When you are in church singing a hymn or contemporary worship song, how often do you think about what the words mean? Music is a powerful vehicle for expressing praise to God, no matter what the style or genre is. But it is the lyrics in the song that have the greatest importance.
Perhaps one of most illuminating controversies in 2013 was over one particular contemporary hymn, In Christ Alone, written by Stuart Townend and Keith Getty. Several years ago, a Baptist group put out a hymnal, Celebrating Grace, including the song by Townend and Getty. The Baptist hymnal read verse 2 like this:
In Christ alone who took on flesh
Fulness of God in helpless babe
This gift of love and righteous-ness
Scorned by the ones He came to save
Till on the cross as Jesus died
The love of God was magnified
For every sin on Him was laid
Here in the death of Christ I live
In early 2013, the hymnal revision committee of the Presbyterian Church U.S.A (PCUSA), the largest mainline Presbyterian denomination in America, liked this version and asked the original songwriters if they could put the song in their new hymnal. Unfortunately, there was a “small” problem. It appears that the Baptist group had altered verse two (note the line in bold above), and they had failed to tell Townend and Getty about the modification. The original version was actually this:
Till on the cross as Jesus died
The wrath of God was satisfied
The songwriters would grant permission to the Presbyterians to use the song so long as they would keep the original wording. The Presbyterian hymnal committee refused the songwriters’ conditions and therefore dropped the song from the new hymnal.
You will not be singing In Christ Alone from any PCUSA hymnal anytime soon.
But for you Presbyterian “rebels” out there who “can’t get no satisfaction”, you can clandestinely sing along with it here (I promise not to tell your pastor) 😉
(SIDE NOTE: Kristyn Getty, married to Keith Getty, the songwriter, is a niece to Irish/British apologist John Lennox who teaches at Oxford).
So what’s the big deal? Brewing in our churches today is a theological controversy regarding the nature of the atonement: When Jesus died on the cross for our sins, what was that all about? What did Jesus accomplish?
Getting Satisfaction Through Christ’s Atonement?
The word “atonement”, according to Merriam-Webster, can mean either “reconciliation” or “reparation for an offense or injury”. Jesus’ death, according to the Bible, heals the breach caused by human sin as an act of God’s love towards humanity. So, to say that “the love of God was magnified” is certainly something every Christian would surely affirm. The Baptist hymnal group and the Presbyterians following them got that right. The death of Jesus does show us how much God loves us. But is that the full story?
Townend and Getty say that there was more to Christ’s atonement. Not only did the death of Jesus display God’s love, through it also “the wrath of God was satisfied”. But in what sense was the “wrath of God satisfied”?
The notion of satisfaction it is a term that some people find bothersome, as evident in some Bible translations. Some complain that the traditional idea of satisfaction suggests that God has an anger management problem, implying that the death of Christ somehow assuages God’s infuriation, making the God of the Bible out to be a whole lot like some barbaric pagan deity.
Others object to this negative description of satisfaction with respect to the atonement, saying that this satisfaction has more to do with God making things right through his mercy and grace, satisfying the moral demands for justice, and thereby clearing the way for sinful humanity to enter into God’s Holy presence. Holding to this view of the atonement, therefore, remains essential to upholding the Truthfulness of the Gospel.
In theological jargon, the idea of the wrath of God being satisfied is the hallmark of the theory of penal substitutionary atonement, as articulated most profoundly by the 12th century thinker, Anselm of Canterbury. According to Anselm and the bulk of evangelical theology over the years, Jesus pays the penalty for our sin by dying for us in our place on the cross. Some say that Anselm’s insights rightly explain the meaning of Christ’s death, while others argue that Anselm introduced an unnecessary innovation that complicates our understanding of Christ’s death.
The theological controversy regarding the atonement deserves greater attention, and it is something I hope we can look at more here on Veracity in the future. But for now, let me just say that I think that the Presbyterian hymnal committee’s decision to reject In Christ Alone is a tragic one. Granted, the idea of “satisfaction” can be easily taken down the wrong road, as some have done to the terrible detriment of the Gospel (I have a story to share about that!). But to go the other way and delete the use of “satisfaction” completely from the language of congregational worship is a wrong-headed thing to do.
We need to think about what we sing and why it might be important to work through in our minds and hearts what the words of our hymns and songs are really getting at.
When Jesus died on the Cross, what was it that He really did for us? The answer to that question gets to the heart of what we are doing when Christians gather for worship.
The Gospel Coalition has an interview with Stuart Townend regarding the In Christ Alone controversy.
Still wondering about penal substitutionary atonement? Here is theologian Sinclair Ferguson to help you out, in understanding why penal substitution is so important: