The Death of the Messiah and the Birth of the New Covenant: A (not so) New Model of the Atonement - Michael J Gorman


Michael J Gorman has recently proposed a new (or not-so-new) way of approaching atonement in his book The Death of the Messiah and the Birth of the New Covenant: A (not so) New Model of the Atonement (2014, James Clarke & Co). Gorman calls himself an ‘Anabaptist Wesleyan’ and holds the Raymond E. Brown Chair in Biblical Studies and Theology at St. Mary’s Seminary and University in Baltimore, which is a Catholic institution. For me, this work highlighted some really fascinating parallels between Gorman's reading of the early church as a new covenant community and the early Quaker vision. I strongly recommend the book to anyone interested in nonviolent atonement specifically and peace church theology generally.

This posting seeks to summarise the key points of Gorman's argument.


Gorman suggests that traditional interpretations of the atonement have tended to concentrate on the penultimate, rather than the ultimate, purpose of Jesus’ death (Gorman 2014, p.2). He argues that the New Testament is far more interested in what Jesus’ death does for humanity than the mechanics of how it does it (Gorman 2014, p.204). Gorman highlights the following general problems he associates with traditional models of atonement:

·    Isolationist and Sectarian – they claim to tell the whole story and exclude the insights of other models (Gorman 2014, p.19).

·    Atomistic and Non-integrative – they stand apart from wider theological themes such as ecclesiology and pneumatology (Gorman 2014, p.20).

·    Individualistic – they tend to have an almost exclusive focus on individual salvation (Gorman 2014, p.20).

·    Under-Achieving – they don’t do enough, because they focus only on the penultimate purpose of the Incarnation and ignore the ultimate purpose (Gorman 2014, p.20).

In developing the new covenant model of the atonement, Gorman is seeking to overcome these limitations and offer a broader vision, which is consistent with the witness of the New Testament.


1. Revealing God’s wisdom and Power

What kind of God is revealed in the cross? For Paul (1 Corinthian 1:18-25), this was an act of Jesus and the work of God, displaying, paradoxically, divine wisdom and power in the form of divine folly and weakness (Gorman 2014, p.56). This is not the kind of God that people can easily comprehend and, for many, the idea of a God who would willingly accept death on a cross seems to be utter foolishness.

2. An act of reconciliation and peace-making

Jesus becomes the new temple: the place where God and humanity meet, the place of reconciliation (Gorman 2014, p.35). Paul proclaims Jesus as the prophetically promised Prince of Peace, who inaugurates the age and the covenant of peace (Gorman 2014, p.161). In Ephesians 2:11-19, Paul argues that the death of Jesus has brought those who were distant near, reconciling Gentiles and Jews into one new people, who together have access in Christ to God by the Spirit. This is a divine act of peace-making (Gorman 2014, p.65). So, the covenant of peace arrives in Jesus and is the will of God (Gorman 2014, p.168).

3. Bringing the empowering gift of the Spirit

The Incarnation brings the empowering presence of the Holy Spirit as a gift to all people. Gorman argues that, although it has an essential role to play, the coming of the Spirit has been neglected in traditional atonement theology (Gorman 2014, p.21). The empowering presence of the Spirit shapes not only the life of Jesus, but also the life of his disciples and the life of the church (Gorman 2014, p.168).

4. Creating a new covenant

Gorman asserts that, according to the New Testament witness, the ultimate purpose of Jesus’ death was to create a transformed people living out a new covenant relationship with God in community (Gorman 2014, p.3). Here are three examples of this:

·    Jesus’ own view - Jesus clearly associates his death with the creation of a new covenant. See, for example, Mark 14:24, Matthew 26:28 and Luke 22:20 (Gorman 2014, p.14).

·    The Apostle Paul’s view - in 1 Corinthians 11:23-25, Paul claims that Jesus interpreted his own death as the inauguration of the new covenant. Those ‘in Christ’ are part of this new covenant, which carried certain vertical obligations to God and horizontal obligations to others (Gorman 2014, pp.53-54).

·    The view in Hebrews – the writer of Hebrews makes clear that the purpose of Jesus’ death was precisely to establish the new covenant promised by Jeremiah (31:31-34) as a renewed covenant relationship with God (Gorman 2014, p.70). 

5. Creating a transformed people

Gorman suggests that the claim of the Bible’s new-covenantal theology is that, through Christ, God’s aim is to create a liberated and forgiven community: a faithful, loving, and peaceable people empowered by the Spirit to bear witness to the holy character of God, to God’s own faithful love and shalom (Gorman 2014, p.31). Christ’s death established this new covenant, and created a community of forgiven and reconciled disciples, inhabited and empowered by the Spirit to embody a new covenant spirituality of cruciform loyalty to God and love for others, thereby participating in the life of God and in God’s forgiving, reconciling and covenanting mission to the world (Gorman 2014, p.75). This can be seen in the following examples:

·    In Matthew – the new covenant is linked to the forgiveness of sins. Receiving God’s forgiveness is part of existence for a community of salt and light (5:13-20) and its associated virtues, such as deeds of mercy and compassion (9:13 and 12:7), that reflect those of its master (Gorman 2014, p.36)

·    In Paul (2 Corinthians 5:14-21) - Christ’s act of love in the cross had human transformation as its purpose. The new covenant community is to be a community of righteousness, justice and reconciliation in and for the world (Gorman 2014, p.59 & 62).

·    In John - the death of Jesus creates a community of committed friends of Jesus who indwell him and are indwelt by him in spirit. This is a community of atonement (Gorman 2014, p.49).


This is not a Supersessionist vision. The idea of a new covenant does not make sense when separated from Jewish identity and theology. It is the old covenant renewed and made new (Gorman 2014, p.23), the fulfilment of the promise we see in the Hebrew prophets. For example, in Jeremiah 31:31-34, Ezekiel 11:17-20, 36:23-28 and 37:21-28 (Gorman 2014, p.24). This also the covenant of peace promised by the prophets in Ezekiel 37:26, 34:25 and Isaiah 54:10 (Gorman 2014, p.133).

Key characteristics of the new covenant (Gorman 2014, pp.26-27):

·        Liberating (the experience of Exodus)
·        Restoring and unifying (gathered from all peoples)
·        Forgiving and cleansing
·        Sanctifying (bearing witness to God’s holiness)
·        A mutual covenantal relationship with God
·        Internally/spiritually empowering (to keep covenant obligations)
·        Peaceable (the experience of shalom)
·        Permanent (an everlasting covenant)

Key characteristics of new covenant politics (Gorman 2014, p.222):

·        Truthful witness (speaking truth in love)
·        Servanthood (rather than power and control)
·        Hospitality and solidarity (rather than exclusion and rejection)
·        Forgiveness and reconciliation (rather than revenge)

The new covenant has vertical and horizontal dimensions: the ‘vertical’ love of God and the ‘horizontal’ love of neighbour (Gorman 2014, pp.29-30). In becoming part of the new covenant community, human beings take on the Christ-like holiness of God by the work of the Spirit, and specifically, the divine character traits of faithfulness, love and peace (Gorman 2014, p.227).


Gorman outlines a number of key characteristics of the new covenant community:

1. Cruciform discipleship - the call to cruciform discipleship in the gospels is a call to covenant faithfulness based on vertical and horizontal love which are inextricably linked (Gorman 2014, p.34).

2. Participating in the way of God - to be the new covenant people as a new way of knowing, loving, participating in and being like God (Gorman 2014, p.36).

3. Forgiven and forgiving - the new covenant community is forgiven and forgiving as a fulfilment of the vertical and horizontal aspects of the Law (Gorman 2014, p.37).

4. Multi-cultural and multi-national - the community formed by the Son’s blood is multi-cultural and multi-national as a result of the Spirit being poured out on all, creating a restored and unified people that the new covenant prophets barely imagined (Gorman 2014, pp.42-43).

5. New Testament examples – the character of this community can be seen throughout the New Testament. Here are two examples:

·    In John - in the ‘discipleship discourses’ of John 13-17, Jesus teaches about the forming of a new covenant community of disciples marked especially by a relationship of intimacy and covenant-keeping in relation to God, and of love for one another (Gorman 2014, p.44).

·    In Paul - in Romans, Paul asserts that the resurrection life of the new covenant, spirit-filled community retains the shape and substance of its crucified Lord. The real fulfilling of the Law is in devoted self-giving to God and in cruciform love for others. This is ‘theosis’ understood as transformative, communal participation in the life of God as the new covenant people of God (Gorman 2014, p.68).


Gorman argues that a new covenant model of atonement brings cross and new covenant together in the form of participatory discipleship, which involves being baptised into the Messiah’s death (Gorman 2014, p.31). The proper response to Jesus’ death is to be understood in terms of ‘embrace’ and ‘participation’ more than ‘belief’ or ‘acceptance’ (Gorman 2014, p.3).

In Galatians, Paul makes clear that participation in the faithful and loving covenant-fulfilling death of Jesus alone is the basis for receiving the spirit and becoming a member of the new covenant community (Gorman 2014, p.64). We participate in the cross of Jesus through a metaphorical death of self (which involves the termination of certain practices and desires) and our willingness to suffer and die, rather than kill (Gorman 2014, p.79). This cruciform existence is characterised by self-denial (losing oneself as the path to finding oneself), hospitality to the weak and marginalised and service to others as an alternative to domination (Gorman 2014, p.80).


The benefits of Jesus’ death should be understood in practical terms. In the new covenant, participatory love of God and neighbour manifests itself in concrete practices (Gorman 2014, p.76). Life in the new covenant is life in the Spirit of the resurrected Lord that is shaped by the faithful, loving, peace-making death of the crucified Jesus and his resurrection (Gorman 2014, p.5). There is no cleansing without discipleship, no vertical relationship without horizontal relationship, no atonement without ethics (Gorman 2014, p.46).

Gorman identifies three Christ-like practices in the New Testament (Gorman 2014, pp.4-5):

·        Faith - a practice of being faithful even to the point of suffering and death.

·        Love - a practice of siding with the weak and rejecting domination in favour of service.

·        Hope - a practice of living peaceably and making peace

This aspect of the new covenant community is an essential element in the new covenant model of atonement. Let’s look at these communal practices in a little more detail:

1. Cruciform witness to the gospel

Faithful witness to Christ and his gospel is the fulfilment of the covenantal requirement of love, faithfulness, loyalty towards God and loving concern for others. This faithfulness will often result in some sort of rejection and suffering. However, the Spirit enables the new covenant community to endure this and those who participate in the Messiah’s faithful suffering and death will also share in his glory (Gorman 2014, p.105). We see this throughout the New Testament; for example:

·    In Mark – (8:34-38) discipleship is directly associated with self-denial and taking up one’s cross (Gorman 2014, p.33).

·    In John - because the identity of his disciples is Jesus’ identity, represented in the bearing of his name, they will also participate in his fate: in his rejection, suffering and death. His story becomes their story (Gorman 2014, p.98).

·    In Paul, to be ‘in Christ’ is to participate in his suffering (Gorman 2014, p.94).

2. Cruciform hospitality to the weak

Jesus’ call to participate in his death by welcoming the weak and needy, the poor, those of low status, is the second distinguishing mark of the new covenant cruciform community (Gorman 2014, p.113). Cross-shaped discipleship has a Christological, counter-intuitive and counter-cultural character, marked by hospitality and service to those without status. This implies a decisive disposition toward the weak rather than towards the powerful (Gorman 2014, p.109). Such a ‘horizontal’ practice of hospitality to the weak is an expression of cruciform love (Gorman 2014, p.106).

3. Cruciform power as loving service

For Jesus, radical servanthood is radical love. Jesus the king rules by love, not by domination. This is counter-cultural, counter-imperial and implicitly missional (Gorman 2014, pp.128-129). Jesus, the Messiah, is the Lord who willingly dies at the hands of the imperial authorities after having subverted their theology and practices in his life and teaching (Gorman 2014, p.131). The community must follow Jesus in this witness. Again, such a ‘horizontal’ practice of servanthood is an expression of cruciform love (Gorman 2014, p.106).

4. Cruciform practices of peace

Gorman notes Karl Barth’s argument that the church exists in obedience to and in imitation of Jesus to set up in the world a new sign which is radically dissimilar to the world’s own manners and which contradicts it in a way which is full of promise. The true community of Jesus Christ does not rest in itself; it exists as it actively reaches beyond itself into the world (Gorman 2014, pp.201-202). ‘Every church a peace church’ is not merely an Anabaptist slogan. It is an essential and non-negotiable aspect of life in the new covenant, which is a new covenant of peace (Gorman 2014, p.202).


The spirituality of the new covenant should be understood as a participatory spirituality. This is a decidedly this-worldly spirituality, which affirms the goodness of the creation, is grounded in the events of this world and is formed in the public square (Gorman 2014, p.215). This is a spirituality that is a spirit-enabled, this-worldly transformative participation in the life-giving death of the Messiah such that the cross is not only the source, but also the shape of life in the new covenant (Gorman 2014, p.217). In new covenant spirituality, we move beyond ‘imitation’ and towards ‘theosis’, understood as becoming like God by participating in the life of God (Gorman 2014, p.48). Again we see this in both John and Paul:

·    In John - a spirituality of mutual indwelling makes possible the fulfilling of the obligation of the imitation of Christ which is the imitation of God (Gorman 2014, p.47).

·    In Paul – (2 Corinthians 3:6) “(God) who has made us competent to be ministers of a new covenant, not of the letter but of the spirit; for the letter kills but the spirit gives life” (Gorman 2014, p.56).


Here is Gorman’s proposal for a new covenant model of atonement in summary. The purpose of Jesus’ death was (Gorman 2014, p.203):

1.   To give birth to the new covenant, the covenant of peace.

2.   To create a new covenant community of spirit-filled disciples of Jesus.

3.   This community is established to fulfil the inseparable covenantal requirements of  faithfulness to God and love for others through participation in the death of Jesus.

4.   These requirements are to be expressed in such practices as cruciform faith, cruciform love  and cruciform hope.

5.   This covenant relationship has become available to us as a result of Jesus’ resurrection  and the gift of the Spirit (Gorman 2014, p.210).

Gorman suggests that the new covenant model overcomes the inherent rift in many interpretations of the atonement between the benefits of Jesus’ death and the practices of discipleship that his death both enables and demands. Hence, the death of Jesus is not only the source of salvation, but also the shape of salvation (Gorman 2014, p.204). He also argues that it is important to maintain a dialogue between a plurality of images, metaphors and models of atonement. This is because the formation of the new covenant community is a multi-dimensional reality and so, multi-dimensional models of atonement are needed (Gorman 2014, p.231).


  1. Some Quakers feel uncomfortable with their Christian heritage because of a narrow and problematic interpretation of the doctrine of atonement. McGrath's textbook on Christian theology reminds me of the point you make, which is that atonement is better thought of as salvation, and then goes on to say that there are four models of the Cross of Christ: the Cross as sacrifice, victory, forgiveness and moral example. As you say, there is some question whether Gorman's interpretation is fundamentally new but it's good he gives us such a detailed exposition, because it helps us look at the Christian message in a fresh and positive light, whether or not one then signs up to the complete doctrinal package.

  2. Thank you for your comment Mark. I ran a course last year on Nonviolent Atonement and plan to run it again as an on-line course in 2017. I would recommend J Denny Weaver's 'Nonviolent Atonement' and Sharon L Baker's 'Executing God' for more on this theme. Satisfaction and Penal Substitution (the former a product of the Medieval Period and the latter a product of the Reformation) are really problematic as they present God as violent, angry and retributive. The dominant model for the early church was Ransom or Christus Victor (this has always been the dominant model in the Eastern churches. Shalom, Stuart.


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