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Reading Classics Together

September 29, 2011

Reading Classics Together
Today we continue our project of reading through John Stott’s classic work The Cross of Christ. We’ve now moved onto Part III which discusses “The Achievement of the Cross.” Here Stott begins to move from the event itself to the consequences, “from what happened on the cross to what was achieved by it.” The Bible sums this up in three words: salvation, revelation and conquest. First up is chapter 8, “The Salvation of Sinners.” The chapters that follow will discuss revelation and conquest.

The Salvation of Sinners

Here is how Stott introduces the ideas he wants to discuss in this chapter.

It would be hard to exaggerate the magnitude of the changes that have taken place as a result of the cross, both in God and in us, especially in God’s dealings with us and in our relations with him. Truly, when Christ died and was raised from death, a new day dawned, a new age began.

This new day is “the day of salvation” (2 Cor 6:2), and the blessings of “such a great salvation” (Heb 2:3) are so richly diverse that they cannot be neatly defined. Several pictures are needed to portray them. Just as the church of Christ is presented in Scripture as his bride and his body, the sheep of God’s flock and the branches of his vine, his new humanity, his household or family, the temple of the Holy Spirit and the pillar and buttress of the truth, so the salvation of Christ is illustrated by the vivid imagery of terms like propitiation, redemption, justification and reconciliation, which form the theme of this chapter.

Those four terms form the theme and the structure, allowing Stott to progressively reveal the salvation accomplished at the cross. “They are not alternative explanations of the cross, providing us with a range to choose from, but complementary to one another, each contributing a vital part to the whole. As for the imagery, propitiation introduces us to rituals at a shrine, redemption to transactions in a marketplace, justification to proceedings in a court of law, and reconciliation to experiences in a home or family.” Substitution is not a theory of the atonement but the foundation of all of these words and concepts.

And so Stott turns to each of them. Let me share just three great quotes.

The reason why a propitiation is necessary is that sin arouses the wrath of God. This does not mean (as animists fear) that he is likely to fly off the handle at the most trivial provocation, still less that he loses his temper for no apparent reason at all. 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 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 from ours. What provokes our anger (injured vanity) never provokes his; what provokes his anger (evil) seldom provokes ours.

September 22, 2011

Reading Classics Together
This morning brings us to our next reading in John Stott’s classic work The Cross of Christ. This week I am simply going to offer up a few amazing quotes from this chapter. I hope that this will give everyone who reads this article something to chew on, whether or not you’ve read the book. At the very least read the final quote!

The Self-Substitution of God

In this chapter, titled “The Self-Substitution of God,” Stott addresses this key question: Exactly who was our substitute? Who took our place, bore our sin, became our curse, endured our penalty, died our death? Who was this Christ? How are we to think of him? In other words, he is looking at the idea of substitution and wondering who could act as substitute and what the nature of that substitution would be.

He outlines several possible answers:

Was he just a man? If so, how could one human being possibly—or justly—stand in for other human beings? Was he then simply God, seeming to be a man, but not actually being the man he seemed? If so, how could he represent humankind? Beside this, how could he have died? In that case, are we to think of Christ neither as man alone, nor as God alone, but rather as the one and only God-man who because of his uniquely constituted person was uniquely qualified to mediate between God and man? Whether the concept of substitutionary atonement is rational, moral, plausible, acceptable and above all biblical depends on our answers to these questions. The possibility of substitution rests on the identity of the substitute.

He goes on to look at the three explanations he has sketched for us, looking carefully at a long list of passages from the Bible. He arrives at this conclusion:

Our substitute, who took our place and died our death on the cross, was neither Christ alone (since that would make him a third party thrust in between God and us), nor God alone (since that would undermine the historical incarnation), but God in Christ, who was truly and fully both God and man and who on that account was uniquely qualified to represent both God and man and to mediate between them. If we speak only of Christ suffering and dying, we overlook the initiative of the Father. If we speak only of God suffering and dying, we overlook the mediation of the Son. The New Testament authors never attribute the atonement either to Christ in such a way as to disassociate him from the Father, or to God in such a way as to dispense with Christ, but rather to God and Christ, or to God acting in and through Christ with his whole-hearted concurrence.

September 15, 2011

Reading Classics Together
This morning brings us to our next reading in John Stott’s classic work The Cross of Christ. We are now in chapter 5 which is titled “Satisfaction for Sin.” In this chapter Stott argues that the cross was necessary because God “must ‘satisfy himself’ in the way of salvation he devises; he cannot save us by contradicting himself.”

Satisfaction for Sin

Stott uses this chapter to explain that the cross was necessary for satisfaction. This is something most people affirm. However, the nature of that satisfaction has been debated throughout the history of the church. The question is, Who or what needed to be satisfied, thus making the cross a necessity?

Stott looks at “five ways in which theologians have expressed their sense of what is necessary before God is able to forgive sinners. One speaks of the overthrow of the devil by ‘satisfying’ his demands, others of ‘satisfying’ God’s law, honor or justice, and the last of ‘satisfying the moral order of the world.’ In differing degrees all these formulations are true.” But there is something that we need to be careful to avoid.

The limitation they share is that, unless they are very carefully stated, they represent God as being subordinate to something outside and above himself which controls his actions, to which he is accountable, and from which he cannot free himself. Satisfaction is an appropriate word, providing we realize that it is he himself in his inner being who needs to be satisfied, and not something external to himself. Talk of law, honor, justice, and the moral order is true only in so far as these are seen as expressions of God’s own character. Atonement is a ‘necessity’ because it ‘arises from within God himself.’

September 08, 2011

Reading Classics Together
This morning brings us to our next reading in John Stott’s classic work The Cross of Christ. This week’s chapter, chapter 4, looks at “The Problem of Forgiveness.” After last week’s “look below the surface” of Christ’s life, some may have wondered why our forgiveness would have to depend on Christ’s death. That is where Stott turns this week.

The Problem of Forgiveness

Some weeks I use this post as an opportunity to provide a synopsis of the chapter. This week I am going to simply provide a list of great quotes. Even if you have not read the chapter, I think you’ll find a lot of benefit in simply reading these quotes and maybe taking a few moments to ponder some of them.

“It is when our perception of God and man, or of holiness and sin, are askew that our understanding of the atonement is bound to be askew also.”

“For us to argue ‘we forgive each other unconditionally, let God do the same to us’ betrays not sophistication but shallowness, since it overlooks the elementary fact that we are not God. We are private individuals, and other people’s misdemeanors are personal injuries. God is not a private individual, however, nor is sin just a personal injury. On the contrary, God is himself the maker of the laws we break, and sin is rebellion against him.”

September 01, 2011

Reading Classics Together
Today we continue reading through John Stott’s book The Cross of Christ. In the past 2 weeks Stott has “sought to establish two facts about the cross. First, its central importance (to Christ, to his apostles and to his worldwide church ever since), and second, its deliberate character (for, though due to human wickedness, it was also due to the set purpose of God, voluntarily accepted by Christ who gave himself up to death). This week we come to chapter 3, “Looking Below the Surface.”

Looking Below the Surface

In this week’s chapter Stott asks and answers this question: What was there about the crucifixion of Jesus which, in spite of its horror, shame and pain, makes it so important that God planned it in advance and Christ came to endure it? He offers a 4-part answer.

First, Christ died for us. “In addition to being necessary and voluntary, his death was altruistic and beneficial. He undertook it for our sake, not for his own, and he believed that through it he would secure for us a good that could be secured in no other way.”

Second, Christ died for us that he might bring us to God. “The beneficial purpose of his death focuses down on our reconciliation. … The important point is that it is in consequence of his death that he is able to confer on us the great blessing of salvation.”

August 25, 2011

Reading Classics Together
Last week we began reading through John Stott’s classic work The Cross of Christ. The book began by pointing out the centrality of the cross. This week’s reading was chapter 2 which asks and answers an all-important question: Why Did Christ Die?

Why Did Christ Die?

I enjoyed this chapter not only for what it teaches but also for its literary qualities. Stott writes in such a way that by the end, truth is cascading upon truth, and the heart is lifted in praise. It truly packs a punch.

To answer the question Why Did Christ Die?, Stott first looks to the Roman leaders, the Jewish leaders and then to Judas Iscariot, showing how each one played a role in Jesus’ death. But where the chapter begins to really pull together is toward the end where he shows that the truest and deepest answer leads us not to blame others, but to blame ourselves.

Herod and Pilate, Gentiles and Jews … had together “conspired” against Jesus (Acts 4:27). More important still, we ourselves are also guilty. If we were in their place, we would have done what they did. Indeed we have done it. For whenever we turn away from Christ, we “are crucifying the Son of God all over again and subjecting him to public disgrace” (Heb 6:6). We too sacrifice Jesus to our greed like Judas, to our envy like the priests, to our ambition like Pilate. “Were you there when they crucified my Lord?” the old negro spiritual asks. And we must answer, “Yes, we were there.” Not as spectators only, but as participants, guilty participants, plotting, scheming, betraying, bargaining and handing him over to be crucified. We may try to wash our hands of responsibility like Pilate. But our attempt will be as futile as his. For there is blood on our hands.

Stott now provides one of his best-known quotes:

August 18, 2011

Reading Classics Together
Here we are, at the beginning of another edition of Reading Classics Together. This is a program I began several years ago in an attempt to read some of the classics of the Christian faith and to do so in community. To this point we’ve read 10 or 15 great books, ranging from Puritan to modern-day classics. Beginning today we will be taking 13 Thursdays to read through John Stott’s The Cross of Christ.

The format is simple. Each week we will read a single chapter and then, on Thursday, we will convene here to offer some thoughts and reflections on that week’s reading. I hope you will read along with us! Here is information on doing just that.

The Centrality of the Cross

The first chapter of this book is titled “The Centrality of the Cross.” Here Stott seeks to prove that the cross is worthy of a place of centrality in the Christian faith, both as a symbol and as a central doctrine. To do this he offers a survey of early church history, of the life of Jesus and of the ministries of the Apostles. In every case he shows that the cross is central, the cross is the sign and symbol of the faith because it stands as the very purpose and pinnacle of Christ’s mission. Speaking of the example of the earliest Christians he says, “They wished to commemorate as central to their understanding of Jesus neither his birth or his youth, neither his teaching nor his service, neither his resurrection nor his reign, nor his gift of the Spirit, but his death, his crucifixion.” 

August 11, 2011

Christianity and Liberalism
With a week left to go before we begin, I wanted to remind you of the next Reading Classics Together. One week from today I will begin reading a classic Christian book and I’d love it if you’d read along with me (and with several hundred others).

The book we will be reading is The Cross of Christ by John Stott. Here is a brief description:

The work of a lifetime, from one of the world’s most influential thinkers, about the heart of the Christian faith. “I could never myself believe in God, if it were not for the cross… . In the real world of pain, how could one worship a God who was immune to it?”

With compelling honesty John Stott confronts this generation with the centrality of the cross in God’s redemption of the world- a world now haunted by the memories of Auschwitz, the pain of oppression and the specter of nuclear war. Can we see triumph in tragedy, victory in shame? Why should an object of Roman distaste and Jewish disgust be the emblem of our worship and the axiom of our faith? And what does it mean for us today?

Now from one of the foremost preachers and Christian leaders of our day comes theology at its readable best, a contemporary restatement of the meaning of the cross. At the cross Stott finds the majesty and love of God disclosed, the sin and bondage of the world exposed. More than a study of the atonement, this book brings Scripture into living dialogue with Christian theology and the twentieth century. What emerges is a pattern for Christian life and worship, hope and mission.

We will be reading the book one chapter per week over 13 weeks. And we’ll do it beginning next Thursday. If you would like to read it with us, simply find yourself a copy of the book and read chapter 1 (and the introduction, foreword, preface, etc.) prior to August 18. Then, on that date, drop by the site and there will be an article here that allows us to discuss that week’s reading. It’s that easy.

If you’d like to preview the book, you can do so at Google Books. Also, if you visit Westminster Book’s product page, you can download the table of contents, the foreword and the first chapter.

Here are some places you can get yourself a copy. This is probably a good book to buy in hardcover and keep for a lifetime. However, CBD does have it available in paperback if you want to save some money; meanwhile, ChristianAudio is offering the audio book at a nearly irresistible price:

July 28, 2011

Christianity and Liberalism
UPDATE: If you’d like to read along, Christian Audio has put the audio book on sale for just $2.98 until October 31. Use coupon code CH0811CCClick here to order it.

Several years ago I began a program I called Reading Classics Together. The impetus for this project was the realization that, though many Christians have a genuine desire to read the classics of the faith, few of us have the motivation to actually do so. This has always been the case for me. This program allows us to read such classic works together, providing structure and accountability along with the added interest of comparing notes as we read in community.

Just last week we finished reading Gresham Machen’s Christianity & Liberalism. I was all set to announce the next classic today—the next classic Christian book to read together. I knew what I was going to propose, but I had a last-minute change of heart. As I received news of John Stott’s death yesterday, I thought that this might be the perfect time to read one of Stott’s best-known works, the one that most people consider his finest work.

The Cross of Christ StottI propose, then, that 3 weeks from today we begin reading The Cross of Christ. Here is a brief description of the book:

The work of a lifetime, from one of the world’s most influential thinkers, about the heart of the Christian faith.

“I could never myself believe in God, if it were not for the cross… . In the real world of pain, how could one worship a God who was immune to it?”

With compelling honesty John Stott confronts this generation with the centrality of the cross in God’s redemption of the world- a world now haunted by the memories of Auschwitz, the pain of oppression and the specter of nuclear war. Can we see triumph in tragedy, victory in shame? Why should an object of Roman distaste and Jewish disgust be the emblem of our worship and the axiom of our faith? And what does it mean for us today?

Now from one of the foremost preachers and Christian leaders of our day comes theology at its readable best, a contemporary restatement of the meaning of the cross. At the cross Stott finds the majesty and love of God disclosed, the sin and bondage of the world exposed. More than a study of the atonement, this book brings Scripture into living dialogue with Christian theology and the twentieth century. What emerges is a pattern for Christian life and worship, hope and mission.

This is quite a large book, so we will need to read it over 13 weeks. But it is so theologically-rich and its subject so completely foundational to the Christian life that I believe it will prove a joy to read. 

The book comes very highly praised. J.I. Packer says, “This, more than any book he has written, is his masterpiece.” Michael Horton says, “As relevant today as when it first appeared, The Cross of Christ is more than a classic. It restates in our own time the heart of the Christian message” while D.A. Carson insists, “There are not many ‘must read’ books—books that belong on every minister’s shelf, and on the shelves of thoughtful laypersons who want a better grasp of what is central in Scripture—but this is one of them.”

So let’s read it together, beginning on August 18. If you would like to read it with us, simply find yourself a copy of the book and read chapter 1 (and the introduction, foreword, preface, etc.) prior to August 18. Then, on that date, drop by the site and there will be an article here that allows us to discuss that week’s reading. It’s that easy.

If you’d like to preview the book, you can do so at Google Books. Also, if you visit Westminster Book’s product page, you can download the table of contents, the foreword and the first chapter.

Here are some places you can get yourself a copy. This is probably a good book to buy in hardcover and keep for a lifetime. However, CBD does have it available in paperback if you want to save some money.

July 21, 2011

Christianity and Liberalism
Today we come to our final reading in Gresham Machen’s Christianity & Liberalism. Let me apologize once more for disappearing last week. I went on vacation and completely forgot that I was supposed to be posting something about the final chapter. So here we go, a week late.

The final chapter of Christianity & Liberalism concerns itself with the church and the stark contrast between the liberal and Christian conceptions of church. The first couple of paragraphs offer a brief explanation:

It has just been observed that Christianity, as well as liberalism, is interested in social institutions. But the most important institution has not yet been mentioned— it is the institution of the Church. When, according to Christian belief, lost souls are saved, the saved ones become united in the Christian Church. It is only by a baseless caricature that Christian missionaries are represented as though they had no interest in education or in the maintenance of a social life in this world; it is not true that they are interested only in saving individual souls and when the souls are saved leave them to their own devices. On the contrary true Christians must everywhere be united in the brotherhood of the Christian Church.

Very different is this Christian conception of brotherhood from the liberal doctrine of the “brotherhood of man.” The modern liberal doctrine is that all men everywhere, no matter what their race or creed, are brothers. There is a sense in which this doctrine can be accepted by the Christian. The relation in which all men stand to one another is analogous in some important respects to the relation of brotherhood. All men have the same Creator and the same nature. The Christian man can accept all that the modern liberal means by the brotherhood of man. But the Christian knows also of a relationship far more intimate than that general relationship of man to man and it is for this more intimate relationship that he reserves the term “brother.” The true brotherhood, according to Christian teaching, is the brotherhood of the redeemed.

There is nothing narrow about such teaching; for the Christian brotherhood is open without distinction to all; and the Christian man seeks to bring all men in. Christian service, it is true, is not limited to the household of faith; all men, whether Christians or not, are our neighbors if they be in need. But if we really love our fellowmen we shall never be content with binding up their wounds or pouring on oil and wine or rendering them any such lesser service. We shall indeed do such things for them. But the main business of our lives will be to bring them to the Savior of their souls.

He goes on to say, “It is upon this brotherhood of twice-born sinners, this brotherhood of the redeemed, that the Christian founds the hope of society. He finds no solid hope in the improvement of earthly conditions, or the molding of human institutions under the influence of the Golden Rule.” If there is to be any great improvement in society, if there is to be any great change, it will be through people being saved. Liberalism seeks societal change without the personal spiritual transformation. Machen insists “The Church is the highest Christian answer to the social needs of man.”

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