When Steve Chalke and Alan Mann wrote 'The Lost Message of Jesus' they must have known it would create waves. I suspect they had no idea it would brew a storm.
It's been some time since I was aware of a publication which has inspired and infuriated so many in equal numbers – in itself an important issue which goes far beyond the personalities involved. The book itself made no explicit reference to the subject of penal substitution, but it wasn't hard to spot the fact that the authors had an unveiled resistance to it.
When the Evangelical Alliance (EA) convened a debate that in itself was also quite controversial. Many feared a repeat of a controversial debate in 1966, which divided evangelicals for years. Conversely, most of the under 35's who made up the bulk of the 700 people who attended, had no interest or awareness of 1966.
The debate was one of the most difficult calls I have made as general director of the EA. It was a high-risk strategy. It was not a one-night stand to solve the issue.
In convening the dialogue I was under no illusion. I knew that whatever the outcome we would get it wrong for someone. I knew too that there was very little chance of either side of the debate having a radical change of mind within a two-hour encounter. We invited no novices to the platform. I also knew that those who led the debate from the front were megaphones for increasingly diverse views about issues facing evangelicals.
The EA has committed itself to further work on this issue. We will do this because what we believe is important and how we express it to other people who might come to believe is also important.
The relative silence of the EA to date should not be construed as theological apathy or indifference on this vital issue. But this seems to me an appropriate time to break silence.
This is not so much the official line from the Evangelical Alliance. It is more a pastor's heart; some considered passions from a personal perspective. An open letter to both sides of the debate.
The first thing to say is that Steve is my brother in Christ. I have had the opportunity of working very closely with Steve in a number of different settings. As Christian lifestyles and values go, it doesn't get much better than Steve Chalke. Few people put as much effort in offering the world a transparent and authentic version of faith and grace as he does. His outstanding social and political action has nothing to do with 'salvation by works' but it has everything to do with the works of salvation.
I also want to stand very firmly with Steve in the challenge he offers all of us. He is absolutely right to challenge us about the language and attitudes, which betrays and stifles the message of love. And whatever I might feel about his views on penal substitution, I have to ask searching questions about why it is that so many Christians – young and old – have found the book so liberating.
By his own admission, Steve is not a theologian but he really has made the effort to trawl the material. I am with Steve on this journey but distinctly troubled by the destination.
Broadly, I'm troubled for three reasons.
Firstly, I am not convinced that Steve really has answered the plethora of key biblical texts dealing with the relationship between wrath, judgement and punishment (Isaiah 53:1-11 and Romans 5:8-11 and the book of Hebrews for starters). Apart from the concept of punishment, what can it possibly mean to say 'the punishment that brought us peace was upon him,'? (Isaiah 53:5). These passages simply cannot be waved away by an emphasis on love.
Secondly, it's one thing to question the place of penal substitution as an appropriate model of atonement but it's quite another to dismiss it and anathematise those who do. Steve's exclusion clause disqualifies the majority of Christians like me around the world who hold to a doctrine of Penal Substitution. I haven't yet worked out if Steve recognises the implications of his position.
By insisting that Penal Substitution is pagan and therefore unorthodox, he makes himself a theological policeman and as much an excluder as anyone else I know. Ironic. Evangelical unity is threatened here, not by open theological debate but by theological intolerance.
But I also wonder what this means for the emerging generation of Christians who may be happy with the sentiments without grasping the theological implications, and for whom the experience of 'church' is limited to their immediate circle of friends. Will someone take time to ensure that they embrace the Scriptures as well as they have happily welcomed these ideas? We are in this for the long run and in the long run, happy Christians don't necessarily make the most effective disciples.
One more thought. I am a little worried about an approach to atonement which doesn't give the Holy Spirit much scope for doing His job of taking the foolishness and offensiveness of the Cross and convincing the world of its truth. In bringing people to faith, the Virgin birth, and the bodily resurrection of the dead are no more believable than an angry God who punishes sin because he loves me. Unless the Spirit helps.
I am equally concerned about those on the 'other side' of the argument.
Generalisations are always difficult so let me attempt to be generally specific and hope that I can do so without causing offence. By the 'other side' of the argument I broadly mean 'conservative' or 'reformed' evangelicals. These are my fellow evangelicals in Affinity, and the UCCF family; friends and protagonists from the 'Evangelicals Now' and 'Evangelical Times' constituency.
As a classical Pentecostal I share many of the same theological convictions and attitudes. Preaching, the authority of the Bible and the centrality of Christ were written into the fabric of my faith for as long as I can remember. I am with you on Penal Substitution. And the more I have thought about it in recent weeks the more glorious it seems to me.
The entire evangelical community needs the scholarship, the genuine love for the Scriptures and the maintenance of orthodoxy, which exists in this constituency. Evangelicalism would be the poorer without it. If 'conservative' evangelicals built stronger relationships with those with whom they disagreed rather than treating them as doctrinal pariahs, we would all be vastly enriched.
But this debate has left me with some very worrying questions. Why the urgent demand for Chalke's exclusion? Where does this motivation come from? Is it from love of the Scriptures, or a need for retribution?
And it can be tested. At the next editorial or deacons meeting in which this issue is discussed, ask this question: 'do we want to win Steve rather than exclude him?' If the answer is 'yes', then we should ask what steps we have taken to do so. If the answer is 'no' we should close the meeting.
This controversy has provoked renewed allegations that the Evangelical Alliance is more concerned with unity than truth. It is a strange idea. For while I passionately believe that truth is more important than unity I also believe that unity is a biblical truth (Ephesians 4).
I am saddened by that eagerness to win arguments which lose people; by the pursuit of truth characterised by polemic postures rather than weeping servants.
onservative evangelicalism is right: the church needs orthodoxy. But they should also remember that the world needs love.
In my work as a Christian leader I long to experience your love as much as I have known your chiding. I suspect Steve would say the same.
To quote Fran Beckett, this love must be, 'robust love.' 'Robust love' in this situation will not ignore the truth about the Atonement. But it will walk patiently towards a resolution. It will seek the Truth as well as truth. And it will reach out to people who are struggling to understand that truth. Love does not bellow for blood.
Conservative evangelicalism should not stand apart from us in condemnation at this juncture. That's what Pharisees do. Rather it is an opportunity to display an uncompromising generosity, which makes 'every effort' (Ephesians 4:3). What, I wonder, might this 'effort' look like for those of us who take strong issue with Chalke and many silent others? And how will conservative Christians emerge from this debate to be known as those who love people as much as they love truth?
This is a poignant moment in history. Now more than ever, evangelical faith is poised to be taken seriously and our internal conversations and responses to each other will become an even more important part of our mission to the world.
We all bear a responsibility to pursue truth with love. It simply isn't good enough to say these things don't matter. Those who are content to 'do the business' and leave the debate well alone, sow dangerous seeds of indifference for a future generation of believers to reap. Ultimately the Cross is a mystery and whilst no one truly understands the mechanics of that mystery, the language we use to help others enter that mystery is of profound importance.
And that is important for whatever else we make of this debate it is more than a technical conversation about the Cross – important though that is. It is essentially a debate about our mission in the world and our missionto the world. In the light of the recent Presidential elections in the USA, we have been pushed back to the debate about evangelical identity. 'What is an evangelical?' is a very important question for evangelicals concerned with biblical orthodoxy. But our society and culture will respond to this question not only by our statements about the Cross but also by our conduct as we stand in its shadow.
Statements of faith are important. They must neither be taken for granted or casually neglected. But our challenge is far greater than what we do about a charismatic individual. In bringing many nations to obedience to Christ, evangelicals have another important responsibility: we must avoid the word 'evangelical' getting in the way of the words, 'good news'.