In this volume Mark Driscoll, with help from professor Gerry Breshears, clarifies many of his theological positions via a unique format: personal letters. He explains that each of the twelve chapters “begins with the introduction of someone I have worked with in my role as one of the pastors at Mars Hill Church. I then proceed to write a personal letter to him or her explaining one side of the great jewel of the cross so that the person and work of Jesus are made intensely practical for that person’s life” (p. 13).
In many ways this proves to be a good approach as the truth of Scripture is personalized and thus more easily applied. Driscoll’s trade-mark “in-your-face” personality shows up regularly, but not to the level of crudeness for which he has become (in)famous. He pulls few punches, but compassion shines through as well.
Theologically, Driscoll is largely on target in this volume. He takes a strong stand for penal substitution and calls out those who deny it, such as Brian McLaren and Steve Chalke, even labeling such men, along with Doug Pagitt and Spencer Burke, as defenders of the heresy of “Christian” universalism (p.180). He also provides good material on the difference between expiation and propitiation (p. 137), often referring to the Day of Atonement in the process (pp. 21, 153, 159, 179, 210). The authors rightly support translating hilaskomai as propitiation in the New Testament as no other word or phrase captures the true meaning of the word. Driscoll also provides an excellent comparison of the different atonement theories (pp. 168-177) and surprisingly (given those he is associated with theologically, such as John Piper) comes out for what he calls unlimited limited atonement, which is that Jesus died to provide payment for all but only in a saving way for the elect (pp. 168-177).
There are a few areas in which I would take exception to Driscoll’s views:
• He misses the stigma of the cross when he writes, “In our day, this would be akin to a junkie’s needle or a pervert’s used condom becoming the world’s most beloved symbol and adorning homes, churches, and bodies” (p. 18). The cross was a symbol of execution and death not perversion and addiction.
• Could he really believe that “today, a few billion people worship Jesus as their only God because they, like Paul, have realized that Jesus died for them personally” (Gal 2:20)? Such a definition of “Christians” would have to include all Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox and cult members in the body of Christ.
• Driscoll’s understanding of spiritual warfare is deficient. For one thing he believes in generational demons (p. 41). Additionally, he and Breshears need to sharpen their understanding of demonic possession. Demons can attack and tempt Christians but they cannot indwell them. The authors attempt to defend a convoluted view of spiritual warfare based upon a definition found in the Merriam-Webster dictionary rather than on the Greek word daimonizomai. This leads to faulty and unbiblical advice on how to defend oneself from demons (pp. 53-54).
• Driscoll believes we must confess sins committed against us (pp. 153-158). In doing this it might become necessary to uncover some repressed memories and make them known to others (p. 155). These steps will lead to Jesus purifying us from all unrighteousness—including the “filth that has come upon your soul by the failures of [others]” (p. 156). But Scripture does not teach that we are spiritually defiled by the sins of others, although we may suffer great pain. Nor does the Bible teach us to confess the sins that others have committed against us. Also, repressed memories are an invention of Freud, not taught in Scripture as Jesus said, “That which proceeds out of the man, that is what defiles the man” (Mark 7:20).
• I would disagree with Driscoll’s unsubstantiated remark that “more fundamental Christians bypass the self-emptying of the eternal Son” (p. 200). No one I know within fundamental ranks minimizes the human side of the incarnation.
• Driscoll levels a broad and unsubstantiated criticism when he writes, “Apart from reading dead guys like the Puritans and other guys who read those dead guys, such as my hero Charles Hadden Spurgeon and friend John Piper, you will be unlikely to find the themes [glorifying God, walking in the Spirit, the church and humble suffering] expounded in any great detail in our present age of Christianity Lite” (p. 202). While I agree there are many insipid, weak-kneed forms of Christianity being propagated today, Driscoll paints with far too wide a brush. There are scores of “live” guys preaching and writing about the true message of the cross. And many of these do not emerge from the Puritan stream only but base their cross-theology in the Scriptures where it belongs.
• Theologically Driscoll apparently wants to identify with “one of the most curious trends in theology…charismatic Calvinists” (p. 208). These are believers who combine Calvinist theology with “Spirit-filled lives of kingdom power, demonstrated in everything from healing to miracles, supernatural wisdom, and humble, Christlike joy in sufferings” (p. 208). Driscoll rejects cessationism and believes that all the sign-gifts identified in the New Testament are being displayed in the church today.
Death by Love delivers much good material in spite of the caveats above but I would register one further disappointment—the book gives no hints as to how those who receive Driscoll’s letters responded. Perhaps this is mere curiosity but I believe it would have added a helpful dimension to the storyline.