Erasing The Wrath of God from the Cross (in two parts)

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 [1937]), 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”]

Related Posts

Christ’s Victory Through Penal Substitutionary Death

Penal Substitution as the Heart of Christ’s Work on Atonement on the Cross

4 thoughts on “Erasing The Wrath of God from the Cross (in two parts)”

  1. Thank you for these posts getting to the heart of the Christian faith as it is distinguished from counterfeit Christianity. Thank you also for distinguishing between the Presbyterian Church (PCUSA) and, with Machen, the continuing Presbyterian Church. I hope to see in a subsequent post the question answered as to whether Barth has a place within orthodoxy if he denies that God moves from wrath to grace in the history of the believer. And then perhaps to what extent John Stott aligned himself with Barth on this point.

  2. Hi Phil,

    An unexpected question from you. How to put Barth and John Stott side by side? They lived in different theological universes. It is impossible to respond to anything on Barth with a short comment here. I will instead write a short response to your question in a proper post “Is Barth’s understanding of Atonement Evangelical? An Excursus and Indulgence in Theologizing” – http://www.krisispraxis.com/archives/2017/07/is-barths-understanding-of-atonement-evangelical-an-excursus-and-indulgence-in-theologizing/

    I am puzzled by your comment on Stott. As far as I know Stott would affirm the atonement as an event in history. Perhaps, there could be some ambiguities in slippery definitions of “history”, “historical revelation” etc that could have given rise to some misunderstanding about Stott?

    Perhaps it could be confusion arising from the ambiguities regarding the relationship between historical fact and theological affirmation? Just an example taken from the famous J.G. Machen to clarify what I mean: Machen wrote, “Christ died”–that is history; “Christ died for our sins”–that is doctrine. Without these two elements, joined in an absolutely indissoluble union, there is no Christianity.”

  3. Dear Kam Weng,

    Is it not possible to accept that penal substitution is only one Pauline model of the atonement and that those of us who find it fails to communicate the Gospel in many cultural contexts prefer to use other models/metaphors (whether Pauline or non-Pauline)- without us all being denounced us “liberals”? Isn’t it also high time we moved away from such misleading and irrelevant theological labels as “liberal” or “evangelical” which are largely Anglo-American cultural imports?

    Isn’t it also misleading to speak “of what has been for centuries the prevailing Christian understanding of Christ’s death”?

    In the spirit of the Protestant Reformation (Semper Reformanda) shouldn’t we be open to new biblical scholarship and not be so quick to denounce everything that contradicts our inherited theological readings?

    By the way, I can’t find your promised second part on hilasterion- there is no way Stott’s and Morris’s insistence that this means “propitiation” can be defended in the light of both Jewish and recent Christian scholarship. In any case, you well know that words don’t derive their meanings from dictionaries but from usage in larger literary contexts.

  4. Hi Vinoth,

    Too bad we have not been able to meet for some time to debate/discuss issues over meals and short car rides, like the good old days. Won’t be easy to answer fully your questions over the internet. Internet writing requires simple presentation of complex issues for the sake of my readers who have minimal theological background. But will try some preliminary clarifications.

    1) Regarding atonement models – Of course I agree with you that there are many valid models of the atonement. Notice I mentioned that the classical Confessions did not ‘canonize’ any one model? I further argued that because of PSA, I can believe in CV? But that doesn’t mean that I cannot argue that PSA is foundational for the other models. Whether one agrees with me or not is a matter of theological exegesis. Everyone is free to take a position on this matter.

    I agree that witnessing in some contexts may require giving greater priority to some models of the atonement over others. I am aware of situations where the proclamation of the Christ to rural tribes results immediately in power encounter (and therefore CV) before anyone raises theological issues like PSA. Nevertheless, these same tribal groups are even more sensitive & receptive to the teaching of the wrath of God than most city folk, folks who have what I call “modern sensitivities.” These tribal groups also understand the need for propitiation and respond to the message of PSA. Actually, they need less persuasion to be convinced about PSA. Naturally, both models (PSA and CV) work in together in mission context.

    I am interested to know from you those places or situations where PSA “fails to communicate the Gospel.” The question is raised with awareness that despite contextualization requirements, still, in the end we need to go beyond cultural accommodation (in communication strategy and priorities) and present the whole gospel (including PSA) so that the gospel judges culture (or sin) and brings forgiveness, assurance, reconciliation, liberation, justice etc. How else do we get people to repent? In the end we will need to deploy the whole range of models of the atonement (and perhaps even new models if they emerge in new theological and mission contexts).

    2) Regarding evangelical-liberal debate. I thought for over 20 years that the debate is no longer relevant in my context. After all, what message does classical liberalism have to offer in the Asian context with its own millennial long religious heritage? For some sociological reasons, I find certain doctrines once associated with classical liberalism now coming back into churches which identify themselves as evangelical – doctrines like assertion of errors in the bible, acceptance of Welhausen documentary hypothesis – its derivatives and ramifications, some rather radical results of atheistic historical criticism of the history of Israel and the origins and formation of the gospels, openness to Walter Bauer’s hypothesis of diversity (non-unity) of doctrinal development regarding orthodoxy-heresy in early Christianity, denial of the historical Adam, denial of eternal hell (keeping the difference here in perspective), open theism, some degrees of ‘tolerance of LGBT [‘tolerance’ to be defined] and denial of penal substitution (I think you may disagree with me on penal substitution). I personally will not draw the liberal-evangelical line with penal substitution, although I find it interesting that the doctrines I listed seem to cluster together like a package deal, especially among the younger Christians.

    Question: Let’s say we avoid using the traditional terms like ‘theological liberalism’ – how would you describe people or groups of people who promote these doctrines? What handles would you depend on to discuss these doctrinal differences which I think are more than trivial. What theological matter matters and how do we prioritize our engagement/challenge? I am also prepared to say that for me some doctrines are non-negotiable (of course this depends on our understanding of what semper reformanda amounts to). How would you describe your approach?

    3) To some degrees you are right. The liberal-evangelical divide does seem irrelevant nowadays but the reason for this may be different between us. First, what becomes of evangelical identity if the cluster of doctrines listed above has become accepted by leaders who call themselves evangelicals? It only testifies to the sad state of the evangelical theology rather than the emergence of tolerant doctrinal maturity. Notice I do not go around identifying who “so and so” is a liberal? I have kept my critique to doctrines of liberal theology and use the term ‘liberals’ as a short hand for people who endorse these doctrines. But I do not attack individuals or question his or her faith. If necessary I engage with a prominent scholar if he provides a convenient foil for theological debate or where this influential scholar has critique classical evangelical doctrines. The influential scholar requires a response. He will have to accept being critiqued as this is a price of fame and influence. Second, the debate is irrelevant to many contemporary evangelical leaders who are not interested in doctrines [I hope to explain the reason for this doctrinal indifference should I write and introduce my readers to the Dayton/Olson vs Marsden/Horton debate on evangelicalism]. I may not go so far as D.G. Hart or Carl Trueman by suggesting we deconstruct and abandon the term ‘evangelicalism’. Still, I wonder if term has lost is usefulness and one now needs to identify oneself as some kind of hyphenated evangelical – you may know where I am personally heading if I suggest some of us need to identify ourselves as ‘confessional evangelicals’. Btw, I came to this conclusion of confessional evangelicalism fully on my own and not through reading American stuff.

    I have already written the article on ‘hilasterion’, but decided to release it later next week so as not to overwhelm my less theologically trained readers. Not sure what recent Jewish and Christian scholarship you have in mind? Sanders? Sorry he has been sufficiently challenged so as not to have the last word; McKnight? Not that I pretend to be anywhere near his biblical expertise, but theologically I am confident enough to disagree with him on some matters; apocalyptic Pauline scholarship? Actually, we don’t have to be force to dichotomize between the different models of atonement or schools of Pauline scholarship. Specifically, I include both aspects of propitiation and expiation even though I side with Morris-Nicole. Of course new scholarship needs to go beyond just the Dodd-Morris debate, but I think the Morris-Nicole’s foundational critique remains valid. To be sure, I do not simply rest my theology on isolated linguistic analysis and etymological studies of theological terms (would be silly after James Barr’s critique in his “The Semantics of Biblical Language”). In general, my difference with ‘liberals’ reflects not our lack of exegetical-theological skills but our different mindsets that influence how we read the interconnected texts and doctrines. But will highlight how technical terms are still vital if we read them within the canonical context.

    Meanwhile, will continue with short posts. Even though I am only writing short blog articles and not theological treatises, I hope to be able to respond to interesting questions from my readers.

    Thanks for voicing your concerns. Appreciate checks and reminders from an old friend.

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