The Wrath of God, the Death of Jesus, and the Alabama Baptist

The Wrath of God, the Death of Jesus, and the Alabama Baptist August 9, 2013

On the second page of every issue of The Alabama Baptist newspaper is an opinion piece written by the editor Bob Terry.  In his piece on August 8 entitled “Why Disagree About the Words of a Hymn?,” Terry stakes out a concerning theological position that is not only outside of the bounds of what it means to be a Baptist, but it is also outside of what it means to be an evangelical Christian.

Here’s the background, in recent weeks it has come to light that the PCUSA has rejected the modern hymn “In Christ Alone” from their hymnal.  They did so because they objected to the line “And on that cross as Jesus died, the wrath of God was satisfied.”  He refers to what has ensued as a “theological dust up,” but it is really a discussion about the heart of the Christian Gospel.

After giving the background of the controversy, Terry makes the following statement in which he appears to deny the historic Christian understanding of the atonement.

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.”

This is an explicit rejection of what theologians have called Penal Substitutionary Atonement.  Rather than being some kind of theological nitpicking, this is heart of the Gospel.  We understand that Jesus gave his life as a substitute for us, bearing the wrath of God for our sins against him.  As Paul argues in Romans 3, this upholds God’s just character and allows sinners to be forgiven.  This does not make God look like an “ogre,” it shows that he is a loving Father who provides full redemption for his people.  To paint this is as a “good cop/ bap cop routine” is to vilify this view in the worst possible way.

This is first of all a biblical understanding of the atonement.  In Isaiah 53, in foretelling the suffering of the Servant Jesus, we read “Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned—every one—to his own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.”  Isaiah then says further, “Yet it was the will of the Lord to crush him; he has put him to grief.”  In this, Isaiah demonstrates that the Suffering Servant will offer himself as an offering who will absorb the wrath of God for our sins.  Add to this Paul’s teaching on the atonement in Romans 3:21-26 and Ephesians 5:2.  Frankly, this teaching is so pervasive in the Bible that it would be nearly impossible to cover all of the relevant texts.

Not only is this biblical, it is the Baptist understanding of the atonement.  The Baptist Faith and Message 2000 confesses that Jesus  “honored the divine law by His personal obedience, and in His substitutionary death on the cross He made provision for the redemption of men from sin.”  The Calvinism Advisory Committee, made up of people from across theological perspectives in Baptist life, confessed together, “We affirm that the death of Jesus Christ on the cross was both penal and substitutionary and that the atonement He accomplished was sufficient for the sins of the entire world.”

Dr. Terry’s editorial places him significantly outside of the Bible’s teaching and outside of the Baptist understanding of the atonement.  He is concerned that Penal Substitution paints God as an “ogre,” but it actually shows God loves his people and satisfies his own just demands by the sacrifice of his Son.  I would ask Dr. Terry, “If Jesus did not appease the wrath of God for our sins on the cross, what did he accomplish there?  And if his death did not appease the wrath of God, are we still under God’s wrath?  Further, if Jesus did not appease the wrath of God on the cross and we are not under God’s wrath, then why would Jesus die at all?  Would Jesus’ death not have been unnecessary and wouldn’t that actually make God out to be cruel?”

We need to hear further explanation from Dr. Terry about this.  We also need to hear from the Trustees of The Alabama Baptist who are tasked with it’s oversight on behalf of Alabama Baptist churches.  This is a serious issue.  It does not need to be swept under the rug and it needs to be addressed publicly.

(Update: Dr. Terry has published a clarification here. He says that he affirms penal substitution, but it is what he does not say that I still find troubling.  He does not mention the wrath of God in his explanation of the atonement.  That is troubling.)

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