(RNS) The dispute over dropping a beloved Christian song from a new Presbyterian hymnal has widened into a multi-denominational tussle, with Baptists joining the fray.

At issue are various Christian doctrines of the atonement, which attempt to explain why Jesus died and whether his death satisfies God’s wrath over humankind’s sinfulness. But some Christians warn that emphasizing these doctrines may have the unintended consequence of turning God into an angry deity who had to be appeased by shedding Jesus’ blood.

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

Songwriters Keith and Kristyn Getty. Photo courtesy Getty Music


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That’s the view taken by the Presbyterian Committee on Congregational Song. The committee removed the hymn “In Christ Alone” from the new Presbyterian Church (USA) hymnal after the song’s co-authors, Stuart Townend and Keith Getty, refused to change a line about God’s wrath being satisfied.

Bob Terry, editor of The Alabama Baptist newspaper, stepped into a theological landmine when he wrote an editorial saying Presbyterians got it right. Terry said he believes Jesus’ death paid the price for sin. But the song’s lyrics went too far.

“Sometimes Christians carelessly make God out to be some kind of ogre whose angry wrath overflowed until the innocent Jesus suffered enough to calm Him down,” Terry wrote.

That editorial, which ran earlier this month, touched a nerve.

In blogs, tweets, letters to the editor and phone calls, angry Baptist readers accused Terry of being theologically liberal and abandoning the Bible. Some wanted him fired.

In an unusual move, the president of the Alabama Baptist State Convention and the executive director of the Alabama Baptist State Board of Missions issued a statement that criticized the editorial.

“As Alabama Baptists seek to be true to Scripture, we affirm the essential and historic Christian doctrine of substitutionary atonement,” they wrote, referring to the doctrine that Jesus died as a substitute for humankind.

The fact that a Baptist newspaper editor sided with the Presbyterians made things worse, said the Rev. John Thweatt, pastor of First Baptist Church in Pell City, Ala.

Conservative Baptists have long viewed mainline denominations like the PCUSA with suspicion, accusing them of abandoning Christian beliefs. Siding with them was a bad move for Terry, he said.

“He opened up a Pandora’s box,” Thweatt said. “I don’t think he thought things through.”

Thweatt is a fan of the song “In Christ Alone.” He said he couldn’t understand why anyone would want to change it.

The song’s original lyrics say that as Jesus died on the cross, “the wrath of God was satisfied.” The Presbyterian committee wanted to change that to “the love of God was magnified.”

“To remove that line would gut the gospel,” Thweatt said.

R. Albert Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky. RNS photo courtesy SBTS

R. Albert Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky. RNS photo courtesy SBTS


This image is available for Web publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

R. Albert Mohler Jr., president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky., agreed.

Mohler said there is no contradiction between God’s love and God’s wrath. Both are needed to deal with human sin.

That’s why he believes penal substitutionary atonement is essential. Critics who want to change “In Christ Alone” to remove the line about God’s wrath have bad theology, Mohler said.

“It reveals deeper problems with what they believe about atonement,” he said.

Mohler also gave some context on why penal substitutionary atonement matters to Southern Baptists. It was one of the issues that led to the conservative resurgence — or fundamentalist takeover — among Southern Baptists in the 1980s and 1990s, when some seminary professors began criticizing substitutionary atonement, leading to full-blown questions about biblical inerrancy.

Memories from that conflict are still fresh, he said.

But Jay Phelan, senior professor of theological studies at North Park University, said too much wrath also leads to bad theology.

Phelan said Mohler and other critics are motivated by church politics as well as theology. They’re part of the movement known as neo-Calvinism, which stresses God’s anger over sin.

“You have all the neo-Calvinists who see any move away from strict satisfaction theory as the straight road to liberal hell,” he said.

Phelan said the neo-Calvinist view of Jesus’ death is too limited.

Most Christians believe in substitutionary atonement. But Christians have differing views on how Jesus’ death forgave sinners, said the Rev. Morgan Guyton, a blogger and associate pastor of Burke United Methodist Church in Burke, Va.

Among them are the ransom theory, which holds that Jesus’ death was taken to be a ransom paid to the devil to liberate human sinners from bondage.

No one theory can explain the atonement, Morgan said. And too much focus on wrath causes problems with the Trinity by making it appear God crucified Jesus.

Mohler argues that critics of substitutionary atonement forget God is always motivated by love, even in punishing sin.

The word “wrath” does not appear in another popular song written by Townend about the cross, titled, “How Deep the Father’s Love for Us.”

Written in 1995, that song remains one of the top 50 popular songs in churches, according to the Christian Copyright Licensing International. Its last verse claims the details of the atonement remain a mystery.

“Why should I gain from His reward?” it says. “I cannot give an answer. But this I know with all my heart, His wounds have paid my ransom.”

22 Comments

  1. you ARE kidding me, right? “God’s wrath over humankind’s sinfulness”

    You or anyone who has this thought process going on needs God in their life.

    God is never angry! He is all loving…..REMEMBER??!?!??

  2. Daniel Berry, NYC

    Seems to me that Jesus bent over backwards (in his parables at least) to convey a different idea about his god – particularly,for example, in the parable of the prodigal son. But that message isn’t even original with Jesus. Plenty of the prophetic literature is abounding in the idea of the unconditional love of the god of the Hebrew people, who, presumably, Jesus believed in. But many, many so-called Christians just can’t bring themselves to believe in a god who isn’t as mean-spirited as themselves. One of the perennial temptations of the conventionally religious is to create a god in their own image and likeness. But think of the logic of the conventional creation/redemption myth: the god creates the crucially defective human race, and then threatens to throw the whole race into hell forever for being defective. It’s amazing to me how few people still don’t examine this quaint little detail about the god they say they believe in.

  3. God’s all loving and not wrathful? Tell that to the sinful people he drowned with the Great Flood. If someone believes God is all loving and not wrathful, they have serious holes in their theology. There is a penalty for sin. The body will die. The soul will be judged. Jesus offers to take that judgement away from you, if only you accept. A perfect God must punish sin. If you’ve accepted Christ, then your sin has already be punished.

    • Daniel Berry, NYC

      i don’t quite understand the logic of “a perfect God must punish sin”. Says who? Logically, the sinfulness of humankind is the god’s own doing–the result of either the god’s incompetence or his sadism. So either he’s not taking responsibility for creating defective creatures, choosing instead to punish them for *his* poor workmanship, OR he deliberately made them defective so he could punish them for being what he created them to be. Horribly sadistic–and certainly not the god Jesus seemed to believe in of the Gospel is to be believed. As for your concern that “God is all loving and not wrathful,” that doesn’t seem to be the message of the fourth chapter of the First Epistle of John.I’m not saying your way of believing is unusual, but it’s horribly un-christian.

      • Kevin Kragenbrink

        Daniel, you miss a key element here. God, or in your usage “the god,” did not create so much a defective being but rather one with free will. The theological necessity of wrath stems from this element. Many believe that the “image of God in humanity” exists in the capacity of humans to choose to do right or not. Given that capacity, wrongdoing must also be punishable. God does not, then, punish unjustly. He punishes because of freely chosen acts of sin. If there is no punishment, where then would be the incentive to accept and follow Christ. There is much theology to be unpacked here, and no space to do it. But the central truths are there. God’s wrath is not inconsistent with God’s love. It is essential to it, for love without free will is not love at all.

    • Not to mention all the ones he killed in fits of pique during the supposed 40 years of wandering. Jehovah would throw a hissy fit and start slaughtering, then Moses would calm him down. Then another fit with the attendant calming. Finally Jehovah pays Moses for this by keeping him out of the “Promised Land”.

  4. Whew! all this hissing and hairing up over a work of fiction. I agree with Danny Berry’s posts, and if I’m going to worship anything, it would probably be Bastet. She doesn’t make impossible demands on her herd.

  5. God used slaughter to punish in the pld testament. It isn’t until the new testament that hell is introduced. Weird huh? Could it be the heirarchy of the church introduced hell in the new testament to frighten people into keeping the faith, and thus guarantee their power and wealth would last forever, but could not add it to the old testament because that is the book of the jews and they would have objected to this lie being introduced into their book?

  6. It is both funny and disturbing that here in the 21st century that otherwise intelligent adults would have to have a serious debate over the character of a being that doesn’t even exist! And if he does exist, chances are excellent that his character is not at all what any religion believes it to be.

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