Aug
2013

“The wrath of God was satisfied”?

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.  

There is in plenty of wrath in the NT as well—indeed, Revelation 16:1-20 features BOWLS of it!

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;
seek righteousness;
seek humility.
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.

 

 

13 thoughts on ““The wrath of God was satisfied”?

  1. Thank you so much for this article! I grew up in the conservative south where a very angry God (and I might add a very needy one) was constantly upset at me/us and required lots of hoop jumping so that we could somehow be accepted by the Creator of all that is and all that will be. I am being bit sarcatic because I am no longer in this frame of mind. It seems we found it impossible to follow the 2nd part of the greatest commandment (loving ourselves so we could love our neighbor) and therefore so desparate to punish ourselves, that we HAD to create this angry, needy, codependent God. My heart aches for my brothers and sisters who are still in these chains! Thanks again for the article! I will share it as much as possible.

  2. Thank you for this wonderful posting… it has helped deal with an aspect of Christian teachings that has left me very unsettled. I too have trouble with messages, songs, etc which focus on God’s wrath and Jesus atoning blood…. I do think that God is angered by injustice, oppression, exclusion, condemnatory judgement, etc. but I do not believe that Jesus was crucified as a blood sacrifice for all of our sins …

  3. Personally, I am not having any problem with this line in the hymn at all. Scripture witnesses to this aspect of God (see Romans 1.18, and it’s counterbalance in Romans 3.21). This is an important feature of the cross and of Jesus’ sacrifice as the sin offering. It is not the only way scripturally to understand the cross by any means. This is one aspect of a multi-faceted theology.

    I thought the suggested change:”The love of God was magnified” was a decent try at something different that rhymed.

    I noticed (above) that Tracy Merrick said “but I do not believe that Jesus was crucified as a blood sacrifice for all our sins.” For me, it is not a matter of belief. It is a matter of record in the witness of scripture (… Hebrews 9.11-10.18 and 1 John 2.2 – two passages that come immediately to mind without doing more research at the moment.). Knowledge of blood sacrifice and substitutionary atonement is essential for understanding these text at the most basic level. I may choose not to believe it, but that does not alter the print on the page. We have to deal with what the text presents us.

    One legitimate view of the cross is that the Jesus’ sacrifice (once for all) satisfied the wrath of God, and another legitimate view: it satisfied and magnified the love of God. I don’t need to make an either/or choice here. It is all a part of the magnificent love of God toward the human race. I like singing about it.

  4. Quick question: If, as has been stated in this post (“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).”) that the PCUSA is reconciled to this doctrine in other hymns, why, then, was is such an issue for the selection committee on this hymn?

    I think something else is going on here. This exclusion does not make sense in the light of of the above quote.

    • It isn’t that the committee was eliminating hymns dealing with substitutionary atonement–they certainly were not. It was, as I understand it, that they believed such hymns to be already amply represented in their collection without this one. They had earlier approved “In Christ Alone,” with the line “The love of God was magnified,” because they found that version already printed in another hymnal. When they learned that the authors of the hymn had not approved that change, and would not approve it for the PCUSA hymnal, the choice was whether to approve the hymn as it was, or not. The majority decided not. The song, of course, is still out there for use in PCUSA congregations as in all CHristian worship settings: anyone is free sing anything. The choice for the committee, as for any group assembling a hymnal, was which hymns to place in this particular collection.

  5. This is the main paradox of theology. The attempt to explain something only leads to further confusion. The simplicity of the faith is destroyed by a series of complex negotiations with the truth in order to produce a palatable, watered down version of an AMAZING gift of grace which is freely given (not coerced).

    So many want to say what the Gospel isn’t to make it more tolerable so that we can get people to buy in on that soft marginal basis. So we deny the call to sell everything, to hate our mother and father, to obey, to submit to lose our lives for the sake of the Gospel…

    The road of faith was never intended for those who have a “problem with…” but for the simple child like acceptance of Jesus atoning work on the cross for us. And the willing acceptance of the burden of faith.

    God accepted Jesus’ voluntary offering as a paid in full ticket for all of us. Love so amazing, so divine demands my soul my life, my all.

    I don’t see an issue.

  6. Thx for this article. Good stuff. I rather like the multitude of atonement models in Christianity, all imperfect at fully capturing what God is up to but together helping us deepen our faith. While I prefer a Grotian model to the Anselmic/Calvinist one, I wish they’d have found a way to publish BOTH alternatives. It might have made for some great conversations.

  7. I’d love to see you teach & moderate a continuing ed event for our Conference about Biblical atonement models; that could be some healthy reflection for Lent!

  8. Steve: Thank you for this thoughtful exploration of this issue. Our organist (since retired) Dr. Beverly Howard was on that Hymn Committee and I agree with their decision not to include the hymn, While Presbyterians are not afraid of the cross, we do avoid misguided theology and it was unfortunate that the hymn writers were not willing to consider different words, which is their right. “Write your own hymn!” many would say. I imagine the wrath of God concept is one that will debated until the end of time.

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