THIS is a book that every preacher should read. Why? Once you have had an opportunity to engage with St Paul’s message as articulated here, it is “literally world-changing”. As its author confesses at the outset, the ideas presented are not his own: they represent a huge body of thought relating to Paul which has emerged since the1960s. The ideas are, though, brilliantly and very accessibly presented in this book.
Chalke encourages us to think like a Second Temple Jew to understand what Paul is saying. The core of his argument is that “pistis Christou” should be translated not as “faith in Christ” but as “the faithfulness of Christ” — as it was by Tyndale, and in pretty much all translations of the Bible before the Protestant Reformation. This means that, contra Luther and Calvin, we are saved not by our faith, but by the faithfulness of Christ.
This book could be seen as an extended meditation on the sentence “God is love”: “Once you understand that, everything else cascades from it. Every other category or concept in Paul’s thinking — the righteousness of God, the cross, the judgement seat of Christ, justification, anger.” Chalke quotes Barth: “If God exhibits characteristics of anger, judgement and the like they are never more than ‘repetitions and amplifications of the one statement that God loves’.”
“Love never fails,” Paul writes. Chalke speaks with the authority of someone who has dedicated decades, through the Oasis Trust, to attending to those who have been written off by society, seeking not to fail them. He argues that God in Christ does the same eternally, and Chalke quotes Barth again: “I don’t believe in universalism, but I do believe in Jesus Christ, the reconciler of all.” Chalke explains what this means to him in helpful detail.
The great insight of Paul was that the Jesus whom he met on the Damascus Road was the Messiah not just for the Jews, but for all people. “And that’s why he travelled. He had to tell the world what he had discovered. He didn’t want anyone to miss out. Although Paul has so often been written off as the champion of misogyny and exclusion, he was the very opposite. Paul was the great includer, the great universaliser.”
The scriptures are replete with the injunction, “Do not be afraid,” or some equivalent. Christianity, supposed to be the religion of love, has so often been turned into a religion of fear. The notion that our salvation depends on our faith rather than the faithfulness of Christ has contributed to that fear, as did the emphasis on works before it. The interpretation of Paul presented here has the power to liberate from fear.
As such, it is very good news: it is gospel. As I said at the outset, every preacher should read this book — because the message of Paul so understood will help them to preach that good news.
Dr John Inge is the Bishop of Worcester.
The Lost Message of Paul: Has the Church misunderstood the Apostle Paul?
Church Times Bookshop £9
Listen to an interview with Steve Chalke about the book on the Church Times Podcast