The Cross of Christ (20th Anniversary Edition), John R. W. Stott, 2006, InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, Ill., ISBN 9780830833207, 380 pages, $26, hardcover.
Few theologians and pastors over the past century have had the influence and reach of ministry of John R. W. Stott (1921-2011). From All Souls Church, Langham Place, the evangelical Anglican congregation he attended as a child and later served as curate, rector, and rector emeritus, his teaching ministry touched lives across the world. Stott wrote over 50 books (mostly commentaries, theological works, and apologetic books), travelled and spoke widely, and was a principal framer of the 1974 Lausanne Covenant, a document outlining the beliefs and principles of evangelicals dedicated to world evangelization.
The Cross of Christ, a meditation of the many facets of the completed work of Christ's atonement at the cross, is perhaps Stott's magnum opus and among the finest expositions of the central truth of the Gospel the Church has produced. Originally published in 1986, it has remained a standard of Christology, receiving praise from believers across denominational lines.
Over the book's 13 chapters, Stott approaches the sacrifice of Christ in a very structured way, beginning by trying to imagine an outsider's perspective on the pervasiveness of this symbol of tyranny, torture, and execution in Christian worship, writing, art, and architecture. He then looks at the reasons for Christ's death, from the practical (Judas' betrayal, the mob in Jerusalem, Pilate's waffling) to the metaphysical (payment for sin). Then, he digs deeper, showing God as the driver of the events of the crucifixion as the culmination of His eternal plan.
From that starting point, Stott examines the nature of God's holiness and man's sin, building a winsome case from Scripture of the necessity of penal substitutionary atonement as the only way that both God's justice and love could be administered to sinful men. Echoing Paul and the writer of Hebrews, he articulates again the need for Christ to be both fully man (able to be made sin and be a proper sacrifice for its penalty) and God (able to be wholly righteous and infinitely holy so that all man's sin would be paid for) to fully satisfy God's plan.
He moves then to describing the effects of the cross, showing how God saves sinners by harmonizing the four angles most often used in Scripture to communicate the work of atonement: propitiation (satisfying God's wrath), redemption (paying the price for sin), justification (establishing righteousness before God's Law), and reconciliation (restoring relationship between God and man). Stott also looks at how Christ's work perfectly displays and explains God's character and glory and how, through the suffering of Christ, evil has been ultimately defeated (though it will not be eradicated until Christ's second coming). Lastly, he displays the effects of the cross on our lives: as the foundation of the Church, as the supreme event by which our knowledge and actions are to be guided, as the premiere example of loving our enemies, and as a touchstone of strength for our life in this present age of suffering and persecution (showing how God's victory over Satan looked, at the time, like Satan's victory over Him).
Throughout each section, he examines other theories of the significance of the atonement from the Early Church to the present day, carefully critiquing their oversights and shortcomings in light of Scripture, while at the same time attempting to portray their proponents in as charitable a light as possible and emphasizing the kernels of biblical truth that they contain, even in misinterpretation. Stott himself, as an esteemed theologian, reminds us that no man fully conveys all of God's truth (his apparent embrace of annihilationist later in life is a well-known example). Even in this volume, he flirts dangerously with ignoring God's impassibility, implying at times that Christ slowly grew into awareness of His purpose (rather than resolutely approaching Calvary in full knowledge of God's plan) and that both the Father and the Son suffered in their separation at Christ's death.
Even so, the book's strengths far outweigh its weaknesses. Stott's focus on every page is on Christ, captivating the reader with a portrait of the cross as the culmination of the weight of sin, the absoluteness of God's holiness, and the depth of His love. As a theological treatise, The Cross of Christ ranks with the classics of Church history. Like the best of those classics, it is not merely excellent theology, but a good book-Stott's prose is engaging and his argument flows well from beginning to end. He comes across not as a calculating academic, but as a man on fire with the joy of his salvation and a pastor eager to lead others to see the beauty of the Gospel in its manifold glory.
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