The Cross of Christ. By John R. W. Stott. Downer’s Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1986. 383 pp. Cloth, $17.95.
As a leader in British evangelicalism and in worldwide Christian mission, Anglican John R. W. Stott has widely impacted mainstream evangelicalism ever since the publication of his evangelistic work, Basic Christianity, in 1958. Dr. Stott’s early espousal of the Lordship Salvation position preceded the present conflict among evangelicals with his 1959 magazine article, “Must Christ be Lord to be Savior?-Yes” (Eternity 10 [Sept. 1959]: 15, 17–18, 36–38). Recently Stott has again become controversial with his departure from the orthodox doctrine of eternal punishment for unbelievers.
Nevertheless, it is with great interest that one approaches his 1986 work, The Cross of Christ. This book deals primarily with the issues of the atonement of Christ and its implications for Christian theology and experience. It is a very organized and well-written defense of the conservative, evangelical position on these issues.
The book is divided into four parts. The first, “Approaching the Cross,” is an introduction to the central importance of the doctrine of atonement to the Christian faith. The second section, “The Heart of the Cross,” is an exploration of the concepts of penal substitution and satisfaction in the atonement. The third part, “The Achievement of the Cross,” examines the things accomplished through the Cross-the salvation of sinners, the revelation of God’s glory and goodness, and the conquest of evil powers. The last section, “Living Under the Cross,” investigates the implications of the atonement for one’s experience of God, self, others, and social justice.
Stott’s most brilliant section is his defense of the historical, evangelical Protestant view of the scriptural teaching of “substitutionary atonement.” This reviewer has not read a more understandable or more complete defense in contemporary theological literature.
One might expect that Stott’s Lordship Salvation position would come through clearly in the book. Surprisingly, such is not the case. Instead, we find statements like this: “Christ’s salvation must be a free gift. He ‘purchased’ it for us at the high price of his own life-blood. So what is there left for us to pay? Nothing! Since he claimed that all was now ‘finished’, there is nothing for us to contribute. Not of course that we now have a license to sin and can always count on God’s forgiveness. On the contrary, the same cross of Christ, which is the ground of a free salvation, is also the most powerful incentive to a holy life. But this new life follows.”
How can such a Free Grace emphasis be found in a work written by one who espouses Lordship Salvation? The answer, I believe, is found in the topic itself. A study of the atonement, by its very nature, focuses on the sufficiency of Christ and His work. The result of such an emphasis is that the basis of salvation (the Person and work of Christ) becomes much more central and important than the subjective means of salvation, which are often debated (faith, repentance, conversion, etc.). This is as it should be. Too many contemporary works start with a cursory statement of the atonement and move on to an examination of how a person can enter into, or find assurance of, a saving relationship with Christ. This subjective approach is flawed from the outset since the emphasis is wrong. The Apostle Paul taught that the Gospel itself is an objective truth that “Christ died for our sins and rose from the dead” (1 Cor 15:2–4). The subjective experience that “by this gospel you are saved” follows from this as an implication and result (1 Cor 15:2). The objective truth of the Gospel should always find highest priority.
This is not to say that a clear study of the atonement solves all the problems in the current debate. The disagreement over the definitions of such terms as faith and repentance is significant and real. Nor is it to imply that Stott has changed his theological position on the terms of salvation. It is simply to say that this book demonstrates a need to emphasize more clearly and forcefully the sufficiency of the work of Christ. Only from such a basis can we draw again the conclusion of the Reformation that salvation can only be by grace through faith in the finished work of Christ…plus nothing!
Thomas G. Lewellen
Grace Countryside Church
White Lake, MI