Rediscovering the Glory of Penal Substitution
“We are in danger of treating God’s love like the foundations of a glorious cathedral: we build an enormous edifice upon it, but rarely trouble ourselves with what is going on underground, and when cracks start to appear higher up we discover to our horror that no-one has the key to the basement.”
Pierced for our Transgressions is a weighty book that seeks to justify the doctrine of penal substitution as central. It does so. Again, and again, and again. It is a great attestation to its strength that it left me in no doubt as to the truth of the doctrine. Curiously, I have very little to say about the content of the book. Equally curiously, although its thoroughness makes often dry reading, it would have benefitted from being more thorough with its scope. Let me explain.
I am often irritated by a lack of brevity in Christian writing. Were Pierced for our Transgressions to argue in the sustained way that it does to establish the centrality of penal substitution alone, then it would have been flawless in its execution. Dry, but flawless. The trio of writers instead intersperse the painstaking argument with two distractions. First, a “theological framework for penal substitution” that, although informative, Bible-saturated and equally painstaking, adds no discernible value to the arguments in the book. Second, an examination of the “pastoral importance of penal substitution”. This could have been brilliant. But none of the points raised are screwed in with the degree of groundedness and applicability that would warrant their being here.
Bizarrely, then, the final product is somewhat schizophrenic. The book would have benefitted massively from being either longer, or, by far the better option, being shorter; clipping anything except rigorous argument for penal substitution from its pages and thus maintaining focus in a book that, in places, is very tightly focused indeed. Pierced for our Transgressions does a seemingly argument-ending job of promoting penal substitution, and does so in a way that is accessible to anybody zealous enough to investigate the debate. I am surprised that I did not enjoy it more.