Hymnology: In Christ Alone and the wrath of God

As I said in my introductory post, I’m starting up a new blog series about hymns and their theology (which I’ve called ‘hymnology’. Great name, right?). I thought it would be appropriate to kick off the series by thinking about one of the most well-loved modern hymns, ‘In Christ Alone’ by Stuart Townend and Keith Getty.

This is a hymn which has attracted some controversy over the line in the second verse: “Till on that cross as Jesus died / The wrath of God was satisfied”. A couple of years ago, that line kept the hymn out of the Presbyterian Church hymnal. Some places avoid the question altogether by leaving out that verse when singing it (I’ve included one such version at the bottom of this post). It seems to have become increasingly popular for the church to question the idea of God’s wrath being satisfied on the cross – for a good articulation of the problems some people have, see Ian Paul’s post from a couple of years ago (although note the length of the comment discussion!)

So I thought it might be worth spending a little while thinking about that one line. I can’t go into all the ins and outs of the debate now, but I want to outline what it is that I believe and how it flows from the Bible.

Recently in church, I was preaching on a passage which talks about the judgement and wrath of God (John the Baptist’s speech in Luke 3, which begins in v7 with: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath?”). The wrath of God is seen consistently in the New Testament as something which is coming on those who do not believe in Jesus. This is clear from a number of places, for example John 3:36 says, “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life, but whoever rejects the Son will not see life, for God’s wrath remains on them.” 1 Thessalonians 1:10 talks about Christ “rescuing” believers from the coming wrath. And, at the second coming of Christ, he will return to “judge the world with justice” (Acts 17:31). This event is described in Revelation 19, when Christ will “[tread] the winepress of the fury of the wrath of God Almighty.”

To my mind, the natural question to ask then is: what provokes the wrath of God? Why would God be wrathful against us? The short answer to that is a little word: ‘sin’. This is what 2 Chronicles 19:10 says.

In every case that comes before you from your people who live in the cities – whether bloodshed or other concerns of the law, commands, decrees or regulations – you are to warn them not to sin against the Lord; otherwise his wrath will come on you and your people.

Sin is disobedience, sin is hostility towards God, sin is wanting to cast God down from his throne and place ourselves there. Jesus defined the most important commandments as to love God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength, and to love our neighbours as ourselves. When we don’t do that – which is all the time – we are essentially rejecting the good way that God has made us and thus rejecting Him.

Consequently,  Sin creates a rift between us and God: “But your iniquities have separated you from your God; your sins have hidden his face from you, so that he will not hear” (Isaiah 59:2). God is perfectly righteous and just, and God cannot and will not let sin go unpunished. Every one of us is under the righteous and just condemnation of God, for “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23).

The confession from the communion service in the Book of Common Prayer puts it well. (I appreciate that the language is old fashioned, but I happen to be a bit of a fan of the Book of Common Prayer so no apologies from me.) It begins:

ALMIGHTY God, Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, Maker of all things, Judge of all men: We acknowledge and bewail our manifold sins and wickedness, Which we from time to time most grievously have committed, By thought, word, and deed, Against thy Divine Majesty, Provoking most justly thy wrath and indignation against us.

Sin, as John Stott put it, is not a regrettable lapse from conventional standards: its essence is hostility towards God. All of us by nature are “deserving of wrath” (Ephesians 2:3). That’s pretty bleak news, isn’t it?

But – the good news is that Christ Jesus rescues those who believe in Him from the coming wrath. How does that work?

One of the clearest pictures of Christ’s work actually comes from the  Old Testament, the picture of the servant of God given in the book of Isaiah. There are four ‘servant songs’ in Isaiah, which culminate in the fourth song – the breathtaking chapter 53. There we read:

Surely he took up our pain
    and bore our suffering,
yet we considered him punished by God,
    stricken by him, and afflicted.
But he was pierced for our transgressions,
    he was crushed for our iniquities;
the punishment that brought us peace was on him,
    and by his wounds we are healed.
We all, like sheep, have gone astray,
    each of us has turned to our own way;
and the Lord has laid on him
    the iniquity of us all.

This is a picture of Christ and what he accomplished on the cross. He was “pierced for our transgressions … the punishment that brought us peace was on him … the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.” On the cross, every single sin was laid on Christ. He was, in a very real sense, punished in our place. He endured the wrath of God, the wrath that you and I deserve, so that all those who believe in Him may not have to endure it.

Peter in the New Testament picks up on this very passage in 1 Peter 2, and then in 3:18 he says: “For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God.” Jesus – the one who was sinless and righteous – suffered for sins.

The apostle Paul writes in Colossians 2:

When you were dead in your sins … God made you alive with Christ. He forgave us all our sins, having cancelled the charge of our legal indebtedness, which stood against us and condemned us; he has taken it away, nailing it to the cross. (v13-14)

Isn’t that amazing? The sin which separates us from God, the sin which makes is guilty before him, is nailed to the cross. When Jesus died, he died the death that we deserve. He endured the wrath which by rights should be ours. But, gloriously, as our substitute we can have his perfect and righteous life, and through his resurrection we can share in his eternal life.

The theologian Jim Packer puts it like this in his chapter on wrath from Knowing God:

Between us sinners and the thunderclouds of divine wrath stands the cross of the Lord Jesus. If we are Christ’s, through faith, then we are justified through His cross, and the wrath will never touch us, neither here nor hereafter. Jesus ‘delivers us from the wrath to come’ (1 Thess 1:10, RSV)

When we sing ‘In Christ Alone’, we can sing it with true confidence that the wrath of God has been satisfied and is wonderfully no longer a concern for the believer. Those who believe in Christ have been justified, saved, rescued, and brought into friendship with God. As David says in Psalm 103, “he does not treat us as our sins deserve / or repay us according to our iniquities.”

Praise God that the wrath of God was satisfied on the cross.

A little extra…

I really like this version of In Christ Alone musically, and I like the little bridge they added – but sadly they do leave out the verse with the controversial lines. I can commend singing this arrangement in church if you reinstate the missing verse!

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