Isaiah 53: Chalke and Cheese

Steve Chalke has thrown a proverbial cat among the evangelical pigeons with his latest book The Lost Message of Jesus in which, among other things, he categorises the doctrine of penal substitution as “cosmic child abuse”. Steve is of the opinion that the death of Jesus was a ransom paid to the devil. The reactions and responses to his book have been such that the Evangelical Alliance (of which Steve is a prominent member) arranged a public debate on the subject at the Emmanuel Centre in Westminster on October 7th at which Steve labelled the doctrine of penal substitution “arrogant”, “repressive”, “distorted” and “ethically weak”.
If Steve is right, the message CWI proclaims to the Jewish people is seriously and fundamentally flawed. Curiously however, in the September issue of Christianity, Steve responded to his critics by stating, “As Scripture says ‘he was wounded for our transgressions, by his stripes we are healed’ (Isaiah 53:5), and for me that is enough”.

Isaiah 53 has, of course, been a primary source of proof for the messiahship of Jesus since Philip the evangelist used it to preach Jesus to the Ethiopian eunuch. The chapter not only describes the death of Jesus but also explains the meaning of the cross in terms of penal substitution. The seventh verse foretells Messiah’s suffering in sacrificial terms: “He was led as a lamb to the slaughter”. Verse six, however, is richer in terms of the substitutionary nature of the death of God’s Righteous Servant: “All we like sheep have gone astray … and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all”.

“This verse”, says the respected British scholar Derek Kidner, “is perhaps the most penetrating of all descriptions of sin and atonement, uncovering the fecklessness which is second nature to us and the self will which isolates us from God and man alike; but also the divine initiative which transferred our punishment to the one substitute” (my emphasis).

“You make his soul an offering for sin” is a reference to the asham, the “trespass” or “guilt” offering of Leviticus 5, the sacrifice which spoke of restitution and satisfaction. The American commentator Gleason Archer makes the point that the phrase “laid on him” is, “literally, caused to alight upon him, or better still, caused to meet him (cf. Numbers 35:19, where the revenger of blood is authorised to slay the murderer when he ‘meeteth’ him in the way – the same verb being used there as here.) Our transgressions were to meet him in the way and slay him as if he were the guilty one instead of us” (my emphasis).

Like a stick of rock, the passage has substitutionary atonement written right through it and climaxes with the great statement: “My righteous Servant shall justify many, for he shall bear their iniquities … He bore the sin of many and made intercession for the transgressors.”

We respect Steve Chalke for the work he does through Oasis, and we gladly acknowledge that he has something to teach us about care for the poor and the marginalised. But Steve’s understanding of the gospel appears to be as different from that of Isaiah the prophet as chalk is from cheese (excuse the pun). If God laying our sins on his Son was “cosmic child abuse” what can we say about Steve’s theory that the death of Christ was a ransom paid to the devil? We say this: God paid nothing to Satan because the Holy One, blessed be He, owes the Evil One nothing!

Mike Moore

This article first appeared in the December 2004 edition of the Herald

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