The Lost Message of Chalke

Sometimes in life I have to do depressing things – reading Steve Chalke’s latest book was one of them.  The Lost Message of Paul is a depressing book for any biblical Christian with any degree of intelligence to read.  It’s shallow, superficial, dishonest and disingenuous.   But it is important that Christians know about this.  Chalke is now a wolf amongst the sheep….I wrote this review for my Christian Today column last week.   Please read and pass on if you feel it is appropriate to do so. 
Steve Chalke
Rev Steve Chalke

In 2004, Steve Chalke discovered ‘The Lost Message of Jesus’ and published his book with that name. Fifteen years later he has discovered ‘The Lost Message of Paul’, and this month publishes a book with that title.

This is an easy to read, and well-written book – much better stylistically than the earlier work. As always with Chalke the book will be described as ‘controversial’ and will delight some (like Rob Bell and Brian McLaren) and appal others. From a personal perspective, I found that The Lost Message of Paul contained some interesting information, provocative arguments, challenging questions and old heresies.

Steve argues that ‘all the old narratives are dead’ and that we need a ‘new story’. He blames Augustine, Luther and Calvin for getting Paul’s message wrong. But his new story suffers from some major defects.

Biblically Inaccurate

Amongst the other earth-shattering revelations, we are informed that Paul was not a Christian – “it is a mistake to regard Paul as a Christian. Paul wasn’t a Christian. He was a Jew”. This is sadly all too typical of the style that Chalke employs – make a shocking statement based on a false dichotomy and there are some who will say ‘wow’!

But others who know their Bibles will recognise that this particular theological emperor has no clothes. King Agrippa assumed that Paul was a Christian and that he was trying to make him one (Acts 26:28).

Chalke’s error is to forget that you can be both a Jew and a Christian (as most of the very early Christians were). Indeed you could argue that Paul was amongst the very first to be called a Christian. “And when he found him, he brought him to Antioch. So for a whole year Barnabas and Saul met with the church and taught great numbers of people. The disciples were called Christians first at Antioch.” (Acts 11:26)

Historically Hysterical

If the biblical understanding is all over the place, the historical is even worse. For example, Chalke tells us that the cross only began to appear as a symbol of Christianity in the 5th Century. But we have clear evidence of the cross being used as a symbol of Christianity from the 2nd Century. The Octavius of Minucius Felix, Clement of Alexandria, Tertullian all mention the cross as a Christian symbol – long before the 5th Century.

If you want to know what Luther, Calvin and Augustine thought and taught – don’t read this book!

Theologically Arrogant

As for the theological – it all depends on who you are listening to. According to Chalke “everyone agrees” that the Lutheran perspective on Paul, Judaism, faith and works was fundamentally misleading. Luther was mistaken to argue for justification by faith alone. Everyone? John Piper? Sinclair Ferguson? Philip Jenson? John Stott? Amy Orr-Ewing? Billy Graham? Al Mohler? Everyone?!

The arrogance is breathtaking. Luther, Calvin, Augustine, the Creeds and most of the Church did not understand faith, the cross or judgement – even Tom Wright gets it wrong. But never fear, Steve Chalke has now discovered it. This is, to say the least, a bold claim!

The arrogance doesn’t stop with historical figures though. Steve knows better than Jesus, Paul, David, John and the other authors of the Bible – they were apparently unaware that God is not to be referred to with a gender-specific pronoun. In fact, one wonders how Steve even knows what Paul thinks, or what he did, because Steve is not sure that Paul actually wrote many of the letters attributed to him.

This uncertainty results in a pick ‘n’ mix theology throughout the book – the Bible is not the infallible word of God, God cannot be wrath and love; there is no original sin; Adam and Eve is a myth; the atonement is “a pre-Christian pagan idea”; Hell has no place in Paul’s message. The Lost Message of Paul – seems a mirror image of The Lost Message of Jesus.

Strawmen

Tim Keller has a wise word for those of us who engage in dialogue and discussion. When we are arguing against something, we should always deal with the best of their case – not the worst. It’s a standard ‘worldly’ trick to set up strawmen which are easy to demolish. The Lost Message of Paul is populated with enough such strawmen to fill a field.

One example is Chalke’s mischaracterisation of those who hold to justification by faith. He describes our definition of faith as being “the ability to hold to a particular set of intellectual positions”. Not one of the people Chalke demonises holds to that position. Nor do they hold to the view that faith is in a set of concepts as Chalke claims. Biblical faith is in a person – Jesus Christ.

This setting up of strawmen is the greatest weakness of the book – “faith from an old Protestant point of view, becomes something that you are either born with – good news for you – or not – bad for you”. I have read many ‘old Protestants’ and have yet to come across one who thinks that faith is something you are born with.

The Truth

71F2oOg0wpL._AC_UL436_There is one area where I strongly agree with Chalke – we should not merely use the Bible to proclaim our own pre-conceived views.

He rightly states that “Anyone who makes absolutist claims based on what they claim to be the technicalities of the Greek language, is in fact simply being disingenuous” – the only problem is that he says this after just spending three chapters making absolutist claims based on what he claims to be the technicalities of the Greek language!

We should not “force our preconceived cultural assumptions on to this extraordinary first-century pioneer”. And yet we find that The Lost Message of Paul astonishingly reflects exactly what Steve and 21st Century liberals are concerned about – homophobia, Islamaphobia, climate change etc.

He also rightly warns about taking a few verses out of context and “using them as a prop for their own pre-developed ideas. It still happens”.  Indeed it does. This book is a prime example.

“If we respect the Bible we can’t simply use it as an echo chamber to magnify our own thoughts and opinions.” That’s what I find distinctly uncomfortable about the Bible. I have my own opinions and views and often I find that the Bible does not agree with me! But my opinions can be wrong, God’s Word never is – and it is wrong of me to judge the Word of God and try to make it suit my personal, social and political views. Once you remove the certainty of the Word of God, all you are left with is your own opinions (or others).

The Lost Message of Chalke

In conclusion, this book begins well in that it discusses Paul and his context, but by the end, Paul is removed to the sidelines, as the lost message of Steve Chalke takes centre stage. Paul retreats into the background as Steve discusses his ideas of heaven and hell, the wiring of the brain and what ‘salvation’ really means. Paul barely gets a look in.

Chalke rightly warns that bad theology costs lives. Indeed it does – a theology which takes away from the Bible, leads away from the Christ of the Bible, and ultimately is no Gospel at all.

Chalke’s Lost Message is a 21st century fulfillment of what Paul warned the 1st century Galatian church about: “I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you to live in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel – which is really no gospel at all. Evidently some people are throwing you into confusion and are trying to pervert the gospel of Christ.” (Galatians 1:6-7)

My hope and prayer is that Steve Chalke will turn back to the Gospel he once believed, and use his considerable gifts in the service of the real Christ and his message. If we follow Chalke’s Lost Message we will not only lose the message of Paul, but we will also lose the message of Christ. I can think of nothing more tragic and deadly.

David Robertson is a minister in the Free Church of Scotland. He blogs at www.theweeflea.com

Steve Chalke and the Cross of Christ

17 thoughts on “The Lost Message of Chalke

  1. How very very sad. Also sadly I know of some who once professed Jesus and have now walked away from Him and now these days do not attend any church. This verse comes to mind. 1 John 2.19 They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would no doubt have continued with us: but they went out, that they might be made manifest that they were not all of us. KJV.

  2. This isn’t really anything new from Chalke, it’s just New Perspectivism taken to the extreme. Furthermore David, I only need to correct you a little (though you are right that Chalke is wrong on the cross symbol dating), Ignatius of Antioch (who could be as early as 1st century)very explicitly refers to the cross as a symbol of the Christian faith “my soul is a sacrifice for the cross” etc. So it may be even earlier.
    Regardless, Chalke is a Pelagian heretic and has been for some time. I tremble at what judgement he is to face for trying to say to people like me and others (btw now married to my wife) that our desires make us who we are.

    1. T,
      Having read your comments on a number of David’s articles in what seems like the distant ( two or so years now) past?, I find it deeply uplifting to read of life transformation God has wrought in you, with a renewing of the mind and life desire reorientation to Christ who makes us who we are in union with him.
      It reminds me of this:
      “I am not what I ought to be, I am not what I want to be, I am not what I hope to be in another world; but still I am not what I once used to be, and by the grace of God I am what I am”
      ― John Newton
      Thanks,
      Geoff

      1. I’m glad you find my comments edifying. God is great; and I am a poor sinner. But praise be to God, for His grace is greater than any sin. Sola Deo Gloria.

  3. Yes sad nd I have to re echo what Stephen Meharg has quoted 1 John 2:19. I have not read the book. In fact I have never read what Chalk has written, but I used to watch him on TV and what makes him dangerous, is that he is a first class media performer. He is charming, sharp and comes across very well on the small screen and so it going to have an appeal to the audience, especially if they are not all that well versed in scripture. We therefore need to pray that chalk will turn back and people will not be fooled.

  4. Hello David, In the early 90’s my newly converted husband John and I joined members of a Baptist Church on their first Alpha Course. I had been an ‘on and off’ believer most of my life until fully coming to faith 7 years previously so we were happy to meet up with such kindly and helpful Christians. Every week the meetings were really enjoyable. Then came the Holy Spirit weekend and before we arrived John advised me to just watch and “be careful”. On the main evening the pastor was keen for us all to speak in tongues and attempted to lay hands on us. I had asked for this gift before being the only Believer I knew who didn’t, but always ended my prayer with “if it be Thy will Lord”. Again nothing happened to me – or John – but, ……. the meeting deteriorated into couples arguing and weeping. Afterwards we went for a peaceful walk in the dark wet country lane and realised we hadn’t heard the gospel once.
    After that we looked into the authors our new group followed (Kenneth Hagin – Ulf Eckman et al ) plus the antics taking place in Holy Trinity Brompton church, London. It was an extraordinary learning curve and safeguard for us both to recognise these false teachers. And it has been no surprise to witness the success of the Alpha Course.

    1. 22 years ago I became a Christian on an Alpha Course in the CoE. I am not sure Hagin had anything to do with the corse. There certainly wasn’t any mention of speaking in tongues on the Holy Spirit away day. And there was far more to the 12 week course than that, covering, scripture, the Church, prayer, with the Trinity, ever in the background.
      My understanding is that Australian John Chapman had some influence on the gestation period of the Course and it became evident that American John Wimber had a significant influence on the lives of the leaders of HTB.
      I’d self describe as a non cessationist, but reformed.
      Chalke is not in the same category as Alpha.
      While I’ve only read reviews of what he has written, it seems that he has drunk deeply from the well of liberal unbelieving biblical criticism, (what he seeks to de and re-construct in scripture is far from new and is embraced by unbelieving liberals in what what appears to be a widespread way in mainstream denominations such as CoS and Anglican Church) so much so that he seems to be a follower of Marcion, and unable to say with any integrity of belief, the Apostles or Nicene Creed. Though I stand to be corrected.

  5. “The arrogance is breathtaking. Luther, Calvin, Augustine, the Creeds and most of the Church did not understand faith, the cross or judgement – even Tom Wright gets it wrong.”

    Of course, Luther was an expert on that point of view. Whether you say he had breath-taking arrogance or something else, it cannot be denied that Luther rejected the historic teaching of what at that time was THE Church and set himself up as the new authority. From that perspective, Chalke is no other than a twenty-first century version of Luther.

    “Steve is not sure that Paul actually wrote many of the letters attributed to him.”
    But, then, neither was Luther sure that many of the books in the Bible were actually inspired by God. He wanted to remove the Epistle of James, the Epistle of Jude, the Letter to the Hebrews and Revelation.

    The Protestant historian Philip Schaff wrote:

    “The most important example of dogmatic influence in Luther’s version is the famous interpolation of the word alone in Rom. 3:28 (allein durch den Glauben), by which he intended to emphasize his solifidian doctrine of justification, on the plea that the German idiom required the insertion for the sake of clearness. But he thereby brought Paul into direct verbal conflict with James, who says (James 2:24), “by works a man is justified, and not only by faith” (“nicht durch den Glauben allein”). It is well known that Luther deemed it impossible to harmonize the two apostles in this article, and characterized the Epistle of James as an “epistle of straw,” because it had no evangelical character (“keine evangelische Art”)
    (History of the Christian Church, book 7, chapter 4.)

    And Luther himself, wrote:
    “to my mind, it [the book of the Apocalypse/Revelation] bears upon it no marks of an apostolic or prophetic character…Everyone may form his own judgment of this book; as for myself, I feel an aversion to it, and to me this is sufficient reason for rejecting it.”
    (Sammtliche Werke, 63, pp169-170, ‘The Facts About Luther’, O’Hare, TAN Books, 1987, p203)

  6. I will add Chalke to my prayer list. He is close to heresy here and God says not to add or take away from the Scriptures. He is in a dangerous place here!

  7. Small point about whether Paul thought of himself as a ‘Christian’. I’m pretty sure that started off as a name given to followers of Jesus, not a self description. It’s not uncommon for that kind of thing to happen. I think it’s the same for the term ‘Hebrew’. So although yours and Steve Chalke’s thinking about this goes deeper, it seems unlikely that Paul thought of himself with that exact term. Not sure how long it takes for a name given from the outside to be adopted by the named community…

    Link to study of naming of Christians below

    https://www.jstor.org/stable/1453236?read-now=1&seq=14#metadata_info_tab_contents

  8. For what it is worth, I have now received my preordered copy of Chalke’s book and from what I have read so far, I love it. But maybe that was inevitable given I like Rob Bell and Brian McLaren too. What saddens me is that a debate which is impossible to resolve and which has done so much damage to the church throughout history – i.e. how to read and interpret Scripture, including how literally – continues to cause splits and divisions in the church – e.g. Gafcon vs others. I cannot help but think Jesus weeps over this and, if it weren’t for the fact he abhorred violence, would have banged heads together, telling people to focus on what matters – which is a shared compassion found in Christ. To those who disagree with Chalke: good luck to you; focus on what you do agree with and use that for God’s greater glory and the mission of the church. To those who agree: ditto, serve God and neighbour filled with a Spirit of love. Theological disputes rarely lead anyone to Christ. Love, kindness and compassion do. So love as you would be loved, let others do the same, and stop undermining each other’s efforts to testify to Christ in the world.

    1. You would be right if we were talking about minor differences between Christians – but we are not. We are talking about two different religions (read Machen’s Christianity and Liberalism for a fuller explanation); we are talking about two different Christs. This is not just a theological dispute. If you follow Chalke’s line there is no Christ to bring anyone to! And its unnecessary anyway as everyone is saved! You can’t love just by repeating the words – you love you must know the One who is Love – the God of the Bible….not the god of Steve Chalke’s imagination.

      1. I appreciate the response but where does it leave us and, more importantly, the church? You (and others) are quite convinced that you are right; Chalke and others the same. Unfortunately, there is no basis upon which to make a judgment: those who take The Bible more literally read into the Bible that it should be so; those who don’t, read into The Bible that it shouldn’t. Both are Biblically-based. Both have historical precedent. Both are intellectually guided. Both are the products of faith and belief in Christ. Both ultimately employ circular reasoning. Personally, I suspect neither is right nor wrong and that God is bigger than our acts to contain him (or her). But that is not my point: rather, the point is that (at the risk of over-generalisation) whilst the more conservative and evangelical attack the more ‘progressive’ and liberal in the church, and vice versa, they do so to their mutual detriment – people look on and abandon the churches, and abandon Christ. Perhaps we all need to take seriously what Christ himself said – his is the way of peace, which means that any aggression, even through words, is problematic and hinders The Gospel. Perhaps Chalke is right, perhaps not. God alone knows, and can decide. Many blessings to you, and to your readers.

      2. There is a basis on which to make a judgement…if they speak not according to the Word of God then they are wrong. It’s not actually that difficult. I don’t accept that Chalke’s position takes the bible seriously or that it is based on faith in Christ – nor that it is intellectually guided. Your point about ‘neither is right or wrong’ is just spiritual waffle. If Chalke says that everyone is saved and the bible says they are not – both cannot be right.

        Yes people are abandoning the churches – largely the churches that teach ‘progressive’ doctrine. They do not abandon the Church because liberals who teach one thing, and biblical Christians who teach another, disagree.

        God alone does know. And he has decided. And he has revealed his decision…those who have ears, let them hear…

  9. The problem with the word of God is it can be read and interpreted in many ways – perhaps God even intended that. It is like pieces of a jigsaw but a jigsaw that can be put together in more than one way. I won’t add much more because I suspect I respect your opinion more than you respect mine other than to note that ultimately what you write relies not on fact but upon assertion, belief and conjecture, as does Chalke’s – you have more in common then I think either of you would recognise! God is beyond all our understanding and, seeing the wickedness and folly of man [sic], I am very grateful of that. To Christ be the glory.

    1. Again – that is your view of the Word of God…it is not the Word of God’s view of the Word of God….it is clear and certain. But you like it to be obscure so you can make it mean whatever you want it to mean. My position does rely on fact…whereas yours is based upon feeling – what you want to be true. You ignore what the Bible actually says and justify your feeling by saying that the Bible actually says nothing clearly. Which Christ do you want to have the glory? The Christ of Chalke or the Christ of the Bible?

  10. To be fair you didn’t get your teeth into his ability to takes us on a guided tour of every possible exegetical fallacy. It is like he has read Carson as an instruction manual not a warning. He spends most of the book taking a minor but well documented interpretative discussion and treating it as though it is a radical new thing that changes everything. The truth is that even if you do think Paul means faithfulness of Christ, you still have plenty of Scripture pointing to believing in. On the other hand reformed Christians not too excited by faithfulness of Christ have something called imputed Righteousness so don’t need to hang too much on the phrase!

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