The Cross of Christ – John Stott

Making a way in the desert and streams in the wasteland

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The Cross of Christ – John Stott

The Apostle Paul’s First Epistle to the Corinthian Church reaches its apex at the beginning of the fifteenth chapter,

For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures (1 Corinthians 15:3-4)

And so, for the past two thousand years, Christians have rightly maintained and defended the centrality of the cross and resurrection of Christ against a tide of cross-marginalising, gospel-distorting opponents. From amidst this furnace of gospel criticism and attack, many theologians have sought to unfold the truth, necessity and glory of our crucified Messiah. This was the intent behind the Puritan John Owen’s The Death of Death in the Death of Christ and, in the last Century, Dr Leon Morris’s The Apostolic Preaching of the Cross. John Stott’s The Cross of Christ is cast in this same mould and forged in the very same furnace of controversy and opposition.

The Cross of Christ was first published in 1986 (my version is the 20th Anniversary Edition) at a time in which the doctrine of penal substitutionary atonement was being violently critiqued even within some Evangelical circles. Twenty years on the church finds itself rehearsing the same arguments and the Gospel of Jesus Christ is still subjected to the same distortions and attacks. For this reason, The Cross of Christ is both incredibly timely and exceedingly helpful in understand what Scripture has to teach regarding the most important event in human history, namely the crucifixion of the Son of God.

John Stott’s defence of the cross is both biblical and intellectually engaging and his argument is subdivided into four parts.

In Part 1, ‘Approaching the Cross’, Stott addresses the centrality of the cross of Christ in Biblical Christianity. In so doing, The Cross of Christ takes us through the gospel accounts and unpacks how (and whether) Jesus understood his journey to Golgotha and then examines the way in which the Apostolic witness sought to maintain the centrality of the cross. Part 1 spends time closely examining Jesus’ final hours before the cross and tries to understand the suffering and torment of betrayal, abandonment and separation from his Father resulting in the cry of dereliction (Mark 15:33-34). Stott concludes, simply,

We may not know, we cannot tell,
What pains he had to bear;

But we believe it was for us
He hung and suffered there.

In Part 2, ‘The Heart of the Cross’, John Stott considers the necessity of the cross and skilfully unpacks the doctrines of propitiation and expiation. This section is, in our times of doubt, liberalism and relativism, most provocative. In presenting the theology of the cross, The Cross of Christ seeks to explain the horror of sin and understand the outrageousness of forgiveness. Between these two foundational truths lie the necessity of the cross and the necessity of Jesus as our substitutionary atoning sacrifice. And this is the foundation of John Stott’s (and the Church’s) stand against all who seek to dilute the glory of the cross. Stott writes,

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 by 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; nor 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 biblical gospel of atonement is of God satisfying himself by substituting himself for us.  (p. 188)

This section in which John Stott wrestles with profound biblical truth is potentially the densest and most difficult. However, such is Stott’s skill as an expositor of Scripture that even the most weighty of matters are never less than clear and such is his passion for the gospel that his prose sparkles with a holy enthusiasm.

In Part 3, ‘The Achievement of the Cross’, Stott continues to explore the theological implications of the cross, but now with a particular emphasis upon all Christ achieved. And so the benefits and blessing bestowed upon the believer with regards to salvation and all that this entailed is both explained and celebrated. More than this, however, John Stott understands that the cross is the majestic revelation of the character and nature of God, ‘For through what God did there for the world he was also speaking to the world’ (p. 237). In the cross we see that the glory, justice, love, wisdom and power of God are gloriously displayed for all to see.

In Part 4, ‘Living Under the Cross’ John Stott unpacks the pastoral implications of cross for us as believers. The cross of Christ is the event, the crowning achievement, which binds the believing community together. We are a people purchased by him and for him to the praise of his glorious grace. As such, The Cross of Christ, exhorts believers to embody and shine forth the self-sacrificing love of our crucified and now exalted Messiah. We are called to love our enemies and endure suffering for his sake with abounding joy.

The great strength of The Cross of Christ is that John Stott is supremely confident that the cross is the most important thing and, as such, all his energy is focused upon unpacking its truth. There is a sense in which this book circles around its subject, Jesus Christ, and around this central event, the cross of Christ, again and again. But this is good. John Stott joins with the Apostle Paul in asserting the sufficiency of the cross understanding that as we look to this event we see all that Christ achieved for us and, more than this, all that he is.

Pretty much all the books reviewed on this website are recommended (why waste your time and mine by reviewing rubbish?!?), but there are few that I would mark as essential. This is one such book and particularly at this present time. I would encourage all believers to read (and preferably own) The Cross of Christ.

I promise you, such is the importance and usefulness of this book that you will find yourself returning to these pages again and again.

Andy Evans

To purchase The Cross of Christ, click here.