Steve Chalke’s (and Alan Mann’s) book, The Lost Message of Jesus, is, I suppose, yesterday’s papers telling yesterday’s news. Published in 2003, it generated more heat than light, and polarised well-meaning people into opposing groups of fans and critics.
It’s all a bit late to be offering a review of the book. But I fear that its central point (that ‘God is love’ is all that we really need to know about God, and everything else must be forced through this one filter), is not going to go away.
So here I belatedly post something that I wrote a while back.
A review of The lost message of Jesus by Steve Chalke (with Alan Mann), (Zondervan, 2003)
The Church has got it wrong for the past 2,000 years. Evangelicalism has got it wrong for centuries. Even Steve Chalke has got it wrong – until now. But now he has rediscovered the lost message of Jesus.
The lost message of Jesus, in a nutshell, is that ‘God is love’. Or, rather, it is that ‘God is love’ is the single controlling thought in Jesus’ life and ministry. It is the lens through which all else must pass. It is the ruler by which all else must be measured.
At one level, of course, it’s difficult to argue with this. Does not Scripture itself teach that ‘God is love’ (1 John 4:8)? And is it not a spectacularly grand and glorious truth? And is not Chalke correct when he points out that the Christian church has often failed to live and proclaim this truth? Yes, yes and (sadly) yes again.
Indeed, the positive value of this book is that its criticisms of ‘conventional’ evangelicalism are often very apt. We have too often failed to ‘love the loveless, embrace the untouchable, feed the hungry, forgive the unforgivable, heal the sick, and welcome the marginalized’ (Carson’s summary). Chalke cares deeply about this, and so should we.
Chalke says that the Bible defines God in only one way: ‘God is love’. But this is simply not so: according to our Lord in John 4:24, ‘God is spirit’; according to 1 John 1:5, ‘God is light’; and (to be noted in the light of this discussion) according to Hebrews 12:29, ‘God is a consuming fire’.
The aspect of Chalke’s book that has stirred up the greatest controversy is his teaching on the meaning and achievement of the Cross. In line with his view that the statement ‘God is love’ should control everything else, he regards with horror any thought that Christ on the cross bore the divine penalty for human sin. He writes:
‘How have we come to believe that at the cross this God of love suddenly decides to vent his anger and wrath on his own Son?
‘The fact is that the cross isn’t a form of cosmic child abuse – a vengeful Father, punishing his Son for an offence he has not even committed. Understandably, both people inside and outside of the Church have found this twisted version of events morally dubious and a huge barrier to faith. Deeper than that, however, is that such a concept stands in total contradiction to the statement “God is love”. If the cross is a personal act of violence perpetrated by God towards humankind but borne by his Son, then it makes a mockery of Jesus’ own teaching to love your enemies and to refuse to repay evil with evil.
‘The truth is, the cross is a symbol of love. It is a demonstration of just how far God as Father and Jesus as his Son are prepared to go to prove that love. The cross is a vivid statement of the powerlessness of love.’
But this is an inaccurate and misleading caricature. No evangelical that I know of would dream of stating the case for ‘penal substitution’ in such terms. To accuse responsible Christians of believing that the cross is a form of ‘cosmic child abuse’ is a terrible thing to say. One of the things that Scripture teaches, and that evangelicals will be apt to emphasise, is that both Father and Son concur in the work of the Cross. The Father freely sent. The Son freely came.
Part of Chalke’s problem is that he rationalises thus: ‘If this is true, then that can’t also be true; if the Cross demonstrates God’s love, then it can’t also demonstrate his wrath.’ And, since Chalke has already decided that ‘God is love’ will be the sieve through which all else must pass, anything that appears contrary to it must be denied, even though taught in Scripture. But this is to subordinate God’s revelation in Scripture to finite and fallible human reason. Any number of examples could be given of doctrines that appear to be logically incompatible but are nevertheless to be believed because they are taught in Scripture: God is both three and one; Jesus is both human and divine; Scripture is both divinely and humanly authored; God’s will is sovereign, and yet we are responsible. These are some of the glorious commonplaces of theology. And so it is with the Cross: we believe that it is the manifestation both of the love and the wrath of God because both are taught in Scripture.
In fact, the Bible teaches a number of models of atonement. The reason for this, we may assume, is that no one model can carry the full meaning. These models may be summarised under three headings:-
1. The Cross as the supreme expression of divine love. This is the model that Chalke contends for. It is certainly taught in the New Testament (John 3:16; Romans 8:32), and is also used (with more frequency than perhaps many evangelicals realise) as a motivation for Christian love (Romans 12:1; 2 Corinthians 5:14f).
2. The Cross as the demonstration of God’s victory over evil. The Christus Victor model is rather popular these days. Again, it enjoys strong scriptural support (Colossians 2:15 Hebrews 2:14,15).
3. The Cross as penal substitution. I don’t particularly like this terminology, but as a brief approximation it will have to do. This is the doctrine that says that Christ offered on the Cross a sacrifice that bore the penalty (the wrath of God) for human sin. This is the doctrine that Chalke rejects as being immoral, a barrier to belief, and incompatible with the love of God. But the key question is whether or not it is taught in Scripture. The following references provide some of the relevant data: Isaiah 53:6-10; Romans 1:18; 3:22-5; 5:8-9; 2 Corinthians 5:21; Galatians 3:13; Hebrews 9:11-28; 1 Peter 3:18; 1 John 4:10. Chalke fails to interact with any of this material. Responsible expositions can be found in writings of well-known authors such as Leon Morris, J.I. Packer and John Stott. Chalke fails to interact with any of these, either.
My intention here is not to provide my own statement or defence of propitiatory atonement. I would simply point out that it is one of several models presented in the Bible, and that it is perilous to select one and reject the others, as Chalke has done.
1 John 4 says that ‘God is love…and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins’. The word translated ‘atoning sacrifice’ here is ‘hilasmos‘, propitiation. ‘Love finds the means by which just and righteous wrath can be satisfied and so turned away, in order that forgiveness may be offered and reconciliation achieved. The only way was at infinite cost to the one who loves. “The depth of God’s love is to be seen precisely in the way in which it bears the wounds inflicted on it by mankind and offers full and free pardon.” It is no help to our understanding to pretend that a loving God would not require an atoning sacrifice, because he would not punish sin. This would be to destroy the truth that God is light and to remove all grounds of morality. The nobler, biblical way is to magnify the love of God by seeing at what tremendous cost the atonement was made, and therefore of what amazing length, devotion and scope this love is capable.’ (David Jackman, quoting I.H. Marshall)