Friday, April 18, 2008

Recommendation: Pierced for Our Transgressions

Jeffery, Steve, Michael Ovey & Andrew Sach. Pierced for Our Transgressions: Rediscovering the Glory of Penal Substitution. Forward by John Piper. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2007. Trade Paperback, 373 pages. $25.00.

reviewed by Doug Smith (This review originally appeared at SharperIron.)

(Review copies courtesy of Crossway Books.)

PiercedPurchase: Crossway | WTS | CBD | Amazon | Moody (Kingsport, TN)

ISBNs: 1433501082 / 9781433501081

Special Features: Bibliography (pp. 337-351), Index of Names, and Index of Biblical References

Table of Contents

Excerpts (includes ten pages of Endorsements, Forward by John Piper, Acknowledgments, and Chapter 1: Introduction)

Subjects: Theology, Soteriology, Atonement

Steve Jeffery is a pastor at Holy Trinity, Lyonsdown, in North London. He has a M.S. and Ph.D. in experimental physics from Oxford University. He is married to Nicole, and they have three children: Ben, Becki and Abi.

Mike Ovey is principal-elect and lecturer in Doctrine and Apologetics at Oak Hill Theological College. He has a Ph.D. in Trinitarian Theology from King’s College, London. He is married to Heather, and they have three children: Charlie, Harry and Anastasia.

Andrew Sach studied theology at Oak Hill Theological College and is now on the staff of St Helen’s, Bishopsgate, in central London. He has a Ph.D. from York University.

The word controversy does not usually suggest pleasant thoughts. We often associate division, harsh words, and even confusion with the concept of controversy. But controversy can have its benefits. Some serious controversies in church history have actually been great blessings to the church. They sharpened fuzzy thinking on the deity of Christ and on the Trinity. These controversies resulted in clarity, making clear the distinction between false teaching and sound doctrine. The controversy over the Bible doctrine of Christ’s penal substitutionary death has brought to light such works as Pierced for Our Transgressions: Recovering the Glory of Penal Substitution. This book is a blessing because it not only brings clarity to the controversy but also edifies in its tone (as opposed to being harsh as some would expect in a polemical work), evangelistically useful, and theologically sound.


Two sections compose Pierced. Part one makes the case for the doctrine, and part two answers its critics. The chapters are complemented by a short but substantive foreword by John Piper and an appendix for preachers with cautions about illustrating the doctrine.

Part One

The authors make their case after setting forth the need for it. They recognize that foundational doctrines have always been attacked, but assert that “[t]he more disturbing thing is that some of the more recent critics of penal substitution regard themselves as evangelicals, and claim to be committed to the authority of Scripture” (p. 25). They wisely lay a good, positive foundation for the doctrine before proceeding to overturn critics’ objections.

The book takes a four-pronged approach in arguing the case “that God gave himself in the person of his Son to suffer instead of us the death, punishment and curse due to fallen humanity as the penalty for sin” (p. 21). The biblical foundations, theological framework, pastoral importance, and historical pedigree of penal substitution are presented in a helpful survey. In chapter 2, the authors zoom in on key passages to examine the doctrine as found in Exodus 12, Leviticus 16, Isaiah 52:13-53:12; the books of Mark, John, and Romans; and Galatians 3:10-13. Chapter 3 explores the place of penal substitution within the big picture of the Bible and finds it central to our understanding of doctrines, such as creation, the fall, sin, the Trinity, and redemption. Chapter 4 details the relationship the doctrine has with pastoral concerns, such as assurance of God’s love, confidence in His truthfulness, passion for God’s justice, and realism about our sin. Chapter 5 embarks on a jet tour through church history, showing that the doctrine has been embraced and articulated not only by the biblical authors but also from the second century to the present; in other words, it is not a new teaching.

Part Two

Chapter 6 introduces the debate over penal substitution, arguing that it is important to engage and thoughtfully answer critics’ objections. The authors proceed to directly answer a cadre of objections, many of which are quite serious. The objections Pierced answers include the following: that penal substitution is not taught in the Bible or, if so, that it is not a significant part of it (chapter 7); that it is a product of our culture or that it is irrelevant to it (chapter 8 ); that it encourages violence, that it can be characterized by terminology like “cosmic child abuse,” and that it contradicts Jesus’s message of peace and love (chapter 9); that it is unjust, that it undermines true divine forgiveness, and that it implies universal salvation (chapter 10); that it is contrary to the character of God (chapter 11); and that it cripples true Christian living (chapter 12).


A 373-page book on doctrine does not sound appealing to many in an age of sound bites and light devotional reading. But this book is thoroughly doctrinal, interesting, and devotional. It has much potential to be useful for the church. In addition, it could be a good book to give to someone who has no acquaintance with the gospel or a poor understanding of it.

The authors are aware of recent scholarship on this doctrine, including Leon Morris (The Apostolic Preaching of the Cross), John Murray (Redemption Accomplished and Applied), and John R.W. Stott (The Cross of Christ). But the fresh onslaught against the doctrine certainly merits a fresh treatment in our day, and in Pierced we find a clear articulation of biblical doctrine that refutes false teaching. Allegations such as those of “cosmic child abuse” by Steve Chalke and Alan Mann in The Lost Message of Jesus must be answered, and they are answered in Pierced.

And lest we think that these false teachings are not in our own circles, let us remember that the doctrine of penal substitution is contrary to our sinful nature, and we should therefore never take the doctrine for granted. Some fundamentalists have looked to Charles G. Finney as a hero of the Christian faith, but his denial of penal substitution would actually be just cause to warn others about him.

Pierced is scholarly yet readable and useful for the average church member as well as the trained pastor or scholar. It is edifying and would also make a good textbook. The table of contents is helpfully organized with subtopics for each chapter, making the material easy to outline. Chapters 2, 3, and 4 could easily be adapted for teaching in a context like Sunday school. Preachers might consider preaching a series on the cross by expounding texts like those covered in chapter 2. A seminary professor teaching on this doctrine would profit from mining the riches of the entire book (which includes a good bibliography and extensive footnotes).

Before the publicizing of this book, I had never heard of the authors. I had a minor concern that the writing would be stilted with three authors sharing the responsibilities (and no clear distinction of who wrote what), but their labors blended well into a clear and flowing read. The book is marked by good illustrations, making a large work easier to digest. For example, they view the doctrine in relation to the rest of Scripture as a key piece in the puzzle, apart from which the pieces do not connect.

The book also gives a good warning about illustrations in its appendix. Some inadvertently teach the following by using ill-thought illustrations of penal substitution: denial of the active, consenting involvement of the Father and the Son; conflict between God’s law and God’s will; that God is unjust to avert our punishment; a conflict between God’s wrath and God’s will; a conflict between God’s attributes; that God did not foreordain Christ’s work; and that no one actually benefits from Christ’s saving work. One of the most serious offenders is the illustration of the railroad switchman who opts to sacrifice his son who has wandered onto a clear main track rather than the multitude on the train who would perish by crashing into parked freight cars if the switch were thrown to save the son. While realizing that no analogy will correspond to every point in reality (they cite Isaiah’s comparison of Christ to a sheep that is silent before its shearers, but understand that Isaiah is making one point and not saying Christ is like a sheep in every respect), we must take care to not accidentally teach false doctrine by the illustrations we choose to employ. Good illustrations illuminate truth and make clear the point(s) of comparison.

The vigor and thoroughness of the authors’ defense of particular redemption may disturb some readers (pp. 268-278). The writers believe that the doctrine of penal substitution and the teaching of the Bible itself clearly imply that Christ died for a specific group of individuals to actually secure their redemption. They may convince those who have struggled with such a teaching to finally see it in the Bible. But those convinced otherwise can still profit much from this book while being reminded that every theory limits the atonement in some way (by extent or design) except for universalism.

Pierced takes us back to a fundamental doctrine, proving it from the Scriptures and showing its implications. Penal substitutionary atonement is at the heart of the gospel. The cross is the centerpiece of the Bible and human history, and a better understanding should help us live a life worthy of the gospel and point sinners to the Savior.

The book’s website provides primary documents from church history and writings related to the present controversy over penal substitution.


Pierced makes a thorough, airtight case for the glorious doctrine of penal substitution and convincingly answers the critics. The book gives us a better understanding of the teaching and how to share it, should motivate us to faithful evangelism and preaching, and should result in worship of the Lamb who was slain and redeemed us by His blood.

The authors model Titus 1:9, where Paul says that an elder “must hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it” (ESV). They give us a good example of how controversy can result in clarity. I heartily and unreservedly recommend Pierced for Our Transgressions.

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