Monday, September 12, 2011

Finally! The long awaited book review on...

the Cross of Christ by John Stott!

The sad part is that I did not complete the last 1/4 of the book. I may shake my fists at the public library for not allowing renews on inter-library loans, but the fault only lies with me. I didn't keep up with the strict reading schedule that I had come up for myself. I must submit to the consequences. No, I did not finish this incredible book. *insert-tear-stricken-face-here* Nevertheless, one doesn't need to read many chapters of this book to realize what a gem it truly is!

I have read and heard many great reviews on this particular work by Stott over the years and it has taken me awhile to actual pursue reading it. After all, it is a thick book. And it's definite classified as a theological work. Theology and I don't always mix, but Gospel theology is quite a different area. This book was engaging on so many levels; I hardly think I will cover but a few of the many sections that stood out to me. If you're not passionate about the Gospel, get some of this good news in your system! I think it has been said that this book was Stott's magnum opus and it is very clear why. Stott was known for his brilliance and keen intellect as a preacher, entrepreneur, and writer, but I have read so many moving articles (since his death this past July) on his character, faith, and devotion to Christ and the Lord's people. It was clear that he lived the Gospel of which he had deeply studied for so long.
His great esteem for the centrality of the Cross and the authority of Scripture is striking as you begin to read the beginning chapters. In fact, his very first chapter is titled, The Centrality of the Cross, and begins by giving his readers a historical and Biblical account of the cross as a the symbol for Christianity. I have a love for Biblical/Church history, so Stott immediately drew me in!

Despite the great important of his teaching, his example, and his works of compassion and power, none of these was central to his mission. What dominated his mind was not the living by the giving of his life. This final self-sacrifice was his ‘hour’, for which he had come into the world. (pg 32, Stott)

One of things I really enjoyed about Stott's writing is the way that he takes you point by point through the Cross and all the details that entail such a divine work of God. I think we become too accustomed to the simplicity of the Gospel, that we forget the depth and the meaning behind it. We forget the seriousness of sin, the majesty of God in the light of who we are apart from Christ, why Christ had to die, by whose hands did he really die, the problem of forgiveness, why God needed satisfaction before he was prepared to forgive, why there needed to be a substitute before there could be propitiation, redemption, justification, or reconciliation, and what exactly the Cross achieved for us in its fullness.
Beginning his chapter on the self-substitution of God, he writes, "We have located the problem of forgiveness in the gravity of sin and the majesty of God, that is, in the realities of who we are and who he is. How can the holy love of God come to terms with the unholy lovelessness of man? What would happen if they were to come into collision with each other? The problem is not outside God; it is within his own being. Because God never contradicts himself, he must be himself and ‘satisfy’ himself, acting in absolute consistency with the perfection of his character. ‘It is the recognition of this divine necessity, or the failure to recognize it,’ wrote James Denny, ‘which ultimately divides interpreters of Christian into evangelical and non-evangelical, those who are true to the New Testament and those who cannot digest it.’
Moreover, as we have seen, this inward necessity does not mean that God must be true to only a part of himself (whether his law or honour or justice), nor that he must express one of his attributes (whether love or holiness) at the expense of another, but rather that he must be completely and invariably himself in the fullness of his moral being. T.J. Crawford stressed this point: ‘it is altogether an error…to suppose that God acts at one time according to one of his attributes, and at another time according to another. He acts in conformity with all of them at all times…As for the divine justice and the divine mercy in particular, the end of his work was not to bring them into harmony, as if they had been at variance with one another, but jointly to manifest and glorify them in the redemption of sinners. It is a case of combined action, and not of counteraction, on the part of these attributes, that is exhibited at the cross.’

In a generation that picks and chooses what aspects of God are best to focus on and tends toward separating the 'God of the Old Testament' and the 'God of the New Testament' (as if they're NOT the same, unchangeable LORD?!), I'm always on the lookout for men of authority in the Body to speak of the attributes of God as one whole. The Body needs to hear about the true God who is both the Lion and the Lamb. God's characteristics must be woven together and that is what makes Him truly glorious! By this, we know that "He was unwilling to act in love at the expense of his holiness or in holiness at the expense of his love. So we may say that he satisfied his holy love by himself dying the death and so bearing the judgment which sinners deserved. He both exacted and accepted the penalty of human sin. And he did it ‘so as to be just and the one who justified the man who has faith in Jesus’ (Rom 3:26)." (Stott)

Stott continues to knit together this beautiful, humbling reality throughout his book.

"It cannot be emphasized too strongly that God’s love is the source, not the consequence, of the atonement. As P.T. Forsyth expressed it, ‘the atonement did not procure grace, it flowed from grace.’ God does not love us because Christ died for us; Christ died for us because God loved us. If it is God’s wrath which needed to be propitiated, it is God’s love which did the propitiating. If it may be said that the propitiation ‘changed’ God, or that by it he changed himself, let us be clear he did not change from wrath to love, or from enmity to grace, since his character is unchanging. What the propitiation changed was his dealings with us. ‘The distinction I asked you to observe,’ wrote P.T. Forsyth, ‘is between a change of feeling and a change of treatment…God’s feeling toward us never needed to be changed. But God’s treatment of us, God’s practical relation to us – that had to change.’ He forgave us and welcomed us home."

There's so many facets to the Gospel that we truly need to know, protect, and cherish in accordance with Scripture. This brings me to yet another aspect of Stott's writing that I very much appreciated. In each chapter, as he is dissecting through each part of the work of the Cross, Stott presents various arguments and viewpoints that have developed over the centuries, from the early Greek and Latin church fathers to modern theologians and contemporaries. This was very intriguing to me because it reveals how easily man is led astray to create warped viewpoints that, though based partially in truths, have not stayed in line with Scripture. In one of the chapters, he walks you through various concepts and arguments that theologians and early church fathers have understood the obstacles to forgiveness which need first to be removed. He concludes the chapter with an argument against those viewpoints using Scripture to speak for itself. I found this helpful and informative because I did not realize how many ways one could warp the message of the Cross!

We strongly reject, therefore, every explanation of the death of Christ which does not have at its centre the principle of ‘satisfaction through substitution’, indeed divine self-satisfaction through divine self-substitution. The cross was not a commercial bargain with the devil, let alone one which tricked and trapped him; nor an exact equivalent, a quid pro quo to satisfy a code of honour or technical point of law; nor a compulsory submission of God to some moral authority above him from which he could not otherwise escape; nor a punishment of a meek Christ by a harsh and punitive Father; nor a procurement of salvation by a loving Christ from a mean and reluctant Father; for an action of the Father which bypassed Christ as Mediator. Instead, the righteous, loving Father humbled himself to become in and through his only Son flesh, sin and a curse for us, in order to redeem us without compromising his own character. The theological words ‘satisfaction’ and ‘substitution’ need to be carefully defined and safeguarded, but they cannot in any circumstances be given up. The biblical Gospel of atonement is of God satisfying himself by substituting himself for us.
The concept of substitution may be said, then, to lie at the heart of both sin and salvation. For the essence of sin is man substituting himself for God, while the essence of salvation is God substituting himself for man. Man asserts himself against God and puts himself where only God deserves to be; God sacrifices himself for man and puts himself where only man deserves to be. Man claims prerogatives which belong to God alone; God accepts penalties which belong to man alone. (Stott)

Sometimes, his statements pack a bullet to the heart. He writes the truth with such clarity and yet he is always pointing readers to the abundant goodness of God.

For there is nothing capricious or arbitrary about the holy God. Nor is he ever irascible, malicious, spiteful or vindictive. His anger is neither mysterious nor irrational. It is never unpredictable, but always predictable, because it is provoked by evil and by evil alone. The wrath of God…is his steady, unrelenting, unremitting, uncompromising antagonism to evil in all its forms and manifestations. In short, God’s anger is poles apart for ours. What provokes our anger (injured vanity) never provokes his; what provokes his anger (evil) seldom provokes ours.
There is no possibility of persuading, cajoling or bribing God to forgive us, for we deserve nothing at his hands but judgment. Nor, as we have seen, has Christ by his sacrifice prevailed upon God to pardon us. No, the initiative has been taken by God himself in his sheer mercy and grace. (Stott)

He allows the work of the cross to speak for itself and to do what it is meant to do....strip and humble us before the greatness of the Father's love.

The cross enforces three truths – about ourselves, about God and about Jesus Christ.
First, our sin must be extremely horrible. Nothing reveals the gravity of sin like the cross. For ultimately what sent Christ there was neither the greed of Judas, not the envy of the priests, nor the vacillating cowardice of Pilate, but our own greed, envy, cowardice and other sins, and Christ’s resolve in love and mercy to bear their judgment and so put them away. It is impossible for us to face Christ’s cross with integrity and not to feel ashamed of ourselves. Apathy, selfishness and complacency blossom everywhere in the world except at the cross. There these noxious weed shrivel and die. They are seen for the tatty, poisonous things they are. For if there was no way by which the righteous God could righteously forgive our unrighteousness, except that he should bear it himself in Christ, it must be serious indeed. It is only when we see this that, stripped of our self-righteousness and self-satisfaction, we are ready to put our trust in Jesus Christ as the Saviour we urgently need.
Secondly, God’s love must be wonderful beyond comprehension. God could quite justly have abandoned us to our fate. He could have left us alone to reap the fruit of our wrongdoing and to perish in our sins. It is what we deserved. But he did not. Because he loved us, he came after us in Christ. He pursued us even to the desolate anguish of the cross, where he bore our sin, guilt, judgment and death. It takes a hard and stony heart to remain unmoved by love like that. It is more than love. Its proper name is ‘grace,’ which is love to the undeserving.
Thirdly, 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 free salvation, is also the most powerful incentive to a holy life. But this new life follows. First, we have to humble ourselves at the foot of the cross, confess that we have sinned and deserve nothing at his hand but judgment, thank him that he loved us and died for us, and receive from him a full and free forgiveness. Against this self-humbling our ingrained pride rebels. We resent the idea that we cannot ear – or even contribute to – our own salvation. So, we stumble, as Paul put it, over the stumbling-block of the cross.

Instead of inflicting upon us the judgment we deserved, God in Christ endured it in our place. Hell is the only alternative. This is the ‘scandal’, the stumbling block, of the cross. For our proud hearts rebel against it. We cannot bear to acknowledge either the seriousness of our sin and guilt or out utter indebtedness to the cross.
The proud human heart is there revealed. We insist on paying for what we have done. We cannot stand the humiliation of acknowledging our bankruptcy and allowing somebody else to pay for us. That notion that this somebody else should be God himself is just too much to take. We would rather perish than repent, rather lose ourselves than humble ourselves.
But we cannot escape the embarrassment of standing stark naked before God. It is no use our trying to cover up like Adam and Eve in the garden. Our attempts at self-justification are as ineffectual as their fig-leaves. We have to acknowledge our nakedness, see the divine substitute wearing our filthy rags instead of us, and allow him to clothe us with his own righteousness. (Stott)

Everything in me seeks to rise up with one big YES and say "There's the glory of the Gospel!" This is the message that is worth preserving with our lives!

I could continue quoting his work, but that would quickly become a disaster zone. I love quoting! However, in conclusion, I must say that this book is a perfect study companion with Scripture. Although Stott can get a little tedious at times with Greek translations while making his arguments, I didn't find this book hard to sift through at all. While it can be a lot to digest in one sitting (the chapters are quite long), it is never dull or dry for one moment. During each pause from reading, I found it a great source of truths to reflect on and very encouraging in relation to my prayers and time spent with Jesus everyday. Having Scripture and bold truths strongly and daily reaffirmed to you can do wonders for your soul! I'm so thankful to God for men like John Stott in our history that have fought the good fight of faith to preserve the Word and extend grace to all who hear. Now, I really need to buy this book so that I can finish the last few chapters...haha!

If the book of life is said in Rev 13:8 to belong to “the Lamb that was slain from the creation of the world’, then John is telling us nothing less than that from an eternity of the past to an eternity of the future the center stage is occupied by the Lamb of God who was slain. ~ John Stott

If the Cross of Christ is anything to the mind, it is surely everything - the most profound reality and the sublimest mystery. One comes to realize that literally all the wealth and glory of the gospel centers here. The Cross is the pivot as well as the center of New Testament thought. It is the exclusive mark of the Christian faith, the symbol of Christianity and its cynosure.

The more unbelievers deny its crucial character, the more do believers find in it the key to the mysteries of sin and suffering. We rediscover the apostolic emphasis on the Cross when we read the gospel with Muslims. We find that, although the offence of the Cross remains, its magnetic power is irresistible. ~ Samuel Zwemer, American missionary who labored in Arabia.


Cathy said...

I agree..."we can get to accustomed to the simplicity of the Gospel that we forget the depth and the meaning behind it." The more I realize what He really did for me on that cross, the more humble and thankful I become. I've been wanting to read this book for a while now and it sounds very good from your post. Looks like a book I'll be doing alot of underlining in! I'm looking forward to diving into it and learning more. :)

Nolan said...

Wow that was a long post, but from what I can tell you abridged it to great parts of the book! I really liked the way he worded:

"For the essence of sin is man substituting himself for God, while the essence of salvation is God substituting himself for man."

Excellent reflections on our mysterious, yet consistent and graceful God!

LOL @ your reading standards which are madness! But I did enjoy reading the cliffnotes that you shared.