In Death by Love: Letters from the Cross (Crossway, 2008), Driscoll describes the cross as a multi-faceted jewel that needs to be appreciated in all its biblical glory. He refuses to pit one theory of the atonement against another, instead insisting that the proper view of the cross will lead to proper pastoral application of each theory.
“Most poor teaching about the cross results from someone’s denying one of these facets, ignoring one of these facets, or overemphasizing one of these facets at the expense of others, often due to an overreaction to someone else’s overreaction. Such narrow and reactionary theology has tragically caused the beauty of the cross to become obscured by the various warring teams that have risen up to argue for their systematic theology rather than bowing down in humble worship of the crucified Jesus.” (10)
Driscoll may be committed to letting all of the atonement theories have their place, but he remains staunchly committed to the traditional substituationary view. He takes on the recent critics of the substitutionary view:
“Such critics are also commonly known to be the most vocal of hypocrites, simultaneously demanding justice on the earth for the poor, oppressed, and abused, while denying God the same kind of justice that is due him by those people that he created to glorify him with sinless obedience.” (22)
One might say that Driscoll sees substitution as the central theory, around which all the other theories find their ultimate meaning and strongest application.
Death by Love contains powerful imagery. You cannot read the accounts of sin and its consequences without feeling a sense of holy rage and holy sadness. Driscoll does not tone down his talk about evil. He describes it in gut-wrenching detail.
Another strength of Death by Love is the nature of Driscoll’s pastoral insights. He is able to apply the atonement practically without neglecting the powerful theological content necessary to do the job. Who would have thought that a book on the cross for a popular level audience would include a chapter on Driscoll’s view of “unlimited limited atonement”? Even more, who would have expected a chapter like this to be so practical (and convicting)?
I was glad to see that Driscoll did not argue for merely one atonement theory at the expense of the others. The different motifs are weaved into most of the letters. The chapter on reconciliation, for example, overlaps with the Christus Victor theme. The reason for such overlap comes from Driscoll’s commitment to explaining the atonement biblically instead of forcing artificial distinctions upon the atonement theories.
This commitment to the beauty of each aspect of the atonement gives Death by Love a depth sadly missing from many evangelical books on the cross. For example, when Driscoll tells someone to forgive his dad who beat him mercilessly, he is able to ground the appeal to forgiveness in the cross itself. This makes his instruction much richer and deeper than just telling the man to “forgive.”
At times, Driscoll describes Jesus’ crucifixion in gruesome detail that rivals Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ. This kind of detail can be useful in preaching, especially due to our tendency to sanitize what happened at Calvary. Still, I cannot help but ask why (if such detail is necessary) the Gospels avoid such gruesome depictions. Breshears rightly points out that “fascination with blood itself has no resonance with the Bible,” (85) which makes me wonder why Driscoll describes the bloody cross in so much detail in many of his letters.
Readers may grow weary at times of the repetition in these letters. Since each chapter is a letter from Driscoll to a specific individual, the chapters tend to repeat previous themes again and again. The letter-format explains why this is the case, but the average reader might grow weary of the repetition.
The other weakness of the book is the absence of the Church. Of course, it could be said that the book contains Driscoll’s letters to individuals. True. But where is the biblical emphasis on Jesus dying to create a church, breaking down barriers between Jew and Gentile in order to form a worldwide community of believers from every tribe and tongue and nation? I expected this theme to come up in the chapter on reconciliation, but it did not.
Perhaps a chapter called “Jesus is my Church Membership” could have been written to the scores of young people today who see the believing community as an optional aspect of the Christian faith instead of one of the central reasons why Christ died.
Overall, Death by Love: Letters from the Cross is a solid book that ably demonstrates the power of Jesus’ Passion for everyday life. Pastors and laypeople alike will benefit from the cross-centered counseling that fills these “letters.”