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White Horse Inn: Conversational Theology

In Christ Alone’ Didn’t Make the Cut

Release date:

August 7, 2013

According to a recent Christianity Today online report, the worship song “In Christ Alone” didn’t make it in to the new Presbyterian Church USA hymnal.

Apparently, mention of God’s wrath being satisfied by Christ’s vicarious death was the sticking point.  The hymnal committee initially wanted to include the song, but asked authors Keith Getty and Stuart Townsend for permission to edit out the offending line.  Instead of “’Til on that cross as Jesus died/ the wrath of God was satisfied,” the committee wanted “’Till on that cross as Jesus died/ the love of God was magnified.”

Despite the fact that the new version still rhymed, the authors refused to grant permission.  Committee chair Mary Louise Bringle told The Christian Century that the “view that the cross is primarily about God’s need to assuage God’s anger” would communicate the wrong message to worshipers about the meaning of Christ’s death.

The CT report referred to its cover story in 2006 on how a growing number of evangelicals “believe Christ’s atoning death is merely a grotesque creation of the medieval imagination.”  According to critics, it relies on the theory of the 11th-century  theologian, Anselm, who argued that Christ’s death satisfied God’s offended dignity.

The good news is that “In Christ Alone” is widely sung—in its original form—and that the authors refused permission to edit out its heart.  Yet the best news of all is that we are “justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith” (Rom 3:24-25).  To propitiate is to make satisfaction, to appease.

It is true that the 11th-century theologian, Anselm, emphasized Christ’s death as the satisfaction of God’s offended dignity, reflecting a more feudal concept of a king’s majesty needing to be defended.  However, the Protestant Reformers grounded satisfaction in God’s justice, righteousness, and love.  This is precisely how Scripture describes it.

So it is wide of the mark even historically to suggest that the doctrine of Christ’s suffering in the place of sinners, bearing their guilt before the face of the holy God, is a legacy of the medieval imagination.  Not only is it evident in the word “propitiation” (Heb 2:17; 1 Jn 2:2; 4:10); it is evident in the numerous references in the Gospels and epistles to Christ’s death for/in place of sinners.  Furthermore, this meaning is obvious in the sacrificial system at the heart of the old covenant, of which Christ’s work is the fulfillment.

There are many other things that Scripture says about Christ’s death.  For example, he disarmed the powers of Satan, death, and hell and purchased immortality for his co-heirs, as we are told in Colossians 2:15.  In the sentence immediately before it, Paul explains that is true only because in Christ’s saving work he has “forgiven us all our trespasses, by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands.  This he set aside, nailing it to the cross” (vv 13-14).

A lot more can be said, but perhaps the most important point is this: If Christ’s death is not a propitiatory sacrifice—that is, if its purpose is not to turn away God’s wrath toward us by his own bearing of our guilt in his body on the cross—then Golgotha cannot be the place where “the love of God was magnified.”

The majority on the PCUSA hymnal committee apparently favor the subjective or moral theory of the atonement: Christ died on the cross to show us how much God loves us.  Surely this display would persuade us to repentance.  To illustrate this view, Leon Morris used the analogy of a person responding to a drowning friend by jumping into the river and drowning himself. The demonstration might express one’s love, but it doesn’t do anything to actually save the friend.

Strictly speaking, Christ’s death has no significance for God according to this view.  He loves and accepts people regardless of their guilt. God has no enemies.  We may need to be reconciled to God, but God does not need to be reconciled to us.  We simply need to be reminded how much God loves us.  Thus, the death of Christ could only serve as an object lesson.  And what a cruel one indeed!  After all, if Christ’s death was unnecessary for satisfying God’s righteous law, then it is the symbol of senseless slaughter.

The Apostle Paul says that “God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.  Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God” (Rom 5:8-9).  Christ’s death manifests God’s love for sinners only because it actually propitiates God’s wrath.  He took our place— fulfilling the law, bearing our sentence for violating his law—and thereby removed every legal basis for our condemnation.  It is this point that the committee voted to omit, and yet it is precisely what makes the cross the manifestation of God’s amazing love.

In other words, God’s love is manifested and magnified in Christ’s death only if it is more than a demonstration or object lesson.  Christ’s cross can be a demonstration of God’s love only because in it God reconciled enemies to himself forever.  “For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life” (Rom 5:10). Now that’s good news!