THE ATONEMENT DEBATE – Steve Chalke Argues Against Penal Substitutionary Atonement

THE ATONEMENT DEBATE – Steve Chalke Argues Against Penal Substitutionary Atonement November 19, 2008

In his chapter in the recent book The Atonement Debate, Steve Chalke begins to argue against penal substitution (PSA). He starts in a surprising, and to me, a deeply concerning way. One of my major concerns about this whole debate is what a rejection of PSA does to our view of the Bible. The concept of God’s wrath is very prominent in the Bible, culminating in the famous dilemma of Romans 3 where Paul essentially asks how can God be both JUST and yet FORGIVE our sin. In the context of Romans, to me that answer is simple—because Jesus took away that wrath and bore our punishment.

Chalke sidesteps the issue of the wrath of God by attempting to remove the issue of the sacrifices of the Old Testament from the discussion by claiming:

“The emphasis on Yahweh’s apparent appetite for continuous appeasement through blood sacrifice, present within some Pentateuchal texts, is to be understood in the light of later prophetic writings as a reflection of the worship practices of the pagan cults of the nations that surrounded the people of Israel. However, the story of Israel’s salvation is the story of her journey away from these primal practices towards a new and more enlightened understanding by way of Yahweh’s self-revelation.” (page 38, The Atonement Debate)

This quote is simply breathtaking coming as it does from the pen of a professed evangelical. First of all, it seems that Chalke takes a very different view of Scripture to that of the majority of evangelicals. The books of Moses are not to be contradicted by later revelation! These sacrifices were demanded by the actual audible voice of God recorded infallibly by Moses. Chalke’s comments only make sense if he doesn’t believe that the Pentateuch is actually God’s Word. Moses records that God did not merely “accommodate himself” to the local culture; he actively commanded sacrifice!

Of course it’s not just the Pentateuch with which Chalke’s comments seem to disagree. In his attempt to separate what Jesus did on the cross from biblical notions of sacrifice, one has to wonder what he would make of the book of Hebrews. On page after page the writer to the Hebrews directly connects Jesus’ death with that of the lambs and goats of the Old Testament sacrifices. Hebrews 9:22 says, “Without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins” and clearly declares of Jesus in verse 26, “He has appeared once for all at the end of the ages to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself.”

We can’t just airbrush out of the Bible the teaching that it is a wrath-removing bloody sacrifice for sin that is absolutely necessary in order that we can be saved. In his comments on the Pentateuch, Chalke seems to imply that he does not believe those passages to be truly God’s infallible Word, or at least he believes that those passages were contradicted later on. Would he view Hebrews in the same way? We will continue to look at Chalke’s reasons for rejecting PSA tomorrow.

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