Death by Love: Letters from the CrossWritten by Mark Driscoll and Gerry Breshears Reviewed By Joe Tyrpak
Mark Driscoll’s ministry style and verbal frankness have earned him a fairly controversial reputation within evangelicalism. His recent book Death by Love, however, is a straightforward exposition of Jesus’ crucifixion as a “multi-faceted jewel” (p. 10), a presentation lacking the edginess that has invited criticism in the past.
The book is coauthored: Driscoll wrote the preface, introduction, and twelve chapters, while Breshears drafted the helpful Q&A sections that follow each chapter. The book’s format is straightforward. In the introduction Driscoll expounds the historical facts of Jesus’ crucifixion. The twelve ensuing chapters are letters written to twelve individuals whom Driscoll counseled. Each letter unpacks a distinct theological facet of the substitutionary atonement (e.g., redemption, justification, propitiation, expiation, reconciliation, Christus victor, Christus exemplar) and applies that truth to a real life need. Driscoll’s twofold goal in writing is (1) to make the rich truth of the cross “understandable to regular folks” and (2) to provide an example of cross-centered ministry for church leaders (p. 9). Driscoll hit the bull’s eye on both targets.
The book evidences a very sober understanding of the horrifying realities of sin (e.g., domestic violence, adultery, sexual abuse, depression, and hypocritical self-righteousness). Far from providing trite answers, the book provides solutions that are deeply rooted in biblical theology, in extensive counseling experience, and in a relational framework that centers on local-church accountability.
Driscoll’s content throughout is both thorough and orderly. For example, he offers seven frequent tactics of Satan against Christians (pp. 48–51), five steps to experiencing full liberation from sin (pp. 65–67), ten distinctions between man-made religion and the biblical gospel (pp. 93–100), three categories of defilement by sin (pp. 148–49), four “fig leaves” that women often use to try to hide their shame (pp. 150–52), four questions to help someone identify personal bitterness (p. 221), and eight truths about God that are unveiled by the cross (pp. 239–45). Further, Driscoll offers a specific test case to make people more aware of their functional gospel, functional gods, and functional heaven (pp. 89–93). Such substantial, organized content makes for a book that is useful, memorable, and easy to reference.
Throughout Death by Love Driscoll’s tone exemplifies several aspects of pastoral counseling that are kept in good balance: personal encouragement (pp. 39, 83, 133–35), direct confrontation (pp. 40, 64, 90–91, 103, 110–14, 130–31, 146–47, 192–93), righteous anger (pp. 74–75, 126–29, 146, 184–86), empathy (pp. 39–40, 126, 145–46), straightforward evangelism (pp. 59–60, 117–18, 193, 225–26, 247–48), humble self-identification (pp. 67–68, 103, 116–17, 218–19), and helpful precision (pp. 103–4, 127–28, 133, 146–50, 188–89, 199–201). One poignant example will reveal the pastoral tone of this book. In concluding his letter to Mary (chap. 7), a woman who is experiencing deep shame because of sexual sin she has committed and sexual sin that others have committed against her, Driscoll writes,
You can no longer allow your identity to be shaped by what you have done.… You can no longer allow your identity to be shaped by what has been done to you.… Mary, if I were preaching this to you, I would be shouting at this point; so please hear my plea for your stained soul. Your identity must be marked only by what Jesus Christ has done for you and no longer by what has been done by or to you. To explain this, the Bible uses terms such as atonement, cleansing, and a purifying fountain. (pp. 152–53)
These sorts of “windows” into various pastoral counseling situations are what make this book exceptionally helpful for “regular folks,” whether pastors or otherwise.
Interlaced in these helpful expositions are a few theological issues that will raise concerns for some. While his primary point to avoid emphasizing one truth at the expense of another (i.e., the Holy Spirit and Jesus; Pentecost and the cross) is well taken, Driscoll seems to give uncritical and unsubstantiated endorsement to charismatic practice (pp. 208–11). Most concerns, however, will revolve around Driscoll’s innovative position that he titles “Unlimited Limited Atonement” (chap. 8). In his discussion on this point, many readers will question whether his understanding of his own position over against the traditional understandings of unlimited atonement and limited atonement are historically viable and accurately nuanced.
Despite these few questionable positions, Death by Love is biblically orthodox, theologically comprehensive, and provides one of the most practical and pastoral applications of the truth of Jesus’ substitutionary atonement in print.
Tri-County Bible Church
Madison, Ohio, USA