The Work of Christ by Robert Letham

Robert Letham, The Work of Christ. Contours of Christian Theology, ed. Gerald Bray. IVP, 1993. 284 pp. [Amazon | WTSBooks]

Letham’s The Work of Christ continues a series of theological studies (Contours of Christian Theology) that seeks to cover the main themes of Christian doctrine (9). The books in this series are intended “for theological students of all levels” (9). An attempt has been made to avoid overly technical language and a purely academic style. This book in particular seeks to give a fresh and contemporary analysis to the issues related to Christ’s work showing its practicality and relevance for every age.

There are many possible ways to divide a book of this nature, but Letham has chosen to outline the bulk of the book in terms of Christ’s mediatorial work as prophet, priest, and king. In Part One: Foundations, he discusses (1) Christ’s work in context, (2) the relationship between Christ and the covenant and election, (3) the theme of Christ and the kingdom, and (4) the doctrine of union with Christ. Part Two: Christ as Prophet is composed of only one chapter (5) on Christ and the Word of God. Part Three: Christ as Priest deals with (6) Christ’s human priesthood, (7) the nature of the atonement, (8) the theories of the atonement, (8) and the atonement’s relationship to justification. Part Four: Christ as King closes with two chapters on the mediatorial kingship of Christ, the first dealing with its cosmic dimension the second dealing with its corporate dimension. There is also an appendix on the intent of the atonement.

The first few centuries of the history of the church saw great emphasis placed upon the person of Christ, neglecting His work, while in recent years the emphasis has swung to a nearly exclusive focus on His work. In spite of a trend one way or the other, a biblical view will stress both since “His obedience and atoning death are both dependent on who he is” (25). That Christ was both fully God and man is an essential truth for understanding how God can save mankind. It was the very person of Christ that gave value to His vicarious work. There is a vital connection between the incarnation and the atonement; they must go together (28–29). In recent times, liberal theology has had the tendency to focus on the exemplary nature of Christ’s work, stressing his ethics and teaching (34). But such a functional Christology fails, not recognizing that this Christ was God in human flesh substituting for and representing His people.

The work of Christ was part of God’s eternal plan, which is summed up best by the terms “covenant” and “election.” The covenant concept is one of the most important for a proper understanding of Scripture. In these biblical covenants, “grace is constitutive . . . while law is regulative” (41). Though there are many covenants, they should be seen in harmony as forming one “covenant of grace” (42). Their unity is seen in the singleness of purpose they all share, the fact that they are not arbitrary, and in the unity that exists among all the people of God from all ages. The difference between the law in the OT and the law in the NT is that it is “no longer only external but [now it is] internalized” (45). Christ is central in all of the covenants as the mediator and the promised blessing. Due to the work of Karl Barth, election has in recent years been dealt with in a very Christocentric manner (53).

The kingdom of God is a very dominate theme in Scripture as well. Although there are many different opinions concerning the timing and nature of the kingdom, it seems best to see both a present and a future aspect (59–60).

The believer’s union with Christ is one of most important themes of Scripture. Many have argued that this is the central unifying theme of Paul’s own theology. Christ is the second Adam and represents of all those united to Him. Although there is a sense in which union with Christ takes place in eternity, there is also a sense in which it becomes real through the incarnation (76). Real, existential union with Christ does not happen until conversion and more specifically baptism. Christ’s death and resurrection are essential for properly understanding this union. The importance of this doctrine is that “the entirety of our experience of Christ here and now and also in the future participation in the eternal kingdom of God can be described as a growing realization of the many-sided nature of union with Jesus and Christ the second Adam” (87).

The question of the intent of the atonement is the central question of the atonement debate in our day. This is a change from the previous days that discussed the atonement in specific relationship to its extent. The issue is not so much one of number of people as it is purpose or design (225). At the heart of this debate is the related issue of the nature of the atonement. Did Christ die to save really and effectually the elect or to make a provisional payment for all men contingent upon their response? The majority of people prior to the Reformation believed in an unlimited atonement, although there were some notably individuals who did not. There are essentially four positions: (1) universalism, (2) unlimited atonement, (3) Amyraldianism, and (4) limited atonement. If one wishes to maintain that Christ died for all without exception without affirming universalism, it becomes necessary to “redefine the nature of the atonement” (230).

Letham’s book is a very good overview of the subject of the work of Christ. He brings these doctrines to bear on the contemporary scene and presents them in a fresh way. The chapters reviewed were all good, but the appendix on the intent of the atonement was unfortunately rather disappointing. It did not seem to reflect a clear organization and development of the related issues, and some of the argumentation seemed weak. Overall, though, the book receives a high rating, and I would recommend it.

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