Review: the Lost Message of Jesus

The most fascinating thing about this book is that it is deadly boring.  It took me two months to read its 197 pages, mainly because I kept putting it aside since, for sheer excitement, it couldn’t compete with Bavinck’s Prolegomena to Dogmatics or Kuyper’s Principles of Sacred Theology.

Yet if ever a book was designed with the single intention of being punchy, fast-paced and easily readable, this is it.  Its allusions are straight from yesterdays’ headlines, it abounds with anecdotes and it is extravagant in self-disclosure.  Here is someone with credentials a struggling minister might kill for: a regular broadcaster, a prolific author, a highly sought-after speaker, a builder of hospitals in India, a meeter of famous people; the sort of guy whom media flunkies take for a sports commentator, not a contributor to religious programmes.

Sometimes the self-projection becomes positively cringeable, as when he tells of the time he did a live radio interview and within minutes the phones were ringing with astonished listeners asking, “Why has no one ever told us this before?”  Even this is not as cringeable, however, as the description of Yahweh as “a catalyst for change”.  Cornelius van Til, if he hears of this, will turn in his grave.

But the real danger to the reader’s health lies in the colossal pretentiousness announced in the very title: the real message of Jesus, lost for over two thousand years, is herein rediscovered.  The church fathers, the ancient creeds, the reformers, the puritans and the whole of modern scholarship, got it completely wrong.  Only now, with the publication of this book, is the gospel at long last in the possession of mankind.

You can imagine the sense of anticipation with which, after such a build-up, a man looks forward to discovering the real truth.  Of course, you have no hope of obtaining it from a bunch of arid scholars, but they provide a useful backdrop.  A group of the most famous New Testament scholars in America, we are told, were once gathered into a room and asked, “In a sentence, what was the message of Jesus?”  Silence descended around the table.

It’s a moot point whether the truth can always be put into the headline beloved of the journalist or the sound-bite demanded by the TV camera.  But this is exactly what this book is determined to provide, and in its own way it succeeds.  In the run-up to making its announcement, it hits some valid targets.  The message of many a pulpit is not good news at all, but the very reverse; Christians do indeed stagger under a burden of expectation that they cannot meet; for many people church has certainly become a barren and unfulfilling experience; and the doctrine of divine impassibility has for long been a straitjacket for Christian theology.

But we are not kept long in suspense.  Chalke’s discovery of the real message of Jesus is announced in Chapter 1 and it is indeed brief and memorable:  “The Kingdom, the in-breaking shalom of God, is available now to everyone through me.”

In other words, “The Kingdom of God is at hand.” (Mark 1:15)

Is it really true that this message has been lost for 2000 years?  Augustine wrestled with it, Albrecht Ritschl wrestled with it and Geerhardus Vos wrestled with it.  In the 1950s and 60s books and articles on the kingdom became a growth industry, and that output established one clear fact: it is not easy to reduce the Kingdom of God to a banner headline.  Chalke’s own paraphrase scarcely masks this.  What is this shalom of which he speaks, and why will the word “peace” not do?  What is meant by in-breaking?  In what sense has the kingdom come now? In what sense through me? And in what sense is it available to everyone?  We are already far beyond the range of mere sound-bites.

Whether or not any serious exposition of the kingdom has to begin with some expert knowledge of the Jewish background (and which Jewish background?) it must certainly deal with the whole range of Jesus’ teaching on the subject.  That includes the Kingdom parables: not only the story of the Prodigal Son, but equally the story of the Tenants (Mark 12:1-12).  It also includes the Kingdom miracles: the cursing of the Barren fig Tree as well as the story of the Raising of Lazarus.  And it includes, of course, the Kingdom Ethic, which, far from relaxing the Torah, insisted on a righteousness more rigorous than that of the Scribes and Pharisees (Matthew 5:20

Scholarship lingered over the New Testament data not because of blind resistance to the simple message of Jesus, but because the data themselves defied easy synthesis.  It was easy enough, admittedly, to establish certain negatives.  The Kingdom is not the church.  The Kingdom is not some earthly-spatial territory.  The kingdom is not a political programme.  The Kingdom is not some this-worldly Utopia.  The Kingdom is not some millenarian dream.

But positively?  When you enter the Kingdom, what do you enter?  When it comes, what comes?  Has it already come, or is it steadily coming, or is it yet to come?  How is it linked to the binding of Satan and the reign of the saints in St John’s Apocalypse?  And why is it that outside the Synoptic Gospels and the personal teaching of Jesus it scarcely ever figures in the New Testament?  Is it because the very apostles forgot the message of Jesus?

Anyone who has tried to preach on the seminal Kingdom text, Mark 1:15, knows how difficult it is to make the notion of the Kingdom accessible to a modern audience.  The one great certainty is that “The King” has come.  By His cross he has conquered our enemies.  By His word and Spirit he reigns in the hearts of his people.  By His death he has bound the ancient Serpent.  By His ascension he has taken control of the universe.  By His Spirit he evangelises the world.

But the message of Jesus eventually breaks the bounds of this one metaphor.  The King must be Prophet, Priest, Shepherd, Counsellor, Friend and Companion.  Eventually, in the picture of the Great Assize, he is the Supreme Judge, assigning men and women either to heaven or to hell.

Chalke ignores all these difficulties (or are they part of the brilliance of revelation?) and focuses instead on what he thinks simpler and therefore more important.  In particular he focuses on the inclusive nature of the Kingdom. To him the important thing is that the Kingdom, whatever its nature, is barrier-free.  This, of course, is in marked contrast to Jewish and particularly Pharisaic exclusiveness.  It is also, within its own limits, a point of enormous importance, traditionally encapsulated in the dogma of the free and universal offer of the gospel.  But Chalke completely ignores the fact that there is always a cost to discipleship, though no one ever made that cost more plain than Jesus.  He bluntly told Nicodemus that he could never enter the kingdom unless he were born again.  Even more bluntly, he told the disciples (and the crowd) that anyone who wanted to follow him must deny himself and take up his cross (Mark 8:34).  Entering the Kingdom would cost them their lives.

Chalke links this inclusive nature of the Kingdom to the fact that it is for the marginalized.  In terms of the ancient world that meant the peasants, the prostitutes, the lepers, the Samaritans, the women and the collaborators.  In terms of the modern world it means the “lonely, ugly, old, anorexic, bullied, infertile, displaced, overworked, redundant, underpaid, homes, unemployed, abused”.

Now it is indeed true (and precious) that of such is the kingdom of God.  It is even true that the church in its innate conservatism and passion for the status quo has itself contributed to marginalizing such people. Jesus preached status reversal: the humble will be exalted and the powerful brought low.

The danger is that what we shall be heard saying is that the Kingdom belongs to the marginalized simply as such: that if you are among “the sat upon, the spat upon, the ratted on” then you are inevitably in the kingdom of God.  Chalke even calls the Sermon on the Mount into the service of his revolution, taking each Beatitude as an attribute of the oppressed and the excluded of his own day.  The result is a Kingdom message that seems to say only, “Blessed are you if you are shunned by the establishment.”  That might be music in the ear of everyone suffering from even mild paranoia, but it certainly is not the message of Jesus.  Did he not choose his most noted disciple, Saul of Tarsus, from the ranks of the most highly privileged?

Conversely, the impression that the marginalized flocked to Jesus and saw him as their champion is seriously misleading.   Indeed, one of the many mysteries which Chalke fails to address is why the message of Jesus made so little lasting impression on his immediate hearers.  If the “sermoned-out” were keen to be around him, it was only briefly; and if they thought his message “the best thing they ever heard” they would soon change their minds.  The Chorus of Derision at the cross of Calvary include the passers-by and the criminals as well as the Scribes and the Pharisees.

As the book progresses the forgotten message of Jesus seems to undergo something of a metamorphosis.  In place of the Kingdom, it becomes the love of God.  As often happens in such cases, the plea for the divine love quickly meshes with the charge of lovelessness against the church.  The result is a sustained polemic against conventional Christianity.  Chalke’s heroes lie beyond the Christian pale; all his villains are Christians .  He reserves his praise for such figures as Princess Diana and John Cleese, his condemnation for churches, preachers and theologians.  He commends The Life of Brian and damns Edwards’ Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.

But his most serious hang-ups relate to the doctrine of sin.  Is Chalke a Pelagian?  That, it seems to me, would be to put it mildly.  He deplores the idea of Original Sin and notes contemptuously that while we have spent centuries poring over the Bible and huge theological tomes in an effort to prove the inherent sinfulness of all mankind, we have missed a startling point:  “Jesus believed in original goodness.”  For Chalke it is as if the Fall never happened and we were still in Paradise, deserving the accolade “very good”.

Yet we could argue, could we not, that the central thesis of this book is itself proof of original sin? How else can we account for the utter failure of the church to conserve the message of Jesus?  The riposte would be, presumably, that while we might possibly bring the charge of sin against the church we could not possibly bring such a charge against those delightful, marginalized, oppressed pagans who march behind Ghandi, love the preaching of Jesus and form the natural branches of the Kingdom.

It may be true, of course, that some Christian traditions have laid too much stress on “sinners” and relied too heavily on fear as a motive for pressing into the kingdom of God.  Yet it is clear that Jesus himself saw his mission as aimed not at the righteous, but at sinners.  If human beings are as noble as Chalke portrays them they have mo need of a physician.

In any case, is there not a marvellous irony in Chalke’s use of the words of Christ in Mark 1:15, “The kingdom of God is at hand”.  Did Jesus not immediately add, “Repent and believe the gospel.”  Is he himself, then, not open to the charge “that the only way we can unlock the Christian life is by making people feel guilty”?

Where there is a shallow doctrine of sin, we can expect a shallow doctrine of the atonement.  The expectation is not disappointed.  Chalke is weary of the Evangelical obsession with preaching “Christ crucified”, regards the idea of penal substitution as immoral (“a form of cosmic child abuse”) and sees the cross exclusively as a symbol of love.  There, Jesus absorbed all the forces of hate, just as Carol, the victim of an unfaithful husband, saved her marriage by taking all the pain to herself and granting her husband full pardon.  The cross is a demonstration of just how far God as Father and Jesus as His Son are prepared to go to prove their love.

It is astonishing how such a doctrine has survived from the days of Abelard till now despite all its flimsiness.  How can the cross be a mere demonstration: a gesture?  If death is the wages of sin (as it surely is) and if Christ died, then the cross is penal in its very nature. His penal suffering is not a theory, but a fact, and the resulting theory adds not a single iota to the horror of what he endured.  The narrative is that he suffered what sin deserved.

We shall never understand the cross unless we see it first and foremost not as an action of Christ the Son, but as an action of God the father. How can the sacrificing of His only Son demonstrate the Father’s love?  Suppose we, for no reason, did it to ours; would that demonstrate our love?  The cross cannot be a demonstration of the divine love unless there is something in the relationship between God and man to which the death of His Son was the only answer.  With all the power of his soul, Jesus prayed that the cup might pass from him.  With all the ardour of his being, the Father wished he could grant that prayer.  Both were constrained by a self-imposed necessity.  The Son of Man must suffer.  “Die he, or justice must.”

The lost message of Jesus?  More like the familiar message of the liberal establishment, garnished with half-forgotten heresies.

Steve Chalk and Alan Mann, The Lost Message of Jesus (Grand Rapids, Zondervan, 2003).  197 pp. pbck. $14.99.