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A Feature Review of
The Death of the Messiah and the Birth of the New Covenant: A (Not So) New Model of Atonement
Paperback: Cascade Books, 2014
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Reviewed by Jordan Kellicut
The current debates over the atonement and its implications for the doctrine of justification are desperately divergent. The most popularized is the debate between N.T. Wright as a voice for the New Perspective on Paul, and John Piper as a New Calvinist. Classic theories, like Ransom and Moral Influence, are also being repurposed. Yet there is no fully biblically integrated or wholly accepted theory.
Attempting to put forward such a theory, Michael J. Gorman suggests, “The fact that there is no theory or model of atonement called “covenant”… is, or should be, rather surprising.” (1) It should be shocking since covenant plays such central role in the Old Testament, and the cross of the New Testament. Gospel tradition reveals Jesus’ own belief that his death was a fulfillment of the Old Testament promise of a new covenant and thus unleashing covenantal blessings. Gorman’s new work The Death of the Messiah and the Birth of a New Covenant: A (Not So) New Model of the Atonement proposes the purpose of the cross was primarily to create this new covenant.
Chapters 1-3 lay a rough framework for seeing the New Testament’s emphasis on pairing cross and covenant. Gorman argues this is precisely what the prophets foresaw. Jeremiah 31:31-34 and Ezekiel 11, 36 and 37, among others, speak of a new covenant that liberates, restores, forgives, sanctifies, makes faithful, empowers, makes missional, is peace-filled and permanent. (27) The Jewish eschatology of shalom finds its reality in this new covenant. This is the work and meaning of atonement.
The Gospels, which often (and sadly) take a back seat to passages like Romans 3:23-26 and Galatians 3:10, 13, are highlighted and sit comfortably within the new covenant model. Gorman’s handling of these texts, while brief, is extremely adroit. He points out, for instance, the often argued link between Isaiah 53 and Mark 10:45 as proof of Mark’s proposing a sacrificial/substitutionary atonement. This, however, misses the point, since Jesus, rather than explain the theological mechanics of his death, insists that his sacrifice is a posture to be emulated. (33) Indeed Mark’s other passion predictions follow similar links to enacted cruciformity:
– 8:31-34 Jesus’ suffering as a call to self-denial
– 9:31-37 Jesus’ suffering as a call to hospitality and service to the vulnerable
– 10:32-34 Jesus’ suffering as a call to service rather than domination
This pattern is not found only in Mark, rather Gorman argues the other Gospels and Acts are similarly concerned with how the cross makes disciples, rather than the metaphysical mechanics of, for instance, imputed righteousness. Cruciformity then is the goal of the covenant as it equips a people to receive and rightly use the blessings of God.
Paul focuses intensely on how this new covenant enacted in Jesus produces “new creation.” (2 Cor 5:17) This “new creation” is not merely a forgiven people, but rather how that forgiven people share the same kind of ministry as their crucified and resurrected Lord. Gorman notes Richard Hays’ commentary on 2 Corinthians 5:21, “Note carefully what Paul says here… ‘so that we might become the righteousness of God.’” (60) The new covenant then is the way a shared ministry is created between Christ and Church.
Justification – a word upon which many atonement theories are built – is not primarily (or remotely) about imputation; but instead it is all about transformation. Gorman reads Romans this way as well. “Baptism into the death of Jesus” makes us alive in him (Rom 6), while the lack of condemnation for those in Christ Jesus allows us now to walk “according to the Spirit” (Rom 8). The burden of Romans is not a righteousness for the acquisition of salvation. Instead, Gorman contends, the task of Romans is to define how the “resurrection-life of the new-covenant,” and “Spirit-filled community” maintains the agency and appearance of her Lord. (68)
Following his discussion of Paul, Gorman turns to the ethics of the covenant-formed community in chapters 4-7. How does the new covenant in the self-giving death of Jesus create a new kind of people? This, Gorman argues, is a hole in current atonement theories. Certainly the various atonement theologians would echo the need for discipleship or transformation post justification; the problem is that their theories do not demand it. The current discussion is captivated by the mechanics and metaphysics of what exactly transpired on the cross, and yet still cannot fully capture what the death of Jesus would mean. Some try to solve this by imposing combinations of theories, but these amalgamate theories still focus on the penultimate, rather than the ultimate purpose of Jesus death. (2)
 J. Denny Weaver, The Nonviolent Atonement, and John Stott, The Cross of Christ.
 For example the covenant-renewal blood of Ex 24:6-8, and the new covenant of Jer 31:31-34.
 For example the “blood of the covenant poured out for many,” Mt 26:28; Mk 14:24; Lk 22:20; 1 Cor 11:23, 25.
 Jer 31:31-34; Lk 4:16-21
 Kevin Vanhoozer, Drama of Doctrine. Scott McKnight A Community Called Atonement.