Steve Chalke and the Pelagian Heresy

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In the first of four studies, titled “Being Human,” controversial Baptist minister Steve Chalke argues that “original goodness, rather than original sin, should inform a more human approach to Christian faith and life.”1 It should be really no surprise to see Chalke, who rejects the penal substitutionary atonement of Christ and who supports faithful and monogamous same-sex relationships, arguing for “humanity’s overwhelming goodness” (see Romans 3:9–18) and basically advocating the old heresy of Pelagianism. Pelagius believed there was no connection between Adam’s sin and ours and, therefore, Adam’s transgression bore no consequence to the essential nature of the human race. Man, for Pelagius, was born in a state of righteousness. In the year AD 418, the Council of Carthage condemned the teachings of Pelagius as did the Council of Ephesus in AD 431.

Chalke, however, says that if we understand Genesis 3 to be talking about “original sin,”

We make some assumptions that aren’t there. The story of Adam and Eve and the eating of the fruit that’s been forbidden from them doesn’t mention Original Sin. It doesn’t even tell us that the serpent is really Satan.

So where did the idea of original sin come from? Chalke brings up the old worn-out argument that the church has been wrongly influenced by Augustine’s interpretation of Genesis 3 rather than the dominant Jewish view of the text, which he favors.

The Bible doesn’t begin with Genesis chapter 3, it begins with Genesis chapter 1. In other words, it begins with the story that tells us we’re all made in God’s image. And God looks at humanity and says. “This is very good.” Genesis chapter 3, the story that we’ve been told is about Original Sin, turns out to be, in the view of Hebrew scholars down through the ages, not about that at all but about our journey to discover how to live well —to make good moral choices—to learn to resist the temptation and consequences of living badly. We are made originally good.

I have addressed these common, flawed arguments against the doctrine of original sin before in two different articles, “Original Sin: How Original Is It? Romans 5:12” and “‘In Adam’s Fall We Sinned All’: Does Genesis 3 Teach the Fall of Man?Chalke, nevertheless, misrepresents the situation. Unlike many Jewish interpretations of Genesis 3 after the first century AD, the Jewish people of the Second Temple period (530 BC–AD 70) shared the view that human sin was derived from Adam as can be seen in the apocryphal texts of 2 Esdras (2 Esdras 3:5–7, 21–22, 26). More importantly, the two leading Jewish scholars of the first century believed that we were inherently sinful. Both Jesus and the Apostle Paul clearly taught that sin is not first and foremost a deed that is committed, but is a condition we have inherited (Matthew 15:19–20; Romans 5:12–19).

Because Chalke, like Pelagius, believes that we are all inherently good people, the gospel basically becomes a self-help message. This comes across in Chalke’s reinterpretation of Jesus words in John 14:6:

Choose this way of living, this way of being human because it’s the only way, it’s the ultimate way to bring you fulfilment. It’s the ultimate way of becoming the best version of yourself’. . . . ‘Following Jesus isn’t about religion and all its paraphernalia; it’s simply about walking a way of life with Christ. It’s about being fully human, it’s about becoming the best version of yourself and living intentionally. Love yourself—you’re made by God’.

The gospel, therefore, is about telling people what they need to do in order for them to be the best version of themselves. The whole idea of grace being the very foundation of salvation is thus circumvented (see Ephesians 2:8–9). We need to understand that, as fallen children of Adam, Pelagianism appeals to us, whereas the gospel is a lot harder to believe. Jesus said, “For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few.” (Matthew 7:14)

Sadly, Chalke is just rebranding classic liberalism with new paraphernalia, and in doing so is promoting a different religion.

If the problem is that I am dead in trespasses and sin, a hater and enemy of God, and that he is my enemy (Romans 1:30, 5:10; Ephesians 2:1), then we need a more radical solution and a more radical Saviour than the pop culture Jesus (meek and mild) who helps us to discover our best life now. I know people think, “I just can’t buy that negative view of human nature.” But if we don’t understand how great our sin is, we will never understand how great a Saviour Jesus is.

Sadly, Chalke is just rebranding classic liberalism with new paraphernalia, and in doing so is promoting a different religion. In the early twentieth century, theologian J. Gresham Machen criticized protestant liberalism for basically being Pelagian. Machen argued that liberalism had exchanged a serious view of the human problem for a more sentimental view of human nature and as a consequence saw Jesus as simply a good example to be followed.

Here is found the most fundamental difference between liberalism and Christianity—liberalism is altogether in the imperative mood, while Christianity begins with a triumphant indicative; liberalism appeals to man’s will, while Christianity announces, first, a gracious act of God. . . . Liberalism regards [Christ] as an Example and Guide; Christianity, as a Savior: liberalism makes him an example for faith; Christianity, the object of faith.2

Jesus is not just a moral example to be followed, someone who shows us that we can be all that we can be. Rather Jesus is the one who has come to save us from being all that in fact we have been.

For I came not to call the righteous, but sinners. (Matthew 9:13)

Footnotes

  1. Ian Sansbury, “Being Human: Week 1—Love Yourself,” The Open Church Network, July 24, 2017, http://www.openchurch.network/BHloveyourself.
  2. J. Gresham Machen, Christianity and Liberalism (Grand Rapids, Michigan,: W.B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1985), 47, 96.

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