The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) recently elected to reject “In Christ Alone” for their next hymnal. Their committee originally chose it but wanted to replace one phrase with altered lyrics. The authors of the song determined the changes inappropriate.
Original lyrics: Till on the cross as Jesus died / the wrath of God was satisfied
Altered lyrics: Till on the cross as Jesus died / the love of God was magnified
The committee defended their conditional election to reject the song’s original phrase,
“It would do a disservice to this educational mission [of the PCUSA church] to perpetuate … the view that the cross is primarily about God’s need to assuage God’s anger.… The song has been removed … with deep regret over losing its otherwise poignant and powerful witness” (Christian Century, April 2013 issue).
What? The committee loves the song’s “otherwise” poignant and powerful witness. The thing is, without the satisfaction of God’s deep anger at injustice, there is no poignant witness, and we render his love impotent. To paraphrase C. S. Lewis,
We castrate God then bid his love be fruitful.
Can an angry God also be a loving God?
We have seen anger used to bully people or witnessed violence caused by rage. So we feel uneasy about anger. Perhaps we are afraid of angry people, or our own anger is out of control, or we are too nice to ever show anger. Anger issues are understandable.
So we hate to attribute anger—much less wrath—to God. After all, God is a God of love. But anger is not the opposite of love. Hate is. And the ultimate form of hate is indifference. Our God can be angry because of his love not despite it.
But he can’t be indifferent.
When we deny God his anger, we spay, declaw, and housebreak Aslan. Instead of the Lion of Judah, we have a cute, benign, impotent pussy-cat. If there is to be any hope in this world, we need a God with backbone, a God of substance and strength, a God who hates injustice. As Miroslov Volf wrote,
“If God were not angry at injustice … that God would not be worthy of our worship.”
The satisfaction of wrath
Years ago I had a discussion with an old Presbyterian (PCUSA) pastor. His words were eerily similar to the hymnal committee. He claimed it barbaric—totally depraved—to believe that the purpose of the cross was to assuage God’s anger.
He claimed the gospel is simply, “loving our neighbor.” Really! I heard this from that old Presbyterian’s own two lips. He limited the atonement to, “Jesus is just an example for us to live up to.”
Denying God the satisfaction of his wrath robs him of his greatness, and it undermines our hope. If God’s wrath is not satisfied by the cross, we assert the world’s evil injustices outweigh God’s merciful justice. If so, what hope is there for us?
John Newton once wrote a letter to a man distraught by his own guilt. Newton magnifies God’s glory by emphasizing God’s satisfaction on the cross,
You say it is hard to understand how a holy God could accept such an awful person as yourself. You then express not only a low opinion of yourself, but also too low an opinion of the person, work, and promises of the Redeemer (Letters Vol. 11, slightly edited).
We call Christ our redeemer. “Redeemer” means more than a sentimental, sappy Santa Claus. And redemption means more than momentary, gooey feelings of acceptance. Redemption means he paid it all, and our debt is satisfied.
But who did Christ pay?
If Christ paid our debts, who did he pay? Is there some giant banker in the sky holding our IOU’s, and God “suffered” by paying them off with PayPal? Someone once said,
If you’ve ever really forgiven somebody, all forgiveness is suffering. If you say, “I forgave and I didn’t suffer,” it wasn’t that serious a wrong. But if you have ever really been wronged, and you have forgiven it, then you have suffered.*
All real forgiveness involves suffering. If someone deeply wrongs us, there is a deep, indelible sense of injustice, a debt, something we can’t just shake off.
So we can either make them pay, or we ourselves can pay. If we make them pay (through insults, defamation, or mentally sticking pins in their heart), then we bathe ourselves in the evil cesspool of the world. We become cruel ourselves.
But if we pay by forgiving them, we suffer. When opportunities arise to speak ill of them, we resist and it hurts. Because all forgiveness is suffering. And slowly, penny by penny and dollar by dollar, heartache by heartache, their debt is erased.
The perseverance of the saints
Who did God pay? He paid himself through his suffering of forgiveness. It was agony; it was suffering; it was excruciating; it was thorns; it was nails. It was the cross.
The love of God was magnified because wrath of God was satisfied, at the same time. Knowing the satisfaction of God’s wrath through his suffering forgiveness makes his grace irresistible. “It is finished.”
You can take that to the bank.
*I think I heard this quote from Tim Keller in a sermon on forgiveness, but I’m not sure.
Thank you. Much is written in the Old Testament about God’s wrath, but it is good to be reminded that God never changes, so His wrath did not end with the New Testament.
Thanks for your comment. And even in the Old Testament we get passages like, Psalm 103: “The Lord is compassionate gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love … As high as the heavens are above the earth, so far does he love those who fear him.”
If eliminating God’s wrath meant to the pastor that Jesus was just an example for us to live up to, his theology leaves no hope. I cannot live up to that example. I am grateful that God has wrath and is willing to forgive instead of being a God who passively allows me to fail and thinks he has done all that is needed by giving me a good example!
I completely agree. It “sounds” so sweet to think of “just living up the the example of Jesus.”
But if we truly examine our hearts, we realize we cannot do it on our own. That sweet saying steals all hope from our hearts.
We need to gospel to free us and then empower us.
Sam – what you have written here has helped marry my mind with my heart so that the truth of an angry and loving God has taken root. And, to that I say amen (so be it)!
Oddly, I think that knowing the anger of God can actually bring more freedom. While the modern world doesn’t get the sense of guilt much, it does get the sense of shame, an indelible sense that something is wrong with us.
When we know of God’s wrath, and then we know of his total payment and forgiveness out of his love, we can begin to be healed of our shame.
Sam…I logically know this truth. I think… But do I really have it consciously conceptualized in my head regarding my relationship with God and Christ. Hmmm. Thanks for sharing this brother. Makes me think about being made in his image. Further…my young kids. And from the womb, they have anger at frustration or unfairness. I don’t get that the ‘fall of man’ introduced anger. Seems it’s a part of God passed down, eh? Again…thanks. Good to ponder.
ALWAYS great to hear from you.
Anger can be good and it can be bad. It’s good when we are angry at oppression, unfairness, slavery, inequitable pay, etc. But it’s bad when it merely comes from self-centeredness (why can’t I have as many toys as Bobby?).
Being made in the image of God AND being fallen means we usually have a mixture of these angers, we’re angry at injustice (good!) and we’re angry because we’re not as successful as others (bad).
Love you man
While, overall, I’m in agreement, I do consider the PCUSA to have a conditionally valid point. The point is taking issue with the view that the cross is primarily about assuaging
God’s anger. I think the key word here is primarily. There are many ways in which we can view the cross. Obviously, it shows the extent to which God will go to “win” us through divine love. It provides us with the example of love refusing to engage in “an eye for an eye” and the transformation that results from such refusal (a perspective that Richard Rohr, among others, represents very well in his writings). Would we want either of these views made secondary to that of God’s anger being assuaged?
The condition is the extent to which this primacy is, in fact, being perpetuated. This is a
complex question, but one that warrants being wrestled with for, in my opinion, at least two reasons. The first has to do with the degree to which followers of Christ are motivated by fear rather than exhibiting the freedom that a religion truly based on love, mercy and grace should manifest. The second is the extent to which the followers of Christ are judgmental. If neither of these are problems in the Body of Christ, then I suspect no such view is being perpetuated and the PCUSA is mistaken.
Good observation, Paul. I think fear often manifests as judgmentalism, and wonder whether your two reasons might not be pretty much just one, historically.
Judgment and judgmentalism have become confused these days, as have anger and hatred, love and permissiveness. In light of the pervasiveness of the confusion, a bald statement about the wrath of God is likely to go astray, failing to convey its true meaning because its context is lost. And while perhaps the PCUSA is just another victim of the confusion and actually reinforcing it here, there is a legitimate place for recognizing that some traditional theological language is handicapped to convey its meaning to a post-modern hearer.
In the context of the Church, there’s no excuse for giving in to the erosion. Our dialect can change, but people need to be faithfully taught and re-taught as culture evolves (good job, Sam!).
But in the context of evangelism, we do better to accept the reality of the hearer’s impressions. I don’t think God recommends we insist on using terms that are missing their mark. I think “wrath” is one of those terms.
I have to admit, though, that I tend to be stubborn about gender inclusive changes to traditional hymns—even though I know you only have to be about 10 years younger than me to simply be unable to hear “man” and “he” as they were meant. Sigh.
Great distinction between judgmentalism an judgment. The point is that we are not to judge. As Joseph said to his brothers, “Am I God?” because judgement belongs to God. But that means there is such a thing as judgment.
The problem with the anti-judgment movement today is that it has a double standard. It says we shouldn’t judge people (for sexual conduct, permissiveness, etc), and we shouldn’t. But then many go on to judge oppressive regimes, brutal parents, sex trade abuses, etc.
And these things ARE wrong (as are many things that anti-judgement people refuse to condemn). The things is, judgment belongs to God not to us.
Thanks for your comment. Of course, at some level, the cross means many things. The net result, if we accept the cross in faith, it means a re-birthed relationship with God, and that relationship is the result of God’s love.
But the channel to God’s love is path of forgiveness from God for our sins, and that means paying the penalty for our sins; or assuaging God’s wrath. It is far more than a mere example of turning the other cheek–though it is an example of that–it means paying the penalty.
Martin Lloyd Jones once told a story. He asked, “If you came home and a friend was there and said he paid a bill that came in the mail, you wouldn’t know how to respond until you knew the extent of the bill that come. If it was just postage due on a letter, you’d say, ‘Thanks.’ If it was and IRS bill for hundreds of thousands of dollars for tax evasion, you’d fall on your knees in gratitude.”
Our gratitude to God and our knowledge of his love only comes–or it is directly proportional–to the depth of the debt that he paid.
That is why the cross must always proclaim both Christ’s love and the full payment of our debt.
Frankly, I wouldn’t have minded if the altered lyrics had actually been the original lyrics. On the cross, the love of God WAS magnified.
My problem is that the PCUSA rejected the original lyrics; because on the cross the wrath of God WAS satisfied. If they can’t accept those lyrics as well, there is something rotten in Denmark (or in the PCUSA).
Is hate the antithesis of love, or is acedia, apathy, indifference the antithesis of love? God hates sin because of its destructive, disfiguring effect upon His creation, especially that portion of His creation formed in His image. If He did not truly hate that which distorts our very being, how could we say He truly loved us?
In the cross of Jesus God took upon Himself the inevitable outcome of sin. In His perfect wrath He destroyed sin. In His perfect grace I have life. In gratefully receiving His grace, we need to leave room for God’s wrath to completely purify and restore His creation.
I completely love your line, “If He did not truly hate that which distorts our very being, how could we say He truly loved us?”
Exactly. And he loved US enough and he HATED that which distorts us, that he suffered the unimaginable suffering on the cross to forgive us.
Thanks for more great insight.
I often struggle to remind myself that it is not the feeling of anger than is wrong. It is giving in to that anger and allowing that anger to control me and lead me to evil deeds that is problematic. And that is where I know I need to turn to His strength for help because I can’t do it alone.
Blessings to all.
So good Sam. I can’t help but focus on the wrath Jesus took on. He is the only one that could do it. I know the cross was physically painful, but the wrath must be magnitudes greater in suffering. I learned wrath is “God absent”. Jesus human side took it on…WOW! Must have been hell!…little humor there! As I try to understand the absence of God, I come up with things that are caotic, unsafe, unsure, insecure, … all those things we take for granted that only God can provide are gone. I soon begin to fear the wrath of God more than I ever thought possible and cry that He chose me to pick His Son Jesus. If only more people knew. It rings so strong why God picked His #1 command to be number one “…that all men should not perish…”. Hmm…Love can not exist without choice. I choose to love you man! Welcome to the creation…He pick each one of us to truely live! 🙂
FANTASTIC! “I know the cross was physically painful, but the wrath must be magnitudes greater in suffering. I learned wrath is “God absent”.
Thank you so much for this. It truly grieves my heart to hear these things. My husband and I were discussing this very thing a couple of weeks ago. This may sound strange, but God’s love alone is simply not enough to save us. If that were so, there would be no need for Jesus to die in the first place. To make the cross a mere expression of love is to undermine His suffering. While God is love, he is holy as well. God’s love is totally, completely amazing, and certianly a part in redemption. However, we must first hear of His wrath and our hopeless condition for His love to mean anything at all. But oh how wonderful when we find out He loves us anyway, and His wrath was poured out on Jesus instead of us! What joy to know Jesus chose to be separated from the Father so we could be reconciled to Him!
Thank you for your great thoughts.
I love this line, “To make the cross a mere expression of love is to undermine His suffering.”
The Bible refers to Jesus being the “propitiation” for our sins. To propitiate means to soothe anger for an offense.
“whom God set forth as a propitiation by His blood, through faith, to demonstrate His righteousness, because in His forbearance God had passed over the sins that were previously committed,” ~ Romans 3:25
“Therefore, in all things He had to be made like His brethren, that He might be a merciful and faithful High Priest in things pertaining to God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people.” ~ Hebrews 2:17
“In this is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins.” ~ 1 John 4:10
His death was directed towards the wrath of God.
Good article. I think you would be interested in a theology trilogy I am e-publishing this fall called “A Beautiful Hell.” For over thirty years the question of “What is it about Jesus death that saves us from hell?” has been on my mind. The question you raise about ‘who God pays a debt to’ is a question that must be answered in order to make sense of the cross. Fascinating questions with fascinating answers.
I’m hoping to publish the first book, “The Myths of Hell” in September. Let me know if you’d be interested in reviewing a pre-release copy.
Nathan J. Anderson
Yes! I’d love a pre-release copy, and maybe of your Gen.1-9 as well.
Thanks! Contact me on my contact form, and I’ll email you back.
This idea has cropped up in a number of places I’ve been listening and reading lately. I completely agree that the Bible shows God to be both just and merciful, both wrathful and loving. But it’s still a hard concept for me to understand.
I absolutely agree that it (God’s love AND justice) is a hard concept to understand.
That’s why there are so many heretical (yes! heretical) preaching and teachings. Some exclude God’s justice and focus on His love: but there is no electricity…”of course God loves me; I’m a good person.”
Others exclude God’s love and focus on his wrath; and we are left with despair (or pride).
I think we need the Holy Spirit to move this seeming paradox–God’s love and justice at the same time–into our hearts.
Thanks again for commenting,