Book Review: It is Well: Expositions on Substitutionary Atonement

“My sin, not in part, but in whole, is nailed to the cross and I bear it no more, praise the Lord, praise the Lord, O my soul.”  Those are the words to “It is Well with My Soul”, written by hymnist Horatio Spafford in the late 1800’s and the inspiration for the title of the book written by Mark Dever and Michael Lawrence.  Dever, senior pastor of Capital Hill Baptist in Washington, D.C. and Lawrence associate pastor of Capital Hill Baptist (at the time of writing, now pastor of Hinson Baptist Church in Portland, Oregon) have compiled 14 sermons into individual chapters that make up their book, It is Well: Expositions on Substitutionary Atonement. 

In their book, each author tackles individual passages of Scripture that help magnify the cross of Christ and explain the substitutionary nature of Christ’s atonement.  The heart of their book is an explanation, and subsequently a defense, of penal substitutionary atonement.  In his helpful paper, What did the Cross Achieve? The Logic of Penal Substitution, J.I. Packer defines penal substitutionary atonement as, “Jesus Christ, our Lord, moved by a love that was determined to do everything necessary to save us, endured and exhausted the destructive divine judgment for which we were otherwise inescapably destined, and so won us forgiveness, adoption, and glory.”  In short, Christ suffered the punishment due to sinners, namely God’s justice was fulfilled in death of His Son. 

The object of any biblically faithful book is to point the reader toward the Scriptures and compel them to examine the Bible for themselves to see if what the author is saying is true.  Dever and Lawrence have done just that.   My first reading of the book ended before completion because I soon realized the complex nature of this book’s subject and how little attention I had given the atonement of Christ.  After a few months of biblical inquiry, I was drawn back to the book, this time rereading from beginning to end with the Bible by my side.  The chapter titles, and associated Scripture references are enough for a personal study, but the pastors’ insights and historical knowledge of the subject passages will aid the reader in their own biblical study of the nature of the atonement.  Titles/Scriptures include the following:

  1. The Passover: Exodus 12
  2. Leviticus 16: The Atonement
  3. Crushed for Our Iniquities: Isaiah 52:13-53:12
  4. Ransom for Many: Mark 10:45
  5. Forsaken: Mark 15:33-34
  6. To Save the World: John 3:14-18
  7. Better That One Man Die: John 11:47-52
  8. Propitiation: Romans 3:21-26
  9. Delivered Over to Death for Our Sins: Romans 4:25
  10. Justified by His Blood: Romans 5:8-10
  11. Condemned Sin: Romans 8:1-4
  12. Becoming a Curse for Us: Galatians 3:10-13
  13. Bore Our Sins in His Body on the Tree: 1 Peter 2:21-25
  14. Christ Died for Sins: 1 Peter 3:18  

Overall, Pastors Dever and Lawrence offer a thorough treatment of understanding the penal substitutionary nature of the atonement.  If the author’s main goal is to exalt the cross and send the reader into the Scriptures then they’ve accomplished their goal.  The only real negatives for this book were a questionable quote from The Message (pg. 116) and a reference to an interruption in the Trinitarian love of The Father to the Son on the cross, (pg. 211) which seems to imply that God cannot simultaneously love and execute His justice, but may be my own misunderstanding.  That aside, this is a commendable book that combines an excellent study of Scripture, both Old and New Testament, an understanding of the history of opposition to penal substitution, and a foundational understanding of an oft-attacked subject.

If you are not one who understands or agrees with the penal substitution of Jesus’ atonement, ask yourself Does God sweep the sins of believers under the rug, or has He satisfied His judgment toward them through the death of Christ?  Then go to the Word of God and search for the answer yourself.  The passages included above and exposited in It is Well, are an excellent starting point.


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Christian saved by grace through faith.

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