Book Review: Pierced for Our Transgressions

Pierced for Our Transgressions: Rediscovering the Glory of Penal Substitutionary Atonement is a book written by Steve Jeffery, Michael Ovey, and Andrew Sach that  discusses thoroughly the biblical basis of Christ’s penal substitutionary atonement (which we’ve been examining here), its historical roots, primary objections, and pastoral implications.  All that said, this book has to be considered one of the more complete treatments on the subject. 

No examination of penal substitutionary atonement (hereafter PSA) can begin without an examination of the Scriptures.  As the author’s rightly conclude, if it is an unbiblical assumption, then it must be rejected in its entirety.  However, if it is examined in the light of Scripture and the passages are properly studied it may actually reveal that PSA is not a fringe belief developed out of the Reformation, as some wrongly conclude, but is instead central to understanding other pieces of the atonement.  This is what Pierced for Our Transgressions sets out as its task in Chapter 2, a biblical foundation for PSA.  It is my estimation that PSA cannot be held in isolation of several passages of Scripture, but must instead flow forth from the entire redemptive narrative of God’s Word.  It must be viewed primarily from biblical theology and then studied systematically.  Simply put, scripture as a whole and then individual passages that speak on the subject.

The authors of Pierced for Our Transgressions chose the following passages for examination to establish PSA: Exodus 12, Leviticus 16, Isaiah 52:13-53:12, The Gospel of Mark, The Gospel of John, Romans, Galatians 3:10-13, and 1 Peter 2:21-25; 3:18.  This is arguably the most important strength of the book because it’s rooted heavily in passages of Scripture.  As they state, if PSA is proved to be unbiblical, then it must be rejected.  Quite the contrary with the author’s exegetical analysis of the passages previously listed.  They do a thorough job of examining each passage and providing commentary on them, including traditional oppositions.  In his recommendation of Pierced for Our Transgressions, Dr. Albert Mohler challenged people to read the book and to deal seriously with the passages examined.  I would encourage anyone who either rejects PSA or doesn’t understand it fully to study those passages in depth.

In Chapter 3, a theological framework for PSA is established.  This is what I alluded to in the introduction above.  It is necessary to view PSA from the entire Bible, because, after all, the Bible is about Jesus Christ and His redemptive purposes set forth by the sovereign plan of God.  The author’s choose the image of a jigsaw puzzle as a comparison of PSA to the Bible.  “Penal substitution is, for these purposes, like the jigsaw puzzle piece under suspicion.  Is it foreign to the big picture of Christian theology, an intruder that doesn’t belong?  Or does it have a place – maybe even a central place – such that if we discard it the picture will always be incomplete, defective, distorted?”  The author’s leave no stone unturned in their effort to examine PSA from a biblical theology perspective and in the end draw the conclusion that it is in fact a necessary piece to the puzzle.

Chapter 4 is a brief look at pastoral implications of PSA and Chapter 5 is a broad, historical examination of PSA.  This is where perhaps the authors will (and have) received their greatest criticism.  That’s to be expected when providing a historical survey because others are likely to read the same material and come away with a different perception.  Also, one critic I found actually wrote a lengthy discourse refuting the premise of the entire book because of this chapter.  That’s a travesty, because the critic did little to exegete the passages dealt with in Pierced, but instead chose to perform grammatical gymnastics on the intentions of several historical figures cited in the book who support PSA.  Notwithstanding, the authors have provided a broad and extensive list of historical figures whom they say support PSA.  The list includes, but is not limited to, Justin Martyr (100-165 A.D.), Eusebius (275-339), Athanasius (300-373), Augustine (354-430), John Calvin (1509-64), Turretin (1623-87), John Bunyan (1628-88), John Owen (1616-83), George Whitfield (1714-70), Charles Spurgeon (1834-92), Martyn Lloyd Jones (1899-91), John Stott (1921-2011), J.I. Packer (1926-).

Chapter 6 begins Part Two of the book, “Answering the Critics” where the authors outline their strategy of refuting the many critics and criticisms of PSA.  Their approach is to outline the objection, representing it fair and completely, and then respond to it drawing on material from Part One of the book.  Likewise, while avoiding personal attacks Pierced does point out many of the chief objectors, including Alan Mann and Steve Chalke.  Chapter 7 begins the defense with a look at arguments brought up from objectors using the Bible as their defense.  Each of these classic arguments are systematically refuted and seem to each be rooted in an incomplete understanding of the redemptive narrative found throughout Scripture. 

“Penal Substitution and Culture” is the subject of Chapter 8.  The chief arguments of critics in this chapter seem to be arguing for a more socially acceptable, more palatable message of the cross, similar to what one would hear from the Love Wins camp of Rob Bell followers and the Emergent Church crowd.  Chapters 9 and 10 address PSA and violence and justice respectively.  The former deals with the biblical idea of sacrifice, the claim that PSA amounts to “cosmic child abuse”, the supposed contradiction of PSA and the “message of peace and love” of Jesus, while the latter chapter (10), is an extensive treatment on the justice of God. 

Chapter 11, “Penal Substitution and Our Understanding of God” deals primarily with the theology of atonement and the doctrine of God.  These arguments against PSA “contend that penal substitution distorts and misrepresents the biblical picture of God”, which the authors rightly and succinctly refute with Scripture.  Chapter 12 brings to focus PSA and the Christian life in which the authors combat the primary arguments of individualism in PSA.  The book ends with a final analysis of general objections which include “The Vague Objection” and “The Emotional Objection”.

In Part Two of the book, the authors do a good job of systematically addressing each of the purported arguments brought against PSA.  It seems that the majority of arguments at present come from the same crowd of liberal theologians who not only deny the inerrancy of Scripture, but one could argue deny the sufficiency of Christ’s work on the cross.  As has been my personal experience it is not only liberal theologians who are attacking the orthodox belief of PSA, but the attacks are also coming from within mainstream evangelicalism to such extent that it is offensive to speak of the blood of Jesus, the bloody cross, Christ’s dying for our sins, and His becoming a curse for us, much less the passage from Isaiah 53 which inspired the title of this book, “But He was pierced through for our transgressions, He was crushed for our iniquities; The chastening for our well-being fell upon Him, and by His scourging we are healed.” Isaiah 53:5 NASB

Despite the thorough nature of Pierced for Our Transgressions, the authors have made the material easily accessible and well organized.  Additionally, they have provided a wealth of footnotes and references, including bibliography, giving the readers access to additional study.  This is a well-written book and one that must be read by anyone wanting to understand PSA more deeply, and who desires to defend the historic, orthodox doctrine of PSA, while also understanding the implications of PSA on the Christian life.  Those who deny PSA would do well to read this book as well and deal thoroughly with the Scriptures and arguments made herein.  Pierced for Our Transgressions is one of those essential books to any pastor’s, theologian’s, or student’s library.        

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