In The Lost Message of Jesus, Chalke controversially claimed that the teaching that Christ bore the penalty for sin on the cross is tantamount to,
‘child abuse – a vengeful Father punishing his Son for an offence he has not even committed.’
It is not my intention in this meeting to discuss Chalke’s, The Lost Message of Jesus as a whole. I simply want to examine his view of the atonement. On his Oasis Trust website, Chalke responds to critics of his understanding of the death of Christ in an article entitled Redeeming the Cross – The Lost Message of Jesus and the Cross of Christ here .
In this article, Chalke claims that the penal-substitutionary model of the atonement – that Christ died bearing the penalty for his people’s sin a product of Reformation teaching refined by 19th Century American Theologian Charles Hodge. Hodge is the real Theological bogey man for Chalke. He blames him for popularising the penal substitutionary view of the cross that he finds so objectionable. But what does Hodge actually say? Does he present us with a caricature of the cross in his teaching?
After discussing the Old Testament sacrifices, Hodge draws this conclusion about the cross:
the Scriptures in declaring that Christ was a sacrifice intend to teach that He was the substitute for sinners, that He bore their guilt, suffered the penalty of the law in their stead and thereby reconciled them to God.
(Systematic Theology Abridged p.382)
Here, Hodge gives us an excellent, pithy definition of the classic Evangelical Protestant understanding of the cross of Jesus. Have Evangelicals like the Reformers and Hodge really misunderstood the cross as Chalke claims?
We find the same emphasis in John Calvin.
The sinner was estranged from God by sin, an heir of wrath, exposed to the curse of eternal death, excluded from all hope of salvation…in fine, doomed to horrible destruction….then Christ interposed, took the punishment upon himself, and bore what by the just judgement of God was impending over sinners; with his own blood [Christ] removed the sins that rendered [us] hateful to God…and duly appeased the wrath of God the Father.
(Institutes of the Christian Religion Book II 16:2)
The Wrath of God and the Love of God
What Chalke really objects to is the Biblical teaching on the wrath of God.
wouldn’t’t it be inconsistent for God to warn us not to be angry with each other and yet burn with wrath himself, or tell us to ‘love our enemies’ when he obviously couldn’t’t quite bring himself to do the same without demanding massive appeasement?
He goes on to say,
If the cross has anything to do with penal substitution then Jesus teaching becomes a divine case of ‘do as I say, not as I do’. I, for one, believe that God practices what he preaches!
But God does punish sin. That is why we die. “The wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23.) The Bible speaks clearly and unashamedly of God’s wrath and anger. Psalm 7:11 – 13. Jesus spoke of hell fire Mark 9:43-48. The wicked will be punished for their sinful rebellion against God Revelation 14:9-11. Paul wrote of God’s wrath and judgement too Romans 1:18, 2:5. God’s wrath is not irrational anger that simply gives vent to some kind of divine frustration. It is his holy and just reaction to all that is sinful.
Why did God send his Son to die on a cross? Why did he put him through the agonies of crucifixion and put Jesus through such hell that he cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46). The Biblical answer is: Because God loved those who had sinned against him and provoked his just wrath. For Chalke this constitutes “a massive contradiction.” He cannot see how God can love those with whom he is also angry. But this is what the Bible does continually, John 3:16, Romans 5: 8&9
Now we come to the heart of the matter. What does the Biblical word “propitiation” mean? In the New Testament, the word is found in Luke 18:13, Romans 3:25, Hebrews 2:17, 1 John 2:2 & 4:10. A good definition would be: To propitiate means to avert wrath. Chalke sees this as a pre-Christian notion that smacks more of paganism than Biblical teaching. The pagans viewed their gods as wrathful and unpredictable. But the god’s favour could be won by a sacrificial gift. The Biblical doctrine of propitiation does not imply that an implacably angry Father had to be made to love sinners by the Son who bore his wrath and judgment.
John Stott reflects on the relation between God’s love and propitiation:
It is God himself who in holy wrath needs to be propitiated, God himself who in holy love undertook to do the propitiating, and God himself in the person of his Son who died for the propitiation of our sins. Thus God took his own loving initiative to appease his own righteous anger by bearing it in his own self in his own Son when he took our place and died for us. Here is no crudity here to evoke our ridicule, only the profundity of love to evoke our worship.
(John Stott The Cross of Christ p.175)
Ransom to Satan?
So, what does Chalke actually make of the atonement? He quotes Origen with approval:
To whom did he give his life as a ransom for many? Assuredly not to God, could it then be to the Evil One? For he was holding fast until the ransom should be given him, even the life of Jesus; being deceived with the idea that he could have dominion over it and not seeing that he could not bear the torture in retaining it.’
This theory of the atonement involves God in deception. Gregory of Nyssa, another of Chalke’s favourite early Theologians openly acknowledged this. Gregory developed the idea that man, by sin had sold himself to the devil and was therefore Satan’s lawful possession. God proposed to buy human beings back by giving his Son to Satan as the price of setting us free. But God tricked the devil. He did not get Jesus in return for man - Jesus got him and defeated him.
Gregory uses the metaphor of fishing to expound his view: The devil swallowed the bait of Christ’s flesh, not realising that his flesh concealed the hook of his deity. Satan did not quite get what he bargained for. When he “bit” on Christ’s humanity he found himself defeated by his deity.
There is an element of deception involved in this scheme. God pulled a fast one. But this is alright according to Gregory of Nyssa,
By the reasonable rule of justice, he who practiced deception receives in return that very treatment….He who first deceived man by the bait of sensual pleasure is himself deceived by [Christ’s] human form.
(Cited in The True Image P.E. Hughes p. 345)
Chalke repudiates the Biblical teaching of penal substitution for this reason:
Thus, what we believe about the cross (and therefore God’s character) fundamentally shapes our statements about, and attitude to, the world and wider society.
But, in Steve Chalke’s preferred teaching on the atonement, God practiced deception on a cosmic scale. What does that say about our attitudes to society? Is it OK to deceive others is the outcome is for the best? Are pious “white lies” justified as long as we have a noble end in view? (2 Corinthians 4:3.) What of Titus 1:2? God is constitutionally incapable of lies and deception. He cannot lie - even to the devil.
Penal substitution holds together God’s majestic holiness, the integrity of his justice and the wonder of his love for his enemies. This provides us with a robust model of how we should relate to one another in love and justice.
Steve Chalke has lost the true message of Jesus. Without the penal, substitutionary death of Christ we have no gospel to proclaim.
I declare to you the gospel which I preached to you, which you also received in which you stand, by which you are also saved, if you hold fast that word which I preached to you – unless you believed in vain. For I delivered to you first of all that which I also received: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that he was buried and that he rose again the third day according to the Scriptures” (1 Corinthians 15:1-4 emphasis added.)