NASHVILLE, Tenn. (RNS) Fans of a beloved contemporary Christian hymn won’t get any satisfaction in a new church hymnal.

The committee putting together a new hymnal for the Presbyterian Church (USA) dropped the popular hymn “In Christ Alone” because the song’s authors refused to change a phrase about the wrath of God.

The original lyrics say that “on that cross, as Jesus died, the wrath of God was satisfied.” The Presbyterian Committee on Congregational Song wanted to substitute the words, “the love of God was magnified.”

Most songwriters in Nashville want to get their songs on the radio. Keith and Kristyn Getty hope their songs end up in dusty old hymnbooks. Photo courtesy Getty Music

Songwriter Keith Getty, shown with his wife Kristyn, is the co-author of “In Christ Alone,” a hymn dropped from a Presbyterian hymnal because he and another co-author objected to proposed changes in its wording. Photo courtesy Getty Music


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The song’s authors, Stuart Townend and Nashville resident Keith Getty, objected. So the committee voted to drop the song.

Critics say the proposed change was sparked by liberals wanting to take God’s wrath out of the hymnal. The committee says there’s plenty of wrath in the new hymnal.

Instead, the problem is the word “satisfied,” which the committee says refers to a specific view of theology that it rejects.

Debate over “In Christ Alone” is a mix of church politics, the touchy subject of updating hymn lyrics and rival views of what Jesus’ death on the cross meant.

The decision to drop the hymn wasn’t made lightly, said Mary Louise Bringle, a religion professor and hymnwriter who chaired the hymnal committee. It was complicated by a foul-up with the rights for the song.

Committee members had found a version of the hymn with the alternate text in the Celebrating Grace Hymnal, a Baptist hymnal published in 2010. They assumed the songwriters already had agreed to the change.

“We had every reason to think that this was an authorized text because it appeared in a recent hymnal,” Bringle said.

When it asked for permission to use the song, the committee learned that the song’s authors hadn’t approved the change.

Capitol CMG Publishing, which manages rights for “In Christ Alone,” said it is working with the hymnal’s publisher to fix the problem. Neither Getty nor the Celebrating Grace publisher was available for comment.

“We respect our songwriters and the integrity of their lyrics, and the intent of our request was to ensure the song retains the original lyrics as written by Keith Getty and Stuart Townend,” Capitol said in a prepared statement.

“Celebrating Grace Inc. is cooperating fully and is taking steps to make the correction in all distributed copies of the song, including the Celebrating Grace Hymnal.”

That left the committee in a bind, Bringle said. The Presbyterians’ new Glory to God hymnal, due out this fall, includes songs such as “O Sacred Head Now Wounded,” which talk about substitutionary atonement — the idea that Jesus took the place of sinners on the cross. It also includes songs about God’s wrath.

“People think that we’ve taken the wrath of God out of the hymnal,” Bringle said. “That’s not the case. It’s all over the hymnal. The issue was the word ‘satisfied.’”

That term was used by the medieval theologian Anselm, who argued that sins offended God’s honor, and someone had to die in order to satisfy his honor.

The 15-member committee rejected Anselm’s view and voted 9-6 to drop the hymn.

The Rev. Chris Joiner of First Presbyterian Church in Franklin, Tenn., agrees with that move. He said some of his church members are fans of the song and will be disappointed that it was dropped. But the words of the song don’t work, he said.

“That lyric comes close to saying that God killed Jesus,” he said. “The cross is not an instrument of God’s wrath.”

But the Rev. Scott Sauls, pastor of Christ Presbyterian Church in Nashville, disagrees. He said the word “satisfied” means that Jesus paid the whole price for sins.

“There’s no more work to be done,” said Sauls, whose congregation is part of the more conservative Presbyterian Church in America. “It is finished.”

Word about “In Christ Alone” being dropped spread slowly. Bringle wrote about it in the May issue of The Christian Century magazine, but it got little attention until it captured the attention of the blogosphere.

Timothy George, dean of Beeson Divinity School in Birmingham, Ala., criticized the committee in an online column called “No Squishy Love” at the conservative journal First Things.

George said he worries that the committee dropped the song because the idea of God’s wrath has become unpopular.

“I don’t see this as an isolated case,” he said in a phone interview. “It fits into a wider pattern of downplaying parts of Christian doctrine that are offensive.”

Other conservative bloggers such as David French of Columbia, Tenn., also criticized the committee, seeing its ruling as a sign that the committee was abandoning Christian doctrine. On Aug. 1, the committee issued a public statement defending its decision.

Bringle said the controversy proves that hymns still matter. People care about them and get upset if someone tries to change a song they love.

Mike Harland agrees.

Harland is the director of LifeWay Worship, the music department of the Nashville-based publisher affiliated with the Southern Baptists. He said he admires the Presbyterians for paying close attention to the lyrics of hymns because songs make emotional and intellectual connections with worshippers.

So the words in a hymnal matter.

“The faith of current generations and future generations is shaped by what we say and what we sing,” he said. “That’s why you stress over every word.”

(Bob Smietana writes for USA Today and the Tennessean in Nashville, Tenn.)

15 Comments

    • A note from the pastor of my senior ministry fellow’s parent’s church in Indy:
      Tom Macy
      Thoughts on the Bible, culture, and current events
      The Wrath of God was Satisfied
      By Tom Macy on Aug 14, 2013 12:28 pm
      Eliminated from contention for a place in the new Presbyterian Church (USA) hymnal is the contemporary Keith Getty/Stuart Townend hymn, “In Christ Alone.” Why is such an overwhelmingly popular hymn disqualified?
      The Committee on Congregational Songs proposed to Getty and Townend that the words in verse 2, “Till on the cross as Jesus died, The wrath of God was satisfied,” be amended, deleting ”the wrath of God was satisfied” and replacing it with “the love of God was magnified.” The hymnwriters rejected the proposed change, thus “In Christ Alone” will not be in the new hymnal.
      What’s the big deal? Isn’t it wonderful and true that God’s love was magnified when Jesus died on the cross? Yes, Powerfully true! Why then are Getty and Townend so entrenched in opposition to the change?
      While it is true that God’s love was magnified through the dying of Jesus on the cross, that is not what is at stake here. By attempting to remove the words, “the wrath of God was satisified,” the committee has actually denied the Gospel and not magnified, but tragically dimmed the love of God into nothing more than emotional and exemplary niceness that won’t save anyone.
      Getty and Townend are committed to what they call “the whole Gospel.” The very heart of the Gospel is the Substitutionary Atonement. This means that Jesus, as he suffered on the cross, took our place under God’s judgment and took the punishment that we deserve. In fact, Jesus took our sins upon Himself and was punished in our place, our substitute. Thus, “the wrath of God [against us sinners] was satisfied.”
      “psalms, hymns and spiritual songs” (Ephesians 5:19 NIV) not only give voice and vent to our emotions in worship, but teach and confirm good theology, the truth of the Gospel, increasing our understanding and enhancing our worship. Praise God for many contemporary hymn writers, led by Getty and Townend, who are committed to the Gospel without compromisee and know that “the wrath of God was satisifed” is the most powerful expression of love ever.
      For an excellent book that will help you better understand the importance of God’s wrath and why it can’t be ignored, I highly recommend The Holiness of God by R C Sproul.

      • Linda LaPlante

        John 3:16 For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. 17 For God did not send his Son into the world to CONDEM the world, but to save the world through him. 18 Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son. * I believe that this is basic belief 101 these verses explain that God’s ANGER/ WRATH is not Satisfied, because he did not send Christ to CONDEM the world. To satisfy anger is not God, but to turn away from anger. Ezekiel 25:17 I will execute great vengeance on them with wrathful rebukes. Then they will know that I am the Lord, when I lay my vengeance upon them.” Hebrews 9: 22 “Indeed, under the law almost everything is purified with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins.” This isn’t anger, it’s a fullfillment of the necessity for the forgiveness of sins per the Old Testament laws which Christ came to fullfill.

  1. I say accept the hymn as originally written for it rightly draws attention to the settled anger our loving God has towards sin and to the seriousness of our sins. God’s wrath is turned away by the death of Christ as a propitiation for our sins.
    We sing it at our church and the Vicar (me) is quite happy with it! Sure, it might have echoes of some idea Anselm had about satisfaction but in the end it expresses an aspect of the seriousness of the death of Christ in dealing with God’s settled anger. If you want a great discussion of the issues get and read Leon Morris ‘The Apostolic Preaching of the Cross’. In a year a biographical life of Leon Morris will appear -in it I treat this matter further.
    Melbourne Australia, August 7th 2013

  2. I am always fascinated by the comments by “Reverends”. God is no respecter of persons (titles). Let him that boasts, boast in the Lord. Paul said he could boast about being a Pharisee (Reverend- one who is to be revered) but he counts that all as lost for Christ.

    I would be afraid of claiming a title that commands people to “Revere” me, when I go to the Bema seat. To be before the King of kings and have to explain that moniker. Terrifying.

  3. Rev Dr Stephen Wayles

    The committee made the right decision. Anselm’s “Satisfaction Theory” of Jesus death to appease God’s anger and satisfy God’s honor is not just offensive, it is an incorrect interpretation of Scripture. We would be judging Anselm more harshly today IF he had not utilized all the interpretive scriptural tools at his disposal in HIS day. And future generations will certainly do the same for us. Those of us on the Calvin side of the protestant equation have a peculiar responsibility for utilizing (as he did) the very best tools at hand.
    Anselm didn’t realize he was turning a biblical metaphor into a theological requirement. Nor could he have imagined that his “sermon illustration” of “satisfaction” would be one day interpreted as THE doctrine of the atonement. The “honor” of kings and nobles in Anselm’s day was like the “honor” of the Mafia in ours. Disrespecting the king’s dignity (like dishonoring the Mafia Don” earned death. That was applied to God by Anselm to God’s dignity. Jesus instead (as God with us) offers himself and commands Peter to put aside his sword. No retribution. He teaches us God’s way with enemies is to love them – our job, created in that image, is to love our enemies as well. (including those on the hymnal committee. A Conference Minister once called called me and asked: “How do you feel about being a pin-cushion for Jesus?” “What?”I asked confusedly. “Would you be willing to serve on the Hymnal Committee.”While it is yet one more denomination of Calvin’s fractured descendants and heirs – the issues don’t vary that much. I will say that the next generation Teens and Twenties have no use for the monster God who murders his son so I can go to heaven. In fact they are pretty impatient with the false emphasis on salvation as what happens to ME when I die. Jesus came preaching God’s realm on earth. And he announced what salvation was in his first Sermon (quoting and fulfilling Isaiah). And they tried to throw him over the cliff. Sounds like that’s what many of my Presbyterian cousins want to do to the hymnal committee! I’m now retired – and at 20 years it’s almost time for my denomination to do another hymnal including all the Biblical Scholarship of the last 20 years (possibly a 50% increase in overall research!!) I wonder who will be willing to be the Pin-Cushions for Jesus this time around?

    • STOP SAYING THAT IT FOLLOWS THAT GUY’S THEOLOGY!!!

      Seriously. Because it uses a word that the guy used does not mean it fits his theology. By claiming it does, you are putting words into the songwriter’s mouth and thus lying.

      The guy says nothing about God having honor that needs to be satisfied. He said that Jesus’s death satisfied God’s wrath. This is true and is basic Christian theology. Due to Jesus’s sacrifice, God is no longer angry with us over our sin. His wrath is satisfied.

      Stop claiming that the line says something it does not, or, you know, offer an alternative that fixes your “problem” that doesn’t completely destroy the meaning of the lyrics. The meaning is that Jesus paid the price for our sins and thus turned away God’s wrath against us for our sin.

      I am glad I am not a member of your church, and I never can be as long as find out that the clergy actually believe that a single word indicates an entire theology. You do not have the righteous judgment of God, and I would fear that following you would lead me into sin.

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