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
“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.