Death by Love: Letters From the Cross

May 6, 2009 — 7 Comments

Death by Love

Death by Love is a book essentially written by pastor Mark Driscoll of Mars Hill Church (in Seattle, not to be confused with the one in Michigan), but contains also help in writing by Dr. Gerry Breshears of Western Theological Seminary. The book is formatted as pastoral letters to people that pastor Mark has worked with in his ministry and connects practical implications of the atonement to their everyday life situations. At the end of each chapter there is a theological Q&A , which is where Dr. Breshears’ contributions come into play. As such, it is an extremely readable and applicable book for every Christian to engage in order to more fully understand the implications of the cross. The authors’ hope in writing is to “make otherwise complicated truths understandable to regular folks so that their love for and worship of Jesus would increase as they pick up their cross to follow him” (pg.9).


This is a book that attempts “to faithfully and passionately articulate the truth about Jesus’ cross” (pg.10). It is additionally an “effort to show that there is no such thing as Christian community or Christian ministry apart from a rigorous theology of the cross that is practically applied to the lives of real people” (pg.13). So far, the bar has been raised rather high for this particular book, but as pastor Mark unpacks the formula further, we find that their approach to accomplishing the above goals is to present a portrait of God in each chapter, and then to proceed next “to examine of a biblical aspect of sin and a correlating effect of Jesus death as the solution to the sin problem as dictated by God” (pg.13). In effect, their method is God, human sin in light of God, God’s redemptive work on the cross, and then connecting the three together. The result is that the cross is intimately connected to much more human life than one would normally anticipate it to be. Their prayer in concluding the preface is that the book will be “intensely practical in nature, pastoral in tone, theological in depth, biblical in content, and worshipful in consequence” (pg. 14) As this is what they are aiming for, I will use those categories to further evaluate the book itself and see if it meets its own goals.

Before jumping in further however, there is an additional introduction, this time not to the content and purpose of the book itself, but an introduction to Christ’s substitutionary atonement. This book is essentially a practical exposition of the atonement, and so before it can really get off the ground, there are several things that must be clarified about Jesus atonement. The chapter in question is aptly titled “We Killed God: Jesus is Our Substitutionary Atonement.” This gives one a bit of a clue which model/understanding of the atonement they are using. Indeed we find a rather traditional understanding of the substitutionary atonement in play: “The good news of the gospel is that Jesus died to take to himself the penalty for our sins” (pg. 20). This of course is the penal substitution view and is highlighted in the Reformation and the theologies of John Calvin and Martin Luther (pg.22). Then by means of short biblical exposition we see that “indeed the human problem is sin, the divine motivation is holy love, and the death and resurrection of the God-man Jesus is the solution” (pg.23).

The next section unpacks a rather moving description of Jesus death from the Last Supper to his resurrection and highlights the sayings Jesus said from the cross itself. Pastor Mark concludes by crowing the substitutionary atonement made possible by Jesus’ death on the cross to be the great jewel of our faith. The following chapters in the book seek to then examine the jewel from 12 glorious sides so that they might together and in their fullness shine forth the glory of God. Rather than a chapter by chapter summary, we’ll again as mentioned examine the book and see it follows well its own categories in seeking to connect the different aspects of Christ’s work on the cross together and then to enrich the individuals’ in question understanding of the cross and then their ability to apply it to their lives by the power of the Holy Spirit.

Practical Nature

First, we will examine the contents to see if they retain an intensely practical nature. Just speaking from personal experience, I have found many of the insights to be extremely practical in nature both in my own life, and in a counseling/discipleship ministry. Particularly what comes to mind is the chapter entitled, “My Wife Slept With My Friend: Jesus is Luke’s New Covenant Sacrifice,” where Pastor Mark explains to Luke that even though he wants to blood to atone for the sexual sin his wife and his friend committed against him, he already got that blood at the cross as it covered his wife’s sin. The status of his friend’s salvation was unknown, as Mark wisely pointed out, meaning that if Jesus blood does not cover this man’s sin, he will spend eternity in hell for it. I have found having a tight understanding of this principle to be extremely practical in enabling one to forgive grievances committed against them, as practically speaking, someone was already murdered to cover it (or of course someone will spend eternity in hell for it). Practicalities abound, and I suppose it just depends on where you find yourself when you read the book how one section is maybe more practical than another. Of other practical value is the chapter on Christ’s death providing our righteousness (“I am a ‘Good’ Christian: Jesus is David’s Gift Righteousness”). In unpacking how Christ is our righteousness one is able to see that attempting to be righteous within one’s own power is ultimately futile and a rejection of grace. Each of the chapters could easily be shown to have a practical take-a-way, these are just two representative examples. On this account then, the book excels.

Pastoral Tone

The second criteria the book sets forth as its aim was to be pastoral in tone. The sins many of these people are dealing with are brutal at times (ranging from being raped, to molesting a child, to being tormenting by demons for a sinful past) but it seems very much that Pastor Mark’s tone changes to treat each person as an individual and to avoid meaningless platitudes, but instead seek to communicate the timeless truths of God’s Word and work to real people struggling with real lives. He gets a bit harsher with the men, especially the men he writes to that are not believers, but is especially gentle with the women and one can readily see some parts of the book were hard pressed to have been written without tears. On this account, the book comes through rather nicely, offering the appropriate pastoral tone where needed, and avoiding sounding “preachy,” or trite. Mark Driscoll is not one known for having a comforting, pastoral tone, however in the chapters dealing with rather sensitive issues, readers that are not too jaded against Driscoll should easily see the gentleness in his words and the graciousness in his tone. So long as one allows for a pastoral tone to be modified depending on the nature of the issue being addressed as well as the faith status of the person being addressed, this book excels also at being pastoral in tone.

Theological Vantage Point

The third criteria with which we can examine this book is the theological vantage point. Considering that we are examining essentially one facet of Christian theology in a 250pg book, we do reach a good depth. Where this book could go deeper, but maybe understandably doesn’t, is in the Q&A at the end of the chapters. This is an ingenious way of structuring the book as it allows Pastor Mark in his letters to be theologically precise, but not theologically exhaustive, and then to allow Dr. Breshears to answer those kinds of questions in the end. In other words, the reader is somewhat allowed to choose the theological depth they want. Some like me, would want to go deeper than this book would allow, but it is not written as an academic treatise on the atonement. That wasn’t its stated aim, so it’s not shooting in that direction, however, by studying the cross from 12 different vantage points, one could say we get a very theologically rich picture that is much deeper than the casual understanding of the atonement, but could go much deeper still as the individual chooses to do so on their own by way the list of helpful (and even un-helpful) books at the end of the book. Again, this book does very well on its stated aim of being theological in value.

Biblical Content

The fourth criteria is that of being biblical in content. A quick glance at the Scripture Index in the back lets you on to the fact there are at least numerous Scriptural references throughout. Biblical references are used appropriately throughout, including a more or less theme verse for each chapter. In the first chapter there is an excellent and visually descriptive exposition of Colossians 2:13-15 that is intimately connected to the girl Katie who is suffering in this particular chapter of being oppressed by demons (“Demons Are Tormenting Me: Jesus is Katie’s Christus Victor”). Pastor Mark provides a very biblically and contextually faithful exposition of the passage and how it demonstrated Jesus victory over the great dragon Satan in order to redeem people like Katie. This continues throughout the book, notably elsewhere in the chapter on how to deal with the scope of the atonement (“My Daddy is a Pastor: Jesus is Gideon’s Unlimited Limited Atonement”) in which Driscoll argues for a model of the atonement that is unlimited in scope but limited in application (also notably held by Bruce Ware). Again, with the other criteria in question, we could pick any chapter and see how the facet of the atonement being dealt with is intimately tied to the Scriptures and not just Driscoll’s theological opinions. Outside sources are quoted sparsely, but there is hardly a page that goes by without a Biblical reference, and all such references are from this reviewer’s vantage point, used appropriately and avoid casual proof-texting. Like the other criteria, this one is clearly demonstrated throughout.

Worshipful in Tone

The fifth criteria and concluding one is that this book is definitely worshipful in tone and for someone who does not cry often, I was moved to tears on several occasions in seeing the beauty of the cross and love that our God has for us, and demonstrated so vividly on the cross. There are several beautiful pictures painted by Driscoll from the stories he shares that demonstrate people learning from the cross and then living it out in their relationships. It is also an encouragement to worship to see how love is defined in the cross and how that maps onto every human relationship and see the manifold wisdom of God displayed in what the world would otherwise term as foolishness. Again, this book does well meeting its final aim, and wraps up a rather insightful and practical look into the cross of Christ, the atonement it provides and the application we can all make in our lives. I would highly recommend this book to the mature reader (and I say mature because of some of the content about the person’s struggles) who wants to grow in their understanding of both God and the cross and learn how to live in light of it.

Book Details

  • Author: Mark Driscoll & Gerry Breshears
  • TitleDeath by Love: Letters From the Cross
  • Hardcover: 272pgs
  • PublisherCrossway (September 12, 2008)
  • Reading Level: Bible School level (easy read, but touchy and raw subject matter)
  • Audience Appeal: Priestly and Prophetic letters written to sinners and victims explaining the various aspects of the atonement
  • Gratis Review Copy: No

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I'm an avid reader, musician, and high school Bible teacher living in central Florida. I have many paperback books and our house smells of rich glade air freshners. If you want to know more, then let's connect!

7 responses to Death by Love: Letters From the Cross

  1. I think that was already done well enough in your debate, for those interested here is the link, but you already I am presuming have read it:

    • You are correct, I have read that essay.

      I probably should do an informal rebuttal, though I wanted to hold off because the debate is officially over.

  2. Have you looked into alternative views of the Atonement, such as the Catholic view? (I’m not talking about liberal theological views of the atonement.)

    I recently finished a debate on Penal Substitution and I argued that it is not found in the Scriptures:

    • I have looked into alternate views of the Atonement such as the one you mentioned, but it found it unreasonable and unbiblical.

      The Catholic view of things pertaining to soteriology I find are largely unbiblical as is the overall Catholic doctrine of God to the extent that it is following the Council of Trent rather than Scripture. Aquinas was a brilliant man, but he relied to heavily on Aristotle for his theological formulations, which is to say there are streams of thought still present in Catholic theology that have a pagan grandfather. I do realize Catholicism followed Augustine somewhat in their formulations, but Augustine wasn’t right about everything and if I am remembering correctly his model of the atonement was too shaded but things other than Scripture.

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