This short (under 200 pages) but heavy book has been on my reading list for quite a while. It’s been described by many a pastor as one of the greatest books ever written on the doctrine of atonement, which is absolutely central to the Christian faith. Having finally worked my way through it, I can see why it comes so highly recommended!
The first half of the book builds a foundation for our understanding of atonement. Murray describes the necessity of redemption, and how Christ was the only One who could possibly accomplish it. The work He accomplished was perfect and complete. There is nothing that man can do to add to what Christ has done, nor to take away from it.
This section ends with a very clear and biblical look at the doctrine of “limited atonement”, which is the teaching that Christ died not for the sins of everyone in the world, but only for those of the elect. The “L” in “TULIP”, this is probably the most controversial of the five points of Calvinism, but Murray handles it with aplomb. Essentially, he tells us that atonement is limited not by the efficacy of Christ’s blood, but by it’s application. In other words, if one believes that anyone will spend eternity in Hell, one believes in limited atonement, because atonement has not been applied to that person. What remains, then, is to see how and to whom this redemption which Christ has accomplished is applied. This is the subject of Part II, which accounts for most of the book.
In Part II, Murray gives a very thorough and systematic exposition of the many components of the atonement, as well as their order of application. Though many of these components happen nearly simultaneously, Murray presents them in the following order: effectual calling, regeneration, faith & repentance, justification, adoption, sanctification, perseverance, union with Christ, and glorification. With the exception of union with Christ — which is not a step in the application of redemption, but something which underlies every step — this is also the chronological order in which Murray places these phases. Some, of course, are one-time events, while others are ongoing processes.
It is this second half of the book which is so valuable. It has greatly enhanced my understanding of the doctrine of atonement, and of the distinctions between the various steps in its application. This understanding doesn’t come easily, though, as it’s a very difficult book to read. Part of the difficulty lies in the language; Murray was a mid-20th century academician (and a Scotsman to boot), and so uses many words that may be unfamiliar to contemporary readers. I consider myself to have a better-than-average vocabulary, but definitely found myself reading this book with a dictionary within reach!
Some of the difficulty also lies in Murray’s writing style. At times his sentence structure seems unnecessarily complex, making it hard to figure out which words modify which. Because of this, I found myself frequently re-reading passages to make sure I really understood the point he was making. He was also fond of using multiple forms of the same word in a sentence, leading to some real humdingers like this:
“To glory in the cross is to glory in Christ as the propitiatory sacrifice once offered, as the abiding propitiatory, and as the one who embodies in himself for ever all the propitiatory efficacy of the propitiation once for all accomplished.“
What a mouthful! Besides these nit-picky things, though, this is a truly great book. The Scripture index and the Subject index at the end of the book will make this a frequent reference tool during future studies.
Anyone looking to undertake a serious study of the doctrine of atonement — and I would hope this would include every Christian! — must read this book. It’s not easy, but totally worth the effort. Buy it here.