Friday, June 26, 2009

Steve Chalke & the Wrath of God

I started another book on the atonement today entitled The Atonement Debate (Zondervan, 2008). The book is a collection of nineteen essays, most of which were delivered in July 2005 at the London symposium on the theology of the atonement. As such, it presents a variety of positions in the hope of gaining a better understanding of one another, though probably not in the hope of building a new consensus. I’m not sure how likely that is given the current theological climate in England and the United States.

The first essay, written by David Hilborn, simply lays out the context for the current debate, while the second, written by Steve Chalke, rehashes the theological position that created the debate in the first place. Chalke, along with Alan Mann, published a book entitled The Lost Message of Jesus in 2003, in which they strongly condemned the penal substitutionary view of the cross as a form of “cosmic child abuse.” They argued that this view of the atonement is unnecessarily violent and pre-Christian, and has no biblical basis whatsoever. They assert that it developed, not in the early church, but through the writings of Charles Hodge in the nineteenth-century, and that it is not orthodox but novel, and needs to be denounced rather than nuanced.

(I should mention here that I’ve not read The Lost Message of Jesus, I am simply summarizing the argument based on Chalke’s essay.)

Key to Chalke’s and Mann’s argument is the idea that God is not so angry at sin, or at sinners, as those who hold to the penal substitutionary view would make him out to be. They assert that if God were thus angry he would be contradicting his mandates to love our enemies and bless those who curse and so forth. He then attempts to show several unfortunate implications of the penal substitutionary view in the arenas of history, culture, and pastoral care, arguing in the end that this theology and its consequences must be rejected. He concludes: “The cross is not a form of cosmic child abuse—a vengeful Father punishing his Son for an offense he did not commit. Rather than a symbol of vengeance or retribution, the cross of Christ is the greatest symbol of love and a demonstration of just how far God the Father and Jesus his Son are prepared to go to prove that love and to bring redemption to their creation” (44).

I agree that the cross is the greatest symbol of love the world has ever seen, as well as the greatest symbol of the extent of God’s love. But I simply cannot embrace the notion that it’s not also a symbol of the wrath of God toward sin and sinners. It’s not that I’m eager to have an angry God, it’s that I cannot escape the myriad of texts which teach us that God is indeed angry—terribly angry—at sin and sinners, and that Jesus came to rescue us, in part, from the wrath of God. Chalke either doesn’t care about proving his case on textual grounds or he doesn’t think it necessary, but one way or the other he gives no biblical support whatever and this, for me, will not do. I must see ideas in the actual words of Scripture or I will remain un-persuaded.

Contra Chalke, there are a number of texts which display the anger of God toward sin and sinners. First let me briefly define the wrath of God, after which I will close this entry blog by quoting several of them. Tomorrow, Lord willing, I will add a few other thoughts.

In the Bible, there are more than twenty Hebrew and Greek words used to describe the anger or the wrath of God, the most common of which are translated burning anger, intense anger, wrath, fury, indignation, vengeance, rebuke, chastening, discipline, punishment, recompense, and repayment. Lactantius, one of the early church fathers, perhaps articulated the meaning of the wrath of God as well as anyone when he said this: “Righteous anger is the mind arousing itself for the restraining of evil; wrath is the expression of this anger in various ways to restrain evil, to correct the sinner, and to punish the hardened and stiff-necked rebel.” The only thing I would add to this definition is that the primary reason God’s anger is aroused is because his glory has been offended by sin, and the primary purpose of his wrath is to vindicate his glory.

Thus, if I were to rewrite the definition I would put it this way: “Righteous anger is the mind arousing itself for the vindication of glory and the restraining of evil; wrath is the expression of this anger in various ways to vindicate the glory of God, to restrain evil, to correct the sinner, and to punish the hardened and stiff-necked rebel.”

With this in mind, here are a handful of texts—only a handful—which display the wrath of God toward sin and sinners. Please read them carefully and consider them on their own terms. My aim in quoting them is not to argue for a particular position on the atonement, or to argue against another, but rather to understand the Bible as it is. If Chalke’s arguments are true to the Bible, then I’m with Chalke; if his arguments are not true to the Bible then I cannot be with Chalke. I hope your fundamental commitment is, likewise, to the Bible. Please read carefully and prayerfully. (The following texts are quoted from the ESV.)

Deuteronomy 7:9-11: “Know therefore that the Lord your God is God, the faithful God who keeps covenant and steadfast love with those who love him and keep his commandments, to a thousand generations, and repays to their face those who hate him, by destroying them. He will not be slack with one who hates him. He will repay him to his face. You shall therefore be careful to do the commandment and the statutes and the rules that I command you today.”

Nahum 1:6-8: “Who can stand before his indignation? Who can endure the heat of his anger? His wrath is poured out like fire, and the rocks are broken into pieces by him. The LORD is good, a stronghold in the day of trouble; he knows those who take refuge in him. But with an overflowing flood he will make a complete end of the adversaries, and will pursue his enemies into darkness”

John 3:36: “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him.”

Romans 2:6-8: “He will render to each one according to his works: to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life; but for those who are self-seeking and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, there will be wrath and fury.”

Romans 5:9: “Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God.”

Romans 11:22: “Note then the kindness and severity of your God.”

Ephesians 2:1-3: “And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience—among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind.”

Ephesians 5:6: “Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of these things the wrath of God comes upon the sons of disobedience.”

Colossians 3:6: “On account of these the wrath of God is coming.”

1 Thessalonians 1:9-10: “For they themselves report concerning us the kind of reception we had among you, and how you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God, and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead, Jesus who delivers us from the wrath to come.”

1 Thessalonians 5:8-10: “But since we belong to the day, let us be sober, having put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation. For God has not destined us for wrath, but to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us so that whether we are awake or asleep we might live with him.”

2 Thessalonians 1:5-10: “This is evidence of the righteous judgment of God, that you may be considered worthy of the kingdom of God, for which you are also suffering—since indeed God considers it just to repay with affliction those who afflict you, and to grant relief to you who are afflicted as well as to us, when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with his mighty angels in flaming fire, inflicting vengeance on those who do not know God and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. They will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might, when he comes on that day to be glorified in his saints, and to be marveled at among all who have believed, because our testimony to you was believed.”

Revelation 6:15-17: “Then the kings of the earth and the great ones and the generals and the rich and the powerful, and everyone, slave and free, hid themselves in the caves and among the rocks of the mountains, calling to the mountains and rocks, ‘Fall on us and hide us from the face of him who is seated on the throne, and from the wrath of the Lamb, for the great day of their wrath has come, and who can stand?’”

Revelation 16:5-7: “And I heard the angel in charge of the waters say, ‘Just are you, O Holy One, who is and who was, for you brought these judgments. For they have shed the blood of saints and prophets, and you have given them blood to drink. It is what they deserve! And I heard the altar saying, ‘Yes, Lord God the Almighty, true and just are your judgments!’”

Revelation 19:11-16: “Then I saw heaven opened, and behold, a white horse! The one sitting on it is called Faithful and True, and in righteousness he judges and makes war. His eyes are like a flame of fire, and on his head are many diadems, and he has a name written that no one knows but himself. He is clothed in a robe dipped in blood, and the name by which he is called is The Word of God. And the armies of heaven, arrayed in fine linen, white and pure, were following him on white horses. From his mouth comes a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations, and he will rule them with a rod of iron. He will tread the winepress of the fury of the wrath of God the Almighty. On his robe and on his thigh he has a name written, King of kings and Lord of lords.”

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