Back in 2013, the Presbyterian Church (USA) stirred up no small debate when they decided to excluded the contemporary hymn “In Christ Alone” from their new hymnal. This action was taken because the hymn’s authors, Stuart Townend and Keith Getty, refused to allow the Presbyterian Committee on Congregational Song to change its lyrics for the hymnal. The verse in question goes, “Till on that cross, as Jesus died, the wrath of God was satisfied.” The committee had some concerns with the latter half of the verse and wanted to substitute that with “the love of God was magnified.” When news of that spread, conservative critics were quick to paint the committee as theological liberals who wanted “to take God’s wrath out of the hymnal.” At that time, I was led to concur, since the Presbyterian Church (USA) is considered a more liberal mainline denomination in America. However, I have since realized that there are good reasons for wanting the change, and the construal of the critics then was simply unfortunate.
This issue has nothing to do with a liberal aversion toward divine wrath. Rather, it concerns the theology of atonement and the character of God. If God required the violent death of an innocent man to satisfy his wrath on humanity as the lyrics suggest, then what does it tell us about him? That violence and wrath are located in the heart of God? Clearly, we know the answer is no. “God is light and in him there is no darkness at all” (1 Jn 1.5). God is good, and what is not-good, like violence and wrath, cannot be his essential attributes. However, what the lyrics are trying to convey is a concept of substitutionary atonement (SA). which is a particular explanation of how the work of Jesus Christ has reconciled humanity to God. In a nutshell, SA is the idea that Jesus Christ in his perfect obedience accepts the penalty of sin on the cross, and in doing so made satisfaction to God on behalf of sinners.
The problem here is not with SA itself but how the lyrics represent a popular notion of SA that is rather extreme and theologically suspect. This is not the SA that has been traditionally conceived by theologians. The New Testament scholar Tom Wright expressed his frustration with this in an interview, “To hear some people talk about the Gospel, you’d think that John 3.16 would have said ‘For God so hated the world that he killed his only son.’ It doesn’t.” Wright was referring to Christians taking the language (and logic) of SA so far that it makes God out to be so angry with sinners that his anger was only satiated when he expended it on Jesus Christ. Some Christians would even claim that Jesus Christ became sin itself, or worse, a sinner on the cross (which is a misunderstanding of 2 Cor. 5.21), and that God punished him and had him suffer eternal abandonment (again, a misunderstanding of Mt. 27.46)—the very punishment sinful humans deserve. Such retributive punishment is so that God’s wrath may be fully satisfied and that Jesus Christ’s righteousness may be fully imputed to us.
It may surprise us then, that such problematic language was shunned by most theologians writing about atonement in the past, from St Athanasius, to St Anselm, to John Calvin. In fact, they would have been scandalised by the impiety of such language: How could the perfect Son of God become sin itself (or a sinner)? How could God have punished his Son! Can the Trinity rend itself?
Although the Reformer John Calvin accepts that Jesus Christ took on “the penalty due sins that we would have had to pay,” not once does he refer to his suffering and death as God’s punishment of him. God does not punish his Son to satiate his wrath:
We do not admit that God was ever hostile to him, or angry with him. For how could he be angry with his beloved Son, ‘in whom his soul delighted?’ or how could Christ, by his intercession, appease the Father for others, if the Father were incensed against him?”
This is a fundamental understanding for most of church history. The danger of the language in “In Christ Alone” is that it makes it seem the loving Son is saving the world from the angry Father, thereby disrupting the Trinity. According to theologian Carl Mosser, Calvin is careful to hold that “Satisfaction is something the Son of God does in our place which the Father mercifully accepts, it is not something the Father does to the Son.” Which means the death of the Son was not retributive justice exacted by the Father from him. Elsewhere Calvin writes,
How has Christ abolished sin, banished the separation between us and God, and acquired righteousness to render God favorable and kindly toward us? To this we can in general reply that he has achieved this for us by the whole course of his obedience.
For him, the atonement is not about the Father punishing the Son to satiate his wrath. On the contrary, it is the active obedience of the Son to the cross that satisfied the justice of the Father. The Father and the Son are of one will in the redemption of the world, with the latter giving himself up in perfect love to the former for the sake of the world.
Furthermore, the concept of satisfaction does not require God’s justice to be satisfied only when the Son was punished in the way us sinners would have been (in a one-for-one kind of transaction). This is to misunderstand the concept of satisfaction. Here, Mosser helpfully clarifies what is meant by satisfaction in theology:
Satisfaction is a work of justice that obviates the need to exercise justice. The goal of satisfaction is to see justice restored in a way that gives the wronged party grounds to forgo anger, vengeance, or retribution and instead relate to the wrongdoer propitiously. … The focus of satisfaction is external to the wrongdoer but the process nonetheless helps him or her grow in virtue and mature as a responsible member of the moral community.
Permit this analogy: imagine a situation in which your sibling out of sheer playfulness broke your mother’s beloved vase. Although your mother loves your sibling, she needs to punish her to teach her the consequences of bad behaviour. She intends to cut her pocket money until the vase is paid for. Out of love, you painstakingly glue the pieces of vase together, present the repaired vase to your mother, then beg her not to punish your sibling. Moved by your act of love and sacrifice, she accepts your request and forgives your sibling. Notice that it is not the case of your mother taking out her anger on you instead of your sibling—that is child abuse. Also, you did not need to be punished in the way your mother would have liked to punish your sibling before she decided to forgive her. She was simply satisfied by your act of love.
Limitations of analogy notwithstanding, this was generally how the work of satisfaction was understood. Although Reformers, like Calvin, thought in juridical/penal terms and believed Jesus Christ needed to bear “the penalty due sins that we would have had to pay,” such a penal substitution concept was not a necessary feature of satisfaction. God was not so much satisfied by the suffering and death of Jesus Christ as his active obedience to the cross (despite suffering and death).
Furthermore, the language of satisfying wrath tends to makes us think of God as a person whose feelings of anger need appeasement. That we often think of “wrath” as a negative emotion does not help with the right understanding of divine wrath. The wrath of God expressed by biblical authors is nothing like human anger. God’s wrath is less an emotion and more an attitude. It is his opposition toward all that is morally repugnant in the world. To understand God’s wrath, one must first understand God’s love. In Jesus Christ, we know that God is love, and the fundamental disposition of God toward his creatures is love. After some years spent with his Lord Jesus Christ, St John simply and clearly asserts in his Gospel, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son…” Jesus Christ “is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being” (Heb. 1.3). What we can know of God, we see it most definitively in his Son, and beholding his outstretched arms on the cross, we see nothing less than God’s love extended to all sinners.
Divine wrath is experienced on the side of creatures only as a result of divine love. To reconcile the world to himself, a God of love cannot but deal with the evil of his creatures. When he encounters human evil in the world he intervenes for the sake of love. This is the justice of God. Yet, he has to do so within the limitations of a corrupt world. As he relates to his sinful creatures and works redemption, some kind of “redemptive violence” is inescapable. For example, we often restrain and incarcerate those who commit evil for the good of the larger society. It would not do society any good if evil is allowed to be committed with impunity. Love necessitates violence in the restraint of evil. Where there is evil, divine love is experienced as “wrath.” It is most unfortunate then that the language of God’s wrath being satisfied in “In Christ Alone” brings up notions of an angry God needing appeasement.
The hymn “In Christ Alone” holds a unique place in my heart, since it was one of the first hymns I learnt when I became a Christian. I believe it is also a song beloved by many other Christians since it expresses divine grace so beautifully and evocatively. As dear as some songs may be to our hearts, we have to remember that they are not always theologically perfect. All Christians are on a journey to “comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that [we] may be filled with all the fullness of God” (Eph. 3.18-19). While we may still sing the song, we need to remember that those lyrics in question should not be taken too literally. We also need to be cautious with the language we use in worship and be judicious in the employment of figurative and metaphorical language from the Bible lest they mislead us theologically.