By J. I. Packer and Mark Dever Published by Crossway Books, 2007 188 pages, $16.99 Available on Amazon.com
One of my friends always makes fun of me for my hyperbolic tendencies. I’m always saying that “this book is the best ever” or “he’s my favorite person in the world” or “this is the best coffee I’ve ever tasted.” And I guess it’s true, I do tend to overuse superlatives when I’m reviewing things.
However, today I’m going to review a book that I really do think is one of the best I have ever read on any theological subject, but particularly on the subject of the atonement. In My Place Condemned He Stood: Celebrating the Glory of the Atonement is truly a treasure-trove of excellent theology, a rare and beautiful book, and an excellent resource for pastors and laypeople alike.
This book is a brainchild of the “Together for the Gospel” team (Ligon Duncan, Mark Dever, CJ Mahaney, and Al Mohler, who hold conferences together every year). According to their introduction to the book, the four of them were sitting around one night talking until the wee hours of the morning (wouldn’t you love to be a fly on the wall for those conversations?!). They were talking about several great essays by JI Packer, and all agreed that “wouldn’t it be nice if we could gather all those essays together into one volume?” Well, they did, and In My Place is the result of that evening conversation.
The book is a collection of essays, new and old, on the subject of the atonement. Drs. Packer and Dever call it “a tract for the times” in their preface. All of the essays included in this book are meant to combat what they call the “anti-redemptionism” that is so prevalent in many movements today. They define this “anti-redemptionism” as any movement that sidelines or denies “the work of Jesus Christ as our redeemer… in favor of the idea of Jesus as teacher, model, and pioneer of godliness” (In My Place, 18). This is meant to battle those who say that Christ’s death on our behalf was “divine child-abuse.” Whether we are personally involved in such debates or not, this resulting book is truly fantastic, a glorious testimony of the biblical doctrine of the atonement, the doctrine that is at the center of our Reformed faith, indeed central to all Scripture. As Dever and Packer state in the epilogue, “the cross of Christ… is… the heart of the apostles’ gospel and of their piety and praise as well; so surely it ought to be central in our own proclamation, catechesis, and devotional practice. True Christ-centeredness is, and ever must be, cross-centeredness” (In My Place, 148).
You would not believe how many times during the reading of this book I was almost to the point of jumping off my chair, pumping my fist in the air and shouting, “Right on!” Actually, if you read this book, you’ll probably have the same reaction. This book can be used in so many ways, either to revitalize our own personal faith, help new or struggling Christians discover the glories of salvation in Christ, to help our preaching, and in so many ways. As Tim Keller said in his review of In My Place, the stuff in this book will result in “real conversions and changed lives.”
This book contains 6 essays, as well as an annotated bibliography (more on that later). 4 of the essays have been previously published in other forms. This is basically a collections of “greatest hits” on the atonement, this book is filled with essays that have stood the test of time.
Following the introduction by JI Packer (a short, new essay introducing the idea of penal substitution), first up to bat is “The Heart of the Gospel,” which some of you will recognize as chapter 18 of Knowing God, Packer’s classic book. This is a glorious exposition of the doctrine of propitiation, which, praise God, is NOT the same as expiation.
Next up is “What Did the Cross Achieve: the Logic of Penal Substitution,” which was a lecture delivered by Packer in the 1970’s. Sinclair Ferguson exclaimed that this “magisterial but too-little-known essay” is worth the price of the book. And I would have to agree. Following that is Mark Dever’s essay, “Nothing but the Blood,” which earlier appeared in Christianity Today. JI Packer insisted that this short-but-sweet essay be included in the volume.
The fourth essay in this volume is, in my opinion, the best in the book. The essay is a familiar one, “Saved by His Precious Blood,” by JI Packer, which first appeared as the introduction to puritan John Owen’s The Death of Death in the Death of Christ. This essay has long been hailed as one of the finest expositions of the atonement and on Calvinism ever written. Without differing from Dr. Ferguson, I would say that this essay is worth the price of the whole book. If you have never read this essay, please do. A little over a year ago, I had the supreme pleasure of having dinner with Dr. Ligon Duncan, one of the “Together for the Gospel” folks who put this book together. One of the many useful morsels of advice he gave me was to read this essay as soon as possible. So I did. In a used book store, I found a tattered old copy of “Saved by His Precious Blood,” printed in tract form, and devoured it. I can say without exaggeration that this essay truly reshaped and revitalized my view of Calvinism and my own personal Christian faith -for the better. What is Calvinism? How would you define it? JI Packer argues that Calvinism is ever so much more than “the five points.” It is richer, deeper, and always Christ-centered. JI Packer offers this simple definition of Calvinism: “God saves sinners.” And then Packer goes on to unpack exactly what that means, and why the atonement (and the proper understanding of what that is) is so crucially important to Christianity in general and Calvinism in particular. This essay deserves all the praise it has gotten over the years, and serves as a glorious capstone for In My Place Condemned He Stood.
All of the essays in this book are truly treasures that will enrich and enliven your understanding of the atonement, the doctrine that Packer and Dever argue is at the center of Calvinism, Christianity, and Scripture. Some of the essays are more scholarly than others, and they will require a lot of thought and careful reading. But, I think the readers of The Outlook are truly able to meet the challenge and will benefit greatly from these glorious essays.
One of the coolest features of this book is the annotated bibliography at the end. At the end of this book, Dr. Ligon Duncan provides 35 pages of book recommendations, a collection of books to check out “for further reading” on the atonement. He has included brief, easy to read expositions and classic scholarly tomes, and has even suggested different ways to read them. Let me say something about Dr. Duncan, if I may. As I mentioned above, I am supremely blessed to know Dr. Duncan a little bit, and one of my beloved friends from college is currently serving as Dr. Duncan’s personal intern down in Jackson, Mississippi. And, I believe that Dr. Ligon Duncan would be one of the most capable and gifted people available to offer book recommendations. He has read extensively on every subject and has always been able to give great suggestions to anyone who asks. And now, thanks to this book, everyone can benefit from his knowledge. Dr. Duncan includes around fifty books, old and new, and has written a brief paragraph on each book describing how and why it would be useful. I’ve already checked out a few of his recommendations and have been greatly blessed.
In conclusion, In My Place Condemned He Stood is a powerful and useful book, which I recommend to all. Whether you are a student, pastor, elder, or layperson, this book will help you grow in your understanding of this great doctrine of the atonement and can serve to deepen your faith.
Reviewed by James Oord, student at Mid-America Reformed Seminary and member of Trinity URC, Lethbridge, AB.