I Can’t Get No Satisfaction… In Christ Alone?

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.

Can you hear Mick Jagger crooning about that? (Hampton Coliseum, 1981)

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.

Additional Resources:

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:

About Clarke Morledge

Clarke Morledge -- Computer Network Engineer, College of William and Mary... I hiked the Mount of the Holy Cross, one of the famous Colorado Fourteeners, with some friends in July, 2012. My buddy, Mike Scott, snapped this photo of me on the summit. View all posts by Clarke Morledge

4 responses to “I Can’t Get No Satisfaction… In Christ Alone?

  • John Paine

    Thanks Clarke for another well-researched and well-written post. You would think Mick Jagger and Keith Richards would wear shirts–Hampton is not that hot.

    Time to start a ‘music’ taxonomic category I should think. 😉

    Seriously, some hairs are worth splitting. It seems like an attempt by a committee trying to sell a product running into a couple of musicians who meant and believed what they wrote.

    Sorry to be lagging on the catalog updates to our Kaqexes page–my computer got fried, and I have spent two days trying to get it operational again. I thought that new Windows 8 ‘wait’ icon was pretty cool, but now that we’ve been in a staredown for most of two days it has lost its charm.


  • dwwork

    Clark, great post and explanation. I love this song and think it a shame that some felt a need to change the wording. David


  • Clarke Morledge

    Just in case someone shouts me out on this, I was recently made aware that Mark Driscoll, in the video I refer to in the blog post, has himself come under fire for not properly citing the work of others in a recent book he published. The full story is a bit involved, but I find that Andy Crouch at ChristianityToday has a good handle on what happened:


    I am aware that Mark Driscoll is for some a controversial figure, but I find that his teaching videos can be effective communication tools. You do not have to agree with Mark Driscoll on everything to appreciate at least some of the things he has to say.

    If anyone was wondering, that really is Mark Driscoll in the video and not me pretending to be Mark Driscoll 😉


    • John Paine

      Thanks for the follow-up and link back to the Christianity Today post. ‘Team’ writing, teaching, and preaching can be a really great undertaking, but ‘ghost’ writing, interviewing, and preaching is frought with integrity issues.

      I think Andy Stanley does the team teaching thing very well, making it clear that his sermons and series are carefully planned by a team of trusted advisors. The end product is much greater and more effective than what Andy Stanley could produce all by himself (talented as he is). But imagine the consequences if his team was kept under wraps, and people were led to believe that what they were hearing was original only to Andy Stanley. Sooner or later such a house of cards would come crashing down.

      Granted, there are some fine and fuzzy lines to be addressed when celebrity authors have their names prominently pasted on some work or text to which their input was less than the full text. Putting a big name on the cover will certainly sell more books, but ultimately this issue did make God’s top ten list.

      I don’t think we should pick on big-name writers who give everything they’ve got for Kingdom work–they’re doing all they can, and more. But that’s the sad part.


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