Collin Hansen, of The Gospel Coalition, recently wrote a post about the controversy surrounding the Presbyterian Church USA wanting to change the lyrics of the modern hymn Christ Alone. In the article, Hansen interviews Keith Getty, one of the writers of the song:
Last summer the modern hymn “In Christ Alone” made headlines for its lyrical references to the wrath of God and atonement theology. A hymn committee with the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) wanted to add the song to their new hymnal, Glory to God, released this fall. But in doing so, the committee requested permission from the song’s writers, Stuart Townend and Keith Getty, to print an altered version of the hymn’s lyrics, changing “Till on that cross as Jesus died/the wrath of God was satisfied” to “Till on that cross as Jesus died/the love of God was magnified.” The songwriters rejected the proposed change, and as a result the hymn committee voted to bar the hymn.
“The song has been removed from our contents list, with deep regret over losing its otherwise poignant and powerful witness,” committee chair Mary Louise Bringle told The Christian Century. The “view that the cross is primarily about God’s need to assuage God’s anger” would have a negative effect on the hymnal’s ability to form the faith of coming generations, Bringle explained…
Question: Two groups wanted to change your lyrics in order to circumvent the idea that God’s wrath was satisfied through Christ’s death on the cross. Why was it important this lyric not be altered?
Keith Getty: First, it’s important to express how truly honored we feel that these groups would consider adding “In Christ Alone” to their hymnals. We support the approach they take of studying the lyrics of hymns as they select music worthy to be sung and preserved.
However, we believe altering the lyrics would remove an essential part of the gospel story as explained throughout Scripture. The main thread of what we see revealed throughout the Old and New Testament is the need for man to be made right with God. The provided path toward reconciliation came through Christ’s predetermined and perfect sacrifice on the cross, satisfying God’s wrath once and for all. The two hymnal committees wanted to change the lyrics to focus on how Christ’s death on the cross magnifies God’s love for the world. And indeed, God’s love was magnified on Calvary’s hill. Yet the way this occurred was through Christ doing for us what we could not do for ourselves—shedding his own perfect blood to atone for our sins.
Question: Was the doctrine of propitiation front and center in your mind when you wrote the hymn?
Keith Getty: We wanted to explore the scope of the gospel message in one song. As people in the pew sing “In Christ Alone,” we pray they understand the many attributes of God. His sovereign power, grace, love, justice and wrath all are intertwined. And we shouldn’t turn away from exploring his wrath, because through understanding God’s righteous anger toward sin, we understand his desire for justice and peace. As J. I. Packer so clearly explains in Knowing God, God is not just unless he inflicts upon all sin and wrongdoing the penalty it deserves. While we may think it severe, we desperately need God’s wrath—a holy and just response to evil—to restore the broken world in which we live.
I understand some people take issue with the theological perspective that God’s wrath was satisfied through Christ’s death on the cross. Part of this debate centers on whether the cross became the object of God’s wrath. When couched in those terms, God’s anger can sound harsh and perhaps confusing.
Yet I believe this view stems from an inadequate understanding of how God’s wrath differs from our own. Each of us faces the temptation to fashion God out of our own image. And a picture of God formed through our experiences of hurt, anger, injustice, or rage is a sad and vindictive one indeed. But this is not the infinite, good God we serve. God’s wrath is not like our wrath, and his ways are not like our own. Throughout Scripture, the need for atonement to be made is likened to a cup of wrath the sinner must consume. As we know, Jesus drank this cup for us. The cross was a remedy, providing for each of us a way to be saved. It may not be easy to fully comprehend. But we must tread carefully, echoing the thought of Isaiah 45:9: “Woe to him who strives with him who formed him, a pot among earthen pots! Does the clay say to him who forms it, ‘What are you making?’ or ‘Your work has no handles’?”
Stuart Townend and I believe the doctrine of propitiation plays a vital role in how we understand Christ’s saving work as explained in Scripture. Consequently, the language used throughout “In Christ Alone” is a natural expression of our theological view on this subject.
Hansen wants to make this controversy about doctrine, specifically the doctrine of propitiation. However, this controversy has little to do with the doctrine of propitiation. The real controversy is over how Evangelicals and liberal Christians read the Bible. This controversy shows very clearly the difference between how an Evangelical Christian reads the Bible and how a liberal Christian reads the Bible.
The Evangelical Christian rightly accepts and worships both the God of the Old Testament and the God of the New Testament. While this approach has all kinds of problems when it comes to harmonizing the two Testaments, it is an approach that does accept all sixty-six books of the Bible as authoritative.
It is impossible to read the Bible and not come away with the understanding that God is a God of wrath AND a God of love. While I find these two Gods incompatible with each other, they ARE both clearly found in the sixty-six books of the Bible.
I love my liberal Christian friends. I appreciate all they do in trying to make Christianity a kinder, gentler, more inclusive religion. I commend them for being good people who genuinely love others, regardless of who and what they are. But, I find their approach to the Bible and theology to be intellectually lacking and contradictory. I appreciate their intent and purpose, but I can not accept how they ignore, reinterpret, spiritualize, or explain away vast portions of the Bible. I would rather they say, this part of the Bible is wrong and I/We don’t believe it.
The Evangelical has a different problem to contend with. They have to somehow reconcile the God of wrath with the God of love. To them I say, good luck with that. I think the Bible is hopelessly filled with internal contradictions. All the hermeneutical gymnastics and systematic theologies in the world can’t put the Evangelical Humpty Dumpty theology back together again. The more Evangelical preachers and theologians “explain” the worse it becomes. Telling me that God is love while that God of love drowns millions of people in a flood seems incoherent to me. It is hard to square the God of love with the wrathful God’s mean, petty, vindictive, and genocidal behavior in the Old Testament.
I suspect both Evangelicals and liberal Christians wish the men who put the canon of Scripture together over 17 centuries ago would have left the Old Testament out of the canon. But, they didn’t…so let the internecine, they shall know we are Christians by our love, warfare continue.
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Bruce Gerencser spent 25 years pastoring Independent Fundamental Baptist, Southern Baptist, and Christian Union churches in Ohio, Michigan, and Texas. Bruce attended Midwestern Baptist College in Pontiac, Michigan. He is a writer and operates The Way Forward blog. Bruce lives in NW Ohio with his wife of 35 years. They have 6 children, and nine grandchildren.
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