Book Review: The Lost Message of Jesus, by Steve Chalke
“Much that once was, is lost, for none lived who could remember it. Some things that should not have been forgotten were lost. History became legend. Legend became myth” (from the film, The Fellowship of the Ring; also the first sentence of Chalke’s book, p.9).
Steve Chalke believes that the truth about Jesus has become obscured by the myths of the church every bit as much as the truths about the ring were lost among the peoples of Middle Earth.
The Lost Message of Jesus is Chalke’s attempt to demythologize contemporary Christianity. He asserts that God is Love, and the 2000 years of theology that has attempted to nuance our understanding of that statement has marginalized it, and therefore lost the gospel. Now at last Steve Chalke, the Gandalf of Christendom, will uncover the message that has been forgotten for so long.
It is without doubt that Chalke often offers some interesting insights about the world into which Jesus came, and is sometimes perceptive in reflecting on biblical texts.
I appreciated his comments on the healing of the woman in Luke 8. “According to the doctrine of the Pharisees, the ‘power’ flow should have gone the other way: Jesus should now be ‘unclean’. However, it was obvious to all that the complete opposite had taken place” (89).
At times he even makes valid criticisms that could be levelled at some of the more unthinking elements of evangelicalism.
For example, he has observed a lack of health in the way in which we think that every Christian should be able to define the moment they were converted. “Looking back, these people know that at some point they must have crossed the border, but the truth is, they can’t say when or where” (146).
Also, he rightly laments the fact that many Christians have lost the importance of the resurrection. “It is first and foremost the validation of Jesus as the Messiah… The resurrection declares that the cross was the ultimate victory, not a defeat” (190).
Perhaps we could describe Chalke as a surveyor who has noticed one or two cracks in the building of evangelicalism. If this were all he did, the book might be a helpful tool. Some of the cracks he discovers are real and should be addressed. Yet he focuses so much upon the cracks that he assumes that the building is nothing but cracks, and cannot therefore stand. The reality is that the building itself is stable, though blemished. Chalke orders its total demolition, then builds nothing stable in its place. Granted, the building may need a little re-pointing in places, but to tear it down would be foolish.
What is more, the book is full of so many inaccuracies and such poor argumentation and in the end such a devastating denial of the gospel, that the helpful insights Chalke does have only serve to sugar coat the poison.
One could find few better pastures for a field trip into fallacies than Chalke’s book.
Chalke frequently ignores biblical texts that contradict what he is saying.
“In the telling and moving phrase penned by the missiologist Leonardo Boff, the Bible reveals a God who is ‘weak in power but strong in love’” (54). If I have to choose between Boff and Nahum, my money’s with the inspiration of the Holy Spirit: “the Lord is slow to anger and great in power; he will not leave the guilty unpunished” (Nahum 1:3).
Perhaps the most pervading error in this regard is the flattening of the truth that God is Love. “The Bible never defines God as anger, power, or judgement – in fact it never defines him as anything other than love” (63). It is inappropriate to talk of ‘defining’ God at all, for if this were the case, we would also be able to say that ‘love is God’. But the biblical evidence is against such a simplistic equation.1In fact, “The LORD tests the righteous, but his soul hates the wicked and the one who loves violence” (Psalm 11:15). This shows first, that God is not to be simplistically equated with love: he also hates. And second, what he hates is precisely a particular kind of love that is contrary to his nature. ‘God is love’ describes God. It doesn’t define him. Rather it defines love.
But if Chalke means that “God is love” is the only equative statement about God in the Bible, then he is clearly just plain wrong. “God is light” (within the same book of the Bible as he is love); his holiness describes God just as much as his love does. “God is good”; “God is God of gods and Lord of lords”. Or in one chapter of Job, God is “mighty”, “exalted in power” and “great”. He is “holy”, “true”, “spirit”, “one”, “faithful”, “a consuming fire”, “a man of war”, “peace”, “righteous”, “king”, “avenging and wrathful”.2
Chalke insists, “We should never speak of any other attribute of God outside of the context of his love” (63). Granted, so long as we also ensure that we never speak of God’s love outside of the context of any other attribute. God’s love is holy love, just as much as his holiness is loving holiness. This is what Chalke loses throughout the book. He flattens God by trying to force God into Chalke’s own understanding of love. Our understanding of God must never drive such a wedge between different aspects of God’s character. He is one. He is holy. He is just. He is love. What God has joined together, let man not separate.
Another example of a false disjunction is found in Chalke’s conversation with a practising lesbian. He makes the blanket statement, “God was for her, not against her” (94), thereby discounting the possibility that God might be for the non-believer in one sense, and against them in another sense. He rightly states that “God’s love is available to everyone” (94) but does so without any mention of the fact that forgiveness is received by repentance and faith. God is both for her, in the sense that he offers forgiveness in Christ, but also against her, in that she is living in rebellion against him. He calls all people to repent, and without repentance there is no forgiveness.
Rather than our sinfulness being the reason why we cannot look on the face of a righteous God, could it be that he who loves more than any other being in the universe also suffers the most? . . . In Exodus 33, God is not hiding from Moses, but he is hiding the immeasurable suffering caused by that love. No-one could bear to see a face wrung with such infinite pain and live. (58, 59)
This may be an interesting idea, but is easily dismissed as impossible exegesis by the immediate context: “You stiff-necked people. If I were to go with you even for a moment, I might destroy you” (Exodus 33:5). “The LORD, the LORD, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin. Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished; he punishes the children and their children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation” (Exodus 34:6-7).
Similarly his whole discussion of the temple, “a huge filtration system for the religious leaders and chief priests to bar and exclude any who were deemed undesirable from access to God” (105) fails to recognise that it was God himself who laid out in great detail the way in which access to him was to be restricted.
Commenting on Jonathan Edwards’ sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” Chalke says, “Preaching like Edwards’ has been all too representative of the portrayal of the gospel by the Church… People still believe that the Christian God is a God of power, law, judgement, hell-fire and damnation. A God whose strapline is probably, ‘Get in line fast or I’ll squash you!’” (56) Yet Edward’s whole sermon, even the section quoted, talks of God’s grace in the delaying of judgement. We are sinners in the hands of an angry God. We cannot ‘get in line’. Yet God is ready to save all those sinners who will put their trust in Christ. Thus, when viewed through the lens of God’s judgement, God’s love is seen all the clearer. It is not the love of cheap forgiveness, but love that is both just and justifies those who trust in Christ’s atoning death.
Yahweh’s association with vengeance and violence wasn’t so much an expression of who he was but the result of his determination to be involved with his world. His unwillingness to distance himself from the people of Israel and their actions meant that at times he was implicated in the excessive acts of war that we see in some of the books of the Old Testament. (49)
This kind of argumentation has implications beyond the denial of God’s vengeance (which we shall deal with later). This goes much further than normal concepts of God accommodating himself to human understanding, whereby God speaks to us in ways we can understand. For here Chalke argues that God deliberately acts in ways that are strictly contrary to his nature. Such argumentation means that we can never really know God. What is more, it implies that God is a god who acts inconsistently, for he can do things that are against his nature. How then will we ever know if he will do something else against his nature, such as breaking promises that he has made? Is this our rock?
Theology of the Cross
The section of Chalke’s book that has caused most controversy is his vehement denial of penal substitution.
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. . . . 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. (182-83)
Chalke seems to have ignored the fact that Jesus willingly endures the wrath of God. He gave himself up for us. Jesus is not a passive victim. Jesus knew the necessity of his sacrifice on the cross. “The Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, chief priests and teachers of the law, and he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life” (Luke 9:22). And yet, “as the time approached for him to be taken up to heaven, Jesus resolutely set out for Jerusalem” (Luke 9:51). He went willingly and deliberately to the cross, knowing that he would suffer.
“But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed… He was oppressed and afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth; he was led like a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before her shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth” (Isaiah 53:5,7).
Doctrine of God
Interestingly, in commenting on his book elsewhere, Chalke rightly points out that he was forced into denying penal substitution, primarily because he refuses to accept that God deals in vindicatory justice. It is his doctrine of God that leads him to his doctrine of the atonement. “What we say about the atonement naturally flows out of our understanding of the character of God. I believe, as I make clear in my book, that the most profound theological truth expressed in the whole canon of scripture is that ‘God is love’ (1 John 4:8).”3
The Powerless God
“The Person who loves the least in any relationship has most power and conversely, the person who loves most has the least power” (182). Thus, God is seen as the most powerless of all beings, for he loves most. How can we put our faith in a being whose hands are so tied? How do we know he will be powerful enough to secure his promises, if his will must always bow to our free will? What about the free will of the devil himself? How do we know that as God loves and the devil hates, we will not see the devil with the upper hand in that relationship eternally?
Only because we know that God is all-powerful, and that he will not permit evil to succeed! “Hallelujah! Salvation and glory and power belong to our God, for true and just are his judgements!” (Rev 19:1-2)
The Embarrassment of Judgement and Hell
“We are taught that God is love, but no-one explains how this teaching coheres with the reality of those whom we know, love and respect but who don’t know Christ and so, as the preacher tells us, are bound for eternal torment in hell” (15).
What Chalke insists we need is the big picture.
“As Henry Nouwen wrote in his classic book The Return of the Prodigal Son, ‘He has no desire to punish [people]. They have already been punished excessively by their own inner and outward waywardness’” (66).
“When it comes to the God of the Bible there is only one kind of sin in the world – forgiven sin” (109). There are clear exegetical arguments as to why it is important to see vindicatory justice as essential to God. Additionally, the whole sweep of salvation history makes this obvious. The fall is followed by curse and expulsion, sin by blood sacrifice, the first murder by an unbearable punishment, and the continued rebellion of the world by a universal flood. Even once God has called a people in love, he punishes them by a generation dying in the wilderness, by plagues, by poisonous snakes, by a divided kingdom and eventually by exile. And yet these are all seen as dilute forms of the wrath of God. We are warned repeatedly in the New Testament, especially in the last books written, that the worst is still to come, when God’s honour will be eternally avenged. He is concerned for the honour of his name and will not have it robbed.
Chalke admits that God is angry with our sin, but not that he wants to punish it. What Bible is he reading?
Doctrine of Man
“[Jesus] never wavered in his battle to destroy the prevailing culture that stigmatized ordinary people as ‘sinners’” (88).
In characterizing Christians as Pharisees, Chalke himself falls into the Pharisee’s trap.
He agrees with the Pharisee that Jesus dining with sinners means that Jesus doesn’t think that sin is very serious. He agrees with the Pharisee that personal transformation is more important than propitiation. The Pharisees effectively denied their own sinfulness. Chalke denies the sinfulness of everyone else.
Chalke misunderstands the Pharisees’ error. Pharisees assumed that sinners were beyond redemption. Chalke assumes that they are not to be stigmatized as ‘sinners’ and therefore need no radical redemption. But the Jesus of the Bible didn’t deny the fact that people were lost sinners; rather, he insisted that he had come to seek and save the lost. They were redeemable, not because their sin wasn’t radical, but because the redemption Jesus brought was radical. If Chalke is heard, he will, like the Pharisees, go a hundred miles to make a single convert, and make them children only of hell. For Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.
Doctrine of Salvation
Once Chalke has denied the need for propitiation, he makes the natural step of effectively denying the difference between Christian and Non-Christian.
Shorthand terms like ‘Christian’ and ‘non-Christian’ may at first appear useful, but once you dig a little deeper you soon realize that they can cause us to miss the point entirely. As far as Jesus was concerned it wasn’t how close someone was to him at any given stage in their life that mattered as much as the direction in which they were travelling. (142)
But has he not at this stage contradicted himself? For there are those who are travelling towards Christ (Christians) and those travelling away from Christ (Non-Christians).
Yet since he has blurred the distinction, he effectively acts as if everyone is on a journey towards Christ. For he refuses to call Non-Christians to turn around and follow Jesus. And so the one person, other than Jesus Christ who is put forward as a univocally good example of how to live the Christian life is Gandhi (122-125).
Later, Chalke commends someone who apologized for the way in which Christians had written to a dying man:
There was still hope for him if he would only repent and ask God to grant him forgiveness.… How could people be so insensitive?…. So my friend decided to write to John himself…. ‘In my experience God brings meaning and hope to the random stuff that happens in life…. Well that’s my story, John. If you ever want to tell me yours I’d love to meet you and have a chat. I really think you could help me in my journey and so I’d love to talk to you about your insights’…. Many would see that as a missed opportunity to share the gospel. But the truth is, my friend did share the gospel. In the last few days of his life, John Diamond had a meaningful conversation with someone who helped him in his journey. (150, 151)
Yet this begs the question. Where was that journey going? Is there a heaven and a hell? How could that man tell which he was heading towards? Did he really share the gospel? What is the gospel?
The Gospel Itself is Lost
Now when I’m with friends and the conversation turns to questions about life and God… I often ask… ‘If you could know what God is doing and be part of it, would you want to?’ I’ve heard some interesting answers and gradually witnessed a whole number of people’s lives begin to change direction – but I have never heard anyone say no. (117)
Does this not lead Chalke to question why it is that Jesus did not have as positive a response as Chalke celebrates? Do we read that “This is the verdict, light has come into the world, and I have never heard anyone say no to him?”(Cf. John 3:19)
The closest that Chalke comes to defining the good news is to repeat, “The Kingdom, the in-breaking shalom of God, is available now to everyone through me” (193).
Perhaps we can see what we hold most central by what we choose to tell our children. Chalke recounts a presentation of the gospel given by an eight year old at an Easter service, heard by a friend of his.
She introduced herself and then, with as bold a voice as she could muster, declared, “The four most important things in the world are: 1. God created me. 2. I am a sinner. 3. Jesus came to die for me. 4. Until I accept him as Lord and Saviour I cannot receive the abundant life God has for me.”
My friend sat in her seat stunned. Was the second most important thing in the world that eight-year-olds need to know really that they are sinners? Is this what we have reduced the majestic message of Jesus to? Surely a child would be better off knowing: 1. Jesus explained that God loves them unconditionally. 2. God longs for them to be part of his plan for creation. 3. Jesus teaches that no-one can keep them from this destiny except their own decision. 4. Jesus’ death and his resurrection from the dead prove that he was telling the truth so we can trust him. (173)
Yet Chalke has said just enough for the eight year old to know that salvation is offered, but little enough so that they will assume that it is already received. He has not told them how this wonderful universal love that offers them a place in God’s plan can be apprehended. By contrast, the eight year old understands that though God’s offer of abundant life is universal, it is far from universally received. There is nothing that an eight year old needs more than to understand her need for redeeming love and how to apprehend this love. At the moment of utmost importance, Chalke muddies the water.
Chalke seems to have drunk deeply from the New Perspective on Paul. Popularised in this book, it is clear how empty that theology really is. For though it might give some insight into the universal availability of the gospel, and the transforming effects of the gospel, it is completely devoid of the content of the gospel. How has Jesus achieved peace with God for us? How can we apprehend this peace? Without answers to these questions, there is no good news.
Chalke has once again fallen into a Pharisaic error he is seeking to oppose. In denying penal substitution, and muddying an understanding of what it means to repent and believe, he has in fact removed the gospel from the reach of the poor and needy whom he is so desperate to serve. Ironically, as Chalke seeks to recover the Lost Message of Jesus, he himself has wandered away from the Truth.
In the end Chalke is no Gandalf, for he speaks with the forked tongue of Sauruman. He prefers the road that sounds appealing to those under Sauron’s power. He has muddied the waters between good and evil, by suggesting that all power is evil, and so calls us to worship a powerless God. This powerless God seems to be unable to convict of sin and bring about repentance. In finding it too hard a journey to take the narrow road to the mortification of the ring of our self-centredness, I fear he will leave that ring intact, and speak soothing words to those who do not realise that their wide path leads only to destruction.
Would that this book itself were lost, and men, women, and eight year old girls come under the power of the Holy Spirit, be convicted of the horror of their sin, repent of it all, and put their trust in the strong arm of the Lord Jesus, who for our sake willingly gave himself up to endure the just and holy retribution of the all-powerful God that we might know the joy of eternally enjoying his love.
1. Psalm 4:2, 52:3-4; Proverbs 1:22; 1 John 2:15.
2. Psalm 100:5; Deut 10:17; Job 36:5,22,26; Psalm 99:9; John 3:33; John 4:24; Romans 3:30; 1 Cor 1:9, 10:13; 2 Cor 1:18; Hebrews 12:27; Exodus 15:3; Judges 6:24; 2 Chr 12:6; Psalm 10:16; Nahum 1:2.
3. Steve Chalke, Redeeming the Cross, p.2.