Thinking Out Loud

August 2, 2013

Presbyterians Reject “In Christ Alone”

Denny Burk:

Timothy George explains why the Presbyterian Church USA has recently rejected the hymn “In Christ Alone” from its new hymnal:

Recently, the wrath of God became a point of controversy in the decision of the Presbyterian Committee on Congregational Song to exclude from its new hymnal the much-loved song “In Christ Alone” by Keith Getty and Stuart Townend. The Committee wanted to include this song because it is being sung in many churches, Presbyterian and otherwise, but they could not abide this line from the third stanza: “Till on that cross as Jesus died/the wrath of God was satisfied.” For this they wanted to substitute: “…as Jesus died/the love of God was magnified.” The authors of the hymn insisted on the original wording, and the Committee voted nine to six that “In Christ Alone” would not be among the eight hundred or so items in their new hymnal.

There is no surprise in this news. Although not all PCUSA churches are theologically liberal, the denomination by and large is. Liberalism and wrath go together like oil and water; they don’t mix. And historically speaking, one of them eventually has to go. When wrath goes, so does the central meaning of the atonement of Christ—penal substitution. At the end of the day, the cross itself is the stumbling block, and that is why the PCUSA cannot abide this hymn.

You can read the rest of George’s article here. …

Shane Vander Hart:

…On the Committee’s Facebook page earlier this month they wrote, “After last night’s Hymn Festival, PCOCS think that ‘In Christ Alone’ will become a favorite. What are your other favorites on the list?”

Apparently they used a version that excluded the wrath of God.  How far the Presbyterian Church (USA) has drifted from their historical roots.  I’m trying to picture John Knox, the leader of the Reformation in Scotland and founder of the Presbyterian Church,  having an issue with idea of God’s wrath being satisfied by Christ’s death on the Cross.

Knox once said, “By the brightness of God’s scriptures we are brought to the feeling of God’s wrath and anger, which by our manifold offenses we have justly provoked against ourselves; which revelation and conviction God sends not of a purpose to confound us, but of very love, by which He had concluded our salvation to stand in Jesus Christ.”

The Scottish Confession of Faith (one of Presbyterianism’s first creeds) says:

[We confess] That our Lord Jesus Christ offered himself a voluntary sacrifice unto his Father for us;[1] that he suffered contradiction of sinners; that he was wounded and plagued for our transgressions;[2] that he, being the clean and innocent Lamb of God,[3] was damned in the presence of an earthly judge,[4] that we should be absolved before the tribunal seat of our God;[5] that he suffered not only the cruel death of the cross (which was accursed by the sentence of God),[6] but also that he suffered for a season the wrath of his Father,[7] which sinners had deserved. But yet we avow, that he remained the only and well-beloved and blessed Son of his Father, even in the midst of his anguish and torment, which he suffered in body and soul, to make the full satisfaction for the sins of the people.[8] After the which, we confess and avow, that there remains no other sacrifice for sin:[9] which if any affirm, we nothing doubt to avow that they are blasphemers against Christ’s death, and the everlasting purgation and satisfaction purchased to us by the same.

1. Heb. 10:1-12.
2. Isa. 53:5; Heb. 12:3.
3. John 1:29.
4. Matt.27:11,26; Mark 15; Luke 23.
5. Gal. 3:13.
6. Deut. 21:23.
7. Matt. 26:38-39.
8. 2 Cor. 5:21.
9. Heb. 9:12; 10:14.

They are embracing a cultural hatred of God’s wrath.  I mentioned over four years ago something Brennan Manning wrote (Manning’s writings were very influential among the Emergent Church):

The god whose moods alternate between graciousness and fierce anger… the god who exacts the last drop of blood from His Son so that his just anger, evoked by sin, may be appeased, is not the God revealed by and in Jesus Christ.  And if he is not the God of Jesus, he does not exist.

The trend to throw penal substitutionary atonement under the bus has taken root in the Presbyterian Church (USA).   What a shame!  Though Christ’s death on the cross God’s wrath was satisfied.  He gave up His son to bear it Himself because God knew we could not.  “In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins,” (1 John 4:10, ESV).  It is finished.  God’s wrath is satisfied.  Nothing else is needed, Christ’s work on the cross is sufficient for our salvation…

David French:

It [the song] avoids shallow promises of earthly comfort in favor of the ultimate comfort — no matter our earthly destiny — found in Christ. And it’s a beautiful song, covered by countless Christian artists.

The core of the dispute is the mainline break with orthodoxy on the very nature of God and mission of Jesus. In orthodox Christianity, sin demands sacrifice. God’s wrath against sin — our sin — was atoned through Christ’s sacrifice. Or, as the Prophet Isaiah prophesied: “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.”

This is the essence of the doctrine of substitutionary atonement, and mainline protestantism is increasingly rejecting it in favor of a doctrine that places Jesus not as Savior in the orthodox sense but more as an example of love and nonviolent resistance, Gandhi on divine steroids.

The importance of rejecting substitutionary atonement is tough to overstate, with ramifications across the full spectrum of spiritual, social, and cultural engagement. In fact, it’s likely one of the key reasons for  the steep decline in mainline churches. After all, when the purpose of Christ’s presence on earth is ripped from its eternal context and placed firmly within (and relegated to) the world of “social justice” and earthly systems of oppression, there’s little that church offers that, say, the Sierra Club, Greenpeace, Occupy Wall Street, or a subscription to Mother Jones can’t also supply.

If, on the other hand, Christ represents the sole source of our eternal hope, then church offers something that no political movement can replicate or replace. No amount of “social justice” or political liberation can save your soul.

A comment posted on John Meunier’s blog:

This song was also sung at the recent worship service when the new archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby took office — at HIS request. As I followed the tweets for the service, a number of people noted that about half the congregation refused to sing the words about God’s wrath.

Frankly, I am clear that John Wesley would like the author’s words. He emphasized the need for sinners (including Methodists) to “flee from the wrath to come”. I know you have written about this in the past. I am pretty well convinced that our reluctance to consider the wrath of God is one of the reasons the church has lost it’s emphasis on winning souls.

You know, after reading that last one, I’m determined to return to the top of this article, replay the video and sing loud and strong.


  1. Wrath is great as long as we humans want it for something, like to punish a sadistic, murdering rapist offender via the laws of the land (and especially if it’s on behalf of someone WE cherish). Oh we humans LOVE our wrath, but we HATE God’s. Why? Cause God’s wrath is bigger and has longer-lasting implication if triggered.

    Why don’t people see that every healthy emotion we think we’ve got a right to express was created by God to begin with? Indignation, jealousy, passion, love – whatever we experience here is a ‘shadow’ of the emotion or expression of the creator. His wrath is a good wrath. He will judge with authority when the time is right and make GOOD decisions based on his wrath – not like us. If He is indeed a ‘good’ God, then whomever he damns, He damns well. Whomever He saves, He saves dramatically and completely.

    We treasure God’s wrath as much as His love, because each is a pure expression of the Father of creation and together with Him, we’ll see justice and reward carried out perfectly.


    Comment by flagrantregard — August 2, 2013 @ 7:02 pm

  2. I am soooooooooo thankful that “the wrath of God was satisfied” as He poured out His wrath on my sin in Jesus, for now I will never have to bear it.

    If you do not YIELD to the LOVE of God
    And be CHANGED by the GRACE of God,
    There will be NO WAY to ESCAPE the WRATH OF GOD.

    Comment by meetingintheclouds — August 5, 2013 @ 6:23 pm

  3. Surely, we can’t be so blind to the reasons so many are rejecting the classic penal substitution model. Rather than attack them as “liberal” and “unorthodox,” a more Christian (and less Pharisaical) response would be to engage the substance of the matter. If God is indeed Sovereign (and isn’t this an important emphasis for Presbyterians), why is he bound by a “sin demands sacrifice” moral code? Doesn’t God have the authority to forgive sins however he chooses? Can he not set the rules for forgiveness? What about blood makes God satisfied? Engage the argument, don’t just castigate the theologically “impure.”

    Comment by Nate — August 10, 2013 @ 3:25 pm

    • Thanks for your comment; and you’re right; the Evangelical response should not be to dismiss Presbyterians categorically.

      But then the question is “engage the substance of the matter” with whom? You’ve already stated “this isn’t an important emphasis for Presbyterians.”

      …I’ve often wrestled with the concept of “without the shedding of blood there can be no remission of sins.” I don’t know that I’d use the word “bound” — as God could theoretically make an exception — but I believe His justice demands consistency.

      At the end of the day, if you manufacture the product, you get to write the owners’ manual. This is the way he chose to redeem the world.

      Comment by paulthinkingoutloud — August 10, 2013 @ 4:58 pm

      • Oh how the order of two words matter–I was asking the rhetorical question “Isn’t this an important emphasis for Presbyterians?” Calvinism IS big on God’s sovereignty. God does not have justice or exhibit justice. God defines Justice. God’s Justice only demands consistency if God wants Justice to mean consistency. The consistency argument just begs the question: why does God want blood in the first place?

        My point is, saying “Jesus died on the cross because God is Just” just ducks the issue. Why did the death of an innocent man please God enough to forgive everyone’s sin? It is not enough to say “well, that’s the system God set up.” Why would God set up that system in the first place?

        I don’t think that a rejection of those particular lines of the song necessarily is a rejection of Jesus as the savior of the world, or even the atonement for sin. Words always communicate in context. If “the wrath of God was satisfied” communicates to people that God couldn’t keep his temper in check and had to kill someone…well, then, maybe we should find another way to talk about Jesus, God’s lamb to end all sacrifices. I heard another version once that put in these words: “The path to God was opened wide.”

        I’m not a defender of theological liberalism nor a member of PCUSA. But circling the wagons on this one strikes me as one more nail in the cultural credibility coffin of Evangelicalism. The PCUSA isn’t much better–they’re similarly exclusionist. I don’t have a problem with the authors of the hymn refusing to change the words; if they want to draw the line in the sand, it’s their song.

        (On another, more practical note, the song’s great melody has completely impractical, two-octave range.)

        Comment by Nate — August 10, 2013 @ 9:05 pm

    • Yes, two words do make a difference. Sorry about that.

      Phil Vischer, the man who created Veggie Tales, is now wrapping up production of part 13 of his new series “What’s In The Bible” which looks at Revelation. In last week’s podcast — somewhere in the first half — he discussed the whole issue of how a God of love is also a God of wrath, and how to explain that to children.
      (line your cursor up between the I and the S of Phil’s name. Runs about 10 minutes)

      The whole blood covenant and blood atonement thing is hard for non-Jewish, western minds to comprehend. Again, it’s his sandbox, his rules. But for people of faith, people who believe that God can be trusted his plan is perfect.

      Comment by paulthinkingoutloud — August 10, 2013 @ 9:42 pm

  4. […] I’ve included a rather healthy section of this here; it is the set-up for the section that follows where Paul speaks of the wrath and judgement of God, the same wrath that one denomination wanted excised from a popular worship song. […]

    Pingback by Punished For Sin, Punished By Sin | Christianity 201 — September 27, 2013 @ 5:31 pm

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