In the evangelical world, a young and talented team of musicians have become the new hymn writers who are celebrated for providing a much needed antidote to the often shallow and monotonous praise songs that get projected onto screens in contemporary worship services across the country. Keith and Kristyn Getty along with Stewart Townend are the writers and composers of such modern day hymns as “By Faith”, “The Power of the Cross”, and “O Church Arise.” However, their most popular composition is “In Christ Alone” and it is the object of some controversy in the news recently.
This hymn won’t be found in the hymnal of the Presbyterian Church (USA) because the Getty’s refuse to change the lyrics. Mary Louise Bringle, who chairs the Presbyterian Committee on Congregational songs writes in “The Christian Century” that some committee members objected to the line that says “On that cross as Jesus died, the wrath of God was satisfied.” They wanted permission to change that part of the hymn to “the love of God was magnified.” The writers refused to allow the change because they wrote the song to quote “tell the whole gospel.”
I grew up in the evangelical tradition and well remember singing as a young adult “He paid the debt, He did not owe I owed the debt I couldn’t pay, I needed someone to wash my sins away.”
It’s known as the “satisfaction” theory of the atonement and it is accepted without question in virtually every evangelical church from Baptist to Evangelical Free. God is mad about our sin and his justice demands that His wrath be meted out on someone. Christ steps in and takes the brunt of God’s anger so that we don’t have to.
Fr. James Bernstein is the author of the Ancient Faith Publishing booklet The Original Christian Gospel and in it he writes:
“In the eleventh century, Anselm, Archbishop of Canterbury promoted a view of atonement has come to be called the “debt” or “satisfaction” theory. It was based in part on the concept of total depravity, which holds that man’s sin against God (which is total) must be punished by God absolutely. According to this theory, God’s honor and justice demanded that to avoid punishment, the debt owed Him by the human race must be paid or satisfied. By ourselves we could not pay the debt owed God, because we are all fallen and sinful. Only Jesus Christ could pay what we owe to God, because He is sinless and perfect. In dying on the Cross, Christ completely paid this debt for each of us. If we believe in Jesus’ substitutionary atonement, then we are forgiven, and God is free to bestow on us His grace and mercy.
“This is an essentially legal view of sin which, according to Fr. James, leads inevitably to a legal view of salvation. If salvation is primarily about the Father punishing the Incarnate Son in our stead, then as a judicial necessity, our failure to believe in Jesus compels God to punish us. Such theologies see the Cross as saving us from the punitive, legally determined wrath of God—God the Son saving us from God the Father.
“The Protestant Reformers built upon the satisfaction theory and developed a theory of the atonement called the “penal substitutionary” theory. Whereas the debt/satisfaction theory emphasizes that Christ paid the debt that we owe God, the penal theory emphasizes that Christ received the punishment we deserve. In this view, justice demands that our sins be punished.
“The view of God as a fierce Judge—angry, vindictive, pouring out His divine wrath upon His Son Jesus because of “love” for us sinners, appears ludicrous to many non-Christians. It explains in part why so many are repulsed by institutional churches and only admit to admiring Jesus on a strictly private and non-institutional level. This view is expressed with astonishing force in Jonathan Edwards’ most famous sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God”
Fr. James goes on to point out “Certainly there is need to recognize that but for the grace of God, we would all descend into the abyss of everlasting sorrow and pain. Focusing on the judgment we deserve can bring some to repentance. Yet this presentation of God as vindictive, indeed ruthless—a dictator whose wrath somehow expresses a deeper love—is not in accordance with the God more fully revealed to us by Christ. It is no wonder that so many presented with this image of God recoil and pursue other religions, or become atheists and anti-Christian.”
Abandoning this juridical view of the atonement and the view of God as a vindictive cosmic kill-joy who cannot unconditionally love his creation has made room for a God of love who has done everything necessary to restore a broken relationship with us. He stands as the forgiving father in the story of the prodigal son with open arms ready to kill the fatted calf and prepare the feast for the stray who has come home.
There are plenty of issues about which we can argue with the Presbyterians, but on this one, they got it right. An atoning sacrifice to assuage the anger of God is not the whole gospel that Keith Getty and Stuart Townsend want to protect.