A. C. Carter’s Review of WHAT DID THE CROSS ACHIEVE? by J. I. Packer

Published on July 1, 2024 by Eugene Ho

Crossway, 2023 | 136 pages

A Book Review from Books At a Glance

by A. C. Carter


Jude, the brother of our Lord Jesus, wrote in his epistle, “Beloved, although I was very eager to write to you about our common salvation, I found it necessary to write appealing to you to contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints.” These words echo through the centuries, as Christians today must still contend for the faith once for all delivered to the saints. Jude clearly prioritizes contending for the essential content of the evangelical faith over certain other issues he desired to address. This task remains for believers today – conducting proper theological triage, and addressing essential issues quickly and thoroughly.

J. I. Packer’s concise essay, What Did the Cross Achieve? does just that. Packer originally delivered this essay as a lecture to Tyndale House, Cambridge, in 1973. Reprinted by Crossway in 2023, this book makes a clear, accessible case for penal substitution as the essence of the atonement. Packer masterfully contends for the faith without being contentious; he makes his case thoroughly, though not laboriously. With scholarly depth, pastoral concern, and precise brevity, What Did the Cross Achieve? invites readers to “celebrate the decisiveness of the cross in every sense as the procuring cause of salvation” (p. 93).

The book begins with an explanation of Packer’s methodology. His aim in this section is to answer two questions: what can we know about Christ’s work on the cross, and by what source do we come to know it? He explains that the knowledge we must have of Christ is faith knowledge, or “a kind of knowledge of which God is both giver and content” (p. 10). Before casting this book aside at the thought of reading methodology or theoretical ideas about God, consider this: “At the end of the day [we] have to admit that God is much more to [us] than theories can ever contain” (p. 14). This is clearly not just a cerebral treatise of epistemology; Packer intends that sound doctrine should lead us to worship!

Part of what leads us to worship is the recognition that God’s ways are not our ways. Packer gives lengthy treatment to the concept of Divine mystery, responding to the skeptic who may object to penal substitutionary atonement on the grounds that the theory is incomprehensible. Packer acknowledges the cross as “beyond our full fathoming” (p. 14), making clear that our struggle to comprehend the depth of the cross does not make the cross a mystery; the cross is a mystery by its nature. This should not be cause of skepticism or doubt! Packer encourages the reader that “the presence in our theology of unsolved problems is not necessarily a reflection on the truth or adequacy of our thoughts” (p. 15). Demonstrating great epistemic humility and pastoral encouragement, Packer concludes, “Any view that was problem free would certainly be rationalistic and reductionist … One thing that Christians know by faith is that they only know in part” (p. 16). He explains that as finite creatures, our knowledge of the Creator will always be limited; we are always seeing into a mirror dimly (1 Cor 13:12). Our speech, models, and analogies can help us know God rightly, but this side of eternity, we will never know fully. Nevertheless, Packer encourages the use of analogies of known concepts to help illustrate the unknown concepts about God. We must allow the finite to describe the Infinite. This foundation sets the stage for penal substitutionary atonement to serve as a viable model for understanding the cross, which Packer fully develops later in the essay.

Moving from what we can know about the cross to how we come to know it, Packer begins building a case for the Bible as the foundation for our knowledge. He asserts the Holy Spirit’s inspiration of scripture as it was being written by the prophets and apostles, as well as His illumination of it in Christians’ minds throughout history – including ours. Yes, we have the illumination of the Holy Spirit as we read the Bible today! But so did Augustin, Anselm, Luther, Calvin, Bunyan, Owen, Goodwin, Spurgeon, and all believers throughout history. Therefore, our understanding truth today is properly built on the foundation of the Bible, then framed through church history, and finally furnished with our own questions and interpretations. We must construct our theological models “not indeed uncritically, but with respect, anticipating the discovery that [a historic doctrine] is substantially right” (p. 35). Such a view of historic theological retrieval is needed in our day.

After laying his methodological foundations, Packer moves on to the specific question of atonement. He begins this section by explaining what he means by “substitutionary,” and defends penal substitutionary atonement as superior to the moral example and Christus victor theories of atonement. Packer does not deny these views; he states his view “takes up into itself all the positive assertions that they make” (p. 48). He affirms Christ’s sacrificial death serves as a moral example for us to follow (1 Peter 2:21), and as a cosmic victory over the enemies of sin and death (Col. 2:15). But Jesus accomplished more than these. As our intermediary, Jesus satisfied the Father on our behalf, and forgave our sins on the Father’s behalf (p. 50).

All of this builds to Packer’s clearest expression of penal substitutionary atonement, which merits repeating in entirety:

The notion that the phrase “penal substitution” expresses is that Jesus Christ our Lord, moved by a love that was determined to do everything necessary to save us, endured and exhausted the destructive divine judgement for which we were otherwise inescapably destined, and so won us forgiveness, adoption, and glory (p. 57).

Each part of this sentence is essential. Jesus of Nazareth, God the Son, was born of a virgin to be the Anointed One who was sent by His Father in love for us to fulfil the Law and Prophets by living a holy life, dying a substitutionary death to propitiate the wrath of God for sinners, and reconciling us to God for eternity. This is the work Packer contends Christ accomplished on the cross. The only possible response to accepting such a gift by faith is “joy, peace, and praise both now and for eternity” (p. 57).

Packer continues building his argument for penal substitution with five distinct perspectives: retribution, solidarity, mystery, salvation, and divine love (p. 68 ff). These sections are profoundly theological, yet immanently pastoral. Even though this was an academic lecture, we can almost hear Reverend Packer preaching this as a sermon while we read it! While his arguments are replete with biblical support, they do not exegete any one passage at length. Packer seems to presuppose his audience agrees with his evangelical interpretation of scripture in order to apply it expediently to his argument. This does not detract from his clarity nor potency, but a liberal-modern Bible scholar could be unsatisfied.

Packer argues that if Jesus died as a penalty-bearing substitute, then there remains no more penalty for people to bear (p. 88). This leaves us with only three options: either Jesus’ death universally takes away the sins of everyone so that all will be saved; or God intended to save everyone, but some thwart his purpose by unbelief; or Jesus died to take away the sins of only some people so that the unbelieving will still face judgement. Packer discredits the first two options as inconsistent with the Bible, leaving only the third option viable. This gets to the heart of the Reformed doctrine of particular redemption, which Packer summarizes saying, “The death of Christ is the act of God that has made certain the salvation of those who are saved” (p. 90). All of those for whom Christ died necessarily come to faith in Him. In his conclusion, he quotes A. M. Hunter on Galatians 3:13, who says that the aorist participle γενόμενος (“by becoming” in ESV) “is explaining the method of redemption, answering the question, ‘How did Christ redeem us?’” (A. M. Hunter, Interpreting Paul’s Gospel, cited on p.108). Christ redeemed us by becoming a curse for us.

While theologically sound and tremendously encouraging, What Did the Cross Achieve? is not without its weaknesses. First, as mentioned, Packer’s arguments are primarily theological; the work would benefit from more robust biblical exegesis. Especially missing are any Old Testament references to penal substitutionary atonement. Leviticus 16 gives us vivid pictures of the sacrifices required on the Day of Atonement, but Packer does not even mention these sacrifices. Hebrews chapters 8 and 9 – which interpret the sacrifices of Leviticus in light of Jesus and the cross – are likewise omitted from Packer’s essay. Including these passages and doing more thorough exegesis would strengthen – but likewise lengthen – this book. Second, some of Packer’s quotes and references would not be recognized by today’s reader. This is not a critique of his writing, but a fact for the reader to be aware of so they do not get distracted or bogged down by them. Crossway seems to have done a nice job of paring down Packer’s footnotes for ease and readability.

Readers who have read Murray’s Redemption Accomplished and Applied or Owen’s Death of Death in the Death of Christ will find Packer’s essay a delightful and encouraging addition to the Reformed expositions of particular redemption. Dense theological tomes such as Gibson and Gibson’s From Heaven He Came and Sought Her (to which Packer contributed), or scholarly monographs such as Williams’ For Whom Did Christ Die? address similar topics, but Packer’s work is an accessible, edifying exposition of this “distinguishing mark of the worldwide evangelical fraternity” (p. 3).

While his primary aim is to defend penal substitutionary atonement, Packer offers convincing explanations of several other issues along the way: total depravity, the sovereignty of God, particular redemption, presuppositional apologetics, inspiration and inerrancy, personal piety, and many others. In typical Packer fashion, each paragraph of this work is drenched in reverence for God and a desire to see others cherish Him. Take up and read this book Holy Week or any week for its depth of theological insight and spiritual encouragement as we remember all Christ’s death accomplished for us.


A. C. Carter

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Crossway, 2023 | 136 pages

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