John Murray, Redemption Accomplished and Applied (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1955), pp 192.
Wouldn’t it be nice to say that all skewed “gospels” have left the modern Church for good? Unfortunately we can’t. Richard Hays, for example, claims that Jesus died primarily to provide a “paradigm for faithfulness to God in this world” (from The Moral Vision of the New Testament, pp 197). For Hays, traditional Christianity has missed the mark because the gospel is chiefly an invitation to live like Jesus. In Reimagining Christianity (pp 132), Alan Jones agrees:
The Church’s fixation on the death of Jesus as the universal saving act must end, and the place of the cross must be reimagined in Christian faith. Why? Because of the cult of suffering and the vindictive God behind it. Penal substitution was the name of this vile doctrine.
Hays and Jones forget that redemption has everything to do with what God has done for us and nothing to do with what we can do for Him. In the Old and New Testaments, grace always precedes law (Ex. 19:1-5; Eph. 2:1-10). God’s faithfulness always precedes His expectation of our faithfulness. In contrast, the gospel according to Hays and Jones is a new, sexier legalism – a religious shadow of biblical Christianity that insists on good deeds first.
In 1937, H. Richard Niebuhr criticized liberalism in his book The Kingdom of God in America. His scathing analysis of the social gospel sounds a bit too familiar: “a God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of Christ without a cross.” Niebuhr’s assessment applies as much today as it did in his own day.
Fifty-five years ago, the Princetonian theologian John Murray wrote a book about God’s salvation project called Redemption Accomplished and Applied. This little classic may serve as a powerful tonic to the weary Christian, navigating the troubled waters of evangelicalism. Through its pages, you can almost hear Murray declare to the modern church: “the Gospel of Jesus Christ doesn’t need to be reimagined or reinvented by jaded men who throw out their Bibles with the bathwater. The Gospel needs to be remembered and celebrated.”
Summary and Evaluation
Murray’s book is divided into two sections: Redemption accomplished, which expounds the purpose of the atonement; and Redemption applied, which explains how the atonement is applied to Christians. In the opening chapters, Murray explores the necessity, nature, perfection, and extent of the atonement.
To understand what was accomplished on the Cross, Murray explains four biblical terms: sacrifice, propitiation, reconciliation, and redemption. Old Testament temple sacrifices preview Jesus as the final sacrifice. Temple offerings were shadows and patterns of Jesus’ sacrifice, because of the great disproportion between the sin committed and the temple offering. Jesus, the archetype sacrifice, offers Himself as the perfect sacrifice for sins.
Closely linked to sacrifice are the ideas of propitiation and reconciliation. A sacrifice is required in the first place because God’s unfathomable holiness requires His unfathomable wrath. God’s wrath must be absorbed by the offering in order for the sinner to stand free before God. Propitiation, then, means that Jesus absorbs God’s wrath for Christians. While propitiation focuses on shielding God’s wrath, reconciliation focuses on restoring enemies to God’s favor. Reconciliation is the distinct work of God in Jesus’ sacrifice to remove the grounds of alienation (sin and guilt) and to restore our relationship with the Father.
Murray claims that to understand redemption we must understand ransom (42). Taking his cues from Matthew 20:28 and Romans 3:21-26, Murray points out that ransom presupposes a kind of bondage or captivity to sin (43). Redemption is God’s work to ransom sinners out of this captivity. And the price was the death of His Son.
Our author affirms Christus Victor (the teaching that Jesus’ death is primarily a triumph over Satan and evil powers). Yet he wisely discounts the “prominent place” the early church fathers gave to “this phase of redemption” (49). For Murray, the heart of the Christian faith is that Jesus Christ lived, died, and rose again to redeem sinners to God. Still, this redemption from sin also means that Satan was dealt a deathblow at the Cross (Jn 12:31; Col 2:13-15; Heb 2:14-15).
Murray also treats the popular idea of Christus Exemplar (Latin for “Christ our example”). Hays and Jones champion this teaching, which considers Jesus’ death on the Cross as primarily the best example for Christian living. Murray takes to task the Hays and Jones’ of his day, Horace Bushnell (55). He affirms that the sacrifice of Christ provides us with the “supreme example of virtue” (55). But like Christus Victor, he doesn’t give it a primary place in his discussion of Jesus’ sacrifice. Jesus’ death is primarily atonement for sins and secondarily an example for the Church.
The second half of our book applies God’s redemption to sinners. Murray begins by defending his ordo salutis (order of salvation): calling; regeneration; faith and repentance; justification; adoption; sanctification; perseverance; union with Christ; and glorification. One chapter is dedicated to each phase of salvation.
Christians should think and feel deeply about these stages, because they reveal different angles of redemption. In God’s wisdom, He chose to reveal some aspects of redemption in familiar cultural terms. Only when these salvation metaphors are understood together do we get the full sense of God’s magnificent salvation:
- Redemption — Economic/Slave Market
- Regeneration — Birth process
- Justification — Law Court
- Propitiation/Expiation — Cultic/Jewish Temple
- Reconciliation — Relational
- Adoption — Familial
Surprisingly, Murray begins with calling but neglects election. Election means that before the foundation of the world, God chose some to be a part of His family. God’s choice is motivated by love for people and a desire to be glorified for His grace (Eph 1:3-6). Those whom God elects before time, He calls within time. Murray says God’s calling is His “efficacious summons by which the people of God are ushered into fellowship and union with Christ” (94).
Murray defines regeneration as “the operative grace whereby the person called is enabled to answer the call and to embrace Jesus Christ as he is freely offered in the gospel” (96). Regeneration is spiritual birth, a powerful work of God which makes alive those whom He has elected and called (Eph 2:1-9). It is the special grace that God grants those whom He is preparing for conversion. Regeneration makes faith and repentance possible. Murray rightly says, “we are not born again by faith or repentance or conversion; we repent and believe because we have been regenerated (103).
Murray’s chapters on justification and sanctification are exceptional. He carefully distinguishes justification (a declaration of righteous standing before God) from sanctification (the gradual process of being made righteous). In justification, the righteousness of Christ is imputed to our account and we are accepted as righteous before God (124). The justified Christian then works out His salvation by becoming what He already is in Christ. When discussing sanctification, Murray emphasizes the role of the Spirit, our dependence on the Spirit, and the importance of our conscious efforts to grow (146-150).
Sandwiched between justification and sanctification is Murray’s chapter on adoption. Few theologians give significant attention to spiritual adoption, so I was happy that Murray would dedicate a whole chapter to it. For Murray, adoption refers to the justified becoming the children of God, receiving all the rights and privileges of God’s family. Unfortunately, he neglects to couch spiritual adoption within Roman adoption practices (see Trevor Burke’s excellent work Adoption into God’s Family). In doing so, he misses the depth and wonder of joining God’s household. He also doesn’t distinguish between present and future adoption (Eph 1:5; Rom. 8:15-23). While spiritual adoption means experiencing a new status and family in the present, the fullness of spiritual adoption will not be experienced until the next age.
Murray closes his book with discussions on perseverance, union with Christ, and glorification. His section on union with Christ is probably his best chapter. He deals with this unique doctrine with keen insight and biblical balance. Like adoption, this doctrine is often overlooked in modern theology. But for Murray, union with Christ is the central doctrine of salvation. The foundation of salvation is our union with Christ, because the whole course of salvation – from election to glorification – happens “in Christ.” Union with Christ describes converted persons who identify with Jesus’ death, resurrection, and exaltation (Rom. 6:2-11; Eph 2:4-6; Col 3:3-4). Through this spiritual and mystical union, Christians receive spiritual blessings and resources for life (cf. Jn 15:1-7; 2 Cor 5:17; Eph 5:23-32; Gal 2:20).
Significance for Today
This book is a feast for the Christian mind and heart. Though Murray’s style of writing is academic, it was not difficult to move from thinking deeply about redemption to praising God for His amazing grace. We remember Paul, who couldn’t help but “bless” and “praise” God when he thought about salvation (Eph 1:3-14).
Today the Gospel means different things to different people. Blindspots of the conservative church (e.g. serving the poor) are made gospel issues. Prosperity and therapeutic teachings are sneaking in the door. Jesus’ divinity is downplayed. Consumerism and entertainnment threaten to distract. In this dangerous milieu, Murray’s book is a necessary corrective and reminder. Instead of reinventing Christianity or reshaping the Gospel or reimagining Jesus, Christians ought to remember, celebrate, and live out the true Gospel of Jesus Christ.
A few years ago, Don Carson warned the younger generations against becoming “prophets from the margins.” If our generation makes central what’s peripheral or screams the loudest about what’s secondary, then fifty years from now we will lose the Gospel. So we owe a debt to men like John Murray, who faithfully called his generation to love the true Gospel of Jesus Christ. May we do the same.