Divine Wrath

000“In Christ alone my hope is found, He is my light, my strength, my song; this Cornerstone, this solid ground, firm through the fiercest drought and storm.  What heights of love, what depths of peace, when fears are stilled, when strivings cease!  My Cornerstone, my All in All,  here in the love of Christ I stand.  Christ alone, Who took on flesh, Fullness of God in helpless babe! This gift of love and righteousness, Scorned by the ones He came to save. 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.”

The Presbyterian Church USA has recently rejected the hymn “In Christ Alone” from its new hymnal because they would not tolerate “Till on that cross as Jesus died, the wrath of God was satisfied.”  They wanted to change the lyrics to read ‘Till on that cross as Jesus died, the love of God was magnified.”  Of course, the writers of the hymn refused, so the hymn will not be sung, at least not in the Presbyterian Church.

In his 1934 book, The Kingdom of God in America, H. Richard Niebuhr depicted the creed of liberal Protestant theology, which was called “modernism” in those days, in these famous words: “A God without wrath brought man without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross.”  Niebuhr was no fundamentalist, but he knew what he was talking about. So did Dietrich Bonhoeffer when he named the kind of mainline religion he encountered in 1930s America: Protestantismus ohne Reformation, “Protestantism without the Reformation.”

Sin, judgment, cross, even Christ have become problematic terms in much contemporary theological discourse, but nothing so irritates and confounds as the idea of divine wrath.  

Those who treat the wrath of God as taboo, whether in sermons or hymns, stand in a long line.    According to Tertullian, modernism claimed that  “a better god has been discovered, one who is neither offended nor angry nor inflicts punishment, who has no fire warming up in hell, and no outer darkness wherein there is shuddering and gnashing of teeth: he is merely kind.”  The lure of such a gospel is unmistakable—it explains why neo-Marcionism (God’s wrath in the Old Testament, his love in the New) is still flourishing today not only in popular piety but also among guilded scholars of religion.

Many liberal  preachers attempt to deal with God’s wrath the way the Victorians handled sex, treating it as something a bit shameful, embarrassing, and best left in the closet. The result is a less than fully biblical construal of who God is and what He has done, especially in the redemptive mission of Jesus Christ.

However we account for the work of Christ on the cross—and none of our atonement theories is adequate to explain fully so profound a reality – it surely means this:  that God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself, and that this event involved His purposeful “handing over” and “delivering up” of His Son to a cursed-filled death at the Skull Hill  outside the gates of Jerusalem (2 Cor. 5:19; Rom. 8:32; Acts 2:23). 

As  early Christians understood Isaiah 53:4-5, Christ was pierced there for our transgressions, smitten by God and afflicted.  But far from being a tragic bystander, Christ made there  a full, perfect, and sufficient sacrifice, oblation, and satisfaction, for the sins of the whole world.   To quote another hymn, not so much in vogue these days, “Bearing shame and scoffing rude, In my place condemned He stood.” 

The full New Testament teaching about the cross involves both expiation, which means providing a covering for sin, and propitiation, which means averting divine judgment.  The semantic range of the Greek words hilasmos/hilasterion includes both meanings.  That is why the wrath of God cannot be brushed out of the story without remainder.

God’s love is not sentimental – it is holy.  It is tender, but not squishy.  It involves not only compassion, kindness, and mercy beyond measure (what the New Testament calls grace) but also indignation against injustice and unremitting opposition to all that is evil.

You can read Timothy George’s article “No Squishy Love” in full at this link.

“No guilt in life, no fear in death – This is the power of Christ in me; from life’s first cry to final breath, Jesus commands my destiny.  No pow’r of hell, no scheme of man, can ever pluck me from His hand; Till He returns or calls me home – Here in the pow’r of Christ I’ll stand.”   “In Christ Alone” Words and Music by Keith Getty & Stuart Townend

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