Looking Back at the Aug. 8 Editorialcomments (5)
August 22, 2013
By Bob Terry
For the past few days I have been caught in a social media storm like nothing I have experienced before in my years as editor of a state Baptist paper. On Aug. 8 and 9, about 10 times as many people came to the The Alabama Baptist website as usually visit each day. Practically all clicked on the Aug. 8 editorial “Why Disagree About the Words of a Hymn.”
The result was an avalanche of tweets and blogs, most condemning the editorial and claiming it denied penal substitutionary atonement — that Jesus bore the penalty of our sin and died on the cross in our stead. I was called a heretic among other things. Baptist Press news service did a lengthy story on the accusations, which the press service released two consecutive days — Aug. 12 and Aug. 13.
To all Alabama Baptists and other readers I owe a sincere apology for writing in a manner that allowed some readers to conclude that I denied such a basic biblical doctrine — penal substitutionary atonement. I do not deny that belief, as an examination of my editorials over the years will clearly show.
Through the years I have written repeatedly affirming the doctrinal position of penal substitutionary atonement. In the March 28, 2013, editorial titled “The Hero of Easter,” I wrote, “In Christ, God Himself took on the sin of the world. He became the sin bearer. Again, Colossians 1:19–20 says, ‘For God was pleased to have all His fullness dwell in Him (Jesus), and through Him to reconcile to Himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through His blood shed on the cross.’”
In the April 5, 2012, editorial one reads, “Jesus was at one time both the Lamb being sacrificed — ‘He offered Himself’ — and the High Priest offering the sacrifice of atonement. That is why the writer of Hebrews referred to Jesus as ‘the Great High Priest.’ The imagery is of Jesus entering God’s presence with the blood offering of the sacrificial lamb to be poured out on the altar.”
Both examples are clear affirmations of the doctrine that Jesus died on the cross for our sins. There are many more examples. I have never written or preached anything to the contrary.
But because many readers understood the editorial differently than I intended, I scheduled a private conference with Timothy George, founding dean of Beeson School of Divinity at Samford University in Birmingham, to see if he could help me see blind spots I might have that prevented me from recognizing an inadvertent denial of penal substitutionary atonement. For more than an hour we talked about God’s holiness, God’s love and God’s wrath.
His appraisal was kind and direct. He pointed out that I had used some “unwise and incautious” statements. He also pointed out that it is dangerous to raise a question about something so dear to people as the hymn “In Christ Alone.”
On the critical issue of denying penal substitutionary atonement, he said for the record, “Particularly, the next- to-last paragraph in the original editorial is a very clear statement of the doctrine of penal substitutionary atonement. (Bob Terry) affirms both — there are two dimensions of this — he affirms both expiation and propitiation. He doesn’t use those words but what he says here in this paragraph affirms both of them.”
So why the confusion over the editorial? First, the editorial in question was never about atonement. It was about the mindset of God. It was about the false notion of God’s wrath that describes God as a vengeful and vindictive being who enjoyed punishing Jesus. The editorial tried to make a caricature out of that understanding and argued against it to show that the cross is not about vindictiveness but about God’s love.
Unfortunately some readers concluded that I believed that caricature and blogged about me holding heretical positions. I was wrong not to make more abundantly clear that I was opposing the caricature of God’s wrath and not the orthodox biblical teaching itself.
Some readers felt the editorial indicted all who love the phrase “The wrath of God was satisfied” and implied they were wrong. That was never the intention. When wrath is understood as God’s punishment for sin poured out on Jesus at Calvary, that is exactly what the Bible teaches as I understand it. The editorial comments were directed only at the unbiblical understanding of God being vindictive, or a bully or having a temper-tantrum toward His Beloved Son. While to the orthodox Christian, these caricatures may seem far-fetched, they are ideas about wrath one finds in Christian history and ideas that some hold today.
Other unhappy readers charged the editorial created a false dichotomy between love and wrath. They point to the paragraphs about “expiation” as ruling out “propitiation.” Expiation is the forgiveness we have through Christ and His removing the guilt of sin. Propitiation is that on the cross Jesus experienced the
righteous wrath of God against sin. I affirm both.
The editorial attempted to be a “both/and” approach when I wrote, “Whichever phrase one chooses to sing (‘the wrath of God was satisfied’ or ‘the love of God was magnified’) it must be remembered that it is God’s grace that initiated the sacrifice of Jesus to provide covering and forgiveness for our sin (expiation) and that His sacrifice satisfied the holy demands of God’s righteousness for sin to be punished (propitiation).” There was no attempt to label one right and the other wrong.
The wrath of God is a biblical teaching. But at Calvary wrath is best understood as an expression of God’s righteousness and holiness. Sin had to be punished and Jesus as “God made flesh” absorbed into Himself that punishment. God, moved by His love for us, sent Jesus to the cross to pay the price for our sin. Jesus was always the Beloved Son of God. God was never malicious or vindictive toward Jesus as some people understand human wrath.
No editorial can contain everything one believes. Hopefully readers understand a particular column in light of what has been written over the past 18 years I have been editor of The Alabama Baptist rather than expecting every column to express the whole of my theology. And when questions arise, please know I invite conversation to clarify understandings.
Still be assured that I will attempt to be more careful and more clear in all that I write and that I sincerely regret my unwise and incautious comments in the Aug. 8 editorial.