A Review of “Christ Alone” by Stephen Wellum

In celebrating the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation we want to do more than simply remember what the Reformers taught, we want to embrace the truth of what they taught. To that end Zondervan has released their 5 Solas series, which aims to explore “What the Reformers Taught…and Why It Still Matters.” Each volume in this series explores one of the major doctrinal declarations of the Reformation movement. Professor Stephen Wellum lends his hand to the task of unpacking the doctrine of Christ Alone. Christ Alone is a compelling work on the “uniqueness of Jesus as savior.” What it lacks in presentation it makes up for in content.

Wellum is a brilliant theologian. He has a profound grasp of systematic theology, Biblical theology, and philosophy. In Christ Alone he demonstrates his broad and diverse knowledge as he weaves all three elements together. Readers will find Wellum aware and adept at interacting with many diverse scholars. I found, in particular, his footnotes a wealth of insight and academic interaction.

The book is built around the premise that Christ is the center of all Christian theology. Wellum argues from the start that Christ is the “linchpin of coherency for Reformation doctrine” (20). At the heart of the other four solas is this doctrine of Christ alone. Understanding the doctrine of Christ rightly, then, is of profound importance. If we get this doctrine wrong all else will fall too. Wellum presents the person and work of Jesus as interrelated. The significance of what Christ accomplishes is tied to who He is, and what He does manifests who He is. Wellum builds the book, then, around two central points: (1) the exclusivity of Christ, and (2) the sufficiency of Christ.

The development of the book breaks down these two central points. So, part 1 focuses on the Exclusive Identity of Christ. Here Wellum enters into the debate about Christ’s self-awareness, indicating that Jesus indeed testifies to His own unique role and person as the divine Son of God. He also demonstrates from the Apostle’s testimony the continuing witness to His exclusive identity. He segue, then, to part two by showing the interrelatedness of the incarnation and the atonement.

In part two he turns to consider the sufficiency of Christ’s work. Here Wellum demonstrates the unique role of Christ in his threefold office, relating Christ’s work to the fulfillment of the Old Testament and emphasizing His necessary essence as the God-Man. He spends three chapters focusing on penal substitutionary atonement, arguing for its supremacy in atonement theories. All along Wellum wants to drive home the Biblical truth that Christ’s work completes all that needs to be done and is therefore necessary and sufficient.

Finally, part three turns to consider the doctrine of Christ alone in relation both to history and to present life. He walks readers through the historical context of the reformer’s arguments, and then notes our “current problem” and the loss of Christ’s exclusivity today. He ends the book with a “reaffirmation” of this doctrine.

Wellum is no doubt a skilled theologian. He wades into deep waters in this volume and does so with impeccable skill. He is not the most compelling writer, and the book can at times feel dry and academic. Wellum is strong on logical progressions in his argument, it makes for a strong and compelling case, but it can be tiresome to follow the argument through the detailed progressive analysis. So Wellum can, for example, summarize Anselm’s view of the atonement in five points; and then he can argue for the strength of Anselm’s view based on two points; and then finally conclude with four weaknesses of Anselm’s view. It is a good logical progression, but it can feel tedious when section after section of each chapter operates this way.

It is also strange to me that Wellum spends so much time on only one aspect of the uniqueness and sufficiency of Christ’s work: penal substitutionary atonement. He makes his case for why this should be emphasized, stating that the Bible does place more emphasis on Christ’s priestly role and sacrifice for sinners, and he argues that PSA serves as the central dimension of the atonement. Therefore, it follows, that he would want to emphasize this aspect of Christ’s work. But Wellum spends three chapters on the doctrine. He presents its place within history, and then offers two chapters directly on defense and articulation of the doctrine. It seems a bit overkill to this reader. No doubt Wellum is responding to the resistance this doctrine has received in the contemporary theological scene, but to spend three chapters on it in a book with a broader goal seems excessive. Other readers may disagree.

Overall this is a phenomenal work with much to commend. Wellum’s clarity and depth of thinking on the person and work of Christ are to be appreciated. If the book lacks some in presentation it should be read for its content and valued for its contribution to the ongoing discussion. I suspect parts of this work appear in Wellum’s larger Christology, but this volume certainly has a more refined focus and therefore can serve to sit alongside other works on the doctrine of Christ. While it wouldn’t be my first choice for recommending a Christology book to someone, the experienced theologian looking for a new book to add to the discussion will certainly want to check out Wellum’s Christ Alone.

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