Why Disagree About the Words of a Hymn?comments (39)
August 8, 2013
By Bob Terry
Looking Back at the Aug. 8 Editorial (Why Disagree About the Words of a Hymn?)
Original editorial can be found below.
Clarification to Aug. 8 editorial (prepared Aug. 9 and revised Aug. 12)
Editor’s Note — The editorial “Why Disagree About the Words of a Hymn?” published in the Aug. 8 issue received thousands of responses via Twitter, email, the website and phone calls in less than 24 hours. Because of the questions raised by the responses, the following clarification is offered.
Before I arrived at the office on the morning of Friday, Aug. 9, I received a phone call telling me the editorial “Why Disagree about the Words of a Hymn?” had generated a lot of response overnight. I was shocked when the caller added that I was being accused of not believing in penal substitutionary atonement — the teaching that Jesus paid the price for sin when He died on the cross in our place.
That anything I write would call into question the atoning work of Jesus Christ is inappropriate and to those who read this editorial that way, I apologize.
Let me be clear. I believe in and unapologetically preach: 1. For all have sinned and come short of the glory of God (Rom. 3:23); 2. The wages of sin is death but the gift of God is eternal life (Rom. 6:23); 3. God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself (2 Cor. 5:19); 4. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners Christ died for us (Rom. 5:8); 5. If you confess with your mouth Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved (Rom. 10:9); 6. Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved (Rom. 10:13).
Consistent with that belief I wrote in the editorial “…it is God’s grace that initiated the sacrifice of Jesus to provide covering and forgiveness for our sin and that His sacrifice satisfied the holy demands of God’s righteousness for sin to be punished.” I believe that is an affirmation of the penal substitutionary atonement understanding of salvation.
Again, sin separates us from God. Sin has a price that has to be paid before sinful man can be reconciled to a holy God. Jesus paid the price for our sin on Calvary and only because of what was done for us on the cross can we be reconciled to God. I understand that to be bedrock Christian beliefs.
For those interested in my writings about the atonement, let me suggest two examples: March 25, 2010, and April 5, 2012. Other references to the atonement can be found in numerous editorials over the years and most can be found on this website. But let me emphasize again, the Aug. 8 editorial was not about the atonement.
I am beginning to wonder if part of the confusion surrounding the Aug. 8 editorial relates to different meanings of the word “wrath.”
If the meaning is that on Calvary God’s punishment for our sins was poured out on Jesus, then that is certainly biblical and something I would never question. That is my understanding of penal substitutionary atonement and is what I have written through the years.
If the meaning of “wrath” is that God is vindictive and took joy in punishing His Son then that is not how I find God described in the Bible. As I understand the Bible, it was because “God so loved the world” that He was willing “to crush him and cause him to suffer” and become a guilt offering (Isaiah 53:10 NIV). Sin had to be punished to satisfy the righteous justice of a Holy God and only the Son of God could satisfy that demand.
The editorial in question (see below) was intended to call us to see the love of God at the cross and not a vindictive God.
Aug. 8 editorial: Why Disagree About the Words of a Hymn?
Who would expect the words of a popular modern-day Christian hymn to cause a theological dust up? That is exactly what has happened after a decision by the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) not to include the hymn “In Christ Alone,” released in 2001, in its new hymnal “Glory To God: The Presbyterian Hymnal.”
Originally the committee voted to include “In Christ Alone” but with a change to one phrase. The committee proposed changing a line in the second verse that says “Till on that cross as Jesus died/The wrath of God was satisfied” to read “Till on that cross as Jesus died/The love of God was magnified.”
Changing the words of a hymn to reflect theological teaching is a common practice. The first verse of the beloved hymn “At the Cross” by Isaac Watts originally read, “Would He devote that sacred head for such a worm as I.” Compilers of the “Baptist Hymnal” changed that line to read, “Would He devote that sacred head for sinners such as I.”
This time the song’s authors Keith Getty and Stuart Townend would have none of it and refused permission to make the change. The hymnal committee then voted 9–6 not to use the song because the theology of the disputed phrase reflected the view of a part of the Presbyterian Church but was not appropriate for the diverse membership as a whole.
That decision prompted an outpouring of protest. At least one blogger cited the decision as an example of liberalism in the denomination. Beeson Divinity School Dean Timothy George was more balanced in his reaction. He wrote, “God’s love is not sentimental; it is holy. It is tender but not squishy. It involves not only compassion, kindness and mercy beyond measure, but also indignation against injustice and unremitting opposition to all that is evil.”
George cautioned that to ignore God’s wrath can result in “a less than fully biblical construal of who God is and what He has done, especially in the redemptive mission of Jesus Christ.”
George is exactly right. The Bible speaks clearly about the wrath of God and warns that it is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of an angry God (Ps. 90:11).
Yet there remains a question about whether God was an angry God at Golgotha whose wrath had to be appeased by the suffering of the innocent Jesus. Sometimes Christians carelessly make God out to be some kind of ogre whose angry wrath overflowed until the innocent Jesus suffered enough to calm Him down. It is the ultimate “good cop/bad cop” routine where God is against us but Jesus is for us.
Some popular theologies do hold that Jesus’ suffering appeased God’s wrath. That is not how I understand the Bible and that is why I do not sing the phrase “the wrath of God was satisfied” even though I love the song “In Christ Alone.”
I take the incarnation seriously when the Bible teaches “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14). According to Scripture the One who died at Golgotha was One with the Father (John 10:30). The apostle Paul added, “God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself (2 Cor. 5:19).
As I understand Scripture, Jesus opened a new window through which people could see what God is like. God has always been like Jesus and Jesus has always been like God. That is why Jesus said to the apostle Philip in John 14:8–11, “If you have seen Me you have seen the Father.”
That humankind was estranged from God by sin is not in doubt. Nor is there any question that the place of that reconciliation was the cross or that Jesus was the instrument of that reconciliation.
Mankind could not overcome being separated from God by itself. God is the one who took the initiative for reconciliation, the One who continues to take the initiative. God wants to forgive. That is why He sent His Son (John 3:16).
God is always the active agent in reconciliation. He is not reconciliation’s object.
One well-known Baptist theologian said it clearly: “Reconciliation is not the appeasement of God. It is God’s own work in restoring man to proper relationship with Himself.”
Certainly the holiness of God means that sin cannot be condoned. That is why the atoning sacrifice of Christ satisfies the demands of God’s holy law. The sacrifice also demonstrates God’s boundless love that goes beyond the law.
An entry in the Holman Bible Dictionary, published by LifeWay Christian Resources, under “expiation” makes this point. The author writes, “God was not waiting to be appeased (as in the pagan, Greek conception). Rather God condescended to meet us on our level to remedy the situation.”
Scholars will continue arguing about whether the sacrificial system of the Bible, of which Jesus was the ultimate sacrifice, had God as its subject or its object. If He is the subject then God acted to cover and forgive sins through the sacrificial system. If He is the object then God received the offerings for sin that in some ways pacified His anger and need for justice.
Again the Holman Bible Dictionary says, “In the New Testament setting, this would mean that on the cross Jesus either dealt with the evil nature of human sin and covered it so that God forgives it (subject) or it means that Jesus satisfied God’s holy anger and justice so that forgiven sinners could freely enter the presence of the holy God” (object).
That is the essence between the disputed phrases in the song “In Christ Alone.” One emphasizes “the love of God was magnified” (subject); the other “the wrath of God was satisfied” (object). Whichever phrase one chooses to sing it must be remembered that it is God’s grace that initiated the sacrifice of Jesus to provide covering and forgiveness for our sin and that His sacrifice satisfied the holy demands of God’s righteousness for sin to be punished.
But God is not the enemy. He is our seeking Friend (Luke 15). That is why I prefer to focus on His love evidenced at Calvary rather than on His wrath.