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‘In Christ alone’: the theology of God’s wrath in a popular modern hymn

by
16 August 2013

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From Mr Christopher Smith

Sir, - I was disappointed to read that the Presbyterian Committee on Congregational Song in the United States has rejected the wonderful hymn "In Christ alone" on the grounds that they would not be allowed to alter "Till on that cross as Jesus died The wrath of God was satisfied" ( News, 9 August).

There seems these days to be a sentimental approach when it comes to expressing the Christian faith - an approach that does not take account of either the holiness of God or the "total depravity" of mankind. Thus, the biblical doctrine of the atonement, which required the sacrifice of Jesus the Lamb of God, has been sidelined.

This, of course, is not new. Several hymns by Charles Wesley and others have been "sanitised" for similar reasons.

God does not ask us to feel comfortable about what happened at Calvary: he asks us to believe it. Choirs all over the world sing in Handel's Messiah "The Lord hath laid on him [Jesus] the iniquity of us all" (Isaiah 53.6). Our sin, and God's judgement of it, fell upon Jesus.

Bishop Tom Wright is quoted as referring to "John's and Paul's deep-rooted theology of the love of the triune God". Yes, that is included in their theology, but let it not be forgotten that it was God's love that placed Jesus on the cross, and the fact that the triune God offers this as the way of salvation makes it all the more remarkable. While it was God who required a sacrifice, it was the same God who provided that sacrifice.

It is a mistake to accept only one side of God's character. Besides writing of the love of God, John's theology also includes God's anger against sin (John 3.36). The same apostle also tells us (1 John 2.2) that Jesus is the propitiation (the satisfaction of God's righteous anger by way of sacrifice) for our sins.

Paul, too, is at pains to teach the whole counsel of God and not just bits of it. Besides telling us of God's generous love, he also speaks of God's wrath (Romans 1.18 and several other references in his epistles).

The wonder of the gospel is that Jesus bore all of that anger in our place. The seemingly conflicting ideas of God's just requirements and his self-giving love are brought together eloquently in Psalm 85.10: "Mercy and truth have met together; righteousness and peace have kissed." This sums up what happened on the cross.

By all means let us sing with all our might about God's love; but, at the same time, let us not draw back from expressing in our worship the fact that our salvation came at great cost, when Jesus paid the price for our sin on the altar of Calvary. To my mind, the original words of Stuart Townend's and Keith Getty's song bring these complementary truths together perfectly.

CHRISTOPHER SMITH
71 Barnham Road, Barnham
Bognor Regis
West Sussex PO22 0EP

From the Revd Stephen Southgate

Sir, - It was nine years ago that the stirring hymn "In Christ alone" was included in the final worship at our diocesan clergy conference, and I noticed that several of us stopped singing in the second verse.

A short time later, I was with a well-known speaker and hymn-writer, who was saying what a really nice guy Stuart Townend is. When I queried the lyric about God's wrath, he declared: "Och, that's just bad theology." There lies the problem: really nice Christians, faithfully reiterating really bad theology.

When St Anselm of Canterbury offered his analogy of what Jesus accomplished on the cross, he was the faithful subject of a brutal Norman overlord, whose honour had to be maintained for the fabric of society to remain intact; so his punitive theology seemed to make sense.

Selective proof-texts and a fundamental misreading of, for example, Hebrews can seem to support his view - except that it flies in the face of Jesus's core teaching about God's mercy and justice.

Tweaking bad theology for continued consumption is rather like picking broken glass out of an otherwise decent meal; so I wrote a complete alternative second verse (which a number of my colleagues have adopted).

The power of the cross does not have to cast God as a tyrant, nor his Son as a mere offering, even if the idea is deeply embedded in certain of our worship texts, ancient and modern; and we can celebrate the wonders of Christ alone all the better with his own theology in the proper context.

S. M. SOUTHGATE
The Vicarage, Grove Road
Mollington, Chester CH1 6LG

From the Revd Jonathan Frais

Sir, - You report that the new Presbyterian songbook rejects "In Christ alone" because the song suggests that "the cross is primarily about God's need to placate God's anger". Nevertheless, your readers might consider that this rejected view is anticipated by the Passover (the blood of the substitute lamb turns aside the angel of death, Exodus 12); accepted by Jesus (cup of punishment, Gethsemane); apostolic in teaching (propitiation, 1 John 2.2); Anglican in doctrine (satisfaction, BCP prayer of consecration); and allows sins to be forgiven (God in Christ reconciling us to himself; see The Cross of Christ by John Stott). Let's keep the gospel in our songs!

JONATHAN FRAIS

The Rectory, 11 Coverdale Avenue
Bexhill
East Sussex TN39 4TY

From Mr Richard Ashby

Sir, - So "In Christ alone" has been dropped from the forthcoming US Presbyterian hymn book because of the inclusion of the lines about the satisfaction of God's wrath. By and large, this is a hymn that Evangelicals of a certain stripe sing, and it doesn't appear in the mainstream hymn books of the Church of England. How many of us, though, realise that the same pernicious doctrine is being propounded in these verses?

He died that we might be forgiven.
He died to make us good;

or

There was no other good enough
To pay the price of sin.

This favourite hymn is sung by everyone and everywhere. I see that the 1933 edition of The English Hymnal asterisked these two verses as optional, although that was not repeated either in the 1950 Hymns Ancient and Modern Revised or in The New English Hymnal.

The Church has never settled on one meaning and definition of the "atonement", very wisely, but this definition creeps in via our hymnody and we need to be aware of it.

Should we stop singing "There is a green hill far away"? I don't really think so; but we ought to be aware of what we are singing, and realise that, while hymns may well contain truths, they are not the truth.

RICHARD ASHBY
11 Jubilee Mews
Prinsted
Emsworth PO10 8EA

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