A Book Review from Books At a Glance
by Micah McCormick
In his recent book, Brandon Crowe asks a question that might sound quite simple to many Christians: Why Did Jesus Live a Perfect Life? We know that we need a perfect sacrifice, a spotless lamb of God, as Peter says (1 Peter 1:19). If Jesus would have been imperfect in any way throughout his earthly life, he would have ceased to qualify as the lamb without blemish. We wouldn’t have the perfect sacrifice we need for salvation, and thus we couldn’t be saved. Important truth? Yes! But why would I read 190 pages of what I already know?
Crowe affirms the need for a perfect sacrifice, but he does much more. He highlights the unity, depth, and significance of our Lord’s obedience in ways that many Christians have not grasped. To put it in theological terms, he retrieves the doctrine of Christ’s active obedience. The forgiveness of sins correlates to Christ’s passive obedience, while the right to eternal life correlates to his active obedience (24). These are not two different stages of the work of Christ but rather his one unified obedience fulfilling not only the penalty but also the precept of God’s law.
The book is divided into three main sections. Part one introduces the subject, sketches some key terms and definitions, and presents the basis for justification. Part two dives into various specific texts, highlighting the connections between Christ’s obedience and Adam, the Mosaic law, priestly service, resurrection, and the ministry of Christ portrayed through the gospels. Part three seeks to bring these truths into the living room—here Crowe pastorally sits with the reader to reiterate important themes from the book, and to encourage us to rest in Christ and to respond with our own loving obedience.
One of Crowe’s stated methodological aims is to ignore “artificial distinctions between historical, systematic, and biblical theology” (13), and he achieves this aim quite admirably. The book is a wonderful blend of exegetical detail, historical insight, and theological synthesis. To give one example, in discussing Philippians 2:8, Christ becoming obedient unto death, Crowe argues that the obedience in view is not simply the point of death on the cross or the complex of events surrounding the crucifixion. Rather this expression encompasses “the totality of Christ’s obedience” (134).
In making his case, Crowe points out that “unto” in Paul’s use often includes rather than excludes the previous events leading to the climactic act in question, citing a similar use in regard to Epaphroditus. In addition, the broader context of Philippians urges the recipients of his letter to a full-orbed obedience on the basis of Christ’s obedience. Theologically, the resurrection and ascension language of Philippians 2 reminds us that those events are often spoken of as the culmination or vindication of a life of obedience. And in this discussion of Philippians 2, Crowe cites Turretin, Bavinck, and Murray.
More important than his skill as a general practitioner is the subject matter he deals with. The glory of Christ and the fullness of his redemption stands at the center of Scripture and is the theme of eternity. For that reason, we cannot think too carefully and too deeply enough about it. Jonathan Edwards said that if we focus only on the penal atonement aspect of Christ’s work we rob him of half his glory as our Savior. Crowe seeks to showcase the greatness and grandeur of the glory of Christ in all of his obedience. The high point of the book (at least to this reviewer) comes in chapter five, where Crowe demonstrates in gospel narrative after gospel narrative the centrality of the obedience of Jesus as he represents his people. (This chapter draws from Crowe’s excellent book, The Last Adam: A Theology of the Obedient Life of Jesus in the Gospels.)
And that rich feast leads to… well, let me call it a request rather than a criticism. Crowe says that his primary focus is on “biblical theology” (13). Aside from the chapter on Adam, he deals primarily with the NT. The OT contains a whole swath of themes related to representative messianic obedience (e.g., obedient son, righteous king, faithful servant). Crowe does deal with the fulfilment of some of those themes in the Gospels, but perhaps in the future, he could expand this volume by devoting some chapters to the way that obedience theme is developed within the OT itself.
One challenging question that Crowe takes on in the course of the book is the nature of the Mosaic law. While such a question is certainly related to the obedience of Christ in various texts, I wonder if he ranged a bit too much into “an exceedingly complex problem” (74) for such a slender volume. Those that may not all agree on exactly how the law is not of faith (Galatians 3:12) can still celebrate the crucial importance of Christ’s obedience. Having said that, since he took some liberty in his book to discuss it I’ll take a little liberty in this review to respond. When Crowe considers the Mosaic covenant, he offers a simple but fascinating analogy from a tomato—is it more of a fruit or more of a vegetable, when it seems to have elements of both? For Crowe, just as a tomato is most essentially a fruit, the Mosaic covenant is most essentially a gracious covenant, even though sometimes it can function in a more legal manner (74).
We can agree that the old covenant bears witness to a coming redeemer, and in that sense, it serves God’s gracious purposes. It does this through the sacrificial system, but it also highlights the need for a redeemer by virtue of the very legal demands that it exacts. The failure of the people to keep the covenant in obedience doesn’t denigrate the grace of God; rather it serves to accentuate the awesome beauty of Christ’s obedience. Crowe himself agrees that the NT writers often emphasize this works principle. To trade on his own analogy, perhaps I assumed that corn was a vegetable because my blessed mother told me that when I was growing up. But if one day I’m reading the Encyclopedia Britannica and I discover that corn is most essentially a fruit, I have to go with the EB. I can appreciate Crowe’s deep respect for some of the blessed standards from the past. But you really have to go with Paul. Lest I end with a jab, let me state once again for the record that if Crowe had a restaurant, I would happily dine there anytime!
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