In their controversial book The Lost Message of Jesus Steve Chalke and Alan Mann attempt to restate the grandness of the Gospel of grace for a new generation. Their aim is to help us ‘see Jesus again for the very first time’, by laying emphasis on the ‘Big Picture’ of kingdom theology, the expansive reign of God’s shalom at every level of life - social, political, environmental, and personal. Who can argue with this?
Unfortunately, Steve and Alan also attack some vital elements of scriptural teaching on the nature of God and the cross that alone can make this possible. They criticise the Church’s historic confessions and creeds, and cavalierly dismiss some of her leading theologians who are hammered for ‘distorting’ the truth about God by teaching the wrath of God against sin, and the necessity for the ‘penal substitution’ of Christ on the cross. They assert this makes God out to be a loveless, sadistic monster, eager to ‘smite’ unwary passers-by with everlasting doom, a God whose strap line is "Get in line fast or I’ll squash you!" (p49,55-56), a God who is guilty of "cosmic child abuse" in punishing Christ! (p.182) - a shocking phrase derived from radical, ecumenical feminists like Union Theological Seminary teacher, Delores Williams, who crudely dismisses the cross by saying, "I don’t think we need folks hanging on crosses and blood dripping and weird stuff... In the heart and soul of the deities, we are all loved, and it doesn’t matter who we’re sleeping with..."
This is strange company for Steve and Alan to keep, mixing with erroneous ‘blind guides’ like Faustus Socinus (Unitarian rationalist c.1578), John McLeod Campbell (19th century Scottish preacher disciplined for heresy), plus a host of modern liberals who also deny divine wrath, judgment, and the necessity for Christ’s penal substitution and see Jesus as merely a great moral teacher who taught a purely ethical kingdom of goodness, kindness, tolerance and neighbour love.
‘God is love’!
Eager to underline the fact that ‘God is love’ (1 John 4:8) but downplaying his holiness, they adopt the ‘reimagined view’ of the ‘therapeutic God’ popular today. D. A, Carson says ‘This may be superficially attractive because he appeals to our emotions, but the cost will soon be high. Implicitly we start thinking of a finite God. God himself is gradually diminished and reduced from what he actually is. And that is idolatry.’ (D.A. Carson The Difficult Doctrine of the Love of God. Crossway p.60).
Their discussion of ‘Original Sin’ and its all-pervasive damage is weak, and this underlines their adoption of a diminished view of the cross that is neither robust enough to deal with evil, nor truly Pauline. Emphasising God’s compassion and minimising his anger, Steve and Alan promote only positive biblical metaphors for the cross like those derived from the slave market (ransom), the battlefield (victory), and the family (love and reconciliation), but they’re wary of those from the law court (punishment) or the Temple (sacrifice), since penal substitution ‘doesn’t cohere well with either biblical or Early Church thought’. (Chalke ‘Redeeming the Cross’ – Christianity September 2004).
They believe the cross primarily changes and affects us, not God show that the cross worked in several directions at once: man-ward, satanward and God-ward, and of these three its effects on God are the most significant and fundamental (2 Cor 5:19; Heb 9:24; 1 John 2:1-2). Without the perspective of penal substitution, none of the other interpretations can stand or even make sense.
Throwing out the Baby with the Bathwater
There’s an alarming tendency in the church today to jettison tried and tested truths in search of something fresh and original to say to our contemporaries. The modern church seems bored with the ‘out-dated’ content of the full biblical message. Like a panicking airplane crew in trouble due to structural or mechanical failure, some are too ready to lighten the ‘ballast’ of a church experiencing turbulence, by emptying the cargo and fuel tanks in mid air - the very purpose for the flight, and the power essential to reach the destination! A ‘damaged’ church in a storm, doesn’t need to jettison her message or abandon the Spirit’s power, she needs to pay attention to the ‘container’, or vehicle of delivery. The message is ‘fixed’ in scripture, and is not expendable.
True, the penal element of the cross has sometimes been presented badly, making God appear like a cold, callous and calculating ‘hanging judge’. We’ve occasionally obscured the passionate love of God for humankind in the process of ‘sewing up all the loose ends’ and ‘getting it right’, portraying the cross as a dull and complicated mathematical formula to solve ‘the problem of evil’.
But Jeremiah gives good advice here: ‘This is what the Lord says: Stand at the crossroads and look; ask for the ancient paths, ask where the good way is, and walk in it, and you will find rest for your souls’ (Jer. 6:16). Re-viewing the cross is one way of re-discovering those ‘ancient paths’ that lead to spiritual, moral and physical health. We never mature beyond this point but rather, we mature more and more into the irreducible elements of authentic Christianity. It is these we most need in troubled and unstable times.
Can it be true?
Is penal substitution really just part of ‘the myth of redemptive violence’ and a ‘twisted version of events’ as they suggest? (The Lost Message of Jesus p.125, 182). No. There’s a blood-stained path running through the whole Bible. Yet many moderns want a redemption that is bloodless, and consider any emphasis on the brutality of the cross ‘a barbaric idea’. But we dare not minimise or dismiss the true horrors of the cross. The word ‘blood’ demands we take it seriously. Leon Morris has conclusively demonstrated that this term ‘blood’ denotes a life laid down in a violent, sacrificial death in The Atonement: Its Meaning and Significance, IVP 1983.
If no blood is available, no forgiveness is possible (Heb 9:22). We cannot dismiss the mystery of this too quickly since the scriptures insist it is there (Acts 20:28; Eph 1:7, 2:13).
We’ll track for clues that support this vital perspective on the greatest event in history, recalling that the cross never took God by surprise (Acts 2:23, 4:28). It was not the failure, but the fulfilment of God’s plan, for ‘There was a cross in the heart of God long before there was a cross on Calvary’s hill... There was a Calvary above, the mother of it all.’ (P. T. Forsyth, The Work of Christ)
Clue No.1 - ‘The Passover Lamb’ (Exodus 12)
The dramatic story of the Exodus was vividly depicted in De Mille’s 1956 film The Ten Commandments and Spielberg’s 1998 animation The Prince of Egypt. The slaying of the Passover lamb climaxed it all, and displayed the essence of penal substitution as the primary means of Israel’s deliverance from slavery and judgement.
When God himself enters Egypt in judgement, no one is safe, not even the Hebrews! (Exodus 12:12)
God visits Egypt in wrath during the darkest part of the night, to kill every first-born male. But the blood of the lamb is substitutionary, since God has them ‘count heads’ and stomachs to assess the total needs and gauge the size of animal required (Exodus 12:3- 4). They then kill it and splatter blood left and right, up and down, making a bloody cross on their houses!
The result was that in every Israelite household a lamb died in their place.
God accepted a substitute for them (Exodus 12:8-10), the exact equivalent of those it covered by its blood. The blood had a propitiatory role, averting God’s wrath, and rescuing those who by faith claimed its protection. It also freed them, for before the Lamb died they could not go, after the lamb died they could not stay! This is exactly what happened at Calvary where ‘redemptive violence’ secured our deliverance also.
Clue No.2 - ‘The Day of Atonement’ (Leviticus 16) The word ‘atonement’ is often misunderstood. David Pawson defines it accurately as he explains the OT sacrifices: ‘They offered God compensation. The word atonement actually means ‘compensation’, so if you atone for something, you offer something as compensation. Both the sin offering and the trespass offering are compensation offerings to God involving blood: as a compensation for the bad life the offerer has lived, they offer to God a good life that has never sinned.’ David Pawson Unlocking the Bible O.T. vol 1, Marshal-Pickering 1999, p.126-127.
On the Day of Atonement the sin of the whole nation was atoned for in a single day.
Along with a bull to cover the Priest, two goats were selected along with a ram. They all had to be male, in their prime, free of blemish and without injury (just like Jesus!). The High Priest pressed his hands on them and confessing national sins transferred the guilt of a nation by ‘dumping’ it unto their heads. One of the goats had its throat cut, opening major arteries and its blood was collected in a bowl as though not a drop was spare. The blood was literally splattered before God where he alone could see it, on the lid of the Ark of the Covenant in the Most Holy Place, then splashed on the priests and the people. To God it was seen as their blood.
The other goat, the ‘scapegoat’, was allowed to live, but only to face a worse fate.
It was driven away into the desert, cut off from all human contact to die alone, under the relentless heat of the scorching sun and the cold darkness of night, a prey to evil predators and serpents. One goat died a bloody death, the other survived to face a living one. Christ experienced both!
These sacrifices carried sin completely away through ‘redemptive violence’, just like the violent cross of Christ where Jesus accomplished complete atonement for the whole world. He was simultaneously the bull, ram, goat and scapegoat. Sin’s penalty crashed on him and smashed him with psychological and physical torment in our place. He became God-forsaken, and ‘descended into hell’. This is the inescapable and obvious meaning of the cross, and deep in our hearts we know it was essential.
Clue No.3 - ‘The Suffering Servant’ (Isaiah 53) Without accurate diagnosis we’ll never understand the cure. In Isaiah 53:4-6, the prophet predicted that on the cross Christ would be 1. Wounded, 2. Bruised, 3. Crushed, and 4. Covered with stripes and sores for our cure. The reasons?
Sin is Transgression – Our selfwill and defiance constantly ‘step over the line’, crossing the bounds that distinguish man from God. Christ was deliberately ‘wounded for our transgressions’, suffering wounds of contusion (bruised with rods and fists), laceration (tearing his skin), penetration (his body pierced by thorns), perforation (nailed through hands and feet) and incision (gashes opening his flesh). These are our just deserts and Christ willingly took them.
Sin is Iniquity – revealing our true character and spirit as one of perversity, a malign ‘bent’ or radical twist away from the will of God. We’re maladjusted and lawless. But Christ was ‘crushed’ and ‘bruised’ to straighten us out.
Sin is Enmity – an allusion to the volitional and emotional centre of mankind. We regularly manifest wilful rebellion and hostility to God and the result is dissonance, hatred, anarchy and lost peace. So Christ was chastened by God for our alienation, in the familial but righteous discipline of a father’s angered love, designed to bring a just end to estrangement. This is clearly the propitiation or satisfaction of God’s wrath. Love implies wrath or God wouldn’t be morally active. It is true love’s other side. Its opposite is not love but indifference.
Sin is Disease – An incurable ‘cancer’ spread throughout our entire spiritual being. Yet ‘by his stripes we are healed’. We are ‘fixed up’ and completely repaired in body, soul, mind and spirit because Christ was made ‘sick’ in our place on the cross. It wasn’t Pilate’s, the Sanhedrin’s, or Herod’s decision to do this. It was ‘the Lord’s will to crush him’ (v.10). And this was no act of ‘cosmic child abuse’ - in my view a blasphemous suggestion - but an act of divine justice against sin, the only effective remedy for it.
Be aware also, that everything the Old Testament tells us about the character of God is entirely endorsed in the New Testament. God does not change from worse to better, so we have to.
Clue No.4 - ‘The Divine Exchange’ (Romans 3:21-26) Our root problem is sin. Sin is a religious word. It means we put ourselves at the centre of the universe not God. The term ‘original sin’ is a reference to the first sinful act performed by Adam and Eve in Eden, and the effects of it on the human race that sprang from them. We’ve all inherited this rebellious nature, and we’re all born as ‘carriers’ of this contagion, so that sin is ‘original’ to us mutating us ‘out of sync’ with God. God’s wrath is his righteous hostility to ‘godlessness and wickedness’ (Romans 1:18), i.e. our failure as religious beings and our failure as moral beings. We aren’t sinful because we sin; we sin because we are sinful. Christ’s suffering is the only sufficient remedy for this. ‘Original goodness’ can only be restored after ‘original sin’ has been ‘crucified’! This happened at the cross.
The cross deals primarily with God’s wrath against sin (v.25a) – unbelievers live daily under that wrath (John 3:36), a factor that should make perfect sense to us, as it does to anyone who’s seen the real problem. C.S. Lewis agrees: ‘When we merely say we are bad, the "wrath" of God seems a barbarous doctrine; as soon as we perceive our badness, it appears inevitable, a mere corollary from God’s goodness.’ C S Lewis, The Problem of Pain.
That’s why the vital thing we need to feel is dread of God, for the cross is then seen as the only bridge possible across that gulf. We only fully know his love after conversion (Rom 5:5).
God overlooked centuries of transgression and his justice was at stake - Our spiritual ancestors were all massively ‘in the red’ until Christ came. Justice had to be done (Rom 3:25). ‘Justice’ is God working out what belongs to whom, and making sure that they get it. Sin is punished in only one of two places – in hell forever, or in the six terrible hours Christ hung on the cross, for God must be propitiated (Rom 3:25-26). We can each personally choose where we want to face our retribution.
This is why Christ was a suffering Saviour (v.24) - Statues and pictures of the Buddha show him sitting fat and contented, eyes closed in the lotus position, detached and blinded to the pain of this world. Mohammed is admired as he rides, sword in hand, inflicting wounds on the world through Jihad or ‘Holy War’ against ‘the Infidel’. But Christ alone suffered and was wounded for that world. He is the only Saviour with wounds. He is ‘The Crucified God!’ (Jurgen Moltmann)
On the Cross a divine exchange took place (v.21-22, 24-25). Christ became a sinner for us by ‘imputation’, reckoned ‘as guilty as hell’ by God. He literally stood in the dock, then at the whipping post, and finally at the gallows for us. Christ ‘took the rap’ for debts he did not owe, for people who could not pay. He was literally ‘nailed’ for them - ‘God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God’ (2 Cor 5:21). John Stott explains, ‘What was transferred to Christ was not moral qualities but legal consequences… In consequence Christ had no sin but ours, and we have no righteousness but his.’ John R W Stott The Cross of Christ IVP 1986
The power of ‘Redemptive Violence’!
The Cross vividly placards the loving heart of God, who understands our sin, suffering and fears, and willingly suffered them for us (Rom 5:8). Christ forgave his tormentors there, not because forgiveness is ‘free’, ‘cheap’ and ‘easy’, but because it cost God everything.
Mel Gibson’s film The Passion of the Christ shocked the whole world with its gruesome depiction of the violence inflicted on Christ. But this was not gratuitous. It demonstrates that we all deserve a violent death for our sins. Christ once said in the face of natural disaster and State killings, ‘Unless you repent you will all likewise perish!’ (Luke 13:1-5). The cross alone can save us.
The cross is final proof that we were all headed to a violent end, but that capital punishment was fully meted out on Christ who finally ‘de-fanged’ and ‘de-clawed’ death for us all (2 Tim 1:10). Jesus’ death wasn’t a pointless martyrdom or merely a ‘moral influence’, but a clear necessary substitution, to absorb our just deserts and eradicate all demonic and human evil from the cosmos. This is why in Gibson’s movie, as Jesus carries the cross to Golgotha and repeatedly falls under it, he can say to his terrified mother Mary, griefstricken at the sight of his torn and bloody face, "Look mother, I am making all things new!" This is violence that redeems everything!
God demonstrates His Love
At the cross God gave the most precious thing he possessed for the most undeserving people he knew. No wonder the tears of God himself are depicted as falling down on the head of the dead Jesus at the end of The Passion of the Chris! It cost God everything to bring us safely home. It was literally, damnation! God was separated from God to the utmost degree of separation. Frederick Buechner illuminates this brilliantly: ‘Like a father saying about his sick child "I’ll do anything to make you well", God finally calls his own bluff and does it.’ The late Methodist leader Dr. Donald English once observed, "The wonder of the cross is not the blood, but whose blood it was and to what purpose it was shed." The Cross removes all danger of death from our lives forever, and the Resurrection infuses a brand new life instead (1 Peter 1:3, 18-19). This is the greatest good news anyone could ever hear.
Richard Bewes, Rector of All Souls, London, says that "The difference between Christianity and all other religions is a four letter word. In other religions it is all ‘Do, do, do!", but in Christianity it is all ‘Done, done, done!’, because in the Cross sin is cursed and cancelled, and in the Cross grace is glorious and available. This alone explains how the cross was a victory over Satan, a ransom for slaves and the reconciliation of estranged children with their Father. This is the real ‘Message of Jesus’. For God’s sake don’t lose it.
The Lost Message of Jesus by Steve Chalke and Alan Mann is published by Zondervan.