Salvation Accomplished by the Son: The Work of Christ
Reviewer: Discerning Reader Team
What could be more edifying for the Christian than to read about the life and ministry of Jesus Christ? Robert A. Peterson, Professor of Systematic Theology at Covenant Theological Seminary in St. Louis, Missouri, has written Salvation Accomplished by the Son: The Work of Christ, a lengthy summation of the Person and Work of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. What is both a rare and commendable feature about this book is how Peterson provides excellent, detailed, and lucid exposition of virtually every Old Testament and New Testament passage which either anticipates or explains the various aspects of the earthly (and beyond) work of Jesus. He provides significant exegesis in order to substantiate his various perspectives on the work of Christ, especially where disagreements and disputes have arisen. The book is an attempt by Peterson to comprehensively portray a distillation of the entire biblical teaching on the doctrine of salvation.
In the first section of the book (21’269), Peterson capably fills out our understanding of what he calls the nine ‘saving events’ of Christ. Obviously, some of the events he references as being in the saving category need to be nuanced by him, because some of these events aren’t usually discussed by theologians as being associated within the more narrowly defined doctrine of soteriology. While Peterson readily acknowledges that ‘Unequivocally, Scripture highlights Jesus’s death and resurrection when it speaks of his saving accomplishment,’ he also contends that the Bible paints ‘a fuller picture and mentions seven additional aspects of Christ’s saving work’ (23), namely His:
- sinless life
- second coming
Introducing the incarnation, Peterson writes in chapter one: ‘Jesus’s incarnation saves. It does not save in and of itself, by the mere fact of God’s becoming a man. It does not save apart from Christ’s death and resurrection. But it is an essential prerequisite for those saving events’ (28). For Peterson, this means that one cannot maintain a coherent soteriology without a comprehensive Christology. Likewise, when discussing the sinlessness of Jesus in chapter two, Peterson posits that ‘Scripture teaches the saving significance of Christ’s sinless life’ (48). Having declared the nature of Christ’s sinless life in the schema of divine salvation, Peterson nevertheless acknowledges: ‘As indispensable as the incarnation and Christ’s sinless are, they do not save by themselves. Rather, they are essential preconditions for Christ’s central saving events’his death and resurrection’ (60).
In chapter three, Peterson defends the doctrine of the vicarious, penal, substitutionary, sacrificial death of Christ upon the cross (cf. 70, 77’78), as over against modern notions which deny or distort the doctrine (he devotes an entire chapter to the subject’chapter twelve). Peterson also defends the doctrine of justification by faith alone, his view essentially matches the historical understanding of this truth as taught by the magisterial Reformers (83’98).
A noted emphasis in chapter four by Peterson is the belief that the doctrine of the resurrection has been quite overlooked as compared to the emphasis on Christ’s death upon the cross. Peterson desires to see equal weight given to both, and therefore states that Jesus ‘died as our substitute . . . but he also saves us as our resurrected representative’as the One who lives on our behalf. His resurrection saves us as he, who died for us, is freed from death by God’ (128). He also writes: ‘Christ’s death and resurrection are so essential to Christianity and so inseparable that when the Bible speaks of either one of them, we are to infer the other as well’ (130). Peterson maintains that Christ’s resurrection from the dead brings justification and forgiveness, establishes our peace with God, and inaugurates the new creation (139’150). One of the unique contributions by Peterson is the discussion of the vital link between the death and resurrection of Christ and those aspects of His post-death/resurrection work. This includes His ascension, session, the coming of the Spirit at Pentecost, Christ’s present intercession for believers, and His second coming.
Regarding Christ’s ascension in chapter five, Peterson writes:
Unfortunately, many Christians today neglect the doctrine of the ascension. Perhaps this neglect is due to the fact that although Christians confess belief in the ascension of Christ, they do not understand the ascension’s place in the work of Christ or its effect on their lives. The Bible, however, teaches that the ascension is a saving event’ (152).
The ascension is the linchpin of Christ’s saving work bridging his earthly and heavenly ministries, an essential part of his sacrificial work as he presents his perfect sacrifice before the Father, and a fuller realization of the reconciliation between God and man as Christ represents humanity in the presence of the Father’ (152).
When Peterson ties the death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus to His session in chapter six, He explains:
Jesus’s session saves. After his death, resurrection, and ascension, Jesus sat down at the right hand of God the Father, the place of highest honor and authority in the universe. He did not walk, as in his earthly ministry; stretch out his arms, as on the cross; or lift his hands in priestly blessing, as he was carried to heaven in his ascension . . . . Instead, he sat down to complete his exaltation begun in his resurrection and ascension. He sat down as prophet, priest, and king’ (203).
According to chapter seven, the work of Christ at Pentecost is also part and parcel of His saving activity: ‘Pentecost is Jesus’s unique, nonrepeatable deed, as unique and nonrepeatable as his dying for our sins and rising again’ (206). He goes on to say:
The giving of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, predicted by Joel and the Four Evangelists, is especially Jesus’s deed. It is an act that he performs. It is as much an aspect of his saving work as dying for our sins and rising on the third day. Pentecost is properly understood only as a saving action of the Christ whereby he applies the benefits of his death and resurrection to the church. Pentecost is a unique and unrepeatable redemptive-historical deed of the Messiah. It is important to understand’Pentecost is as singular and unrepeatable a work of Jesus, as is his being ‘delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification’ (Rom. 4:25)’ (214’215).
Jesus Christ, the baptizer with the Holy Spirit, therefore places the elect into the body of Christ at Pentecost and who sends the Spirit to His church so that they may serve their heavenly Father as the new covenant community.
Moving into the Son’s work as our intercessor in chapter eight, Peterson reasons from Scripture that,
When Christ ascends to heaven and sits at the right hand of God, he assumes his place as our exalted prophet, priest, and king. Specifically, as our priest he is now interceding for us. . . . Having made the final sacrifice for sin, our High Priest has now entered into the heavenly tabernacle to perform the second half of his priestly work, to make intercession. . . . Christ saves his people, not only by sacrificing his life for them, but also by offering himself to the Father in their behalf and by effectively praying for them that they might persevere until final salvation’ (227’228).
In his culmination of these points, Peterson speaks of the necessity of affirming our Lord’s second coming in chapter nine:
The second coming triggers the final outworking of the saving purposes of God. . . . Jesus’s return will save because only then will he give his people their inheritance and place in God’s final kingdom. . . . They will
enter into the fullness of their salvation only when their King comes back’ (251, 253).
In the second section of the book (273’575), Peterson amplifies the work of Christ by detailing ‘six biblical pictures’ of the Son’s role in salvation as: Reconciler, Redeemer, Legal Substitute, Victor, Second Adam, and finally, our Sacrifice. These selected pictures help fill our understanding of what Jesus did in His earthly role in order to redeem His people. Taking these facets of Christ’s saving work from various dimensions of human life, Peterson explains: ‘Scripture interprets Christ’s saving work by painting pictures. It uses images, motifs, themes to explain what Jesus did for us. Although there are many such images in Scripture, I count six major ones. These pictures come from six spheres of life: human relationships, the institution of slavery, the court of law, the battlefield, creation, and worship’ (274).
As to Christ as our Reconciler, Peterson acknowledges that the Old Testament does not provide a clear link to later New Testament teaching on the subject: ‘Surprisingly, unlike any of the other major biblical pictures describing Christ’s saving work, and unlike the great majority of New Testament themes, reconciliation appears to lack clear Old Testament background’ (277). Within the New Testament however, Scripture gives this picture of our salvation as a wonderful way to show how God the Father takes the initiative to become our friend, even while we were His avowed enemies. ‘Reconciliation is a picture of salvation drawn from the arena of personal relations. And the need of reconciliation is fractured personal relations. We need to be reconciled because we are God’s foes due to our sins’ (280). ‘Because of the work of Christ the Mediator, God no longer reckons believers’ sins against them; that is, reconciliation through Christ brings forgiveness’ (284). Peterson can even speak of the doctrine of reconciliation as operating on more than one level:
Reconciliation operates on multiple levels’individual, corporate, and even cosmic. . . . This universal ‘uniting’ brings harmony or reconciliation to God’s universe. . . . The cross, therefore, is multidirectional. Taking into account all of Scripture’s teaching, the cross is directed toward God himself (in propitiation); toward our enemies, including demons, to defeat them; toward men and women to redeem them; and toward the whole creation to deliver it from ‘its bondage to decay’ and to bring it into ‘the freedom of the glory of the children of God’ (Rom. 8:21)’ (295, 301).
In addition to Christ as Reconciler, Peterson shows us His work as Redeemer. He affirms that the Old Testament narratives that describe the deliverance of the children of Israel forms the pattern by which the New Testament draws its language and background for the redemption of sinners by Jesus, most notably, Mark 10:45. He concludes: ‘Redemption in the New Testament is a picture of Christ’s saving work that depicts lost persons in various states of bondage and presents Christ as Redeemer, who through his death’expressed in a number of ways’claims people as his own and sets them free’ (353).
In chapter twelve, Jesus Christ is our Legal Substitute is discussed. He argues for the vicarious, penal substitution by Jesus on behalf of sinners. Studying all the Old Testament passages, especially Isaiah 53, he concludes: ‘Isaiah 52:13’53:12 is a powerful prediction of the substitutionary atoning sacrifice of the Christ’ (371). Summarizing his position, he writes: ‘In Scripture a loving and holy God takes the initiative and propitiates his own justice by bearing the brunt of his wrath against sin to freely forgive his rebellious creatures’ (375). Citing Galatians 3:13 as a key text in the New Testament, he concludes: ‘This is as strong a statement of Christ’s being our legal penal substitute as is found in Scripture’ (386). Further arguing against a universal or general atonement, he states that ‘Christ’s substitutionary atonement is effective. . . . And if his saving work is substitutionary and efficacious, there are only two possibilities: either it is universal and everyone is saved, or it is particular and all whom God has chosen are saved. Universalism is incompatible with the Bible’s message, so Christ’s atonement is vicarious, effective, and particular’he has died to save his people from their sins’ (411; cf. also the appendix, 566’575, where Peterson argues for a definite, particular atonement ). Peterson also makes a considerable effort in defending the doctrine of penal substitution, answering common objections (396’407). He thus ends the chapter by writing, ‘Christ dies as a penal substitute for individuals, for his church, and to deliver the whole creation from the curse of sin (Rom. 8:19-23; 2 Cor. 5:21; 1 John 2:2; 1 Pet. 3:18)’ (412).
Chapter thirteen pictures Christ as Victor. Acknowledging the warrior motif in Scripture’especially in the Old Testament’he cites numerous passages where God the Father is seen as the vanquisher of all His enemies, thus proving His sovereign conquest over all His foes. When Peterson starts to survey the New Testament data, he writes: ‘The Old Testament divine-warrior image becomes incarnate in Jesus Christ who is Christus Victor’ (425). Citing the obvious differences between Christ as Victor in the New Testament and God the Father as divine warrior in the Old Testament, including the spiritual battles Jesus wages against Satan and his demon followers, Peterson nevertheless writes: ‘Jesus is the champion of his people who binds the strong man, plunders his house, ‘and divides his spoil’ (Luke 11:22); he overpowers the demons and frees those who have been possessed by them’ (429). Regarding the spiritual vanquishing of sin on behalf of sinners, Peterson concludes: ‘The Synoptic Gospels, especially Matthew, include divine-warrior motifs when presenting Jesus’s crucifixion and its effects’ (431). Surveying the book of Acts, Peterson affirms: ‘The Lord Jesus, our champion, routed the demons in his earthly ministry and continues to do the same through his apostles in the Acts’ (439), and for the apostle Paul, Peterson summarizes: ‘For Paul, Christ is the mighty Victor, who defeats our adversaries in his death and resurrection’ (441). And in the resurrection of Jesus, Peterson can surmise: ‘It is clear that the Father’s raising the Son and seating him at his right hand are the supreme displays of power from which the readers are to draw confidence. And we can imply that Christ’s forever being ‘far above all rule and authority and power and dominion’ means that the evil powers are subject to him, the Victor’ (442). He summarizes his findings:
Christ our champion is the New Testament picture of Jesus as the incarnation of Yahweh, the divine warrior of the Old Testament. The mighty Son of God who became a human being defeats foes that are far more powerful than we through his death and resurrection. His work as Christus Victor brings us partial victory now and complete deliverance in the resurrection and new earth’ (460).
Peterson presents in chapter fourteen the picture of Christ as our Second Adam. For instance, commenting on Romans 5:12-21, Peterson writes:
Underlying Paul’s teaching is his assumption that one of the ways Adam is ‘a type of the one who was to come’ is as a covenant head. Adam and Christ are the two covenant heads of their respective races. Adam is the covenant head of all humankind; Christ the covenant head of the race of the redeemed. . . . Paul presents Adam as the representative of the human race, whose primal sin brought God’s verdict of condemnation and resulted in death, both physical and spiritual. . . . Adam ruins his race and Christ rescues his. . . . All human beings are fallen in Adam, and all believers are saved in Christ. . . . Paul exalts the work of the second Adam. His lifelong obedience resulting in death counters Adam’s primal disobedience. . . .’ (472’75).
As our Second Adam, Peterso
n can reason thus about Jesus:
His sinless life has a role to play in his work of salvation. As the second Adam he had to undergo human life without sin from conception to adulthood in order to be qualified to save his people from their sins. His living a sinless life was a prerequisite to his saving death and resurrection. In that sense, his sinless earthly life saves too’ (496).
Peterson concludes in chapter fifteen with the picture of Christ as our Sacrifice. This chapter, rich in the explanation of both the imagery and teaching regarding the Old Testament sacrificial system (501’512), helps us also see how the New Testament fills out and explains the Person of Jesus as the final and complete Sacrifice for sin, especially from the Book of Hebrews. For instance, Peterson writes: ‘The book of Hebrews is a literary and theological masterpiece that has more to say about Christ as High Priest and sacrifice than the rest of the New Testament combined’ (522). ‘It was Christ, the Mediator of the new covenant whose sacrifice redeemed Old Testament saints ‘from the transgressions committed under the first covenant’ (Heb. 9:15). ‘This means that Christ’s atoning sacrifice not only saves all who come after him and trust in him as Lord and Savior, but it also saves all who came before him and believed the gospel communicated through the sacrifices’ (530). He concludes by writing:
What [Old Testament] sacrifices cannot do, the incarnate divine Son does. . . . The Son identifies with his people by willingly taking a human body with which he will perform God’s will (Heb. 10:5-7). Christ abolishes the Old Testament sacrifices, associated with the Mosaic law (and thereby abolishes that law), to accomplish God’s will (vv. 8-9) in his body. . . . By doing God’s will and offering himself in his body once for all time there results the definitive sanctification of his people. This is a once-for-all consecration, constituting them the saints of God. Flowing from it is their progressive sanctification, their gradual growth in holiness. . . .’ (535).
Peterson concludes his major study on the Person and work of Christ (550’565) by summarizing the work of the Son in three directions: toward God the Father Himself (upward, and which is the most fundamental and profound (563); toward the whole creation (a believer’s horizontal dimension); and toward our enemies (downward) (560). Salvation is therefore upward, in that ‘Christ’s work influences the life of God the Father Himself, and thus that ‘God in Christ affects God’ (563); horizontal, in that it involves the salvation of human beings; and finally, downward (which is a derivative of the upward direction), in that it vanquishes all God’s foes.
If there are any areas within the book which I would have cited my own interpretive differences with the author, I could point out his belief that the church of the New Testament spiritually replaces Israel of the Old Testament (e.g. pages 114, 350, and 361), thus making one assume there is no future plan for the salvation of national Israel. Assuming that there is a substantial discontinuity between the Testaments (which the three statements cited in the pages listed above seem to clearly indicate), Peterson undoubtedly maintains that national Israel has forever been replaced by the Church. This diminishes his otherwise outstanding exposition of the key salvation texts in the New Testament, which also must account for the eschatological dimensions of Christ’s overall plan and purpose for national Israel. And if there are even more interpretive differences between this reviewer and the author regarding individual Old or New Testament texts and their place in the general framework of redemptive history, I would nevertheless still commend his work as a marvelously rich biblical study into the blessed work of the Son of God. This book is itself an obvious testament to Peterson’s long years of reflection upon his account of both the Old and New Testament’s teaching on the atonement for sinners. After reading this important book by a Reformed, thoroughgoing Evangelical theologian, I must say that I was so wonderfully encouraged, edified, and educated regarding these various facets of the believer’s salvation in Christ.