Is The Message of Jesus Lost?
Much about this year’s Word Alive was the same as usual – happy reunions with old friends, challenging teaching, the strange, permanent half-rain that characterises Skegness in April. But in the book shop in the Skyline Pavilion, troubled voices could be heard: ‘Have you seen it?’, ‘I can’t believe he’s written that.’ OK, Christians can be more fascinated with controversy than we ought to be. But in this case it wasn’t so much fascination as genuine alarm, disappointment, grief, even.
The cause was Steve Chalke’s new bestseller, The Lost Message of Jesus (Zondervan. 204 pages. £8.99 ISBNO31O 248825). Steve is founder of the hugely influential Oasis Trust, which works closely with Spring Harvest, YFC, the Salvation Army, and Youthwork Magazine. A charismatic speaker, TV personality and visionary, he has inspired many. Yet his new book attacks the heart of biblical Christianity, and offers instead a ‘lost message’ which is really no gospel at all.
A wrong view of God
No Christian would deny the precious truth that ‘God is love’ (1 John 4.8,16). Chalke reminds us that the Lord Jesus ’embraces the untouchable, feeds the hungry, eats with the socially and religiously unacceptable, forgives the unforgivable, heals the sick and welcomes the marginalised to be his closest companions’ (p.45), and points out that the church has often failed to follow our Lord’s example. How many prostitutes and homosexuals can we count among our congregations? A fair challenge.
Yet Chalke is wrong when he claims that the Bible ‘never defines him as anything other than love’ (p.63). John’s first letter affirms also that ‘God is light; in him there is no darkness at all’ (1 John 1.5). This omission is no slip of the pen. As we read through the book we find that God’s white-hot moral purity and indignation at sin have been airbrushed out of the picture. Speaking of sinful people and a God who is a consuming fire (Deuteronomy 4.24), Chalke rejects his Sunday School teacher’s analogy of a sheet of tissue paper that is burned up when brought near a candle flame. There is no such danger. Holiness is redefined as just another way of talking about God’s love and the pain that he feels as he looks on a broken world. Indeed, Chalke speculates that the reason that no one can look at God’s face is that it is so contorted with suffering (p.59).
The grace of God is similarly emptied of biblical content. It means little more than inclusivism, a lowering of the doorstep that the Pharisees had set too high (p.99). Chalke is indignant that some in that society were stigmatised as ‘unclean’ (p.88), or that the temple system excluded any but the super-religious High Priest from the Holy of Holies (p.105f).
Yet while the Pharisees may have twisted them, the exclusiveness of the Levitical cleanliness laws and the Temple were originally God’s idea. To be sure, Jesus did transcend the old order, touching lepers and opening the way to God’s presence. But it was not that he abrogated the Law; he fulfilled it. Nor was he more liberal about the standard; he had to pay with his blood.
A wrong view of man
If Chalke’s God has little problem with evil, then neither does humanity: ‘While we have spent centuries arguing over the doctrine of original sin we have missed a startling point: Jesus believed in original goodness! God declared that all his creation, including humankind, was very good’ (p.67, italics original). Yet this quotation from Genesis 1 describes life before the Fall, and Chalke blurs the difference the Fall brought to our nature. Augustine did not invent the view that the human heart is depraved (p.67), for it was not he who first taught that ‘from within, out of men’s hearts, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery’ (Mark 7.21), or who told his disciples that they were evil, almost as a throwaway line (Matthew 7.11).
Because Chalke wants to affirm the present goodness of humanity, he redefines repentance. For him it isn’t a negative word, to do with renouncing evil that we find within ourselves; it is rather a call to fulfill our natural potential. Like the social drop-outs Jamie Oliver employed as trainee chefs in his Channel 4 TV series, all we need is to be given a chance by someone who believes in us (p.1201). Yet this Pelagian picture is contradicted by the New Testament, which describes us by nature as slaves to sin (John 8.34), powerless (Romans 5.6), spiritual corpses who were once objects of God’s wrath (Ephesians 2.1-3).
A wrong view of the cross
If God is not angry, and humans are not essentially guilty, then what job remains for the cross? Unsurprisingly, Chalke renounces a crucial biblical dimension of the atonement: penal substitution. For Chalke this is unnecessary and offensive. He describes it as ‘a form of cosmic child abuse – a vengeful Father, punishing his Son for an offence he has not even committed, morally dubious in total contradiction to the statement "God is love"’ (p.182). But the apostle John declares that the pouring out of God’s wrath on Jesus is the very essence of love (1 John 4.10).
This is the most tragic part of the book. Having set out an orthodox understanding of Jesus cry of Godforsakenness, Chalke confesses: ‘I used to preach this way myself’ (p.184). No more, however. For while ‘the cross is often portrayed as the bridge over the chasm that separates heaven and earth the reality is that it stands at the centre of our decaying world-thrust into the dirt to proclaim "God is here"’ (p.185). In other words, the cross is no more than Jesus identifying with our suffering, sharing in the pathos of it. It is difficult to see how this helps us anymore than my injecting myself with the HIV virus would improve the lot of a friend who has AIDS.
The Lost Message of Jesus? An alarming, painful, dangerous book. More alarming is the fact that although the Word Alive leadership were made aware of its contents, it was not withdrawn from sale, nor was any statement made, and the author himself stood up to give the main Big Top address the following evening.
Andrew Sach & Mike Ovey,
Oak Hill College, London
Evangelicals Now, June 2004 with permission.
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