The Wrath against Wrath: “Till on that cross as Jesus died, the wrath of God was satisfied.”

One line in the Keith Getty and Stuart Townend song In Christ Alone that mentions God’s wrath is causing discussion around the globe.

In New Zealand, blogger Bosco Peters writes “At our recent synod (church parliament) meeting, one of the songs was Stuart Townend and Keith Getty’s In Christ alone with the words:

Lyrics from 'In Christ Alone' have sparked debate.

Lyrics from ‘In Christ Alone’ have sparked debate.

“Till on that cross as Jesus died, the wrath of God was satisfied”

“Those words as understood by many (if not most) in that room are heresy. The understanding of those words by many (most) who enthusiastically sing this in services around the planet is heretical.

“The understanding is that God (The Father) was angry at us in our sinfulness. And that God took out this rage on Christ instead of on us. And that this now enables God (The Father) to love us.

This understanding is heresy.”

A meeting of the Presbyterian Church in the US voted to leave In Christ Alone out of their new PCUSA Hymnal over this issue.

“Sustained theological debate occurred after the conclusion of the committee’s three-and-a-half years of quarterly meetings in January 2012,” the chair of the of the Presbyterian Committee on Congrega­tional Song Mary Louise Bringle writes in Christian Century magazine.

“We had voted for a song from the contemporary Christian canon, Keith Getty and Stuart Townend’s “In Christ Alone.” The text agreed upon was one we had found by studying materials in other recently published hymnals. Its second stanza contained the lines, ‘Till on that cross as Jesus died / the love of God was magnified.’

“In the process of clearing copyrights for the hymnal we discovered that this version of the text would not be approved by the authors, as it was considered too great a departure from their original words: “as Jesus died / the wrath of God was satisfied.” We were faced, then, with a choice: to include the hymn with the authors’ original language or to remove it from our list.

“Arguments against ‘the wrath of God was satisfied’ pointed out that a hymnal does not simply collect diverse views, but also selects to emphasise some over others as part of its mission to form the faith of coming generations; it would do a disservice to this educational mission, the argument ran, to perpetuate by way of a new (second) text the view that the cross is primarily about God’s need to assuage God’s anger. The final vote was six in favour of inclusion and nine against, giving the requisite two-thirds majority (which we required of all our decisions) to the no votes.” (Read the full article here.)

The US Presbyterians voted against Stuart Townend’s words because they felt they were too offensive to sing as well as theologically offensive.

On the other hand in England, In Christ Alone – with the original words—was sung at the installation of Justin Welby, as the new Archbishop of Canterbury, the head of the Church of England, and it caused few ripples online.

There’s been quite a range of alternative lines suggested as the debate on In Christ Alone has spread through blogland:

“And on the cross as Jesus died, the arms of love were opened wide”

“And on the cross as Jesus died, the love of God was glorified”

“Till on the cross God satisfied Himself in justice, as Christ died”

“Till on the cross as Jesus died, the debt of sin was satisfied”

And as mentioned earlier “And on the cross as Jesus died, the Love of God was magnified”

Most of these fit the song’s meter. Most rhyme. Most, if not all, are true. But Stuart Townend and Keith Getty want everyone to stick with their original words. Indeed In Christ Alone is regarded as a confessional hymn by many Christians, and this one line brings together the doctrinal issues of the cross and the wrath of God.

The concept of the wrath of God is present in Bible verses like Romans 1:18-19 The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of people, who suppress the truth by their wickedness, since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them” (NIV).

Or Ephesians 2:1-3 “As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins, in which you used to live when you followed the ways of this world and of the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient. All of us also lived among them at one time, gratifying the cravings of our flesh and following its desires and thoughts. Like the rest, we were by nature deserving of wrath” (NIV).

The wrath of God is a subject that makes all of us uncomfortable. It is meant to.

Part of what stirs some people up is the idea of “cosmic child abuse” or what Bosco Peters offers as a possible description; “God holding a cricket bat threatening to hit us and Jesus stands between saying, ‘Don’t hit them, hit me.’”

These are images of rage, or inchoate anger. “Inchoate” because the emotion is so strong it is beyond meaning—a white-hot anger.

Sydney Anglican blogger David Ould helpfully pointed out in the online debate that God’s wrath is not satisfied by severely punishing an unwilling child. Nor is the Father like a sadistic teacher.

“The solution to all this, the Scriptures teach, is that one dies in our place. The entire OT sacrificial system models this and then Jesus Himself comes and does it. He is no “abused child” and there is no “lashing out by God”, rather He chooses Himself to lay down His life (John 10:11, 15, 17-18). Those last two verses are stunning how they tell of the unity of purpose between Father and Son:

John 10:17 “The reason my Father loves me is that I lay down my life—only to take it up again. 18 No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down and authority to take it up again. This command I received from my Father.’”

The problem may be our own style of wrath. Which of us has not been tempted to strike out in anger, as a parent, as a driver, or as someone who has witnessed an injustice?

God in Romans 1:18 has wrath against “the wickedness of people”. A weeks’ immersion in the news cycle will gather enough material to convince everything that sadly there is a good deal of wickedness about. Yet God’s awareness of wickedness will be more than any 24-hour news channel.

What sort of God would we have if he did not react against evil and seek justice in a world of political assassinations, warlordism, rape and (coming closer to home for Eternity readers), callous indifference to the spiritual and physical hunger and suffering of our fellow human beings?

The In Christ Alone debate is a great reminder that we should have our brains switched on while we sing.