Bad News for the Good News - a response to Steve Chalke

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I love getting good news. A friend becomes pregnant, a cheque arrives in the post, an illness is cured, an exam is passed. My life is thankfully filled with so many things to be thankful for, for others and myself. But this good news is given against the backdrop of a world that is a broken, dark and hurting place. There is always death, disease, violence, ignorance and ugliness. We don't live in Disneyland. We live in a world polluted by sin and ravaged by its consequences. We live in a world where the prince of this world is the father of lies, the enemy of God, and the one who seeks to oppress all of God's creation, especially that part which is made in God's image. So the news that into this dark world has come the light of the world is Good News indeed. That there is one who has defeated the enemies of death, disease and the devil, is, as we say in Dundee, "pure dead brilliant"! And I run out of superlatives when I think that ugliness is replaced by beauty, fear by hope, and lies by truth. I think of a lady in one of our housing schemes who cried as she told me of her broken life – a dead husband, a brain tumour and three teenage daughters to look after. When I suggested to her that in this world of ugliness there could come great beauty she wept all the more...not daring to believe that it could be true. The Good News of Jesus is so good that I want to shout it from the rooftops. I want to stop the bus and say to all the sad-eyed, worn out, tired and weary people, "there is Good News for you". That's what an evangelical is – someone who believes, lives and shares the Good News of Jesus Christ, the Son of God coming into this world to save sinners – of which I am the chief!

Steve Chalke says he is an evangelical and that he shares that aim, but that evangelicalism has lost its way and needs to be redefined. He has been saying this for sometime and reinforced it with his latest article on Christian Today. I write this response because I love the Good News and I think that his continued attacks on evangelicalism are actually bad news for the Good News. He is embarrassed that some non-Christians think evangelicals are 'awful'. He thinks that the Goods News is being misrepresented by today's evangelicals and that, in the light of advances in modern scholarship, we are increasingly outdated. So what would his redefinition be? "I would like it to be a smile. I'd like people outside the church to hear the world evangelical and think 'they're good guys'. I always define evangelical as good news bringing – it's what the word actually means. When people hear that an evangelical is standing as a local counsellor, for example, they should smile. This must be good news. We're far from that at the moment."

It's difficult to know where to begin with this. But let me offer two observations. First, it shows a deeply unrealistic view of human nature and the world we are living in. In Steve's world people are basically good and looking for good things. When they hear of a good person standing as a local politician they will smile, because we are all shiny, happy people, looking for the best and the good. The trouble is that such a world is a fantasy. It does not exist. If it did it would not need a Saviour. It means that Christ died in vain because in this world there really are no people dead in sins and trespasses to die for. Second, it shows a profound ignorance, or ignoring, of the Bible and of what Jesus actually taught. Did people smile when Jesus came, or did they crucify him? Did Jesus not actually warn his disciples that if the world has hated me it would hate us also? "You will be hated by everyone because of me, but the one who stands firm to the end will be saved". (Matthew 10:22) Did he not say that we were to take up our cross and follow him? Maybe in the pick 'n' mix world of the Gospel according to Chalke, Jesus really didn't say those things? Or maybe 'modern scholarship' has now shown us that when he said them he was being ironic and he really meant, if you follow me they will love you because you make them smile!

Steve makes another observation that sounds sweet: "Any encounter with evangelicalism, therefore, should always be to experience the kind of good news that stirs your soul and pours the oil of joy into the grind of everyday life." Of course we sometimes tell the Good News and there are those who react instantly with joy because we are like the perfume of life in the midst of death. But to others we are the stench of death. They loathe and hate the Good News because to them it is bad news. It tells them about a salvation and a Saviour they do not think they need. They are offended at the Cross, offended at the Christ of the Bible (as opposed to the saccharine caricature Christ of contemporary culture), and offended at His people. The proclamation of the Gospel is not always welcomed as water in a dry land; sometimes it is like pouring petrol on the fire. The love of Christ sometimes fuels the hatred of humanity. And Steve seems to forget that the work of the Holy Spirit is to convict the world of sin, righteousness and the judgement to come. According to Steve's criteria above it appears that the Holy Spirit is not an evangelical!

Steve has a problem with David Bebbington's classic fourfold definition of evangelicalism. My problem here is I have no idea where Steve is getting his information. It is SO wrong that it reads almost like satire. On Conversionism he states we now realise that not everyone has a 'crisis' conversion. I'm not sure what kind of narrow world Steve grew up in, but in 30 years of Christian ministry all over the UK I rarely come across people who insist that if you can't name the hour and day of your Damascus Road experience then you are not really born again. He is presenting a false caricature (which has the advantage of being remarkably easy to shoot down). He goes on to say "More than this, today a large majority of people within the evangelical family are perhaps increasingly coming to an understanding that the transformational power of Christ must be holistic rather than simply 'spiritual'; systemic as well as personal, and corporate as well as individual."Again I'm not sure which evangelical world Steve lives in, but most of us have grown up with Calvin, Luther, Wesley, Knox, Lloyd Jones, Stott, Billy Graham, Wilberforce, Shaftsbury, Muller, Hudson Taylor and so on. All of who taught that salvation was holistic, systematic and corporate as well as individual. 

On Activism he writes: "However, the holistic theology of a growing number of evangelicals – with its emphasis on integral mission and whole life formation – stands in contrast to an activism which is simply centred on soul-saving." Again for anyone who actually knows anything about evangelicalism this is an ignorant and unfair statement. Of course there have been those who seem to think that 'soul saving' involves only a particular spiritual experience, but they are not, nor ever have been, the 'evangelical norm'.

On Bebbington's third criteria, Biblicism, Steve writes: "The Scriptures have been democratised and put into the hands of the people, but how many of us – including evangelicals – have the tools to 'know' them; the resources to really understand and make sense of them?"  This is along with a link to the Oasis website where we are introduced to the tools we need – 'inclusion and diversity and honest conversation' are apparently the keys. The Bible is a library with a lot of different voices all interacting with one another. It's a conversation. And ironically within that very concept, Steve's redefinition of evangelicalism demonstrates its dangers and follies to the Church in the UK today. When a voice says "did God really say?" about God's Word, we need to ask very carefully whether it is the Spirit or the serpent that is speaking? The chattering of many tongues, the babel of many voices will not result in the voice of God being discerned. Indeed the voice of the Lord is in danger of being drowned out by those who can shout the loudest, have the best high tech videos, the biggest fundraisers and the nicest smiles.

To answer Steve's question, the answer is, yes we do have the tools to know the scriptures and the resources to understand and make sense of them. It may be old fashioned but I think prayer, the Holy Spirit and the community of the Church are more than adequate tools. Last night I was preaching on Psalm 56, a song David wrote when he was surrounded by his enemies and in a desperate situation: "When I am afraid, I put my trust in you. In God whose word I praise – in God I trust and am not afraid. What can mortal man do to me?" Steve will take that confidence in the Word of God away from the Lord's people. He will leave us with 'conversations' and lattes. From the certainties of the Word of God, to the fads and fashions of men.

Finally on Crucicentrism – "Today, many would claim, however, that although the cross of Jesus is central to our faith, it shares this centrality with the resurrection." At this point I begin to seriously wonder what is happening with Steve. My theory is that he is an excellent communicator with a very pleasant manner, but that sometimes he does not quite grasp what he is communicating. I can't believe that Steve really thinks that it is only after the past 25 years of modern scholarship and hermeneutics, we have come to realise that the resurrection is central to the Christian faith! All my life I have been fully aware that the cross was useless without the resurrection. The Christian's Gospel invariably begins with the Good News 'Jesus is Alive'. Only then do we ask, why did he die? When I wrote Magnificent Obsession I was immediately asked by a friend who read it..."do you really think Jesus is alive? Because if you do, and he is, that is a complete game changer". Yes and yes and yes. In suggesting that it is only now that evangelicals have come to see the resurrection as central, Chalke demonstrates that he is so far out of the evangelical loop, he inhabits a different planet. 

I did like Steve's citation of Andrew Walker's critique of the "fad-driven, one-dimensional spirituality of modern evangelicalism". It is spot on. But sadly Steve's version of evangelism is precisely that. Wherever the latest fad is, Steve seems happy to hang his hat. Don't like that atonement? Just denounce it as cosmic child abuse. Want to show how compassionate you are in contemporary society? Just accept the latest secular shibboleth of same-sex marriage. Embarrassed by the 'nasty' bits in the Bible? Just tell the world that God either didn't write it, or he didn't mean it. It seems to me that any fad this world follows, the redefined 'evangelicals' will soon be jumping on the bandwagon.

Steve asks what's gone wrong with modern evangelicalism and in the same article demonstrates the answer. If Steve Chalke's position is in any way indicative of where today's evangelicals are then it is clear that we have gone wrong in several areas.

1) We are theologically and historically ignorant. Take for example Steve's gross misstatement of the differences between the Wesleys and Whitefield. He declares that Whitefield and the Wesleys had two polarised views of God, humanity, the fall, the cross and salvation, and the shape of the Church's mission. Yet they shared the same view of the triune God as revealed in Scripture, of human beings as inherently sinful from birth, of mankind as fallen, of the cross as propitiation and sacrifice and of the shape of the Church's mission. John Wesley and Whitefield differed about predestination and various other teachings that came out of a different understanding, but they shared the same 'fundamental' views.

Likewise Steve's extraordinary misuse of the tragic siege of Jerusalem in AD 70. He warns us that we do not want to be like Jerusalem – "History records that, tragically, rather than heeding Jesus' revolutionary peace-making principles, the people chose to fight." Actually history records no such thing. The people who believed Jesus and came to trust in him, listened to his warnings and got out of the city. They were not the kind of evangelicals who always brought a smile to people's faces, singing 'always look on the bright side of life'. They knew that Jerusalem was going to be destroyed and many of them left before the Roman massacre. If they had not believed the words of Jesus because they were not 'nice' or because they did not suit their own culture then they would indeed have perished. Perhaps modern day evangelicals should pay attention!

2) We are biblically illiterate. Steve tells us that 25 years since Bebbington, there has been an advance in NT scholarship, missiology and hermeneutics that changes everything. It's just not true. There is nothing Steve has written which was not written 25 years ago. In fact I would go further. There is almost nothing in the 'new' evangelicalism that was not propounded by 19th century Protestant liberals – with the devastating effect that had upon the church. Just because post-modernist language and historical ignorance allows 19th Century Protestant liberalism to be resurrected as the 'new super duper contemporary evangelicalism' does not mean that it is any the less poisonous.

3) We are naïve and immature - Because we are biblically illiterate, we are allowing ourselves to be shaped by the fashions of this world. We have become profoundly naïve and are being blown here and there by every wind of doctrine. Steve asks "which section of the Church would deny the importance of the Bible, the significance of the cross, the need to actively demonstrate the good news of Christ or the importance of conversion – personal transformation – through the work of the Holy Spirit in its holistic sense; spiritually, social and emotionally?" I can take you to hundreds of churches where the importance of the Bible, the significance of the cross etc is denied. For Steve to suggest that this is unthinkable is evidence that his understanding of the church is as naïve and fanciful as his understanding of the world.

4) We are in a pastoral mess. Once you replace the Word of God with a 'conversation', once you announce that parts of the Bible are just wrong and you need instead to rely on the self-proclaimed 'experts' from the past 25 years, you are depriving the people of God of their milk and meat. I think of one lady I visited who inhabits one of these churches that Steve does not accept exists. A church where the Bible is sidelined, the cross ignored and conversion unnecessary. It is robbing her of joy and trampling her soul, but she won't leave because it's a church and surely all ministers preach the Word of God and want the same things! We need to encourage the Lord's people to go where they will be fed and watered, not starved and dried out.

4) We are spiritually poor – because we do not know the power of God – the Holy Spirit in our midst. If we did we would not dare tinker with his Word or mock his holiness.

Now Steve has anticipated that his views will be critiqued. And he has already provided his defence – not of the views themselves which are quite frankly indefensible. But rather in terms of people critiquing at all. "It seems to me that it is time for a paradigm shift which will move us away from the attempt to define ourselves over and against one another; the effort to caricature, then to dismiss and even to demonise one another." Again surely we would all agree with these lovely words? Except that they are completely hypocritical. Because the redefined evangelicals do define themselves over and against those they disagree with. They are open, tolerant, inclusive and abreast of contemporary scholarship. Whereas dinosaur evangelicals like yours truly are intolerant, closed, exclusive and out of touch. And therefore in a twist worthy of the most post-modern secularist, in the name of tolerance, those who actually believe the Bible are not to be tolerated!

I hope that I have not caricatured Steve Chalke. I don't want to do so. Because of his admirable work in so many ways I have tried really hard to excuse and believe the best in him and those who think like him. I cannot second-guess his motivation or spiritual condition. I can only write publicly about what he has publicly written. It is for that reason I speak out because I believe that what he has written, this 'new evangelicalism' is far more harmful to the Good News, than the new atheism. False teaching mixed with good works, fine words and a pleasant personality is still a deadly poison. I call upon those who are drinking at that bitter and poisonous well, to repent and to turn back to the living water of the Gospel. "I warn everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this scroll: If anyone adds anything to them, God will add to that person the plagues described in this scroll. And if anyone takes words away from this scroll of prophecy, God will take away from that person any share in the tree of life and in the Holy City, which are described in this scroll." (Revelation 22:18-19).

To finish: Steve asks a great question at the end of his article "So, what of evangelicalism and the future? What does it mean to belong to 'One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church'? How will we demonstrate that to a watching world? And, how will we rise to the challenge of living out an evangelicalism of which it could be said, in the words of the angel who captivated the attention of those shepherds on a barren Galilean hillside two millennia ago, "Do not be afraid. [We] bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people"? (Luke 2:10)."

It's a great question. The Good News of great joy – is about Jesus. Not a Jesus who did not die as the atoning sacrifice for our sins. Not a Jesus who did not leave us with a true and accurate record of his life. Not a Jesus who gave us a Spirit who inspired a book (or a library of books) that he got wrong. Not a Jesus who denied that the God of the Old Testament was his Father. Not a Jesus who taught the Creator's view of marriage but really meant what 21st century pagans think. In other words the Good News of great joy is not the truncated 21st Century Western liberal Jesus of the redefined evangelicalism. That saccharine Jesus is bad news – for all of us. No – the Good News is in the Son of God who loved me and gave himself for me, as the atoning sacrifice for our sins. The Good News is that this Jesus has given His Word, which from Genesis to Revelation is the infallible Word of God, telling us about humanity, the Church and above all about Him. The Goods News is that the triune God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit is the same, yesterday, today and forever. The Good News is that we can know the Goods News because God is not constantly changing his mind, or his Word, in order to suit what we demand.

If the redefined evangelicals really want to be part of a united church that proclaims that glorious Good News to the whole world, then perhaps it is time for a further redefinition? Let's return to the church built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone. Let's get back to the Word of God. Lets get back to Jesus. "Whoever acknowledges me before others, I will also acknowledge before my Father in heaven. But whoever disowns me before others, I will disown before my Father in heaven." (Matthew 10:32). Let's get back to the Good News and stop trying to improve upon it!

David Robertson is a Free Church minister in Dundee and director of the Solas Centre for Public Christianity.

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