Most don’t feel the need to understand the inner workings of their car in order to drive. Most don’t look up electricity in an encyclopedia before they flip the light switch. How does it work? Simple; turn a key, flip a switch. Beyond that, it beats me. One doesn’t really need to know. That attitude often carries over regarding the death and resurrection of Christ. We know that it saves us, but as to how: who really knows? Throughout church history there have been a variety of explanations for exactly what Jesus did and exactly how it “works”, including Christus Victor and Penal Substitution. According to Michael Gorman, although the question of how is important, there remains the need for a model that focuses more on “what Jesus’ death does for and to humanity than how it does it”, which is what “the New Testament is much more concerned about” (p5, emphasis mine). Gorman attempts to provide such a model in The Death of the Messiah and the Birth of the New Covenant: A (Not So) New Model of the Atonement.
The Death of the Messiah and the Birth of the New Covenant
Death of the Messiah unfolds as follows. After explaining the neglect of and need for a model drawn around the New Covenant and the Old Testament witness to the NC (chapter 1), Gorman proceeds to identify the teaching on the cross and the NC from the Gospels and Acts (chapter 2) and Paul to Revelation (chapter 3). In these chapters we discover two foci: Christ’s death accomplished the NC, and we are called to participate in it. The next four chapters develop these “key aspects of participatory discipleship” (p31): faithfulness towards God (chapter 4), love for others (chapter 5) and peacemaking (chapters 6-7).
As you can see, much of the space is taken up with discussing the results of this model. What if excessive focus on the mechanics is a distraction from the intended result of creating a New Covenant community characterised by love, faithfulness and peace? What Christ has done is not merely given us a means to punch our tickets to heaven and then argue about how it works; He has created a people who are to follow His cross-bearing example and live in truly human ways.
By taking a step back, this model reunites some unnecessary polarities that have developed in the atonement debate such as pitting the Gospels against Paul, or the atonement with sanctification, or faith with works. These are often set at odds against one another, even with the result that some models draw entirely from one but have little to say from and to the other. Instead, Gorman’s approach more broadly encompasses the various New Testament teaching driven by the cross.
Very much appreciated is Gorman’s kind and balanced attitude towards other atonement models and his humility in offering his own. He may have been more punchy if he presented himself as an Elijah (“only I am left”) reclaiming the teaching of Scripture singlehandedly. However, instead in several places, he recognises the limits of his own study and model.
Death of the Messiah can be a long-winded or repetitious at times for such a short book. Some sections are needlessly prolonged, making an otherwise good point but doing so several times or with many words. However, Gorman is articulate and enjoyable to read.
I find little to disagree with here. I greatly appreciate that Gorman is not attempting to disparage any other model, but simply to allow his to find a place of its own. This “New Covenant” model sits nicely alongside, and fruitfully interacts with, others such as the victor, new exodus, and penal models. Gorman’s focus on the goal, rather than the mechanics, of the cross is refreshing and on has direct implications for discipleship. In contrast with some models that can only affirm one side of the coin, here is a model that keeps distinct that Christ has done what we cannot, but emphasizes our need to go and do likewise. In other words, the absolute uniqueness, but exemplary elements of Christ’s work are glued together.
Greatly appreciated is that Gorman highlights the absolute centrality of the New Covenant, showing how entrenched the NC is in New Testament thought and teaching. Even where it is not explicit, the NC is still very much close at hand.
I do wish there was more focus on how Jesus death initiated the New Covenant, as Scripture is not silent in this area. Of course I am perpetuating the craving to look under the bonnet (or hood, if you are American) rather than drive the car. However, such a desire to understand need not be disdained. As one’s appreciation for a subject grows, they will no doubt want to understand its very inner workings as a continuation of their delight, not a distraction from it. This desire to go deeper is commendable and beneficial. However, Gorman is right that we must never become so focused on the mechanics that we never turn the key and drive.
The Death of the Messiah and the Birth of the New Covenant brings valuable and noteworthy additions to the atonement discussion. Gorman’s wide-angle lens and focus on the results of the cross means that Death of the Messiah is able to bring this discussion into the trenches of the Christian’s battle. Though teachers and professors will want to consult Gorman and take seriously his work here, I recommend this book primarily to anyone who wants to see how Christ’s cross-work directly results in a people for his own possession zealous for good works (Titus 2:14).
Many thanks to Wipf & Stock for providing a review copy. Their generosity has not affected my opinions of the book.
- Publisher: Wipf & Stock
- Paperback 292 pages
- Date: 27 June 2014
- ISBN: 9781620326558