“In Christ Alone” by Keith Getty and Stuart Townend is certainly one of the most popular contemporary Christian songs in American churches today. I have often been in worship services where this song was sung–most recently, in one of the services of the Western Pennsylvania Annual Conference. It is a beautiful, powerful, hymn, and I have no problem singing along–except for one line in the second verse:
In Christ alone, Who took on flesh,
Fullness of God in helpless babe!
This gift of love and righteousness,
Scorned by the ones He came to save.
Till on that cross as Jesus died,
The wrath of God was satisfied;
For ev’ry sin on Him was laid—
Here in the death of Christ I live.
Whenever I am in a worship service and this song is sung, I do not sing the bold-faced line.
I have learned that I am not alone in my reluctance. A YouTube video of Kristian Stanfill from Passion 2013 skips this entire verse–something for which he is taken to task in numerous comments on this video.
Similarly, in a sermon on 1 Corinthians 1:18, New Testament scholar N. T. Wright observes,
We must of course acknowledge that many, alas, have offered caricatures of the biblical theology of the cross. It is all too possible to take elements from the biblical witness and present them within a controlling narrative gleaned from somewhere else, like a child doing a follow-the-dots puzzle without paying attention to the numbers and producing a dog instead of a rabbit. This is what happens when people present over-simple stories, as the mediaeval church often did, followed by many since, with an angry God and a loving Jesus, with a God who demands blood and doesn’t much mind whose it is as long as it’s innocent. You’d have thought people would notice that this flies in the face of John’s and Paul’s deep-rooted theology of the love of the triune God: not ‘God was so angry with the world that he gave us his son’ but ‘God so loved the world that he gave us his son’. That’s why, when I sing that interesting recent song and we come to the line, ‘And on the cross, as Jesus died, the wrath of God was satisfied’, I believe it’s more deeply true to sing ‘the love of God was satisfied’, and I commend that alteration to those of you who sing that song, which is in other respects one of the very few really solid recent additions to our repertoire.
The committee charged with compiling a new hymnal for the Presbyterian Church U.S.A. (including my good friend and colleague, systematic theologian Edwin van Driel) asked the composers of this hymn if they could alter this line to “the love of God was magnified.” When the composers refused to agree to this alteration, the committee decided not to include the hymn.
The response to this decision has been very intriguing. In an article in the conservative Christian journal First Things, Timothy George, Dean of Beeson Divinity School of Samford University, numbers the hymnal committee with “[t]hose who treat the wrath of God as taboo, whether in sermons or hymns.” He recalls H. Richard Niebuhr’s condemnation of “liberal Protestant theology, which was called ‘modernism’ in those days, in these famous words: ‘A God without wrath brought man without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross.’” Another response, from Glenn Beck’s website, quotes Denny Burk, associate professor of biblical studies at Boyce College: “At the end of the day, the cross itself is the stumbling block, and that is why the PCUSA cannot abide this hymn.”
Please note: the new PCUSA Hymnal does not ignore the cross, the wrath of God, or even the teaching of Reformer John Calvin that the cross involves Jesus taking on himself God’s punishment for our sin: an idea called “penal substitution.” There will be, in the new Hymnal, ample witnesses to these images and ideas (for examples, see Adam Copeland‘s blog, or check out the new hymnal for yourself).
Despite the extreme responses cited above, there are two separate issues here. One issue is how we are to understand the cross. Like N. T. Wright and many other Christians, I am persuaded that penal substitution is neither the only, nor the best, approach to the death of Jesus. What does it say about God if God’s wrath toward human sin is so great that it cannot be assuaged, but must be poured out on someone? Further, in the logic of the hymn we are discussing, if “the wrath of God” is “satisfied” by the death of Jesus, is Jesus “Scorned by the ones he came to save,” or by his heavenly Father? There are other biblical models for understanding the cross–most powerfully, I propose, the notion of Jesus as Immanuel (God with us) who expresses God’s presence with us even in the midst of pain, abandonment, and death itself.
Another issue altogether is the wrath of God. I have been writing recently on the Old Testament book of Zephaniah, whose theme is the wrath of God (see Zephaniah 1:17-18). Of course, we could say, with lay theologians and Ghost Busters Dan Ackroyd, Harold Ramis, and Bill Murray, that the “real wrath of God type stuff” is, like Zephaniah, Old Testament! But we cannot take refuge in “Old Testament wrath/New Testament love” nonsense unless we manage our Bible reading very carefully.
When we consider the context and content of Zephaniah and Revelation, there are plenty of surprises to be found. Zephaniah 2:1-15 is a collection of oracles directed against the nations surrounding Judah, including Assyria–which could prompt us to think that God’s wrath is directed outward, at the nations. But the audience for these words of judgment isn’t the nations, but Zephaniah’s own people in Judah (see Zephaniah 2:1-3). Judah is called a goy (the Hebrew word commonly used for foreign nations) in 2:1. Further, 2:3 is expressly directed to the righteous: “all you humble of the land who practice his justice.” For Zephaniah, God’s wrath serves as a warning for the faithful, more than as a condemnation of outsiders.
The judgment in Revelation 16, on the other hand, certainly seems outer-directed: the bowls of wrath are poured out on those marked by the beast (Revelation 16:2). Yet again and again in this chapter (see Revelation 16:9 and 11), we are told that those punished did not repent–suggesting that repentance, not punishment, is God’s desire.
So too in Zephaniah 2:1-3, the community of the faithful is urged:
Gather together and assemble yourselves, shameless nation,
before the decision is made—the day vanishes like chaff—
before the burning anger of the Lord comes against you,
before the day of the Lord’s anger comes against you.
Seek the Lord, all you humble of the land who practice his justice;
Maybe you will be hidden on the day of the Lord’s anger.
Perhaps the biblical message of God’s wrath is aimed at affecting change within the community—as God’s response to our unresponsiveness.
Too often, those who preach the wrath of God are all too certain of the mind of God, and of those against whom God’s wrath is directed. The message of God’s wrath far too easily becomes a message of self-vindication, used to justify rejection of and even violence towards those we deem outsiders. But what if instead, as in Zephaniah, the wrath of God is a call to the community to come together: to gather, and to change?
God’s wrath is not after all opposed to God’s love. God’s wrath is directed against injustice because God loves justice. God’s wrath is directed against oppression because God loves the oppressed. God is a God of wrath because God is a God of love
May the wrath of God call us, then, not to division, but to union: to a passionate commitment to Christ, a zealous devotion to Christ’s church, and a determined stand against the hatred and self-righteousness that keep the church scattered and divided, rather than gathered together in grace.