Evangelicals Determined to Hang on to Their Wrathful God


Collin Hansen, of The Gospel Coalition, recently wrote a post about the controversy surrounding the Presbyterian Church USA wanting to change  the lyrics of the modern hymn Christ Alone.  In the article, Hansen interviews Keith Getty, one of the writers of the song:

Last summer the modern hymn “In Christ Alone” made headlines for its lyrical references to the wrath of God and atonement theology. A hymn committee with the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) wanted to add the song to their new hymnal, Glory to God, released this fall. But in doing so, the committee requested permission from the song’s writers, Stuart Townend and Keith Getty, to print an altered version of the hymn’s lyrics, changing “Till on that cross as Jesus died/the wrath of God was satisfied” to “Till on that cross as Jesus died/the love of God was magnified.” The songwriters rejected the proposed change, and as a result the hymn committee voted to bar the hymn.

“The song has been removed from our contents list, with deep regret over losing its otherwise poignant and powerful witness,” committee chair Mary Louise Bringle told The Christian Century. The “view that the cross is primarily about God’s need to assuage God’s anger” would have a negative effect on the hymnal’s ability to form the faith of coming generations, Bringle explained…

Question: Two groups wanted to change your lyrics in order to circumvent the idea that God’s wrath was satisfied through Christ’s death on the cross. Why was it important this lyric not be altered?

Keith Getty: First, it’s important to express how truly honored we feel that these groups would consider adding “In Christ Alone” to their hymnals. We support the approach they take of studying the lyrics of hymns as they select music worthy to be sung and preserved.

However, we believe altering the lyrics would remove an essential part of the gospel story as explained throughout Scripture. The main thread of what we see revealed throughout the Old and New Testament is the need for man to be made right with God. The provided path toward reconciliation came through Christ’s predetermined and perfect sacrifice on the cross, satisfying God’s wrath once and for all. The two hymnal committees wanted to change the lyrics to focus on how Christ’s death on the cross magnifies God’s love for the world. And indeed, God’s love was magnified on Calvary’s hill. Yet the way this occurred was through Christ doing for us what we could not do for ourselves—shedding his own perfect blood to atone for our sins.

Question: Was the doctrine of propitiation front and center in your mind when you wrote the hymn?

Keith Getty: We wanted to explore the scope of the gospel message in one song. As people in the pew sing “In Christ Alone,” we pray they understand the many attributes of God. His sovereign power, grace, love, justice and wrath all are intertwined. And we shouldn’t turn away from exploring his wrath, because through understanding God’s righteous anger toward sin, we understand his desire for justice and peace. As J. I. Packer so clearly explains in Knowing God, God is not just unless he inflicts upon all sin and wrongdoing the penalty it deserves. While we may think it severe, we desperately need God’s wrath—a holy and just response to evil—to restore the broken world in which we live.

I understand some people take issue with the theological perspective that God’s wrath was satisfied through Christ’s death on the cross. Part of this debate centers on whether the cross became the object of God’s wrath. When couched in those terms, God’s anger can sound harsh and perhaps confusing.

Yet I believe this view stems from an inadequate understanding of how God’s wrath differs from our own. Each of us faces the temptation to fashion God out of our own image. And a picture of God formed through our experiences of hurt, anger, injustice, or rage is a sad and vindictive one indeed. But this is not the infinite, good God we serve. God’s wrath is not like our wrath, and his ways are not like our own. Throughout Scripture, the need for atonement to be made is likened to a cup of wrath the sinner must consume. As we know, Jesus drank this cup for us. The cross was a remedy, providing for each of us a way to be saved. It may not be easy to fully comprehend. But we must tread carefully, echoing the thought of Isaiah 45:9: “Woe to him who strives with him who formed him, a pot among earthen pots! Does the clay say to him who forms it, ‘What are you making?’ or ‘Your work has no handles’?”

Stuart Townend and I believe the doctrine of propitiation plays a vital role in how we understand Christ’s saving work as explained in Scripture. Consequently, the language used throughout “In Christ Alone” is a natural expression of our theological view on this subject.

propitiation 2Hansen wants to make this controversy about doctrine, specifically the doctrine of propitiation. However, this controversy has little to do with the doctrine of propitiation. The real controversy is over how Evangelicals and liberal Christians read the Bible. This controversy shows very clearly the difference between how an Evangelical Christian reads the Bible and how a liberal Christian reads the Bible.

The Evangelical Christian rightly accepts and worships  both the God of the Old Testament and the God of the New Testament. While this approach has all kinds of problems when it comes to harmonizing the two Testaments, it is an approach that does accept all sixty-six books of the Bible as authoritative.

The liberal Christian ignores or explains away any part of the Bible that does not fit their concept and understanding of God. Since they believe GOD IS LOVE, they reject the wrathful God of the Old Testament and spiritualize away the wrathful aspects of God in the New Testament. This approach helps people feel good about their God and his love for everyone, but it is an approach that requires ignoring or explaining away vast parts of the Bible.

It is impossible to read the Bible and not come away with the understanding that God is a God of wrath AND a God of love. While I find these two Gods incompatible with each other, they ARE both clearly found in the sixty-six books of the Bible.

I love my liberal Christian friends. I appreciate all they do in trying to make Christianity awrath of god kinder, gentler, more inclusive religion. I commend them for being good people who genuinely love others, regardless of who and what they are. But, I find their approach to the Bible and theology to be intellectually lacking and contradictory. I appreciate their intent and purpose, but I can not accept  how they ignore, reinterpret, spiritualize, or explain away vast portions of the Bible. I would rather they say, this part of the Bible is wrong and I/We don’t believe it.

The Evangelical has a different problem to contend with. They have to somehow reconcile the God of wrath with the God of love. To them I say, good luck with that.  I think the Bible is hopelessly filled with internal contradictions. All the hermeneutical gymnastics and systematic theologies in the world can’t put the Evangelical Humpty Dumpty theology back together again. The more Evangelical preachers and theologians “explain” the worse it becomes. Telling me that God is love while that God of love drowns millions of people in a flood seems incoherent to me.  It is hard to square the God of love with the wrathful God’s mean, petty, vindictive, and genocidal behavior in the Old Testament.

I suspect both Evangelicals and liberal Christians wish the men who put the canon of Scripture together over 17 centuries ago would have left the Old Testament out of the canon. But, they didn’t…so let the internecine, they shall know we are Christians by our love, warfare continue.

Comments (15)

  1. Appalachian Agnostic

    Sometimes I wish God was real so I could tell him to go f*ck himself.

    1. NeverAgainV

      I shook my fist at heaven and told bible god I hated him. That was a few years back.
      Even though I think bible god is certainly a myth, a concoction of primitive men, it still felt good to do that. :)

  2. James McGrath

    I would suggest (as one of the liberal Christians you mentioned) that the folks who don’t admit the Bible is wrong, and just focus on the nicer parts, are in fact theological conservatives. Of course, what is currently theologically conservative is not as old as might be claimed. But I would expect someone who identifies as theologically liberal, and not just socially or politicaly liberal, to accept that the Bible can be and is wrong, and that it is up to us to read it critically and with discernment.

    1. Bruce Gerencser (Post author)

      You’ll get no argument from me. :) Anything that leads away from fundamentalism and salvation by right doctrine/belief is a good thing.

  3. Texas Born & Bred

    As a liberal Christian, I honor the New Testament (except for revelation) and reject much of the Old Testament writings as bunk. I do like many of the psalms but don’t consider them “scripture”.

    Living as Jesus taught makes for a better world. Live according to the OT makes for a harsh, war-like world.

    My 2 cents.

  4. 1415dr

    You’re absolutely right about the explainations being worse than the arguments. I’ve been absolutely embarrased for my family members when they try to justify God’s wrath. I could write a book about gentle, loving Christians who turn into hateful monsters in an argument about Hell or earthly punishments.

    1. Bruce Gerencser (Post author)

      Yep. It would be far better for their cause if they shut up about the wrath of God, hell, and their God episodes of schizophrenia in the OT. But, they think by preaching of God’s wrath and hell, people will run to Jesus out of fear of hell and judgment. This approach seems to not work anymore except in hardcore Fundamentalist churches.

  5. Kat

    Bruce — how did you explain the contradictions, way back when? I know I either rationalized troublesome passages with “it was a different time” or ignored them altogether, but that was when I was very young and not doctrinally well-read. You, though, were a pastor, and a theologically astute one at that. If a member of your congregation had asked why God killed all the innocent babies in the flood, or why Adam and Eve’s disobedience condemned everyone who came after, what would you have said? It all seems so crazy now, from outside the box, but at one time it must have made some kind of sense…

    1. Bruce Gerencser (Post author)

      I tended to ignore the contradictions or I said, yes there is an apparent contradiction, but since there are no contradictions in the Bible, it is evident that I don’t “understand” this verse. :)

      As a Calvinist, I strained everything through the sieve of the sovereignty of God and his eternal decrees. What God did was ALWAYS right….end of discussion.

      I have often wondered if there were church members who thought, boy the preacher is full of shit on this one. :)

      When you commit yourself to the Bible being inerrant and infallible and God always being right, you just accept what the Bible says. In many ways, this kind of thinking makes a person intellectually lazy because they don’t have to wrestle with errors, contradictions, etc that are in the Bible. God said it, God did it, shut the hell up and believe it. :)

  6. Becky Rogers Wiren

    I don’t believe I am a Christian, really, although my kids say I am. But since I don’t believe the Bible is perfect and necessary, I’m either a liberal Christian or a theist. Most people who know me identify me as a (liberal) Christian, and I just don’t feel like explaining my exact beliefs. Instead, I just try to be kind to everyone.

    1. Bruce Gerencser (Post author)

      And that is what matters, being kind to everyone. Even the Bible says, as much as possible, be at peace with all men. Sometimes it takes a lot of work, and I often fail at it, but the future of our world depends on people being decent and kind to others.

  7. Jada

    “God’s wrath is not like our wrath, and his ways are not like our own.”

    Why not? We’re made in his image, after all. Oh, wait, perhaps he’s fashioned in OUR image . . .

  8. John Arthur

    Hi Bruce,

    A historical and grammatical interpretation of the bible coupled with some belief in inerrancy or infallibility of the text leads one to think (at the very least) that substitutionary atonement is probably the most dominant theory of the atonement supported by the bible, even if one thinks that there are also other views consistent with some passages.

    The trouble is that preaching on the wrath and judgement of God and on Jesus as our substitute who bore God’s punishment for our sins does anything but encourage the flow of positive emotions which are probably essential for our emotional and mental healing. It tends to undermine the flow of well-being and to create and/or reinforce a negative self-image in its hearers.

    When people continually have a negative self-image reinforced by such preaching and the consequences of eternal hell fire for rejection of the message, it can (and often does) imprison people and paralyze any attempts that are made to change. I think this may be one reason why many Evangelicals so often fail to have a real change in their life and lifestyle and concentrate on seeing Christianity as following a Jesus of ‘correct dogma’.

    The attempt to see God as a God of love is much better for a person’s emotional well-being and healing (whether God exists or not), but this requires Christians to say that the bible is WRONG on so many issues because , as you correctly point out, the bible teaches both a God of love and a God of wrath and judgement.

    Thanks for this post, Bruce.


    John Arthur

  9. Tiggy

    I think we must change the lyrics at my church when we sing it because I’ve never noticed that particular line about the wrath of God being satisfied. Shame, as it’s one of my favourite hymns. If the wrath of God is nothing like our own wrath then using the word ‘wrath’ is misleading and should be discouraged.

    1. Bruce Gerencser (Post author)


      Welcome and thanks for commenting!



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