Book Review: “The Truth of the Cross” by R.C. Sproul

Title: “The Truth of the Cross”
Author: R.C. Sproul
Publisher: Reformation Trust Publishing
ISBN: 9781567690873
Pages: 178
Release Date: July 1, 2007
Rating: 4.5/5 (round up)
Purchase: Amazon.com, WTSBooks

Few books—apart from the Bible—are more important to us as Christians than those about the cross. The cross, after all, is the event by which we gained our salvation. It is the event where God satisfied His desires for mercy and justice and brought us into His fold. Thus to study this event is to remember our sinfulness and utter helplessness and, in turn, to glorify God for His grace. R.C. Sproul’s “The Truth of the Cross” does just that.

This book takes a look at the cross from many directions. Sproul demonstrates the necessity of the cross to appease God and justify man. He looks at all the different metaphors the Bible uses for sin, such as debt, enmity, and crime, and how the work of the cross satisfies each of those cases. He talks about why Jesus had to be both man and God and why He had to live for thirtysome years on this earth. The book explores atonement and substitution. It defines theological terms such as Augustianism, Semi-Pelagianism, Pelagianism, theopassianism, patripassianism, and forensic justification, among others. It defines Latin phrases such as “sine qua non” and “simul justus et peccator.”

The merit of “The Truth on the Cross” is that not only is it quite helpful in understanding the mechanisms of the cross, it also stops to contemplate these mechanisms. It is a theological work, but also a practical one. This is one of the passages that caused me to stop, experience, and give thanks for the cross:

I’ve heard sermons about the nails and the thorns. Granted, the physical agony of crucifixion is a ghastly thing. But thousands of people have died on crosses, and others have had even more painful, excruciating deaths than that. But only One received the full measure of the curse of God while on a cross. Because of that, I wonder whether Jesus was even aware of the nails and the thorns. He was overwhelmed by the outer darkness. On the cross, He was in hell, totally bereft of the grace and the presence of God, utterly separated from all blessedness of the Father. He became a curse for us so that we one day will be able to see the face of God. God turned His back on His Son so that the light of His countenance will fall on us. It’s no wonder Jesus screamed from the depths of His soul. (134-135)

As helpful as this work was, I have a couple of quibbles about it. The first is that Sproul sometimes takes exegetical liberties to make his point. For example, on page 112 he explores the line “We esteemed Him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted.” He goes on to say that this is true—which it is, but that is not the point of that particular line. The line expresses at the time of their future salvation, Israel’s view that Jesus was stricken by God because of His sins, for falsely claiming to be the Messiah. This is why the next line begins with the word “but” to counter Israel’s false belief. Ultimately, Sproul is correct in saying that Jesus was crushed by God, but he commits an exegetical hiccup because the meaning he draws is not the intended one.

I also sometimes felt that there were not enough Scripture citations. When he discusses Old Testament prophecies that were fulfilled by the crucifixion of Christ, he mentions the fact that “Jesus’ execution was outside Jerusalem. . . . outside the holy city where the presence of God was concentrated. He was sent into the outer darkness” (131) and that, when the sky became dark at His death, “[i]t was as if God had veiled the light of His countenance” (132). He may be right in saying those two events fulfill prophecies, but I think it would be much more helpful if he cited some references instead of relying on logic and general knowledge.

Now, I have no doubt that R.C. Sproul is a very intelligent man. I have heard some of his sermons before and I have seen videos of him released by Ligonier Ministries, of which he is the founder and chairman. But I think one of the faults of this book, owing to Sproul’s great intelligence, is that it does not adequately explain theological terms, especially those pertaining to contrary positions. Augustianism, Semi-Pelagianism, and Pelagianism get their definitions in the span of one combined sentence. To say this is reductionist might be an understatement. According to his definitions, Pelagianism is clearly heretical and the first two “represent significant debates within the Christian family” (12). Still, I wanted to know more about the distinctions between Augustinianism and Semi-Pelagianism, and he did not discuss them much further. I think that because he understands these distinctions well, he assumed that we would, too.

A similar situation is particularly evident in his ninth chapter, which is a defense of the doctrine of limited atonement. He says that the doctrine of limited atonement does not have to do with a repudiation of universalism, which is fine. Rather, Sproul states, this doctrine has to do with the question of to whom the atoning work of Christ applies, and it applies only to the elect. Again, this is fine. But then my question is, “Why does this doctrine arise as a distinction of reformed theology? To what is this doctrine responding?” And here I think Sproul does not do so good a job. Instead of ending with the statement that “it was God’s design that Jesus should die not for everybody indiscriminately, but only for those who would believe” (146), Sproul continues and states that “[f]or the Arminian, salvation is possible for all but certain for none. In the Calvinist position, salvation is sure for God’s elect” (148). He writes, “The Calvinist knows that not everyone will respond to the gospel message, but he also knows with certainty that some will respond to it” (149). Isn’t this a foray into the doctrine of irresistible grace? I understand that they are linked together, but it made things confusing for me, as I was left lacking an understanding of limited atonement alone and how it stands counter to the Arminian position.

Because he is so intelligent, Sproul is sometimes prone to explain things in a particular way that suits his mind, but perhaps not the minds of others. In other cases, to make things easier to understand he becomes slightly reductionist. And sometimes his intelligence makes his writing a little hard to read—his thought process can be confusing, and his sentences awkward and long. (Seeing five clauses, or four non-serial commas, in one sentence is not a rarity. Admittedly, I think I suffer from this, as well.) But his intelligence is also of tremendous benefit to us. As I mentioned, I developed a more organized theology. I know a little more about the “why”s and the “how”s of the cross. Through these, I have developed a greater thankfulness for Christ and His work. If you are looking for a small primer on the theology and truth of the cross, I recommend to you this book. (And though I think this book does a good job of balancing theology and worship, if you would like to pair this with a more reflection-minded book, I also recommend to you C.J. Mahaney’s “Living the Cross Centered Life.”) For all the time I spent discussing its shortcomings, it is still an excellent and accessible book that helped me better understand and appreciate the cross. It is not merely a thought exercise, but a comprehensive look at the cross to foster an appreciation for it. I’m sure that, should you read it, it will benefit you—all for, as R.C. Sproul would no doubt say, “soli Deo gloria!”

(This book was provided free for review by Reformation Trust Publishing, but the opinions contained herein are solely my own.)

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