Atonement wars

Within evangelicalism a war is brewing. It is a war of ideas, or more accurately, a war of theology. And it concerns the most central aspect of our entire system of faith – the atonement. If we misunderstand this doctrine, it has eternal consequences. he war, of course, is not new. It has raged for centuries, ebbing and flowing throughout the generations. What is new, at least within living memory, is that the war is now raging inside confessional evangelicalism. Last month it was announced that the Word Alive partnership was to separate. For the previous fourteen years three organisations — UCCF, Keswick Ministries and Spring Harvest — had worked jointly to organise this annual event, enjoyed by thousands every Easter. In a statement last month, UCCF said:

In 2003, the Revd Steve Chalke, one of the Spring Harvest Event Leadership Team, and a member of their Council of Management (trustees), wrote The Lost Message of Jesus. In it, he promoted unorthodox views over the nature of the Atonement, and hit national media headlines over his controversial and graphic description of Penal Substitution.

The Word Alive committee, of which UCCF is a part, believed such views to be contrary to orthodox Biblical teaching, and as such, decided that the Revd Steve Chalke could not teach from a Word Alive platform…

In September 2006 the Word Alive Committee were called to a meeting by Spring Harvest and told that as they would not include the Revd Steve Chalke, the 14-year partnership was at an end…

Our decision to allow only orthodox Christian teaching from Word Alive platforms, and Spring Harvest’s subsequent decision has caused enormous pain and regret. However, UCCF believes it can no longer work with those whose understanding of the nature of the gospel and the distinctive of the atonement is so different to theirs, and mainstream evangelicals in the UK and across the world. There comes a point when loyalty to the gospel, as we believe it to be clearly set out in Scripture, and the drive for unity with others can come into conflict, and we have reached that point.

Sadly, this version of events is disputed by Pete Broadbent, the Team Leader of Spring Harvest:

There is no way that anyone can represent Spring Harvest as being anywhere other than the orthodox biblical stance on the atonement… It’s terribly sad that UCCF are now coming out with an official statement that simply isn’t true to what actually took place… I dispute most of what is contained in the statement as being either misunderstanding (willful or otherwise) or total fabrication. I could hope that they would withdraw their statement and hold their peace. They seem to want to define themselves over against Spring Harvest, which I regret. We stand for the same faith and the same gospel.

It ought to be a matter of deep sorrow when Christians fall out with one another, particularly when it is in public. But we also ought to be thankful for the firm stand taken by UCCF and Keswick, and be glad that a clear line has been drawn in the sand.

Some evangelicals (in particular those behind the recent book Pierced for our Transgressions) have been wonderfully bold and clear. But other evangelical organisations and theologians have worked hard to blur the distinctions between heresy and orthodoxy, and have emphasised the mystery of the atonement at the expense of the clarity of Scripture. It therefore cannot have been easy for UCCF to take the stand that they have. It has been a difficult year for them, as they continue to face strong opposition on several university campuses and the threat of impending legal action. Such opposition is perhaps to be expected from the world, but to face a similar level of opposition from within the church must be difficult to bear. UCCF and other organisations on the front-line in this battle for the truth need — and deserve — our prayers.

This article was published in May 2007. Bookmark the permalink.