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God the Peacemaker: How Atonement Brings Shalom
by Graham A. Cole
New Studies in Biblical Theology, D.A. Carson, ed.
(Downer’s Grove: IVP, 2009)
by Fred G. Zaspel
Christianity is a redemptive religion. This notion lies at its very heart. God has set out in grace to reclaim humanity for himself and restore it - and the entire created order with it - to its intended privilege of peace and fellowship with God. And this restoration turns on the significance of Christ’s death and resurrection - his “atoning” work.
On this virtually all Christians would agree, even if some would prefer to tweak the wording here or there. Christianity has a distinctly and unmistakably soteric “center.” And so for all its centuries Christians have produced books to expound the saving work of Christ and, by that, to bring us to worship God more fully and joyfully.
More often than not the study of Christ’s work takes a “systematic” or topical shape. That is, it addresses such terms and concepts as “redemption,” “propitiation,” “reconciliation,” and so on. Sometimes the study will take up such topics as “the death of Christ in the Old Testament” and bring to light those many glimpses of Christ’s saving work that God gave us before the fact. Or we might have a study presenting “the death of Christ in the New Testament.” and so on. All these are important.
Graham Cole takes a larger perspective and traces the “big picture” in the grand sweep of Bible story itself.
He begins with a summary exposition of God’s essential attributes of holiness, righteousness, and love - primarily from the Old Testament but culminating in the cross - emphasizing God’s love as a “holy, righteous love.” This leads him to a brief discussion of God’s wrath, which he describes not as an essential attribute of God (in which case God would be understood as eternally wrathful) but as “an expression of holiness in certain contexts” (p.51). This Biblical revelation of the character of God presents the backdrop of the human story and the divine “atoning project” that unfolds throughout Scripture.
Cole then briefly traces the human predicament. Fallen man, created in God’s image, is both “the glory and garbage of the universe.” Cole examines the Genesis account of the fall - borrowing also Ellul’s terminology, “the Rupture.” He explores the significance of Adam’s sin and humanity’s plight in its Old Testament development and in the teaching of Jesus and Paul, and notes the further complicating factors of God’s justice, wrath, judgment, and so on. But another factor that shapes this big picture is the promise of Genesis 3:15, the fountainhead statement of God’s “atoning project.” The God of holy, righteous love will send one of the woman’s seed to defeat the Serpent.
Forming the bulk of his study is Cole’s exposition of the essentials of the “atoning project” itself - the Triune God of love, the Abrahamic covenant, the old covenant sacrificial system, Isaiah’s servant songs, the notions of sacrifice, expiation, propitiation - all illustratively answering the question of how a holy, righteous, loving God can establish peace with a sinful people and paving the way to the revelation of “the faithful Son” and his sacrificial death and vindication in resurrection. Here peace is established. And from his work flow such “peace dividends” as union with Christ, forgiveness of sins, cleansing, justification, redemption, adoption, reconciliation, corporate peace (in the church, between Jew and Gentile), and cosmic peace also in a redeemed world. In a book of this nature his examination of these themes can only be brief, but his comments are consistently compact and suggestive. Of particular note is his emphasis on the triumphal aspect of Christ’s work - Christus Victor. This theme is not often treated in systematic theologies, but in a work of this sort it demands prominent attention.
In the final chapters Cole suggestively traces out the responsibilities and privileges of Christian life between the cross and the return of Christ, and the prospect of glory to come. A very helpful appendix very helpfully explores various questions surrounding the doctrine of penal substitution - its centrality, morality, other theories of atonement, and so on.
In the end Cole demonstrates how God has established peace via Christ’s atonement. The Lord Jesus has defeated all enemies and overcome all hurdles. The God of holy, righteous love has restored humanity, and the entire created order, from its fallenness.
Tracing out the unfolding of God’s “atoning project” is surely a needed exercise for every Christian, and Cole serves as a helpful guide. He is impressively well-read, and if his continuous quoting of others may seem slightly cumbersome at times (or am I alone in this?), it is compensated by the insight provided. The work is packed with expositional helps for the preacher and teacher, and many will want to refer to it over and again in their sermon and lesson preparation. In his “Series Preface” Carson writes of his hopes that Cole’s work will become a standard in the field. Whether it will, only time will tell. But a very helpful guide it is, a rich source illuminating the greatest story of all.