Robert Peterson. Salvation Accomplished by the Son: The Work of Christ (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2012). 624 pp.
What do you call a combination of scholarly research, zeal for the church, and two decades of teaching systematic theology? Robert Peterson. In his latest work, Salvation Accomplished by the Son, Peterson sets his sights on a subject that seems to be his greatest area of expertise and passion: the work of Christ. John Frame sings Peterson’s praises, saying “This is the book to which, after Scripture itself, I would first turn to explore any question about Jesus’s incarnation, atonement, or resurrection.” There are several features that make Peterson’s book a unique contribution to the field.
The Covenant Seminary professor loves the church, and although certainly informed by recent scholarship, Peterson engages it very little, making this book best suited for pastors and laypersons. The Bible is front and center in Peterson’s approach, which he calls “exegetical theology.” His method for each chapter is to find the relevant passages, provide an interpretation for each, and then briefly “connect the dots” at the end.
One of the most unique features of Salvation Accomplished by the Son is the way in which the work of Christ is structured. According to Peterson, we only understand Christ’s work within the framework of his story. The first half of the book, therefore, is ordered around nine saving events:
- Sinless Life
- Second Coming
Peterson emphasizes that each event is salvific and seeks especially to overcome a neglect of Christ’s resurrection. In addition to the nine saving events, Peterson also offers six biblical “pictures” that interpret the saving significance of each event:
- Christ Our Reconciler
- Christ Our Redeemer
- Christ Our Legal Substitute
- Christ Our Victor
- Christ Our Second Adam
- Christ Our Sacrifice
Peterson uses these “pictures” especially to interpret the life, death and resurrection of Christ.
The most interesting theological contribution of the book is the discussion on the controversial topic of penal substitution. Seeking to protect the multi-dimensionality of Christ’s atoning work, Peterson had previously argued in recent publications and at ETS annual conferences that penal substitution does not deserve a privileged place among the other pictures of Christ’s atoning work. It is simply one of many. In this book, however, Peterson recants and contends now that penal substitution is “foundational” to all the other pictures. Peterson offers nine reasons, the most important of which are the biblical prominence, explanatory power for other pictures, and Godward direction of penal substitution.
My one quibble is with Peterson’s method. Although gathering and interpreting relevant passages is certainly essential for theology, this is really only the beginning of the task. How does it contribute to the broader coherence of God’s saving work in Christ? How do these truths need to be understood in light of our particular geographical and temporal context? Are we the first to think through these issues, or can we learn from the great cloud of witnesses who have gone before us? Perhaps Peterson did not go beyond quickly “connecting the dots” due to space constraints or his intended audience, but my main point is that the goal of systematic theology is not merely to give Christians the right answers with the right verses, but to teach them to think theologically in a way that is rooted in Scripture and faithful to Christ in the world we live in today. Yet in an age where systematic theology often does not engage Scripture nor speak to the church enough, I commend Peterson for achieving both. Overall, Peterson’s book is a gift to the church and will be a gem in the hands of those who want to better understand Christ’s work.