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'Wrath of God' Keeps Popular Worship Song Out of 10,000-Plus Churches

(UPDATED) The hymn's controversial lyrics are now making waves among Southern Baptists.

UPDATE (Aug. 14): Presbyterians aren't the only ones experiencing tension over the lyrics of "In Christ Alone," which contains the phrase "the wrath of God was satisfied."

Southern Baptist leaders are defending the "centrality" of substiutionary atonement after a state newspaper editor wrote an editorial explaining why "he does not sing certain words ... of a popular hymn due to its mention of God's wrath." Baptist Press reports that SBC leaders were "embarrassed" and "stunned" by the editorial.

Meanwhile, Associated Baptist Press offers more details on the history of how Baptists have viewed atonement theology.

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UPDATE (Aug. 5): The word that got "In Christ Alone" booted from a Presbyterian hymnal was not wrath (which is "all over the hymnal"), but satisfied, according to a thorough update reported by The Tennessean. (The hymnal committee offers its own clarification.)

The satisfied language represents the theological view of Anselm, whose 11th-century "satisfaction theory" of the Atonement was refined into "penal substitution" during the 16th-century Reformation.

CT recently noted how the medieval theologian is "as contemporary as ever — and a blessing to evangelicals."

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The "wrath of God" has kept one of today's most-popular worship songs from being sung in many Presbyterian churches.

A Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) committee desired to add "In Christ Alone" to the denomination's new hymnal, Glory to God, set to be released this fall. But it first requested permission to avoid theological controversy by altering the modern hymn's lyrics from "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."

However, authors Keith Getty and Stuart Townend rejected the proposal. So the committee voted six to nine 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 impact on worshippers' education, according to Bringle.

Atonement theology—including penal substitution, the perspective captured in "In Christ Alone"—has long been controversial. But the exclusion of the hymn, No. 11 of the worship songs sung most often in American churches last year, prompted debate about how Christian doctrine is included in worship music.

In a widely-circulated response to the PCUSA that the Gettys called "spot on" on their Facebook page, Timothy George argued that although debating doctrine through hymns is not a new phenomenon, failing to recognize God's capacity for wrath can effectively trivialize God's power. "God's love is not sentimental; it is holy. It is tender, but not squishy," he wrote. "It involves not only compassion, kindness, and mercy beyond measure … but also indignation against injustice and unremitting opposition to all that is evil."

Russell Moore observed in the Washington Post that singing about doctrines such as God's wrath serves as a direct reminder of God's mercy to Christians.

CT has covered the Gettys and their success in reviving hymns for modern worship, and has regularly reported on atonement theology, especially penal substitution—including a 2006 cover story on how more and more evangelicals believe Christ's atoning death is merely a grotesque creation of the medieval imagination. CT also examined whether evangelical views of the atonement are too small.

Posted:August 1, 2013 at 12:27PM
Gleanings aggregates what others are reporting. Learn more.

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