This is a quite extraordinary book. As is typical of the ever controversial Driscoll, he is in turns brilliant, perplexing, bewildering, fabulous and irritating. This book may bear all those hallmarks of Driscoll - but taken as a whole is a compellingly brilliant read. It is stimulating to the mind, challenging to the core, refreshing to the soul and, ultimately glorifying to Christ.
There has been something of a theological spat in recent years over differing ways of interpreting the death of Jesus Christ on the cross; what it achieves and how it relates to us. Different models, such as 'propitiation', 'Christus Victor' or 'expiation', have been sometimes claimed to be the only valid interpretive model. Driscoll cuts through this argument with two bold strokes. The first is that all of the models which the Bible uses are valid, and are like a diamond's facets, and are not in competition with each other. Christus Exemplar is not the preserve of Liberals, and Propitiation not the preserve of fundamentalists; but all of the scriptural devices used to explain this most important event should be explored, accepted and embraced. The second is that the different models of understanding this 'atonement', can be especially helpful for people in different life situations. Expiation might be especially potent for someone who feels defiled by sin, while Christus Exemplar might especially help someone struggling to remain faithful to their calling while enduring hardship.
These are significant and helpful insights. The way that the authors develop them is then an enormous surprise - especially if you expect such matters to be the subject of impossibly weighty theses. Instead each chapter contains a character sketch of a person that the authors know well, and the situation they face. We meet the angry, the vulnerable, the wicked, the gentle, the molested, the liar. Each chapter is then a pastoral letter which seeks to explain the aspect of the atonement that will especially confront, help and ultimately free the person. As so many reviewers have noted, the authors do not denounce counselling or psychology, but they do expect that embracing these orthodox Christian understandings of the cross will liberate these people. Some of these pen portraits are deeply moving. The explanations of the theological models usually pretty clear, and passionately argued. It makes this book a brilliant little resource for understanding the differing aspects of the cross, and feasting the soul on Christ as your appreciation for him grows.
There are, of course, some reservations. For all his brilliance as a communicator of theological ideas, Driscoll is an irrepressible sensationalist. All the pastoral situations are rather extreme, although regular folks might see themselves in them a bit! Likewise, Driscoll seems to want to use the doctrine of hell to shock, mentioning it in one chapter more than the whole of the New Testament. Now this might not indicate error, but it certainly doesn't suggest balance. Obviously the thrust of propitiation is that Christ bore the wrath of God in our place; and so it is boldly and obviously relevant, but not as a shock-tactic, as if this was tabloid theology. Stott's The Cross of Christ, which Driscoll cites approvingly, manages not to evade hard teaching, but succeeds in weighting the argument to give the overall a more biblical shape. Likewise, Driscoll's hard-line views on gender-roles are a rather odd intrusion into a book about the atonement, and one hobby-horse that could be given a day-off once in a while.
The most irritating thing about Driscoll though is his uniformly flattering self-references! Although he does admit that before his conversion he was something of a rat. I am always uncomfortable with authors and speakers who want to tell their audience about quite how wonderfully they have succeeded in an area of life or faith. I think there is a cultural gap here between the states and the UK here though. I suspect that in the UK in a somewhat more diffident culture, such self-references come across as raging arrogance, whereas audiences in the States are more keen to know that a speaker has tried, and tested the message he is propounding. What passes as authenticity there, just sticks in our throats here! Frankly, I really, really gained in knowledge and understanding of the cross, and of Christ, but really, really didn't need to know about what a great husband/father/role model Mark Driscoll is in his own estimation. Sorry.
This is one of the best books I have read all year. I have learned more, grown more, and gained more from it than from a whole host of other things. Yes - there are some serous problems with it. The greatest tragedy would be that some of the unnecessary eccentricities in the book prevented some readers grappling with its core - the majestic handling of the cross of Christ, and its application to real situations, to real people - that is to real sinners like us.