Book Review: Who Will Deliver Us?

Who Will Deliver Us

Paul F.M. Zahl, Who Will Deliver Us? The Present Power of the Death of Christ (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 1983), 85 pages.

Review by Pastor Nathan, June 2013

I had heard about this book for a while and finally bought it. Pastor Tullian Tchividjian says it is a book he regularly re-reads. I gave it four stars out of five on Goodreads.

The introduction and first four chapters deftly explain the atonement of Christ to a psychologized culture. Zahl understands law as both the revealed will of God in Scripture (Law) and the “force of ought” interior to everyone (law) in many different forms – the “bastard children of the Law.” So for example there is the “law of capability” which is “the demand a person may feel that he be 100 percent capable in everything he does – or else!” There are astute observations throughout this short book of how the modern soul is imprisoned to law.

This results in “the dereliction of fear.” For those acquainted with the Law there is the underlying fear of God’s punishment. For those who only deal with the various forms of law, still there is fear of the “fateful, nameless forces that dominate humanity and nature, of which idols must be built and to which tribute must be paid.” Zahl states boldly – “I am suggesting that the fear beneath all fears, which in turn creates the stress, depression, and anger of everyday life and human history, is fear of ultimate judgment.”

Zahl suggest that humans naturally try one of three strategies to deal with this terror. The first is flight – we hide like Adam and Eve. The ultimate form of escape is suicide, but there are various other flight mechanisms short of this. The second strategy is open resistance – we courageously stand up against our fear. The third tactic is what Zahl calls appeasement – acknowledging the rightfulness of judgment and trying somehow to assuage our fears through our own efforts. But whichever one is chosen, the end in every case is defeat. Whether it be “the implacable forces of criticism and cruelty stemming from other people and our own inner selves, or whether it be the demand of God for perfection, judgment is in the end too strong for us.”

Thus the title of this book, taken from Romans 7:24 – “Who will deliver us from this body of death?”

The answer, of course, is Jesus through his atonement. Other religions have some notion of atonement, but never a certainty of atonement. Zahl shows the beauty of the cross of Christ and says, “I believe in the atonement of Jesus Christ because it disarms the law and frees me from the fear of judgment.” He uses this striking analogy:

I am a little like the duck hunter who was hunting with his friend in a wide-open barren of land in southeastern Georgia. Far away on the horizon he noticed a cloud of smoke. Soon he could hear the sound of crackling. A wind came up, and he realized the terrible truth: a brushfire was advancing his way. It was moving so fast that he and his friend could not outrun it. The hunter began to rifle through his pockets. Then he emptied all the contents of his knapsack. He soon found what he was looking for – a book of matches. To his friend’s amazement, he pulled out a match and struck it. He lit a small fire around the two of them. Soon they were standing in a circle of blackened earth, waiting for the fire to come. They did not have to wait long. They covered their mouths with their handkerchiefs and braced themselves. The fire came near – and swept over them. But they were completely unhurt. They weren’t even touched. Fire would not pass where fire had passed.

The law is like the brushfire. I cannot escape it. But if I stand in the burned-over place, where law has already burned its way through, then I will not be hurt. Not a hair of my head will be singed. The death of Christ is the burned-over place. There I huddle, hardly believing yet relieved.

I didn’t really understand most of chapter 5, but I think Zahl was trying to construct a theodicy based on the atonement.

The last chapter – “Atonement in the Church” – presented practical ways that this fear-disarming gospel can and should infiltrate the way we do church. This was provocative. I loved most of it, had questions on some things, and was challenged on others. Zahl calls for a culture of honesty in the church because of the fact that Christ’s atonement has satisfied the Law of God and the internal laws of our own personal narratives. “Honesty is a truth-telling about our experience that has given up on strategies of flight, appeasement, or confrontation.” There are a few insightful case studies here that bring this into real life situations.

In this chapter, Zahl defines sanctification/Christian growth as “the carrying of good news to the unevangelized territories of our personal and social being…. Sanctification is justification by extension.” I know there is some debate on this. I think that Zahl’s understanding may not account for all of the biblical data perfectly. But what he calls for is so needed, so forgotten, and so refreshing. It may be an overstatement to say that we need to completely “eschew prescription.” But it is true that “progress in our lives is not principally a matter of new experience or new knowledge. It is rather a fresh returning, in every new round of events, to a very old conviction: Christ died for our sins.”

Next, Zahl lists and develops three major implications of a ministry based on atonement for the practical functioning of the church:

(1) “We shall preach and teach the same message to believers and nonbelievers alike.” This is something Tim Keller has taught and modeled so well. The gospel is for Christians just as much as it is for non-Christians.
(2) “Self-righteousness has, by virtue of the atonement, entirely lost its potency. The façade can come down.”
(3) “Our preaching will be descriptive rather than prescriptive.” In other words, preaching must refrain from moralizing. How’s this definition of preaching? – “The manifesting of the objective atonement of Christ to the painful points of entrapment and despair that we experience subjectively.” It doesn’t cover everything (what about Calvin’s ‘Third Use of the Law’?), but there are many worse definitions and examples.

Finally, Zahl concludes with three questions to ask in our diverse ministry settings:

(1) Worship “Does our ministry provide people with a quality of worship by which they can get out of themselves?” This is a great insight for worship leaders – “As derelicts of fear, we are preoccupied with our own problems. We cannot help this. But if we can be enabled, just for an hour, just for a few minutes, to step outside ourselves, we inevitably see ourselves from a fresh perspective, in the light of the grace of Jesus Christ on the cross.”
(2) Community “Are we building up a family in which the wounds of the past can be salved and the new freedom won by atonement encouraged?” Zahl is calling for a small group ministry where people are given the time and safety to be sinners in need of atonement.
(3) Counseling “Does [our ministry] provide people with opportunities for counseling?” This was the end of the book and the portion I found to be the most provocative. I really wonder, does Immanuel have ways to “offer to our derelict humanity the possibility of a healing relationship, person to person, to mediate the love of God?”

Do I suggest that everyone needs counseling? I am not sure. Many of us have problems that have been “successfully” defended: our inner strategies to contain them allow us relatively stable, relatively purposeful lives. Many of us, however, find ourselves crippled by unassimilated negativities rising to the surface. Many of us will draw benefit from counseling. The scars of the past can be healed. The counselor can be a messenger of affirmation and nurture to the hidden fear, thus entering our world as a mediator of atonement.

Again in the parish in New York there are several professional counselors who work alongside the clergy. They become heralds of good news to the solitary places of fear, the unevangelized territories of our hearts. They may seldom mention the name of Jesus Christ. But as carriers of love to dark continents, they are missionaries. We find that as the grace of God imputed to us in Christ is preached from the pulpit, the inner fears and tragedies of our listeners rise to the surface even in the most “well-adjusted” people. The grace of God will produce an unmasking of the self by which needs that are unconscious to a person in day-to-day life rise to the surface. At this point the counselor comes to sustain the ministry of the Word. He becomes an active participant in the ministry.

Our ministry is rooted in the atonement. It includes three emphases: worship, to lift us out of ourselves and renew our perspective; small groups to provide a nurturing family for us as we grow; and opportunities for counseling as a bridge to past hurts and a means of healing old wounds.

I’m intrigued by this final question and the proposal embedded in it. But I wrote in the margin next to these paragraphs: “Problem is: where are there gospel-centered counselors??”

I benefitted personally from this little book. I would definitely give it to an unbeliever who struggled with insecurity and had tried different pop-psychology and self-help books. And as a pastor it gives me great food for thought on how to bring the gospel even deeper into the culture of our church.


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