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Out of tune

Why a debate over a hymn proves central to Christianity.

-Gordon Coleman-

When Mary Louise Bringle, chairwoman of the Presbyterian Church (USA)’s Committee on Congregational
Song, undertook to write an article in The Christian Century about impending publication of a new denominational
hymnbook, she can scarcely have anticipated the storm of controversy her words would provoke. But there can be no question, her article has done just that – especially her discussion of the committee’s reasons for excluding the modern hymn In Christ Alone from the collection.

According to Bringle, the committee first favoured including the hymn, but in a slightly amended form: in place of the hymn’s affirmation that “… on that cross as Jesus died / The wrath of God was satisfied”, they sought permission to substitute the words “The love of God was magnified”. When authors Stuart Townend and Keith Getty refused to allow the original words to be altered, the committee decided to remove the song from the list, “with deep regret over losing its otherwise poignant and powerful witness”.

Why the reluctance to include this song in its original form? As Bringle explains it, the committee recognised that it “expressed one view of God’s saving work that has been prevalent in Christian history” – a view still held by some within the denomination – but that their brief was to help “form the faith of coming generations”. In their judgment, the idea that “the cross is primarily about God’s need to assuage God’s anger” may have a long and distinguished historical pedigree – but it deserves to have no future.

“But we cannot escape the fact that, in the Old Testament and in the New, God is characterised both by love and by wrath.”

If the belief that Jesus died on the cross to “satisfy” the wrath of God is ancient, the lineage of those who treat God’s wrath as taboo is similarly ancient. For example, in the second century AD Marcion and his followers rejected the wrathful God of Israel as a separate and lesser entity than the loving, all-forgiving God of the New Testament.
According to Tertullian, the claim of these early “theological revisionists” was that “a better god has been discovered, who is neither offended nor angry nor inflicts punishment, who has no fire warming up in hell, and no outer darkness wherein there is shuddering and gnashing of teeth: he is merely kind.” Or, as our own (former) Prime Minister recently expressed it, “the fundamental principle of the New Testament… is one of universal love”!

What, though, are we as Bible-believing Christians to say about this? How do the Scriptures themselves describe the character of God, and the purpose of Christ’s death on the cross? First of all we need to affirm – and here we agree with both Marcion and with Mr Rudd (!) – that the God who has revealed Himself in the person and work of Christ is a God of love (Jn 3:16; 1 Jn 4:7-12), though we would also want to insist love is essential to God’s character in the Old Testament as well (Ex. 34:6-7; Num. 14:18).

But we cannot escape the fact that, in the Old Testament and in the New, God is characterised both by love and by wrath – that is, a holy and righteous anger that manifests itself, not only against sin, but against sinners. The LORD God of Israel is “merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin”– yet at one and the same time He “will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation” (Ex. 34:6-7). He is the God to whom His people cry out for mercy and rescue, even as they face the consequences of their sin (e.g. Hab. 1:12) – and yet He is the God whose eyes “are too pure to look upon evil;… [who] cannot tolerate wrong” (Hab 1:13).

How, though, can God’s righteous anger at sin and His steadfast love towards sinful people coexist? How can He be punish sin, and yet allow the guilty to go free? How can justice and mercy be reconciled? We find the answer in the apostle Paul’s letter to the Romans. Having described humanity’s plight in terms of God’s righteous anger against our sin and rebellion, and of the judgment that must inevitably fall on those who remain in their sin (1:18-3:20), Paul affirms the wonderful reality that God in His mercy has provided a means for the guilty to be pardoned, for unrighteous sinners to be clothed in His righteousness (3:21-24a) – a gift of His grace, purchased for us by the redeeming work of Christ on the cross (3:24b).

Notice, too, how Paul describes the price that was paid for our salvation: “God presented Christ as a sacrifice of atonement, through the shedding of His blood—to be received by faith” (Rom. 3:25, NIV 2011). The Greek
word translated “sacrifice of atonement” in the NIV, hilastērion, carries the basic idea of appeasement, or satisfaction – the technical term is “propitiation” – and in ancient pagan religions was used to describe the sacrifice offered by a worshipper, to avert the anger of their deity. Here, though, it is God who offers up the sacrifice, and God whose anger is set aside: God the Father presenting His own Son, the blood of the guiltless one shed for the forgiveness of sin – so that He can declare righteous all who turn to Him in repentance and faith (3:26).

“If the wrath of God has not been satisfied in the cross of Christ, then the love of God cannot be magnified by it.”

There have been various attempts in recent times to minimise the significance of this verse – to see the atoning sacrifice of Christ almost as an impersonal transaction, in which the shedding of blood serves simply to annul guilt or remove defilement. But Paul has already made it clear, not only that God’s wrath is being revealed against sin – the “ungodliness and unrighteousness of [those] who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth” (1:18) – but that His wrath is directed against us personally, and will be revealed in all its fury on the final day of judgment (2:5). But the good news of the gospel is that the God who is angry is also a God who loves – and that in love the triune God has taken the penalty for sin upon Himself, Father and Son together bearing the penalty for sin that we could not. Indeed, as the apostle John points out, “This is love: not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son as an atoning sacrifice [a propitiation] for our sins” (1 Jn 4:10).

The great tragedy for Ms Bringle and her committee is that if the wrath of God has not been satisfied in the cross of Christ, then the love of God cannot be magnified by it – and that in downplaying the wrath of God, they’re distorting the Biblical depiction of His love. What makes God’s love so amazing is that He lavishes it upon people who by nature are objects of wrath (Eph 2:3-4); and what makes the grace and mercy of God so amazing is that it is extended to people who deserve only His judgment. If we want to “form the faith of coming generations”, we need to be prepared to tell them, without embarrassment, that in this world the wrath of God is being revealed against the ungodliness and unrighteousness of those who suppress the truth – but that in the cross where Jesus died, the wrath of God was satisfied – so that all who lay their sins on Him find forgiveness, justification, and life.

Gordon Coleman is the minister of Albion Park Presbyterian Church, NSW.

First published in 2013/2014 Summer edition

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