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5.11.2012

"It is Well", by Dr. Mark Dever & Dr. Michael Lawrence


"Do you want to know what hell looks like?  Do you want to know what sin really deserves?  Then look at Christ on the cross.  For there we see judgment day breaking into history." (Lawrence, p.211)

In times such as these, when the central issue of the gospel of Jesus Christ -- Substitutionary Atonement -- is called into question, mocked, and disgraced, "It is Well" is a much-needed resource.  True to their expositional style of preaching at Capitol Hill Baptist Church in D.C., "It is Well" is chock full -- cover to cover, front to back 216 pages, 14 chapters -- of exposition on one single topic: substitutionary atonement.

The argument has been leveled by skeptics that the "absurd notion" of substitutionary atonement of Jesus on the cross for sinners looks more like child abuse than it does atonement.  After all, they question, how could it be anything less than appalling for a god to kill his own son to pay for another's sins, as if that would work anyway?

I like the way Dever and Lawrence describe what atonement looks like.  Imagine a man who falls into a deep ocean from a pier.  He cannot swim, so he begins to flail his arms trying to stay afloat. Another man dives into the water, saves the drowning victim, but in the end only dies himself.  He is a hero for saving the life of a man who could not save himself.

But our culture has likened substitutionary atonement to the following parable.  Imagine a man who is sitting on a pier fishing a deep ocean.  He cannot swim, so he stays on the pier.  Another man runs up and says to the man on the pier, "I'm going to jump into this ocean and drown for you".  So he plunges headlong into the ocean and dies.  However, the man on the pier thinks to himself, "What a fool!  I did not need him to drown for me, for I am just fine."

Sadly, that's what many think about the sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross for the sins of the world.  We tend to think we are inherently good and that we do not need to be "saved" from anything.  After all, we're not even drowning in the "ocean", so to speak. 

But the bible teaches us that we all are drowning, and the state of man before God apart from Christ is utter hopelessness!  Yes, we really do need a savior!  But not just any savior, a perfect Savior that would completely satisfy the wrath of God on our behalf.

And Jesus Christ has done just that!  He died the death that you and I deserve; bore the wrath that was directed at us; took the punishment that was due to us!  Jesus' death was not merely a good man's example of how we should live.  No, it actually accomplished something.  And God's wrath has been satisfied completely for those who trust in Jesus Christ.

That is the theme of every page in "It is Well".  The cross is the focal point.  Each chapter begins with an introduction to the passage being discussed -- from both Old and New Testaments.  And the authors do a fantastic job relating the story of the cross to both Christians and non-Christians, Believers and non-Believers alike, for each author regularly addresses his "Christian brothers and sisters" as well as his "non-Christian friends". 

This book is very well formatted and easy to understand.  As one could easily imagine, however, there are some pretty "heady" truths and big "Christian-ese" words that require definition.  Not to fear, Dever and Lawrence not only define these terms, but they explain them in such detail that mature and immature believers, as well as those who have never picked up a bible, could easily understand.  This book is not a "fast" read.  You have to be willing to "slog" through some challenging material, but in the end it will be worth it.

I'm very glad I read "It is Well".  Thank you to Crossway books and the Together for the Gospel conference 2010 for giving it to me!  I would highly recommend this one to pastors and deacons/elders of congregations.  It could also serve as a great study tool for small groups.  5 stars without question or hesitation!

10 comments:

  1. I think there are a number of problems with the whole idea of substitutionary atonement that many people do not consider. Maybe you would let me know if these issues are addressed in the book.

    "But our culture has likened substitutionary atonement to the following parable. Imagine a man who is sitting on a pier fishing a deep ocean. He cannot swim, so he stays on the pier. Another man runs up and says to the man on the pier, "I'm going to jump into this ocean and drown for you". So he plunges headlong into the ocean and dies. However, the man on the pier thinks to himself, "What a fool! I did not need him to drown for me, for I am just fine."

    I don't know if culture really looks at things this way. Everyone knows they're not perfect, and they make mistakes, and have wronged others either intentionally or unintentionally in their lives, so if I could perhaps change this illustration a bit to make a little more sense from the skeptical point of view, and I'll put myself into the scenario.

    I'm actually in the ocean having fallen off the pier. I can't quite reach to get back on the pier and out of the water. Along strolls Jesus to the end of the pier, and all he has to do is reach down and pull me up. Instead, he flings himself into the water, thrusts me up from underneath putting me back on the pier, and then drowns in the ocean. Why not just reach down and grab me? Why the bloodlust?

    The heart of the problem of substitutionary atonement is the need for a sacrifice. If my child does wrong I forgive them. If my wife does wrong I forgive her. If a stranger does me wrong I forgive them. That I can forgive someone without requiring blood, or even needing them to ask for forgiveness immediately makes me more powerful than the god of the Bible. I forgive simply because I want to.

    Now, the claim would likely be made about the perfect justice of god and how it needs to be appeased etc, etc, etc. This still creates even more problems. If a god cannot forgive without a blood sacrifice then there must be something outside of that god that is greater imposing that demand. Of course the response is that it's god's own character - his justice - that he cannot violate by simply forgiving. It sounds like a decent response until one realizes that means that that god does not have free will. And if a god does not have free will, then it is not omnipotent.

    Another issue of course is the brevity of the sacrifice. If a humans wages of sin is the second death forever in hell, substitutionary atonement would have made a lot more sense in the Bible if god took the place of humans in hell forever.

    Did they address these issues at all in the book? I haven't found anything outside of some of the normal defenses like I hit on above, but I'd be very interested in hearing any new arguments that may have been presented.

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  2. E, while your questions are good ones, they are not new ones. I will try to address a couple, albeit briefly.

    First, as it relates to "bloodlust". Could God have settled on atonement via requiring us to eat green apples or perform a certain number of jumping jacks? Sure He could have. But I think we recognize the unparalleled honor bestowed upon a person who dies for another.

    We celebrate the heroics of our brave men and women who have died for their friends, comrades, and even enemies. We would certainly prefer the hero and the victim live, but we have to agree there's something extrordinary about the one who lays down his life for his friends and dies so the other can live.

    Why should it be any different for God? In fact, I imagine we get that notion of honor in death BECAUSE OF the Godly example.

    Next, as it relates to the "brevity" of the sacrifice. I think "brevity" is the wrong issue, as it relates to Jesus anyway. What we cannot lose sight of is the immensity and gravity of the sin that WE have committed against an almighty God. And the punishment due us is immense...

    ...which brings us to the kissing cousin of this issue: sinners paying an infinite penalty for finite sins (duration and number). Once again, we cannot lose sight of the fact that our sins are not merely brief in duration, but deeply grievous and immense. No amount of time -- however infinite it is -- in hell could ever satisfy the payment our deeply grievous sins deserve.

    After all, could a murderer ever serve enough hard time in max security after killing one of your children? While you may one day be able to forgive him, you certainly would agree he belongs in prison until his physical life is over, lest he commit the atrocity again to another. The point is this: he could never satisfy payment for what he had done.

    Sinners are in the same boat when it comes to our sin against God. No amount of time we spent paying could ever pay the full price sin deserves. We are the murderer. We deserve an eternity of "hard time".

    I would agree it is unjust that God would let the guilty go free while He crushes the Innocent. But God is the one who is offended, so He is allowed to choose the method of payment.

    It would be no good if I stepped into the prison and set the murderer of YOUR child free. That would be a complete miscarriage of jutice. But that is not what happened on the cross.

    YOU certainly could step in a take the murderer of your child's place. You don't deserve it, and neither does the murderer. And that is the picture of what God has done for us on the cross.

    If the one who steps forward to pay the penalty of sin is perfect and without sin, then duration of punishment has no value. That is why Jesus Christ is the One needed to pay the price -- completely and fully! What mattered was the immensity of the sacrifice -- Jesus Christ, the spotless "lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world." His sacrifice accomplished the height and depth of the payment required of our sin.

    I fully recognize a simple blog could never accomplish the fullness of explanation on this matter. Great volumes have been written on the matter...like the one reviewed. These questions -- either directly or indirectly -- have all been addressed in the book. I could only hope to give it some kind of justice in my limited blog space.

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  3. "First, as it relates to "bloodlust". Could God have settled on atonement via requiring us to eat green apples or perform a certain number of jumping jacks? Sure He could have. But I think we recognize the unparalleled honor bestowed upon a person who dies for another."

    I think you're kind of missing my point though: We recognize the honor bestowed on another person who dies for someone else, but when it is done needlessly, we call that a tragedy. Going back to the pier analogy, if it was just an actual situation where someone could have just reached down, but instead lept in -- we would consider that person to be an idiot, or crazy. Their death would be pointless. I can forgive without people even asking me to, so why can't a god? Doesn't this make me more powerful seeing I can do something a god cannot do, especially something that would be considered virtuous?

    "Why should it be any different for God? In fact, I imagine we get that notion of honor in death BECAUSE OF the Godly example."

    You see examples of this in ancient literature that long predates Christianity, so I'm not so sure you can say that we get that notion BECAUSE OF the NT narrative.

    "And the punishment due us is immense... Once again, we cannot lose sight of the fact that our sins are not merely brief in duration, but deeply grievous and immense. No amount of time -- however infinite it is -- in hell could ever satisfy the payment our deeply grievous sins deserve."

    Why? Again, I can forgive without requiring any payment or request for forgiveness. I've been wronged tremendously in my life, and have forgiven those who wronged me without them ever requesting it. What is it about temporal earthly actions, done in physical bodies, that has such a tremendous impact on non-temporal, non-physical eternity? What is the mechanism by which physical actions impact the immaterial?

    "While you may one day be able to forgive him, you certainly would agree he belongs in prison until his physical life is over, lest he commit the atrocity again to another. "

    There is a difference between forgiveness and incarceration to protect others. I think you hit on it without even realizing it... He's not locked up as payment for his crime - he's locked up so he cannot commit it again. Just to muddy the water a bit more, what if he had a tumor in his brain that resulted in his murderous actions? How can he be held responsible for something he had no control over? We've had discussions on that issue before.

    Jesus Christ, the spotless "lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world."

    We have at least two places in scripture where Jesus lies and deceives. This isn't necessarily a problem when you consider there are places in the OT where Yahweh lies and deceives as well. You can't say Jesus was sinless, but you could say his sins don't count because he was a god. Sort of like when Nixon said that it's not illegal if the president does it.

    If a god cannot forgive without a sacrifice, then that god does not have free will. I don't suppose there is a rule that says a god HAS to have free will, but I would say that puts a big damper on that god being omnipotent. In your opinion, from a theological and doctrinal stand point - does God have to have free will, or is it okay that he doesn't have it, and he simply has a limitation to his omnipotence? This is the biggest question I have regarding what the book may say on it, but I'd love to hear your personal take on it as well.

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    1. By no means does this great sacrifice suggest God does not have free will. If we look at grace as being man-centered, then we will always walk away with a grace that suggests an "if-then" scenario: IF we do x, THEN God will do Y. But that is not at all what the bible teaches. Instead, God-centered grace reveals God has not only required a sacrifice, but He also provided it...LONG before we ever had any notion of approaching Him for mercy. For even when we were dead in our trespasses, God made us alive together with Christ; and while we were still sinners, Christ died for the ungodly. This absolutely reveals it has always been God who makes the first step in grace, not man. How could anyone ever come away from the biblical concept of grace suggesting God does not have free will? The notion is preposterous.

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  4. If a starving man with no money approaches a bread vender and says, "I am powerless to feed myself and am near death," the bread vender has it within his power to give or not give bread without payment for it. If giving bread without payement is an impossibility - not just that it's an option that isn't chosen, but that it's actually impossible (like the justice of god demanding payment) - how can he be said to have freedom of choice, when limitations are upon him that make it impossible to give the bread without payment?

    Somethings got to give - either free will, or omnipotence.

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  5. But the bible teaches us that we all are drowning, and the state of man before God apart from Christ is utter hopelessness! Yes, we really do need a savior!

    And I think this is the source of the disconnect between Christians and non-Christians; Without sin, there is no need for salvation. What is sin and why should we believe that sin exists? How can a non-Christian be expected to believe in the need for salvation without believing in sin in the first place? Can the existence of sin be proven without quoting from the Bible? Sin is an immaterial, unsubstantiated concept. Imagine a hypothetical scenario where the Bible has not been written; how could one prove the existence of sin? What supporting evidence could be presented to make the case for sin?

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    1. GTA, thank you for stopping by! I enjoy questions like these.

      "What is sin and why should we believe that sin exists?"

      Good question. It can easily be answered with another question...or 2 or 3. "What is love and how do we know it exists?" "What is the wind and how do we know it exists?" "What is hatred and how do we know it exists?"

      The point is this: We cannot physically see the wind; We cannot capture love in a glass jar; We can't even scientifically quantify hatred. They are not "provable" by the scientific method.

      Yet we know each of them exists because we see the evidence of those things. We know love exists because it's what drives us to nurture another human being; we know the wind exists because we feel its force on our faces on a blisteringly cold day; we know hatred exists because we see the result in bloody noses and broken bones.

      In your own words, even love, wind, and hatred are "immaterial, unsubstantiated concepts."

      We know sin exists merely by looking at the human condition. Babies die at birth, criminals rob, rape, and murder, and the average person lies and manipulates. If what we're witnessing today are the effects of a perfect world without "sin" (and that sin is therefore non-existent), then something is drastically wrong.

      Did that answer well enough without using the bible? I can only say I "showed" it exists because I cannot prove it! But that's just like I cannot prove love, wind, or hatred. If you want to call sin "malady" or something else instead of sin, that's fine by me. But cow dung is still cow dung, no matter how much perfume you spray on it.

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    2. Hi Mike. Thank you for your answer. I have to say it is one of the best answer I've seen formulated on the question. But of course, I must now follow with, what else! a follow-up question.

      We know the wind exists because we can feel it on our skin. We can hear it blow in the trees and make them bend. We can even measure its speed. Wind is the movement of air, and we know air exists because we breathe it in and out hundreds of times per day. We can hear the sound waves that propagate through it.

      We know love exists, because we have felt it. We know what hatred exists, because, sadly, we have also felt it. We know fear and pain exist, because, again, we have felt them. I understand neurologically how we are aware of these feelings, but I don't pretend to know why or how we 'feel' these feelings. Why does pain 'hurt'? I don't know. Why am I aware of my own existence? I don't know that. I just feel it. I feel aware, I feel alive.

      But sin... can we feel it?

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    3. Do you mean, then to say that you don't see the effects of sin in the world around you? Do you not feel the heaviness of horror when you read of a young father beating his child to death? Do you not feel the terror and ugliness of the human condition every time you rewind the video events of 9-11 in your mind? Do you not feel the weight of grief every time you hear of a friend who is divorcing her husband?

      I, quite honestly, find it difficult to believe people DON'T feel the profound effects of sin on our world. Not only do I feel it in the world, I feel the effects of sin in my own life. When I sin, I am grieved over it. I don't take pleasure in sinning...although sin is certainly pleasurable. Sometimes, my sin even makes me feel sick to my stomach. So, yes, I do feel sin. But I feel it just like I feel love, and anger, and joy, and hatred.

      But this is where the bible steps into the conversation. We can describe sin and it's effect without even turning to page 1, but we cannot understand what God has done for us in Jesus Christ without the bible. The bible teaches us who God is, who mankind is, and what great lengths God has gone to deal justly with our sin. The most profound effect of sin we can see played out in human history is the sin --yours and mine-- that nailed Jesus Christ to the cross -- OUR cross that we deserve, by the way. See, we can talk about sin, but we cannot talk about it without also talking about the greatness of God's marvelous love for you and me, a love that bore the ugliness and the heavy load that is our sin.

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    4. When I read of horrific things such as kidnappers beheading journalists, or sociopaths torturing puppies, I feel anger and disgust. Yes, these things are horrible, but are they 'sin'? If that is what sin is, horrible inhumane depravity, then the innocent newborn has surely never sinned for he has never had the opportunity to commit such acts. Of what use is salvation to the child who has not sinned? Why did a savior have to jump off the proverbial pier and drown for him?

      In The Republic, Plato said "When there is crime in society, there is no justice". This means that justice cannot repair the damage done by crime. It can punish it, but it cannot erase it. So too can sin not be erased. One could modify Plato's words and say instead: "When there is sin in the world, there is no salvation."

      How does one man sacrificing himself erase past and future sin, when obviously, new sin takes place every day? Shouldn't have sin disappeared entirely from the world in order for salvation to be accomplished?

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