Book Review: Scandalous – The Cross and Resurrection of Jesus

Scandalous, by D.A. Carson (PhD, Cambridge University) and published by Crossway is a well-written, clear exposition of 5 Scripture passages that detail the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  As Carson states in his Preface, “nothing is more central to the Bible than Jesus’ death and resurrection” and this is precisely the focal point of his book.  Dr. Carson begins his book with a look at Matthew 27:27-51 in Chapter 1 entitled: “The Ironies of the Cross.”  In classic Carson style, he brings out the following paradoxes from his look at this passage: 1) The man who is mocked as king – is king 2) The man who is utterly powerless – is powerful 3) The man who can’t save Himself – saves others 4) The man who cries out in despair – trusts God.  Of note in this chapter was John 2:19 “Jesus answered them, ‘Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up’” to which Carson adds:

“The point is that under the terms of the old covenant, the temple was the great meeting place between a holy God and his sinful people.  This was the place of sacrifice, the place of atonement for sin.  But this side of the cross, where Jesus by his sacrifice pays for our sin, Jesus himself becomes the great meeting place between a holy God and his sinful people; thus he becomes the temple, the meeting place between God and his people.  It is not as if Jesus in his incarnation adequately serves as the temple of God.  That is a huge mistake.  Jesus says, ‘Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.’  It is Jesus’ death, in his destruction, and in his resurrection three days later, that Jesus meets our needs and reconciles us to God, becoming the temple, the supreme meeting place between God and sinners.  To use Paul’s language, we do not simply preach Christ; rather we preach Christ crucified.”

Chapter 2 was most significant for me because it brought to my attention an oft-read passage from Romans 3:21-26, but one which is of supreme importance.  So much so that Carson titled this chapter, “The Center of the Whole Bible.”  Here Dr. Carson does some of his best expositions from the book and he adds a strong statement that “the hardest truth to get across to this generation is what the Bible says about sin.”  The central question of humanity is how a sinful man can be just before a holy God.  In summary, this passage answers that question by detailing the substitutionary atonement of Jesus Christ.  Dr. Carson highlights 2 key terms which are critical to understanding not only this passage, but the centrality of the cross in the entire Bible: Redemption and Propitiation.  To Redemption, Carson states that until recently it was always considered economic language and this is how the Greco-Roman world would have understood the term, as in the redemption of slaves.  Carson points out that Romans 3:24 says Christians have been redeemed from slavery to sin and are now slaves of Jesus Christ (see Romans 6).  But, he asks, “How does this work?  In what sense, then, are we redeemed?  What has freed us?  The answer: God has presented Christ as a propitiation.”     

“Propitiation”, “expiation”, “sacrifice of atonement”, and even “remedy for defilement” are all terms used by various translations, but propitiation is the best.  Carson defines propitiation as the sacrificial act by which someone becomes favorable.  He then takes a paragraph to explain the pagan application of the word, which refers to offering a sacrifice for the purpose of making the gods propitious or favorable.  Carson then sets out to define the other related terms, mentioned above, and follows to expiation.  This term actually stands in contrast to the definition of propitiation of making someone favorable in that it “aims to cancel sin.”  The object of propitiation is God Himself.  The object of expiation is sin, which is cancelled.  Carson concludes, “Expiation refers to the cancelling of sin, and propitiation refers to satisfying or setting aside God’s wrath.  The particular word used in Romans 3:25 is used most commonly in the Old Testament to refer to a propitiating sacrifice that turns aside God’s wrath.”

In this chapter, Carson introduces objections to the meaning of propitiation brought on in the 1930’s by C.H. Dodd.  Dodd argued for the meaning of expiation versus the propitious act of God, because he believed in the pagan nature of propitiation (previously mentioned) and said it could therefore not apply to God.  Carson states that he misunderstood the personal nature of God’s wrath and was wrong to separate the nature of expiation and propitiation, whereas biblically they “hang together.”  As Carson writes, “In Christian propitiation, God the Father sets Jesus forth as the propitiation to make himself propitious; God is both the subject and the object of propitiation.  God is the one who provides the sacrifice precisely as a way of turning aside His own wrath.  God the Father is thus the propitiator and the propitiated, and God the Son is the propitiation”

Chapter 3 is an exposition of Revelation 12 and is entitled, “The Strange Triumph of a Slaughtered Lamb.”  Here Carson seems to approach the cross from an eschatological (end time) point of view encouraging believers in the face of future opposition.  This is a beneficial chapter to help challenge the reader’s view of their millennial position.  The concluding applications drawn by Carson as they relate to society are 1) Analyze culture biblically and theologically, not merely sociologically and psychologically.  2) Use the weapons that Christ has provided, weapons based on Christ’s atoning death.  

In Chapter 4, “A Miracle Full of Surprises” Dr. Carson highlights John 11:1-53.  This is the familiar passage of Lazarus’ resurrection.  The purpose of this chapter is to show that in the midst of despair Christ draws attention to Himself.  “In our deepest loss, we need more than friendship and a listening ear – though they are wonderful.  We need more than mere arguments – though in some cases good arguments stabilize us.  We need the reality of God Himself – God as he has spectacularly and definitely disclosed himself to us in the person of his Son.  He will require of us that we focus our attention on him, both for this life and the one to come.”  Dr. Carson concludes his discussion on the scandalous nature of the cross and resurrection with an exposition of John 20:24-31 in chapter 5, “Doubting the Resurrection of Jesus.”  Here Carson confronts the nature of doubt and counters it with true, genuine belief in Jesus Christ.      

Scandalous is an accessible book, regardless of theological knowledge or background, and is a commendable read to anyone wishing to better understand the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

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