesting topic, and a part of Reformed/Covenant theology that is not discussed as often as things like TULIP. In Sproul’s “What is Reformed Theology” and even more so in Horton’s “God of Promise” both authors lay out some quite fascinating parallels between God’s interaction with Israel and the shape of the Pentateuch on the one hand, and ancient suzerain treaties on the other. To me grounding their theology in such historical data is far more convincing than the more philosophical way the ‘Covenants’ are sometimes approached.

By the way. “your theology of the cross will always reveals your theology about sin and salvation.” is a great statement. You and your pastor are correct, you can learn an awful lot by figuring out what a person thinks the purpose of the cross was.

14 12 2008

Thanks Mason, you’ve given me a good few books to add to my ever growing pile LOL ! Looks like its going to be a busy summer of reading.

One thing that annoys me is the dogmatism of some of those in the reformed camp. Some of them even go to my church (but we’re such an ecclectic mix of people, Anglican, presbyterian, reformed, arminian, baptist and even RCC). The problem is that you can’t have any fellowship with them. They become unpleasant to be around. Agree with them and you’re a friend, disagree and they ex-communicate you !!

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