Presbyterians, Hymnody, And Substitutionary Atonement

Since my post yesterday was all about hymns, I thought I’d continue the trend today.

Only today I want to focus in on a new hymn that is suddenly sitting in a seat of controversy:  In Christ Alone.  Now: “In Christ Alone” is really a glorious piece of music that bridges the gap between traditional and contemporary styles and contains some of the most powerful, provocative lyrics Christians have sung anywhere, anytime:

Yet the Presbyterian Church USA recently decided to exclude the song from its new hymnal.

Why?  Because it contains this line:  “And on that cross, where Jesus died, the wrath of God was satisfied.” 

The hymnal committee wanted to edit the line to say:  “And on that cross, where Jesus died, the love of God was magnified.”  They then approached the hymn’s authors, Stuart Townend and Keith Getty, for permission to change the lyrics.  The songwriters refused . . . and the hymn was dropped.

You can read all about it here.

What’s the story behind the story?  For sure, there is some mainline discomfort with the notion of the “wrath” of God.

But more specifically, the theological debate centers around the doctrine of substitutionary atonement.  Did Jesus die as our substitute on the cross?  Did he experience what we deserve?  Did he endure in his body the wrath of God and the abandonment by God that our sins merit?  And because Jesus absorbed all that do we then have a place in eternity because the punishment for our sin has been atoned?

Since the time of the Reformation, Protestants have typically answered “yes” to all those questions.  Some with more enthusiasm than others, but still . . . most have said “yes.”

These days, however, theologians on the left and even on the right have come to regard substitutionary atonement as both simplistic and antiquated.  The meaning of the cross, they say, cannot be condensed into a single concept.  And if you do insist on a singular interpretation of the cross, you can do better than substitutionary atonement. 

Methoblogger Morgan Guyton has written at length on the subject here.

So: what to make of it all?

I think Scripture weighs in heavily that Jesus did in fact suffer in our place and that he did in fact bear God’s wrath for human sin.  Here are a few places in the biblical library:

God presented Christ as a sacrifice of atonement through the shedding of his blood — to be received by faith . . . Romans 3:25

God made him who knew no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.  2 Corinthians 5:21

Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us, for it is written, ‘cursed is everyone who hangs on a pole.’  Galatians 3:13

How much more, then, will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself unblemished to God, cleanse our consciences from acts that lead to death, so that we may serve the living God!  Hebrews 9:14

As Tim Tennent puts it:  Jesus taking our place is one of the most powerful truths of the Christian faith and the cross of Christ.  The formal name for it is the substitutionary atonement.

So:  double kudos for Stuart Townend and Keith Getty.  One for writing In Christ Alone in the first place and another for maintaining its integrity.