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Steve Chalke and the cross of Christ

November 2004 | by Nick Needham

Suppose you sang this verse from Charles Wesley’s hymn ‘All ye that pass by’:

For what you have done
His blood must atone:
The Father hath punished for you his dear Son.
The Lord, in the day
Of his anger, did lay
Your sins on the Lamb, and he bore them away.

And then someone turned on you, and denounced this view of Christ’s death as ‘child abuse — a vengeful Father punishing his Son for an offence he has not even committed’. Yet that is how Steve Chalke, well-known Evangelical communicator, describes Wesley’s understanding of the cross in his recent book The lost message of Jesus.

Not that Chalke singles out Wesley — who was merely expressing the common Evangelical doctrine of the atonement (‘penal substitution — that Christ bore our penalty to save us). It is that doctrine which Chalke rejects.

Liberal theology

Although he does not spend much time on this in the book, Chalke devotes an entire article to defending his view of the cross in the September issue of Christianity magazine. Here Chalke is quite uncompromising in his attack on penal substitution.

He says that this doctrine does not fit well either with the Bible or the early Church Fathers — that it is pagan rather than Christian in origin and distorts the character of God by presenting him primarily as a God of retribution, not of love.

Of course, we have heard all this before. It is the old ‘liberal’ theology, deriving ultimately from the Socinian radicals of the 16th century who rejected almost everything the Protestant Reformation stood for.

So Chalke is saying nothing new. Perhaps the only new element is that the old Socinian liberalism is now dressing itself up as Evangelicalism.

Chalke certainly turns his guns on the classic Evangelical tradition. In an attempt to discredit penal substitution, he presents it as a novel idea, unknown in the church prior to Anselm of Canterbury (11th century). It was, he suggests, refined by Calvin but brought to its full expression by Charles Hodge of Princeton in the 19th century. Accordingly, it is Hodge who draws most of Chalke’s ire and fire.

Myth of his making

What shall we make of this? First, Chalke’s version of history is a myth of his own making. Penal substitution is widely taught by the early Church Fathers. For example, Athanasius writes:

‘This was why the Word was united to human nature, namely, that against human nature the curse might no longer prevail. This is the reason why they record the request made on humanity’s behalf in the seventy-first Psalm: “Deliver to the King your judgment, O God”: asking that the judgment of death which hung over us may be delivered to the Son, and also that he may then, by dying for us, abolish it for us in himself. This was what he signified, saying himself, in the eighty-seventh Psalm: “Your wrath lies hard upon me”. For he bore the wrath which lay upon us.’

Cyril of Alexandria agrees: ‘It was not for his sins, but for ours that Christ was wounded. We had disobeyed God, and it was we who should have been chastised. But the chastisement which was due to sinners fell on him. God struck him for our sin in order to absolve us from its penalty’.

Leo the Great adds: ‘Weakness and mortality, which were not sin, but the penalty of sin, were undergone by the Redeemer of the world as a punishment, that they might be reckoned as the price of redemption’.

The Bible is clear

These are just three representative quotations, the tip of a vast iceberg. Penal substitution, so far from being novel, is part of mainstream Christian theology from the earliest times.

Of course, if we could ask the early Fathers why they believed in penal substitution, they would have said, ‘Because it is in the Bible’.

In general terms, if death is the wages of sin and God is the righteous judge, and if Christ embraced death to save us from death (all of which the Bible teaches), how exactly do we avoid a doctrine of penal substitution?

As for specific texts, it is hard to read Isaiah 53 and not see penal substitution there, while even liberal commentators admit that Paul teaches penal substitution in a text like Galatians 3:13: ‘Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law, becoming a curse for us, as it is written, “Cursed is he who is hung upon a tree”.’

The great atonement passage in 2 Corinthians 5:14-21 is based on a series of exchanges: our sins are not imputed to us but to Christ who dies our death — and righteousness is imputed to us, who therefore live.

Nothing but love?

Chalke is correct to say that our view of the atonement will reflect and reveal our view of God himself. He rejects penal substitution because he thinks that God is love, and a loving God would never seek retribution.

But this is to strip down God’s moral character to ‘nothing but love’. A real distortion of God’s character occurs if we isolate love from all the other attributes of God. For example, we cannot isolate love from wisdom — love not allied to perfect wisdom might easily harm the beloved.

We have to take together, as a whole, everything God reveals about himself. And one of these things is his hatred of sin and his holy determination that it shall be judged and condemned.

The harmony of God’s love with his judgement shines forth precisely on the cross — where in love the righteous Judge himself submits to his own judgement, that sinners might be acquitted.

Obedience and death

At this point Chalke seems to forget the doctrine of the Trinity. It is not a case of an angry Father punishing an innocent Son (the typical liberal caricature of penal substitution). It is a case of Father and Son being profoundly united in justice and mercy — and choosing to save sinners in a way that satisfies both.

As the Westminster Confession (11:3) puts it: ‘Christ, by his obedience and death, did fully discharge the debt of all those that are thus justified, and did make a proper, real, and full satisfaction to his Father’s justice in their behalf. Yet, inasmuch as he was given by the Father for them; and his obedience and satisfaction accepted in their stead; and both freely, not for anything in them; their justification is only of free grace; that both the exact justice and rich grace of God might be glorified in the justification of sinners’.

Exact justice and rich grace — they meet and kiss upon the cross.

Steve Chalke’s robust rejection of penal substitution may be one more sign that Evangelicalism is disintegrating into a new liberalism.

If we want to avoid this happening we shall have to renew our acquaintance with the faith once delivered to the saints — as it flows to us supremely from the Scriptures, and derivatively from the Fathers, the Reformers, our creeds and confessions, and not least our heritage of hymns.

As long as we keep singing Charles Wesley, penal substitution is not likely to lose its place in our piety