In each generation aspects of biblical truth come under attack. We should therefore be profoundly grateful to those who take the time not only to address these criticisms but also to restate biblical truth with power and clarity.
One such doctrine that has received heavy mortar fire in recent years is the doctrine of the atonement, and in particular, the nature of Christ’s atonement as penal and substitutionary. Taking up the challenge of defending this doctrine, the faculty of Oak Hill College in London, have published the papers of their 2000 School of Theology under the title Where Wrath and Mercy Meet, a phrase borrowed from a Graham Kendrick song.
The book consists of five chapters. The first two reflect the biblical data and are written by David Peterson, the principal of Oak Hill College and for many years a senior lecturer at Moore College.
Peterson takes a biblical-theological approach to the concept of atonement, surveying the evidence from the Pentateuch, the Psalter and the Prophets, with special attention to the sacrificial system and the Suffering Servant of Isaiah. This is followed by an evaluation of the New Testament material. Peterson’s ability to draw out the salient points from the relevant texts is a model of exegesis. The notion of penalty for sins and God’s provision of a sacrifice, which deals with such a penalty, is persuasively argued from the text of Scripture.
The nature of law and punishment is the focus of Garry Williams’ contribution. A carefully nuanced approach addresses the criticism of penal substitution as too mechanical in its understanding of God’s justice. Williams’ essay is particularly helpful in highlighting the personal involvement of God in punishing sinners, refuting the simplistic description of hell as ‘the absence of God’ , where, in essence, it is ‘the absence of God’ s blessing’ .
Michael Ovey addresses the charge that it is immoral for God to punish someone in place of another. A careful analysis of Ezekiel 18 and the nature of God’s justice provide a credible answer to the charges of immorality. Furthermore, Ovey argues that the restoration of creation, far from making the concept of penal substitution redundant, requires such a concept for a true understanding of our union in Christ and the fulfilment of God’s purposes for creation.
The final essay by Paul Weston offers a way of proclaiming Christ’s death, based on John 19.
An appendix containing an earlier essay by Alan Stibbs on Justification and its intersection with the doctrine of the atonement completes the volume.
For those who wish to gain a better understanding of the nature of the debate surrounding penal substitution, this collection of essays is a good place to start. Each essay contains a set of questions for further reflection and a select bibliography for further research.
Although an index of Scripture references would have been a helpful addition, we are indebted to the faculty of Oak Hill for publishing these papers and for providing thinking Christians with a strong defence of the doctrine of the atonement.