God’s Wrath or God’s Love – responding to Steve Chalke again

Steve Chalke has been posting a series of short talks to mark the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. In episode 33 he returns to the theme of his book, The Lost Message of Jesus.  In this article, I want to pick up on some of the claims/arguments he makes in the video.

In this video, Chalke has in his sights the doctrine of Penal Substitutionary atonement.  This is the doctrine that on the cross, Jesus took our place (substitution), bearing the penalty for our sin (penal) so that we can be reconciled to God (Atonement).

Here are the key arguments he makes with my responses

  1. Penal Substitution emphasises a wrathful God in conflict with the God who is Love

Chalke complains that a lot of songs and sermons emphasise God’s wrath and say that this wrath needed to be satisfied or appeased. This goes against the belief that God is love. Chalke argues that love is not just a component of God’s character, it is his very essence or nature. It is the primary attribute so that when we talk about God’s holiness, it is in fact his love.

This is a classic example of stumbling on a half truth which left incomplete leads us into error. 1 John 4:8 says that God is Love. As I have consistently argued on faithroots.net love is not just a component of God, it isn’t an action he can choose to do, it isn’t an attribute he can lose and still be God.

However, the reason we say this is because God is not made up of component parts. It’s not just that love is essential to God’s character but that all those attributes, his justice, holiness, eternity, omnipotence, omniscience etc are.[41]  God cannot stop being love and still be the true God but nor can he stop being everlasting or all powerful.[2]

  1. This is important because it means that God’s justice and holiness are not separated out and put into tension with his love. It also means that we don’t pick one attribute such as love and define other attributes such as holiness purely in relation to that attribute. Rather, all of the attributes provide a perspective on each other. Yes, God’s holiness is a loving holiness but it is also a just holiness and his love is a just, holy and eternal love.

The second problem with just leaping in and saying “God is Love” is that we risk putting our own definition onto the idea of love. So what does it mean to say that God is love? Well, actually the Bible tells us.

First of all, we know that God is eternal love because he is the triune God. In his Gospel, John helps us to understand this love as he records Jesus’ words describing his relationship to the Father. The Son and the Father love each other and this is reflected ni a shared work (Jon 5) and a ashared desire that the other should be gloried (see John 17). Similarly, the spirit loves the Father and the Son and so glorifies them both.

This is important because it helps us to see why justice is not in competition with love. You see, love isn’t a vague concept, love does not happen in a vacuum, love has a recipient. The Father loves the Son.  The mutual love that the persons of the Trinity have for eaxch other means they seek each other’s honour.

So, what happens when the honour of the Father and the Son is attacked? Well, it is exactly because they love each other that they will seek to guard each other’s honour, older and non western cultures get this as they focus much more on honour and shame.

Sin is an attack on the honour of the Father. It denies his fatherly love and care, it rejects his goodness. Sin is an attack on The Son’s honour. He is the Word of God and sin despises and rejects the word. Finally, sin is an attack on the Holy Spirit’s honour as his presence and power are ignored.

It is right that Father, Son and Spirit will act to defend each other’s honour -that is by it’s nature a loving thing to do. The surprise is how they chose to do that not by bringing judgerment to us but by The Son taking that judgement on himself.

Although it us surprising, one of the early church fathers, Athanasius, reconginised that this was the logical thing to do. You see, sin attacked God’s honour in two ways. He writes:

“It would, of course, have been unthinkable that God should go back upon His word and that man, having transgressed, should not die; but it was equally monstrous that beings which once had shared the nature of the Word should perish and turn back again into non-existence through corruption.”[3]

The attack is both a challenge to the honour and truthfulness of his word – he had said that sin would lead to death but also of his deeds, it put his very creation at risk.

Thirdly, it is important to see that when defining love, the Bible does it explicitly in reference to the atonement. After saying that God is love, John goes on to tell us what love is (1 John 4:9-18).

Love is that God sent his son into the world in order that we might live. This means that our doctrine of the atonement must account for how that life is given. The Bible tells us that we were dead in our sin.

This love means that Jesus is sent to be an atoning sacrifice or propitiation. The word here is hilasterion which refers back to the OT sacrifices. This is best translated as “propitiation” and the word has the idea that wrath is turned back.[4]

There is a required response.  We are to confess that Jesus is the Son of God. We are to abide in him. This reminds us that salvation is in Christ. This rules out universalism. There will be those outside of Christ who will not benefit from his saving death.

Love is perfected in us and perfect love drives out fear. Note that the fear described specifically relates to punishment and the coming judgement day. In other words, Jesus’s death on the Cross is specifically to do with the threat of judgement and punishment that sinners are under. It is not “God is love and so there never will be any punishment.” It is “God is love and so we do not need to fear the punishment we deserve.”

  1. God does not need a sacrifice -he could just forgive

In his book, The Lost Message of Jesus, Chalke says that Penal substitution would amount to cosmic child abuse. Now, that is a horrendous thing to say for three reasons.

First – it fails to grasp that Jesus as the second person of the Trinity, willingly submitting to death does so not as a weak child who is overpowered but as the eternal son who has the very nature of God.

Secondly, it’s quite a vile and disgusting image to use. It betrays a careless attitude towards the real victims of abuse, cheapening their suffering, it reduces it to a mere source of a soundbite.

Thirdly, it is problematic because in fact most models of the atonement depend on the Son dying at the will of the Father either to

–        Provide an example

–        Defeat an enemy

–        Demonstrate love

–        Pay a ransom

–        Provide a substitute

The only way that you can avoid this is if the death of Jesus is presented as happening specifically against God’s Will meaning that he either lacks sovereignty because it happened against his will or he has some-how allowed it.

Admittedly some approaches do attempt this arguing that the Gospel focus is solely on the resurrection. God did not will the death of Jesus but responded to his tragic death with the greater power of resurrection. This is potentially argued from Acts 2:23-24

“…this Jesus, … you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men. 24 God raised him up, loosing the pangs of death, because it was not possible for him to be held by it.”

Scripture does show that it was evil men who willed and acted to kill Jesus.  However, the full wording of Acts 2:23-24 says:

“this Jesus,[c] delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men. 24 God raised him up, loosing the pangs of death, because it was not possible for him to be held by it.”

It was God’s will that he should be handed over to death. This of course echoes Isaiah 53. Jesus is seen in the New Testament as the servant portrayed in Isaiah.

“But he was pierced for our transgressions;  he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed.”[5]

Isaiah tells us that:

“It was the will of the Lord to crush him”[6]

Romans 3 shows us that this will of God was explicitly tied to the need for justice. God had chosen to forebear and pass over previous sin and so when Jesus died on the Cross, this was to show his righteousness towards that sin.

I think this is important when answering a sub-argument of Chalke’s, that God asks something of us that with penal substitution he doesn’t ask of himself when we are told to forgive our enemies. Does God ask us to forgive without justice/punishment happening. I would suggest no because we are reminded that the Bible tells us that sin is against God first and foremost so that vengeance is his. This means that I forgive others knowing that justice has been done for their wrong. The justice happens in one of two places, either at judgement day when they will receive their reward or at Calvary where Jesus too their place. Personally I found this pastorally helpful a few years back when my Great Aunt was attacked by muggers, left for dead and eventually died in hospital from her injuries. Friends at work were so angry and I remember them saying in detail what they thought should happen to her attackers. For us as Christians in our family I believe there was a strong sense of the importance of forgiveness knowing that all sin is judged by God. Our ongoing prayer is that the perpetrators reach the place where they know their sin was judged in Christ and they are forgiven.

  1. Penal Substitution arises from John Calvin’s legalistic approach to the Gospel

Chalke blames Calvin, a lawyer, for the concept of penal substitution. A legal approach is contrasted with a family/relational approach. Calvin, along with Augustine have long been the bogeymen of those who want to offer a radical alternative to orthodox Christian faith. Calvin is presented as this austere, joyless, loveless legalist.

It’s worth saying at this point that whilst Calvin was not perfect, he was nothing like the caricature presented and nor is his theology. If you get a moment, take time to read one of his commentaries or dip into his Institutes on the Christian Religion. There you will discover a pastor who rejoices in God’s grace and wants people to know a living and loving God.  He presents a God we can come to and know in prayer. Calvin is very much about the family relationship. God is his Father.

Chalke’s big mistake here is to see “legal” and relational” as in conflict. In fact, law is all about relationships. You see, real relationships, deep relationships come with responsibilities and obligations. We sometimes refer to these as “covenants.” Good laws protect relationships. Law and love are not in conflict.

What are our obligations? Well they are to love God and our neighbour. Later puritans expressed this as “To glorify God and enjoy him forever.” Note that obligations, worship, love and joy are all linked together. Of course we fail in our obligations. Yet we see in Jesus, the one while fulfils them for us.

Of course, by taking us to the reformers, Steve Chalke actually and unintentionally, reminds us why the doctrine of the atonement is so right and why the reformers paid so much attention to it because we are reminded about what happens when we get it wrong. The Catholic church of Calvin’s day didn’t like Penal Substitutionary, Atonement, of course they didn’t but the consequence for the church was a neglect of Scripture and the rise of an abusive and self-interested clergy.


Steve Chalke’s attempt to dismiss Penal Substitution fails because it fails to engage properly with who God is as revealed by Scripture, what the bible says and the truth about you and me and our greatest need.

[1] So whilst 1 John 4:8 says God IS Love, the same letter also tells us that God IS light and God IS Spirit whilst Hebrews 12:29 tells us that God IS a consuming fire.

[2] See Dave Williams, Who is God? 57-60.

[3] Athanasius, On the Incarnation, 2 (6).

[4] This translation has been disputed with some versions preferring “expiation” however there are plenty of examples of careful translation and exegesis showing why “propitiation” is the better translation.

[5] Isaiah 53:5.

[6] Isaiah 53:10.