Pierced for Our Transgressions
Rediscovering the Glory of Penal Substitution
Publisher: Inter-Varsity Press
Reviewer: Discerning Reader Team
The doctrine of penal substitution doesn’t, on the face of it, sound too glorious. It is a doctrine involving curse, punishment, blood and death. It is little wonder that people object to it so strenuously. Indeed, this teaching has been at the very center of a rift within the church–a rift that seems to be growing ever-wider and ever more visible. Once the realm of scholars cloistered away in the ivory towers of academia, the battle against this doctrine has recently reached the popular level and it has come under attack by influential and popular evangelical leaders. Needless to say, controversy has followed, and for good reason.
Pierced for our Transgressions: Rediscovering the Glory of Penal Substitution is the product of Steve Jeffery, Mike Ovey and Andrew Sach, all of whom are connected to Oak Hill Theological College in London, England. It carries a Foreword by John Piper. The book, published by Inter-Varsity Press, is currently available only in the U.K. (though rumors abound that it is available at a few stores in this part of the world). Crossway has secured the North American rights and will be releasing it on this side of the Atlantic in the fall.
The book is written for the serious and thoughtful general reader. Those who aspire to read nothing more complicated than Yancey or Lucado may find this a challenging, though surely enlightening, read. Those who tend towards works of serious theology will find it eminently readable. Those hoping for an exhaustive scholarly treatment of the subject will be disappointed.
The authors do not keep the reader waiting to learn what this doctrine entails. The first sentence of the first chapter is this: "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." They say, rightly, that this understanding of the cross stands at the very center of the gospel message as given us in the Bible. What may seem so coarse, so vulgar, so bloody is, must be seen to be beautiful by those whose lives have been transformed by the victory won at so great a cost. It is, as per the book’s subtitle, a glorious doctrine and one the church would do well to rediscover. While relatively few have renounced the doctrine, too few have even been explicitly aware of its existence.
The book’s content falls in two parts. In the first the authors make the case for penal substitution, looking to the Bible, to associated theology, to its pastoral importance and to its long historical pedigree in the Christian faith. In the second part they turn to the critics, answering the charges that have been lodged against the doctrine. While there is much value to be mined in the latter half, it is the former that is of most profound importance. It is here that the doctrine is laid out, it is here that it is defended. We see that this doctrine is found in both Testaments and that it is foundational to our understanding of Jesus’ mission, both in the way it was foreshadowed in the Old Testament through sacrifice and prophecy and in the way it was fulfilled and applied in the New. Though the authors are unable to provide an exhaustive treatment, something which could easily run to several volumes, they do provide a valuable overview of this doctrine’s biblical basis. They turn next to this doctrine’s place in the wider context of Christian theology, showing how it is inexorably connected to other Christian doctrine. After touching on the pastoral implications of maintaining the place of this doctrine, anticipating the charge that this theology is but a modern addition to Christianity, they defend it historically, showing how it has a historical pedigree that spans the two thousand years of church history. Finally, with the theology firmly in place, they move deliberately and confidently through objection after objection, charge after charge, responding to the critics of this doctrine. They are nothing if not thorough.
Endorsed by a veritable who’s who of conservative evangelicals, this book is sure to clearly delineate the divide between those who hold to the historic Protestant position on this doctrine and those who do not. It has already done this in the U.K. and we expect it to do the same on the other side of the Atlantic when it is released later this year. I pray that it is widely read, widely studied and widely influential. Jeffery, Ovey and Sach have done the church a service with this volume. I’m grateful for it and commend it to you.