Ryan M. McGraw’s Review of THE ATONEMENT: AN INTRODUCTION, by Jeremy Treat

Published on February 19, 2024 by Eugene Ho

Crossway, 2023 | 192 pages

A Book Review from Books At a Glance

by Ryan M. McGraw


Who Jesus Christ is, what he did to save us, and how we come to know God through him are some of the most vital issues at the heart of the gospel. His atoning work on the cross sits in the midst of these questions, the Spirit presenting Christ in his finished work as the object of our faith. This full-orbed study of Christ’s atoning work drives home the nature and effects of Christ’s death on the cross (and much more) in ways that are overtly Trinitarian, church-oriented, and wide-reaching, directing us towards reconciled humanity dwelling with God in a renewed heaven and earth. This well-written thoughtful volume will lead readers to think deeply about the atonement through all of Scripture and in conversation with historical and modern thought.

The author seeks to present a Trinitarian approach to the atonement, which affects both our relation to God and to fellow believers. In an age that is recovering from exaggerated individualism, making Christianity merely a matter of personal faith, this Godward and church-oriented approach is both welcome and biblically robust. The book’s six chapters unfold these themes by tracing the story of the atonement, its primary significance, its effects, its coherence, its relation to the church, and its implications for a life of taking up the cross in self-denial and service. Treat stresses well that atonement is more about how God comes to us rather than how we come to God (17). Taking the kingdom of God as a unifying theme in the Bible’s storyline (19), he stresses that Christ as king saves a people, for a new creation, rooted in his resurrection (20-21). Sections of the book also weave sound historical theology into broader exegetical treatments of key texts (e.g., 46-48, 101-103). Doing so is valuable because it shows that the Spirit has taught the church primarily in Scripture and through his continued faithfulness to the church throughout the ages. Running the risk of making the atonement do too much, he includes “twenty dimensions of Christ’s atoning work” (64-91). At the very least, this section leads readers to see the breathtaking breadth and unity of Christ’s work in saving sinners.

Robust theological balance is a key feature of this book. The author weaves Christ’s atoning work into larger biblical themes like the kingdom of God, substitution, resurrection, covenant, church, a renewed earth, and especially the whole Trinity (e.g., 99). Moreover, the kingdom of God theme allows Treat to highlight church-oriented aspects of salvation in the setting of the new heavens and earth, calling us to discipleship now together with other believers (e.g., 22). Additionally, he stresses repeatedly that our eschatological expectation of resurrection in the new heavens and new earth “ought to deeply shape the doctrine of the atonement” (34). Treat also notes, “We must see how Christ is our substitute in all of his work” (53). This important point stresses that Christ did all that he did in our place, saving us with respect to our every need, and not merely in bearing God’s wrath for us on the cross. While many Christians today only have a partial Christ who forgives sins, Treat presents a whole Christ who wholly saves us in every respect. He also does so by asserting a classic doctrine of God, including divine simplicity in which God is his attributes and his attributes harmonize with each other (107-109). Affirming substitution as central to the atonement, Treat refuses to reduce the atonement to a single model, stating, “One of the goals of this book is to shift the conversation from exclusive theories to integrated dimensions” (63). He even addresses modern social justice movements in a balanced way, cautioning against replacing “the oppressor with the oppressed” in favor of genuine justice in shared union with Christ in the church (129). One glaring omission in this theological balance is that Treat does not answer the question of so-called “limited atonement,” or whether God designed Christ’s atonement for the elect alone. This may result from the author’s stress on the corporate aspects of atonement and redemption, seeking to blunt rampant individualism in today’s church. However, this book covers impressive theological ground in an integrated and natural way.

This reviewer has a few minor theological quibbles to note. For instance, instead of treating dominion over creation as central to what it means to be God’s image (22-23), I take the older and majority Christian view that dominion is a consequence of the image. In other words, human beings bear God’s image broadly by possessing the faculties (intellect and will) to know and worship God, while narrowly God designed us to represent his moral character. As a result, Adam and Eve had dominion over the creatures. Jesus through his incarnate work restores dominion over creation (Heb. 2:9) by becoming like his brethren and redeeming them by his blood (Heb. 2:10-18). The Spirit renews our faculties to lay hold of Christ, and God justifies and adopts us, ultimately restoring us in the (moral) image of his Son (Rom. 8:28-30). The stress lies in renewing the image in its broad and narrow senses to restore dominion over creation. This illustrates that becoming like God in Christ is better and more important than ruling over new creation, which is a capstone of the process of redemption. While not everyone will agree with this point, this is the primary picture presented of redemption throughout most of Christian history.

Another theological issue is that of “mission” in relation to the persons of the Trinity. The book’s overt Trinitarian grounding is one of its best features. Yet Treat refers to “the mission of the Triune God” (50) and he says that Christ’s “mission continues” in the church. However, in classic Trinitarian theology, “mission” means “sent.” This means that the Father has no mission since he sends without being sent. The missions of the Son and the Spirit refer to their appropriate external works in the salvation of God’s elect. Salvation thus originates with the Father, is effected through the Son, and is perfected, or applied, by the Spirit. Christ’s glorification marks the completion of his earthly mission from the Father, while the Spirit’s external mission is to continue to apply Christ to the elect through union with him by faith. Treat thus conflates the Son’s mission, in part, with the Spirit’s mission. Trinitarian sending and missions also relate to the bypassed question of whether Christ died for the elect only. If the Triune God has one will, exercised through the inseparable operations of the persons, then Jesus died for those whom the Father chose and whom the Spirit changes.

This is an excellent and soul-stirring book on a vital topic in Christian theology. Though Treat does not address every question readers will have about the atonement, and some of his conclusions might provoke disagreement, he includes many things that other treatments leave out. Grounding the atonement in the Trinity and extending its effects to the church and to creation itself are important correctives to near exclusive evangelical emphases on personal individual salvation. These are emphases we need to hear, recover, and cherish.


Ryan M. McGraw
Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary

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Crossway, 2023 | 192 pages

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