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Book Review: God the Peacemaker: How Atonement Brings Shalom

(Thanks to Adrianna from IVP for providing me with a review copy)

The New Studies in Biblical Theology Series (NSBT) is a one of my favorite series of monographs. Previous titles published include, Original Sin by Henri Blocher and The Temple and the Church's Mission by Greg Beale, so it was with great anticipation that I selected Graham Cole's book, 'God the Peacemaker.' I was not disappointed.

Cole proceeds from plight to solution, beginning by diagnosing the problem, namely, evil, and God's answer for it, the atonement. Our sin has caused a rupture in our relationship with God, others and the world, and the atonement repairs that rupture, hence the title of the book (22). To flesh that out a little, 'the divine atoning nothing less than to secure God's people in God's place under God's reign living God's way enjoying God's shalom in God's loving and holy presence as both family and worshippers, to God's glory' (25).

I found the first main chapter, which starts with God, to be one of the most helpful sections of the book. Cole begins by attacking the idea that we can understand God as love alone, or make love the controlling attribute of God through which we understand the rest of his attributes (33-37). He uses Barth as an example. Barth broke the attributes into two kinds of divine perfections, perfections of divine freedom (such as omnipresence, eternity, and glory) and perfections of divine loving (such as grace, mercy, righteousness, and holiness). However, Cole points out that Barth's theory was too restrictive, for divine holiness is not a perfection of divine loving in any obvious sense (36-37). What Cole opts for instead, is to break Barth's perfections of divine loving into three: love, righteousness, and holiness (37). In the subsequent pages (38-46) Cole fleshes out these three and makes a few helpful points along the way. One is that righteousness and holiness sometimes result in wrath and other times result in salvation (43). The implication that he later draws from this is that wrath and mercy are not essential divine attributes (the way holiness and love are essential to God's being), but are expressions of essential attributes like holiness or love (51-52).

The next two chapters delineate the problem. To use the title from chapter two we are 'the glory and the garbage of the universe.' Some may find that language to be a bit extreme but I think that Cole's point is sound and needs to be heard. We are created in God's image, but then we have the fall, or as Cole prefers 'the rupture' (56). Because of sin, we have a rupture in our relationship with God, each other, and the cosmos. 'Any account of human beings that doesn't reckon with this paradox is flawed' (66). We are capable of both great good and great evil. As Cole goes on to discuss in chapter three, this fall has left us with a great need, for peace with God, each other, and the cosmos, a relational peace (67). Sin caused a problem for us, because of it we have to face God's wrath (here Cole makes a helpful distinction, wrath is anger, not a temper-tantrum 72-73) and judgment. Again, though, it is not just our relationship with God that was affected, our relationship with others have been tarnished. Strife has been inserted. As Cole notes, it's very significant that the first sin after the fall is Cain's murder of Abel (78). Our account of sin isn't complete, though, until we also see that sin brings bondage to the devil, and he must be defeated and we must be freed (80-82). Not only we are in need of freedom, but, drawing on Romans 8:20-22, Cole also notes that all of creation needs to be freed (82-83).

What was God going to do about all of this? In chapter 4, Cole goes through and follows the plot line of the Old Testament showing how God laid the foundations for the atonement in the protoevangelium, the Abrahamic covenant, the story of Israel (especially focusing on sacrifice and the Day of Atonement), and the Servant Songs in Isaiah - which were particularly significant because we see the idea of one suffering to atone for many (101).

In my opinion, the fifth chapter was Cole's best, where he discusses Christ's faithfulness in his life and death. Jesus came as both the new Adam and the new Israel and, 'In his humanity he is all that Adam should have been and the embodiment of all that Israel's covenant faithfulness should have been' (107). This is seen in both Jesus life and his death. Even the chief priests saw how faith-filled Jesus was in his death when they say in Matthew 23:48 that, 'He trusts in God. Let God rescue him now if he wants...' (109). Jesus life was a life of his trust in God. Cole gets into the pistis Christou debate, and while attempting to be non-committal, he seems, in my opinion, to ultimately favor a subjective genitive reading (113-115). Why does it matter that Jesus was faithful? In a word, imputation, which Cole sees as a result of our union with Christ (118).

Chapter six deals with the death and resurrection of Jesus. Here we reap the benefits of this being a study of biblical theology as opposed to systematic theology. When we look at the atonement in the big picture of what God is doing to bring about redemption, we see that we need to combine more than one model of the atonement into our theory. Cole does this as he combines both Christus Victor and substitution into his model, and (I think correctly) makes the Christus Victor primary with penal substitutionary atonement paradoxically being the means of the victory (130). The atonement brought satisfaction, satisfaction of God's holiness (132-134), God's righteousness (134-141), and God's love (141-143). The last of these is sometimes overlooked in studies of the atonement, but Cole helpfully reminds us by quoting of Van Dyk that, 'In this dramatic self surrender, God's love finds its fullest satisfaction and expression' (143). Cole closes the chapter by discussing the necessity of the resurrection, which he sees functioning as God's approval of the work Christ had done (154).

What are the effects of the atonement for us? It brings shalom, a peace that is objective, not subjective (157). First, we as individuals receive peace with God through our union with Christ. Christ is the sphere in which we receive all of the blessings of his sacrifice (158): forgiveness of sins, cleansing, justification, redemption, adoption, and reconciliation (each of which are expanded upon in succession on 158-178). Not only do we have peace with God, but we have peace with one another. Our union with Christ brings unity and should end hostility (181).

Chapter 8 is the last major chapter and it looks at how we should live as a result of the atonement. 'The gospel life is one that refracts the dying and rising of Christ as symbolized in a Christian baptism' (193). Thus it is to be a life of other regard that is a living sacrifice, that gives our all (204). Cole puts some meat on this skeleton by suggesting two ways in which this is to be done. He looks at the Beatitudes in Matthew 5 and suggests that our primary role is to be merciful and peacemakers. This point is probably my biggest criticism (but not a major one) of Cole's book. Why are these two items selected out of the Sermon on the Mount? He is right in emphasizing that we are called to be salt and light (205), but why are these two the primary way to do that? No rationale is given, and I find the choices to be somewhat curious given their location in the Sermon on the Mount (prior to the command to be salt and light) and their purpose (eschatalogical blessing - as Cole notices! 206). Perhaps his space was limited, but I felt that a much fuller discussion was needed here. Mercy and peacemaking certainly are chief tasks for the Christian, I'd just like to know why he thinks that they stand above the others.

The last two chapters are very brief. In chapter nine he focuses on the goal of the atonement, the glory of God. Here, again I found Cole to be helpful. He understands God's glory as his presence, the totality of who he is (225). The purpose of the atonement is to reveal that glory. At the same time glory, in terms of honor or reputation is also pursued as the goal of the atonement. Here he draws on and sounds very much like Lewis and Piper (227-228).

Cole ends with an appendix that briefly deals with the objections to penal substitution. While he breaks no new ground, I found it to be a good and useful summary of the current state of the question. He's fair to his opponents and heavily footnotes the discussion providing one with ample opportunity to dive into the questions more deeply if they so desired.

In conclusion I would say that Cole's book is an excellent overview of atonement. The strength is its breadth. Every major aspect of the subject is addressed. At several points this reader clamored for more detail, but given the constraints of the book it really wasn't possible. Compared to other books in this series, it was a bit more accessible to a general audience. That's not to say that it was shallow, it just wasn't all that difficult. I think that the ideal audience for this book is in the classroom, whether for an undergraduate course or an introductory level seminary class. Perhaps, too, it could be used with profit in the local church setting as I think it would be helpful for those who want to understand the big picture of what God has done and is doing in the world.


  1. Have you read McKnight's book on the Atonement. I can't say I've ever read an entire book on the subject, but I'd like to. I wonder how they compare...

  2. I haven't, but it's on my list. I hope to get to it sometime this year. Cole cites McKnight approvingly on several occasions, so I think that the two books would probably be complimentary.


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