I have found much to disagree with in Steve Chalke’s book The Lost Message of Paul.
Is there anything I can applaud? Actually, yes, there is.
I can see that he often attempts to support his arguments from Scripture. I recognise that he gives a central place to Christ. I think he’s correct to say that evangelicals have sometimes emphasis neglected the resurrection of Jesus in their presentation of the gospel. He emphasises that the gospel has corporate, as well as individual, elements. It is clear that he recognises a continuity between the teaching of Jesus and that of Paul. Although there is nothing very new in all of this, it is to be welcomed.
Then, in chapter 28, Chalke rightly insists that ‘salvation’ is something much more that ‘going to heaven when we die’. For one thing, it affects our lives here and now, and not just in the future. And, for another thing, even our future hope not just for some ethereal ‘heaven’, but for ‘a new heavens and a new earth’.
The underlying Hebrew thought regarding ‘salvation’ (writes Chalke), along with the meaning and usage of the relevant Greek words (sozo and soteria, whose core meanings have to do with health, well-being and wholeness) lead us to these conclusions:
‘In both Greek and Hebrew thought, salvation was always a much broader and more holistic term than it has become in its English religious use. But, not only is it all-encompassing, it’s never purely orientated towards the future. It is always about down-to-earth liberation – shalom – the whole of you being made whole in the here and now, as well as about hope for the future.’
Now, there’s nothing particularly new or revolutionary about this: Tom Wright has been saying exactly the same thing for years. But evangelicals ‘on the ground’ need to hear it.
So, have I at last found a chapter in Chalke’s book with which I am in wholehearted agreement? Sadly, no.
The problem with this section of the book is not so much with what it affirms, but rather with what it denies (or ignores altogether).
Thinking of texts such as Romans 1:16, Chalke writes:
‘If you scan the internet for comments on this and various other verses where Paul uses soteria or sozo in this way, you will discover that, as one preacher’s blog states, “More often than not these words refer to salvation in a spiritual sense.” But this is one of those huge assumptions, made in denial of all the facts.’
No doubt, the ‘spiritual sense’ being being denied here is the sense that has to do with (or, at least, includes), the forgiveness of sins. But this is precisely the sense in which Paul ‘more often than not’ uses ‘salvation’ terminology. This is not a ‘huge assumption’; it is an ‘undeniable fact’.
Take two obvious instances in which salvation from sin is paramount:
Romans 5:8-10 ‘But God demonstrates his own love for us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Much more then, because we have now been declared righteous by his blood, we will be saved through him from God’s wrath. For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son, how much more, since we have been reconciled, will we be saved by his life?’
Ephesians 2:4f ‘But God, being rich in mercy, because of his great love with which he loved us, even though we were dead in transgressions, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you are saved!…’
Then we need to think of those other Pauline terms that are associated with salvation: forgiveness, atonement, justification, redemption and reconciliation. The inescapable conclusion is that salvation in its ‘spiritual sense’ is central to Paul’s teaching.
In the words of Michael D. Morrison, ‘In the 13 letters ascribed to Paul, sōzō is used 29 times, sōtēria 18 times, and sōtēr 12 times. Almost all of these references involve spiritual salvation; he uses sōzō once to indicate physical protection (1 Tim 2:15) and sōtēria once in terms of deliverance in the present life (Phil 1:19).’ (Lexham Bible Dictionary, art. ‘Salvation’, my emphasis)
Looking more broadly at the witness of the New Testament, the relevant article in the Dictionary of Biblical Imagery states that, ‘by far the most common NT use of salvation, however, has to do with salvation from sin (“and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins,” Mt 1:21 RSV). To be precise, one is saved from the penalty of sin (Lk 7:48, 50), from the power of sin (Rom 6:12–14) and from the practice of sin as a way of life (1 Jn 3:9–10; 5:18).’
I conclude, then, that Steve Chalke has seriously misrepresented this crucial aspect of Paul’s teaching. He has, in fact, airbrushed out of Paul’s writings the all-important stress on salvation as entailing the forgiveness of sins.