In this present climate of social and religious tolerance in the West, one would not have expected a major Christian denomination to ban books, much less delete a popular song from its hymnal. But in 2013, the Presbyterian Committee on Congregational Songs for the Presbyterian Church (PCUSA) decided to delete the song, “In Christ Alone” from its hymnal. It judged a line in the song to be problematic: “Till on that cross as Jesus died/the wrath of God was satisfied.”
Apparently, the committee considered the line to be offensive to modern sensibilities twice over – it not only refers to the “wrath” of God, but suggests that the cross is the place where divine wrath is “satisfied.” The committee overruled what has been for centuries the prevailing Christian understanding of Christ death. This incident confirms the prophetic insight of J.G, Machen who declared in 1923 that theological liberalism is not just another form of Christianity; it is “a religion which is so entirely different from Christianity as to belong in a distinct category.” For Machen, “Jesus is our Saviour, not by virtue of what He said, not even by virtue of what He was, but by what He did. He is our Saviour, not because He has inspired us to live the same kind of life that He lived, but because He took upon Himself the dreadful guilt of our sins and bore it instead of us on the cross. Such is the Christian conception of the Cross of Christ.” [J. Gresham Machen, Christianity and Liberalism (Eerdmans 1977/1923), pp.6-7, 117] In contrast to historic Christianity, theological liberalism dilutes, if not denies the saving significance of the cross and offers a vision of a benevolent, if not indulgent God who fulfils human aspirations rather than demands submission to his holy sovereignty.
The instinct to soften the holy demands of God who judges sin because he is an “all-consuming fire” has an ancient pedigree in Marcion of Sinope at Rome during the 2nd century AD. Tertullian reported that Marcion found problems with early orthodox Christianity because it confused the inferior and warlike Old Testament God with the higher God revealed in the New Testament who is “mild and peaceable, solely kind and supremely good who does not judge. As Tertullian retorted with biting sarcasm that in Marcion “A better god has been discovered, who never takes offence, is never angry, never inflicts punishment, who has prepared no fire in hell, no gnashing of teeth in the outer darkness! He is purely and simply good. He indeed forbids all delinquency, but only in word.” (Tertullian, Five Books Against Marcion 1:27.2)
Likewise, Marcion’s modern liberal descendants agree that the ancient idea of the wrathful God is inconsistent with the loving God revealed through Jesus Christ. Marcion has found new kinsmen when the hymnal committee of PCUSA wanted to replace the phrase “Till on that cross as Jesus died/the wrath of God was satisfied” with a new gloss, “Till on that cross as Jesus died/the love of God was magnified.” However, the song writers objected precisely because following PCUSA would be a deviation from the apostolic tradition which testifies that Christ’s death on the cross simultaneously propitiates or appeases the wrath of God and demonstrates of the love of God. James Denny, author of the classic book, The Death of Christ agrees. “If the propitiatory death of Jesus is eliminated from the love of God, it might be unfair to say that the love of God is robbed of all meaning, but it is certainly robbed of its apostolic meaning.” [James Denney, The Death of Christ (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1900), 152]
The hymnal committee of PCUSA is not alone in its view. There are many liberal critics who object to the reality of God’s wrath on the cross. For them love (which God surely has and is) and wrath in the same person are incompatible. For these critics the idea of God’s wrath brings to mind the picture of a capricious God who demands sacrifices at his whims and fancies. However, the suggestion that the wrath of God leads to capriciousness is untrue, at least for the God of the Bible.
First, the wrath of God in the Bible is not one of emotional outburst. It is rather his holy and settled opposition against anything sinful and evil. Placation or propitiation is required not simply to pander an emotionally sensitive God; it is required because cosmic and personal justice demand that sinners receive death penalty as their just desserts. The hymnal committee of PCUSA is partially correct – the love of God is indeed magnified, but only if it is understood as a gracious provision to save undeserving sinners from their dire situation by satisfying or propitiating God’s wrath towards sin.
Second, pagan religions expect the worshiper to take the initiative to offer sacrifices with fear and trembling as he can never predict whether his capricious god would respond favorably. In contrast, the God of the Bible takes the initiative to address the plight of the worshiper by providing a specific means to avert His wrath against sin, that is, through the death of Christ on the cross.
The backdrop of wrath against sin and the initiative taken by God to provide the means of propitiation enable us to appreciate the immensity and depths of God’s holiness and love. The initiative taken by God to provide propitiation demonstrates that love and wrath are not contradictory. Indeed, they coexist in their highest intensity in the person of God. Because God is holy, sin must be judged. Because God is love, God provided propitiation through his Christ. God’s holiness is vindicated even when through love Christ on the cross bore the fullest intensity of divine wrath meted against sin. As John Stott explains,
It cannot be emphasized too strongly that God’s love is the source, not the consequence, of the atonement.… God does not love us because Christ died for us; Christ died for us because God loved us. If it is God’s wrath which needed to be propitiated, it is God’s love which did the propitiating. If it may be said that the propitiation “changed” God, or that by it he changed himself, let us be clear he did not change from wrath to love, or from enmity to grace, since his character is unchanging. What the propitiation changed was his dealings with us.[John Stott, The Cross of Christ (IVP, 2006/1986), pp. 171-172]
Theological liberalism is mistaken when it seeks remove the ‘scandal of the cross’ by erasing the wrath of God. In effect, such appeasement of modern sensibility ends up diminishing God of his glory, holiness and moral integrity. No wonder skeptics are not impressed and do not take seriously the diminished God of liberal Christianity. Even H. Richard Niebuhr who is more Barthian than evangelical, indicted theological liberalism as it offers, “A God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross.” [Richard Niebuhr, The Kingdom of God in America (Harper & Row, 1959 ), p. 193] Leon Morris unpacks the cogency of the biblical teaching of wrath of God,
…unless we give a real content to the wrath of God, unless we hold that men really deserve to have God visit upon them the painful consequences of their wrongdoing, we empty God’s forgiveness of its meaning. For if there’s no ill desert, God ought to overlook sin. We can think of forgiveness as something real only when we hold that sin has betrayed us into a situation where we deserve to have God inflict upon us the most serious consequences. When the logic of the situation demands that He should take action against the sinner, and yet He takes action for him, then and then alone can we speak of grace. But there is no room for grace if there is no suggestion of dire consequences merited by sin…The Scripture is clear that the wrath of God is visited upon sinners or else that the Son of God dies for them. Either sinners are punished for their misdoings or else there takes place what Hodgson calls, “that self-punishment which combines the activities of punishing and forgiving”. Either we die or He dies. But, “God commendeth His own love toward us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us (Romans 5:8)”. [Leon Morris, The Apostolic Preaching of the Cross (Eerdmans, 1965), pp. 212-13]
Theological liberalism hopes that erasing the wrath of God would salve the troubled conscience of sensitive worshipers. But a sense of unease continues to nag these worshipers insofar they failed to find closure for their sins, as they are never assured that their sin has been decisively settled by God. After all, sin is more than just an unpleasant psychological condition; it is a dreadful existential alienation or ontological peril in the face of a holy God. On the other hand, worshipers who acknowledge the reality of God’s wrath against sin discover that their sin has been decisively addressed at the cross, as Christ’s death was a satisfaction or propitiation towards God. Propitiation brings closure and liberates believers from sin, guilt and the penalty of death. They are no longer terrified by the wrath of God so much as they are overwhelmed by gratitude for the unmerited love of God. As Calvin wrote, “God, to whom we are hateful because of sin, was appeased by the death of his Son to become favorable to us.” [John Calvin, Institutes 2.17.3] It is fitting to affirm the gratitude expressed by the song, “In Christ Alone”:
Till on that cross as Jesus died,
The wrath of God was satisfied;
For ev’ry sin on Him was laid—
Here in the death of Christ I live…
Sin’s curse has lost its grip on me;
For I am His and He is mine—
Bought with the precious blood of Christ.
“In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins.” [1John 4:10]
Part 2: Christ’s Death as Expiation-Propitiation (Hilasterion): Appeasing the Wrath of God [Technical Supplement to “Erasing the Wrath of God from the Cross”]