Cover Image: The Jesus Gospel

The Jesus Gospel:
Recovering the Lost Message

Liam Goligher (Authentic, 2006)

Blurb Review by Dr. David Gibson

Review by Dr. David Gibson

In 1937, Richard Niebuhr famously described the essence of theological liberalism: ‘A God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross' (The Kingdom of God in America, 193). Four key truths of the biblical gospel are jettisoned - wrath, sin, judgment and the cross - while another four are retained - God, humanity, the kingdom and Christ. The result, as Niebuhr implies, is a different gospel.

Liam Goligher's recent book on the gospel according to Jesus is occasioned not by theological liberalism per se, but by such liberalism appearing within evangelicalism and claiming to be its authentic expression. This, Goligher says, is what happened in 2003 with the publication of The Lost Message of Jesus (Zondervan) by Steve Chalke and Alan Mann. The furore surrounding that book is well known and is not rehearsed here. Rather, Goligher reveals how the view of the cross that is badly caricatured and rejected by Chalke and Mann - penal substitution - actually sits at the heart of the biblical narrative. Tracing this the whole way through Scripture, he shows convincingly that Jesus' person and work cannot be correctly understood without it. Given this biblical-theological method, and given its aim of countering The Lost Message of Jesus, it seems fair to evaluate this book by asking how well it measures up on both fronts: as a biblical theology and as a response.

In our opinion, The Jesus Gospel can be rated highly on both counts. Goligher begins in John 17 with Jesus' high priestly prayer and the plan of redemption. This provides not merely the ultimate ground of the bible's storyline - salvation planned from before the beginning of time - but also roots the whole of salvation in God's glory. As Jesus prays and pulls back the curtain of heaven's throne room, we realise that God's great goal is to have people seeing and sharing his glory. Classic tenets of Reformed theology like this are handled with a deft touch by Goligher and by the end of the first chapter his book already sits in stark contrast to the anthropocentrism of The Lost Message. It also gives his book its raison d'être - why do the people that Jesus prays for need this salvation? To answer this we launch into a whistle-stop tour of the Bible from Genesis to Revelation which traces the why, the how, the what and the when of this salvation. Goligher's focus throughout is explicitly on the issue of atonement. Doing this allows him to cover a number of other vital bases. Sin, the fall, judgment and wrath are all well explained, both in their organic connections to the cross and in ways which show what they mean for our doctrines of God and humanity. Clearly written, vibrant and engaging, this is a book to give to anyone confused about the essence of the gospel, and preachers will want to draw on it for ideas on passage headings and explanations of atonement related terminology. (See the chapters on Leviticus 16, Psalm 51 and Isaiah 53 particularly).

However, this focus on the atonement, the main strength of the book, also turns out to be one of its weaknesses. The Jesus Gospel is an extremely necessary countering of The Lost Message, while not being a completely sufficient one. For Chalke and Mann, ‘the core of Jesus' life-transforming, though often deeply misunderstood, message is this: The Kingdom, the in-breaking shalom of God, is available now to everyone through me' (Lost Message, 16, emphasis original). If this statement in itself is largely unproblematic, the essence of their book is the unpacking of this core message in ways that are often highly problematic. The chapter on the cross, which has rightly drawn so much fire from evangelicals, comes at the end. This means that Chalke and Mann's misleading view of the atonement comes as part of a bigger package which also needs to be addressed - their misleading view of the kingdom of God. It is explicit response to their kingdom theme which is missing in Goligher's book and, specifically, it would have been good to see precisely how the classical picture of the cross which he paints so well sits at the heart of a proper view of the kingdom.

This small criticism is closely connected to another one: the kind of biblical theology employed. The method of using Acts and Scenes is a helpful teaching device and is quite a catchy way of presenting the material, but it can suffer from problems. In another review of a similar approach, Graeme Goldsworthy comments that where this method is adopted ‘the structures of the theological message that lie behind the narrative structure and that drive it' are often not made clear. He argues: ‘Biblical theology is, I believe, more than simply relating the events of the story in order, even if accompanied by theological comment in the process ... It needs to be analytical of the theological dynamics within the story'. In The Jesus Gospel, the events of the biblical plotline are often mapped in connection to John 17 rather than explicitly to their intrinsic, unfolding connection with one another. The result is a lack of clarity about what transitions one Act to another - why break or link the sequence here and not at an earlier or later point? We are not told (although cf. 106). This means that the Acts and Scenes sequence actually has some other underlying conception of its intrinsic unity which is never really made explicit.

The point of these observations is this: by adopting a sort of ‘sequential' approach to biblical theology, The Jesus Gospel misses out on a way of viewing biblical theology and the atonement which provides a kingdom-oriented response to Chalke and Mann. If something like Goldsworthy's understanding of biblical theology is granted (where ‘the kingdom of God' operates as the unifying factor in Scripture's various sequential events), then what we have from Genesis onwards is atonement functioning within a kingdom framework. Mapping the kingdom of God progressively through Scripture means that when we arrive at the person and work of Christ, the kingdom cannot be understood without a climactic fulfilment of the atonement theme. More precisely, if ‘God's people, in God's place, under God's rule' is the heartbeat of the kingdom from creation onwards, atonement is always there as the post-fall means by which God's people experience his rule and blessing. When the kingdom comes in Jesus, we realise that the shalom which he brings in his person and rule is one which can only come through judgment. Salvation through penalty-payment, blessing for us through the crushing of another: Chalke and Mann cannot find these in Christ's kingdom because they did not first look for them in Eden's kingdom. Of course, Goligher may have specific reasons for not using something like ‘kingdom' as an organising motif in his biblical theology; my point here is simply that this is one way of combining biblical theology with an evangelical view of the kingdom of God. Some such approach is required to provide both a necessary and a sufficient response to The Lost Message.

None of this detracts from the force of Goligher's central thesis. In producing a largely single-issue response to Chalke and Mann, I think the cross is the right issue to tackle. For although their view of the cross may be part of a big-picture view of the kingdom, ultimately we may want to argue that it is nevertheless their cross stripped of penal categories that is actually the controlling factor in their kingdom stripped of judgment. But this is another debate! Evangelicalism depends for its vitality and relevance on repeated, faithful re-articulation of penal substitution and The Jesus Gospel does this very well. If Niebuhr is right, however, we evangelicals will do well to attend to liberalism's view of the kingdom of God. It too is insidious.

(There is a typo on pg 195, note 62, where the perfect passive participle of Rev. 5:6 - esphagmenon: ‘having been slain' - is referred to as a present participle; this appears simply to be an inaccurate citation from G. K. Beale, The Book of Revelation, 352. On 155 the ‘governmental' view of the atonement is attributed to ‘Grotian', instead of Hugo Grotius, and the description of this as ‘heresy' perhaps needs more qualification than is given here. Cf. Stott, The Cross of Christ, 121-123).

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