What is this book about?
This book is about the atonement (6, 9) as it is viewed objective and subjectively, that is, the atonement seen both from the perspective of historia salutis (i.e. Christ’s once-for-all accomplishment of redemption) and ordo salutis (Christ’s application of redemption to his church). On the former, professor Murray treats the necessity, nature, perfection, and extent of the atonement; on the latter, he explains effectual calling, regeneration, conversion (faith and repentance), justification, adoption, sanctification, union with Christ, and glorification. Therefore, professor Murray treats succinctly the various topics that you may find in a larger dogmatics or systematic theology textbooks under the sections on the work of Christ and/or soteriology.
This little book’s great importance lies in how it introduces the reader to the big picture of Christ’s mediatorial work. Without understanding that Christ first accomplishes salvation for us and then dispenses his benefits to us (i.e. objective accomplishment, then subjective application; historia salutis, then ordo salutis) Christians are led into all manners of Pelagian heresies (i.e. most of what passes for American “Christianity” these days); for, without Christ’s full, objective mediatorial work, we are left in a sea of subjectivity, without a perfect law-keeper, without a perfect satisfaction, without an advocate before the Father, without a great High Priest in the heavenlies praying for us and ministering his Gospel benefits to us. In a word, then, this book is about the big picture of how the Gospel works: Christ accomplishes salvation for us; then, Christ applies salvation to us.
What is the book’s context?
John Murray (1898-1975) was a minister in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church and a professor of systematic theology at Westminster Theological Seminary. This book is primarily didactic, rather than polemic. Professor Murray sets forth his arguments plainly from Holy Scripture. The few polemical elements that enter into Murray’s purview are aimed at 20th century liberalism (31) and mysticism (77, 168). All in all the reader can expect a straightforward, humble explanation of the atonement from a Reformed perspective.
What is unique about the book’s content?
Readers will appreciate Murray’s keen ability to succinctly define theological terms, such as: propitiate (30), sin (32), faith (107), justification (119), et. al. Thus, Murray leads you along and teaches you along the way, rather than speaking over your head.
Also, Professor Murray is an organized and systematic thinker. His arguments proceed in outlined form and follow logical sequences. You may disagree at points with Murray’s argument; but, you will probably never complain of Murray being unclear or disorganized.
Furthermore, Reformed readers will appreciate Murray’s confessional sensibility and creativity. The Westminster Confession and Catechisms are always humming implicitly just below the surface, popping up explicitly at times in Murray’s thoughts.
The one aspect of Murray’s presentation I found odd is the chapter on “union with Christ” (ch. 9). I don’t mean odd in the sense of wrong, quite the contrary–This chapter was perhaps my favorite of the whole book! However, it seems odd in the sense of out of place in Murray’s line of thinking.
In Murray’s argument, the eternal aspect of redemption precedes and grounds the entire accomplishment and application of redemption (163-164). In other words, union with Christ “is in itself a very broad and embracive subject” which “when viewed, according to the teaching of Scripture, in its broader aspects it underlies every step of the application of redemption” (161). If the eternal grounds the temporal at “every step,” then it would seem more appropriate to move the chapter on union with Christ to the beginning of the book, allowing the eternal plan to ground both the accomplishment and the application of redemption. Such a re-arrangement of chapters would allow God’s glory to come into its own as, to use the Reformed dogmatics terms, the pactum salutis would precede and ground both the historia and ordo salutis (or, to use trinitarian concepts, the opera Dei ad intra precede and ground the ad extra).
Murray’s own comments at the start of ch. 9 indicate that he himself was not comfortable with how he arranged the placement of ch. 9. However, my contention is that the principles Murray was driving at when discussing the eternal union with Christ ought to be strengthened so as to come into their rightful place in relating the heavenly realm to the earthly, giving full priority and preeminence to the former. Such an effort to ground redemption fully in God’s eternal glory may require a new title as well: Redemption Planned; Redemption Accomplished; Redemption Applied.