Good Point Ruined by a Bad Argument

Steve Chalke in The Lost Message of Jesus makes a big deal of the fact that God is love (1 John 4:8) and rightly so. Anyone who claims to know God yet does not show love must be a liar. God is love, as demonstrated by the death of Christ on the cross. This was the supreme act of self-giving for those who were his enemies. We too must love.

Chalke’s view is that the church has lost this essential ingredient in gospel preaching. It places far too much emphasis on the wrath of God and so men and women, as sinners, are in danger of hell. For Chalke, this seems to explain why the average non-believing person thinks that the gospel message is bad news.

I can’t speak for Chalke’s experiences of gospel preaching (though it reads rather like this was the kind of environment in which his own faith was nurtured, and which he then generalises to churches everywhere). It doesn’t really gel with my own experience. However, the idea that the world takes a dim view of the gospel is no surprise. I would just put it down to a different reason, summarised in Romans 1:18:

The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness.

The truth is suppressed, even repressed in the heart of man. He has a deep sense of the existence of God, even of his holiness. Is it any surprise that people’s concept of God, if they care to give attention to it, is one dominated by wrath?

I think this is where I basically differ with Chalke. At all times in this book, ordinary people are only ever portrayed as innocent victims of a privileged elite. It is almost as though these poor individuals are otherwise perfect without spot or blemish. All they need is freedom from their oppressors. Now, there is some truth in this. But not all the truth is there. Chalke seems to go to great lengths to minimise or even ignore two great truths. The first is the wrath of God. Yes, God is love. Amen! But God is also a consuming fire (Heb. 12:29) (just as he is light (1 John 1:5) and is spirit (John 4:24)). This statement is made in Hebrews lest we forget that God acts in judgement. (To be fair, Chalke does give a sideways glance at the wrath of God, but it is very much in the distance.) I therefore cannot accept his incredible explanation of why Moses was commanded to hide in the cleft of the rock as God passed by. Chalke suggest that Moses may have seen first-hand the suffering of God and thereby experience such a strong sense of desolation that he himself would want to die. This line of thinking was prompted by Chalke’s own sense of desolation as he saw the immense need in midst of an awful slum. But here is a classic case of experience rather than context determining the interpretation of text. The truth is: God is a consuming fire.

The second truth that Chalke seeks to minimise is the sinfulness of man. This is made absolutely clear in the awful muddle over the original sin and original goodness. Everyone who has read some theology knows what Chalke means by “original sin”. Also, everyone knows in the context of Chalke’s discussion what he means by “original goodness”. But no-one with an ounce of commonsense would understand that “original” is used in the same sense in these phrases. Yet Chalke seems to confuse the two and present them as mutually exclusive opposites. The conclusion that he comes to is that one of them must be jettisoned. Bye bye, “original sin”.

So we are left with picture of God (largely) without wrath and man without sin. All in order to correct a perceived imbalance in gospel preaching. Is this a good argument?

Good Point Ruined by a Bad Argument

9 thoughts on “Good Point Ruined by a Bad Argument

  1. Alastair says:

    I am with you in thinking that Chalke caricatures the doctrine of original sin. However, I do think that there is room for an increased emphasis on ‘original goodness’ in evangelical preaching, as I believe I have said in a previous comment on this subject.

    You write:
    “Yes, God is love. Amen! But God is also a consuming fire (Heb. 12:29)”

    I don’t think that you need to see the fact that God is a consuming power as something that is an additional aspect of God’s character to His love. The fact that God is a consuming fire is simply the fact of His jealousy (Deuteronomy 4:24). Jealousy is an essential characteristic of God’s love (cf. Song 8:6). The fires of hell are the fires of God’s spurned love.

    Such a robust integration of love and wrathful jealousy can help to combat the many hazy understandings of God’s love, like Chalke’s, that are popular in the Church today.


  2. Anonymous says:

    Al needs to consider the question, “Where in the Scriptures is God’s wrath considered as a function of His love, in relation to the unregenerate?” His suggestion is open to the charge of being a piece of uncontrolled theologising (i.e. uncontrolled by Scripture).

  3. Alastair says:

    My conviction that God’s wrath is a function of His love is substantiated in a number of different ways. Firstly, God’s wrath is frequently identified with His jealousy in Scripture, usually by means of parallelisms (e.g. Nahum 1:2; Zephaniah 3:8). God’s jealousy is clearly seen as a function of His love. Throughout Scripture covenant love is seen as jealous (e.g. Song 8:6). The fire that destroys in judgment is the consuming fire of God’s jealousy (e.g. Zephaniah 1:18), even when it is directed against unbelieving God-haters.

    You ask ‘where in the Scriptures is God’s wrath considered as a function of His love, in relation to the unregenerate?’ I would argue that Ezekiel 16:38, 42 and 23:25 are examples, among others, of God’s wrath considered as a function of His love in relation to unfaithful and disobedient sinners (I find your use of the terminology of ‘unregenerate’ unhelpful, although I know what you mean by it). God’s jealousy is directed towards Jerusalem as a disloyal marriage partner. God’s marriage with Israel in covenant presupposes love from God towards Israel. This love is a jealous love and the jealousy of this love burns hot against Israel when she is unfaithful. The wrath of God directed at apostate Israel is fuelled by jealous love.

    You may object that God’s relationship with Israel should not be taken as normative on this issue. I would direct your attention further back in the biblical narrative. When God created Adam and Eve He created them in a loving relationship with Himself, blessing them. When Adam fell, he became subject to God’s wrath. The wrath that every human being in Adam is under is a result of a broken covenant relationship of love. Spurned love lies at the root of the wrath that is directed towards humanity. Man did not start off neutral. Mankind is a son that has abandoned its loving Father.

    God’s love is directed towards humankind in Jesus Christ. This love can be rejected and is rejected by many. Those who reject it will suffer God’s vengeance in fuller measure. Those who are brought into the New Covenant and later apostatize will suffer God’s jealous wrath in the greatest measure (Hebrews 10:28-31).

    I presume that the idea that New Covenant Christians can apostatize is one that you will take strong exception to. So be it. I think that it is clear in Scripture that grace remains grace even when it is rejected. Someone who has been made part of the New Covenant people of God and later apostatizes has truly received grace, just as OT Israelites did when God deigned to dwell in their midst. God’s love can really be directed towards people who spurn it. Our theologies may not be big enough to understand exactly how, but I think that Scripture would have us believe this.

    It is clear that some people receive God’s love in a fuller measure than others. God is more jealous in His relationship to such people, in both the positive and negative senses. God will not permit the covenant to be threatened or violated, either from within or without. Often God’s wrath directed towards unbelievers is a function of His jealous love towards the saints (e.g. Ezekiel 36:5-7; Joel 2:18-20), on top of the jealousy of His love for persistently rebellious humanity in general. It is the jealousy of God’s love towards humankind that causes Him to save rebellious humanity; He will not permit the devil to destroy His loving purpose for mankind. Jealousy thus cuts in two directions.

    In Scripture ‘hell fire sermons’ are usually preached primarily to the disobedient people of God who have become the recipients of God’s love/grace in the past, rather than to those who have not known God’s love in such measure. The concept of jealousy — which underlies the concept of wrath (whoever it is directed towards) — presupposes a covenant relationship of love. The greater the love, the greater the jealousy.

  4. Stephen says:

    Pity you couldn’t comment on the content rather than the packaging of Al’s response. I thought Al gave a pretty good account of himself. Do you differ? If so, why?

  5. Anonymous says:

    Dear Stephen Dancer,

    Most of Al’s post was more “theologising” (i.e. theological reconstruction), where was I was asking for the Scriptures that leads to that reconstruction.

    Clearly from Scripture, God is jealous for His special, chosen people. As a husband is jealous over His wife, so God is jealous over His loved one. But is the husband jealous over the prostitutes?

    Al’s answer is “yes”, arguing by extension.

    Now, are oranges are yellow and curved?

    1. Bananas are yellow and curved (an obvious thing everyone accepts)

    2. By extension, so are oranges.

    Al has buried the whole burden of his proof in the “by extension” part, ‘proved’ by naked theologising. But as this part is where the whole matter lies, that’s *PRECISELY* the part that *DOES* need the proof.

    1. God is jealous for the love of His own, and His anger over their sin arises out of this jealousy (easy to prove from Scripture).
    2. By extension, it’s the same for the rest too (naked assertion).

    All the Scriptures Al references are in reference to jealousy arising from God’s love to his own people. argues to extend this, but the question was not “can you come up with a theological argument?”, but “can you show me the Scriptures?”

  6. Stephen says:

    Thank you, Anonymous (Beardy Stoat-herder from Stornoway?).

    I think your argument has its own weaknesses. You say:

    Clearly from Scripture, God is jealous for His special, chosen people. As a husband is jealous over His wife, so God is jealous over His loved one. But is the husband jealous over the prostitutes?

    Al’s answer is “yes”, arguing by extension. Your last sentence would be true if Al was arguing from your premise. But I don’t think he was, so your view that his argument is an extraplolation is false.

    Regarding your premise, I think your uses of the words ‘for’ and ‘over’ in relation to ‘jealous’ are interesting, as though jealousy is some kind of action towards people. My understanding of God’s jealousy is that it is ‘for’ or ‘over’ his own glory. His response of wrath towards the offender is the result. So I’m not sure the rest of your argument makes sense to me with your unusual (to me at least) use of the word. Perhaps you could clarify on this point?

  7. Anonymous says:

    Concerning your last paragraph, I agree with you. My usage was compressed and you need to unpack it. I see in Scripture two (not unrelated) dimensions to God’s jealousy:

    1. God is jealous for His own honour.

    2. God has a marital-type jealousy for the obedience of His people.

    Only in 2. is covenant love involved; it is quite unnecessary to interpose covenantal considerations into 1. Al seems to be extending God’s marital-type affection beyond God’s people to include those outside of His redemptive activity, and thereby making God’s wrath towards those people a function of His covenant love towards them. _That_ is the bit I’m questioning and asking for Scriptural proof of. I don’t doubt that wrath arises from 1. or the reality of 1. – but in 1., the resulting wrath is not a function of spurned love towards the offender, which is what Al is arguing for.
    (Yes, they have spurned His love, but that’s not the point; the point is, is it a valid theological construction to make that spurned love the source from which wrath then flows, as opposed to the traditional understanding of it flowing from offended holiness?)

    To sharpen the question, I am asking for Scriptures which describe God’s wrath towards those outside of His covenant as being derivative of His love towards them.
    I’m looking for “good and necessary inference from Scripture”, not “plausible theological re-construction”, thanks very much!

  8. Stephen says:

    OK. This is better, but I still have questions about your starting point.

    I agree with your jealousy definitions 1. and 2. Yet I would say that 2. flows from 1., the connection being the covenantal relationship that God established with his people. To damage the covenant bond (through attack from outside, or unfaithfulness within) is to offend God since his honour is at stake.

    However, the covenant you seem to keep referring to (I hope I am reading you right) is the covenant of grace. But there is another – that of works or life. (I can hear Al getting his keyboard warmed up on that one!) This, of course, made with all mankind through Adam. It seems to me difficult to defend a view that God holds men and women accountable for their unfaithfulness to a covenant bond in which he never loved them. Do you see my argument? (There is a degree of thinking out loud on this, so I await correction if necessary!)

    It does seem to me that his love in the CoW gives rise to his jealousy, his honour having been damaged by the unfaithfulness to that covenant bond, which then gives rise to his wrath. It is not so much that outsiders to the CoG await God’s wrath having rejected it (most people have never heard the gospel, after all!). Wrath comes because they are unfaithful to the CoW.

    Again, to my mind, unless I understand your view on this starting point, I’m not sure it is worth dealing with the rest of your last comment.

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