The other week I mentioned my bad experience with Christian music, so I’m glad to publicly thank the Gettys who recently stood by their inspirational song—and soundtrack to the best response to Love Wins that I’ve ever read—“In Christ Alone.”
As you may have heard, the PCUSA asked them to change the line about Jesus bearing the Father’s wrath. The line that bothers me just a little is the one that says, “Till he returns, or calls us home.” I think that can be sung correctly, though I suspect that many think that means their everlasting home is somewhere else than planet Earth. I believe we must do all we can to fight the scourge of residual Platonism in our churches, so my altered hymnal would read, “Till he returns, and restores our home.” But even without the fix I’ll still joyfully sing the song, and hum that line.
The PCUSA new hymnal committee (not their official name) asked the Gettys to change the line, “Till on that cross, as Jesus died, the wrath of God was satisfied,” to “Till on the that cross, as Jesus died, the love of God was magnified.” Some online commenters have wondered what the Gettys have against the love of God. Isn’t that a beautiful replacement?
It is a good line, one that I would gladly sing, except that movement matters. If the previous line was, “Till on that cross, as Jesus died, an example was given, that we abide,” I’d change it to the new one in a minute. But the change here is to explicitly deny that God has wrath for our sin. And if we deny that, the cross makes no sense.
The committee said that the offending line in “In Christ Alone” means “the cross is primarily about God’s need to assuage God’s anger.” I’m not sure what they mean by “primarily,” as the cross was equally about defeating sin, death, and Satan (Hebrews 2:14-15). But here’s the thing, penal substitution is precisely the way the cross did these things, so if we deny that Jesus was bearing the Father’s wrath, there is no way to explain how Jesus defeated sin, death, or Satan.
Read these two examples, one from a 19th century Unitarian and the other a 20th century Baptist. Both deny penal substitution, and both admit they can’t explain how Jesus’ death saves us.
1. William E. Channing, “Unitarian Christianity,” in The Works of William E. Channing (1882; reprint, New York: Burt Franklin, 1970), 378: “We have no desire to conceal the fact that a difference of opinion exists among us in regard to an interesting part of Christ’s mediation,–I mean, in regard to the precise influence of his death on our forgiveness. …Many of us…think that the Scriptures ascribe the remission of sins to Christ’s death with an emphasis so peculiar that we ought to consider this event as having a special influence in removing punishment, though the Scriptures may not reveal the way in which it contributes to this end.”
2. Greg Boyd, “Christus Victor View,” in The Nature of the Atonement, ed. James Beilby and Paul R. Eddy (InterVarsity, 2006), 37: “Obviously, this account leaves unanswered a number of questions we might like answered. E.g., precisely how did Calvary and the resurrection defeat the powers? In my estimation, the ancient Christus Victor models of the atonement…became incredulous precisely because they too vigorously pressed for details. …But at the end of the day we must humbly acknowledge that our understanding is severely limited.”
If taking away the wrath of God means you can’t make sense of what happened on the cross, then maybe you took away something important. Put it back, or you’ll have the Father sacrificing his Son for no apparent reason. Which ironically, would be a genuine case of divine child abuse.