When I read that the Presbyterian Church USA (PCUSA) decided to exclude from its hymnals the song “In Christ Alone” (see video below) because the second verse mentions God’s wrath, I knew it was more evidence of doctrinal slide. The PCUSA, which takes a “progressive” view of Scripture, asked the song’s writers, Keith Getty and Stuart Townend, if the church could change the 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.” The songwriters refused.
Why would a denomination want to remove a hymn’s reference to God’s wrath? Mary Louise Bringle, a member of the PCUSA song committee, attempted to explain:
“People making a case to retain the text with the authors’ original lines spoke of the fact that the words expressed one view of God’s saving work in Christ that has been prevalent in Christian history: the view of Anselm and Calvin, among others, that God’s honor was violated by human sin and that God’s justice could only be satisfied by the atoning death of a sinless victim. While this might not be our personal view, it was argued, it is nonetheless a view held by some members of our family of faith; the hymnal is not a vehicle for one group’s perspective but rather a collection for use by a diverse body.”
Our personal view? Sin does violate God’s honor. Sin offends Him. And we do have a sin nature. God said the heart is deceitful above all things and desperately wicked. The breaking of God’s laws requires just punishment. Faith in Christ alone and repentance free us and wash away our sins in God’s eyes.
But someone has to pay for those sins. The Father chose to pour out His wrath on a sinless, sacrificial Substitute. His Son Jesus Christ gave His life as a “ransom for many” and suffered horribly for those He came to save. “Penal substitution” isn’t a mere Reformed phrase, personal view, or group perspective—it’s biblical.
God’s forgiveness requires the shedding of blood. When He gave the Hebrews of ancient Israel a set of laws to follow, He also provided a way to atone for breaking those laws. The guilty party made a sin offering: a young animal “without spot or blemish” was sacrificed and slaughtered on the altar in the sinner’s place. On the Day of Atonement, an “escape goat” was released into the wilderness, carrying away the people’s sins.
Sin offerings, the slaughtering of animals, and the shedding of blood do not save the sinner. They were a shadow of things to come, signs pointing to the ultimate sacrifice: the spotless Lamb whose blood would save them from God’s wrath.
We cannot rejoice enough over what God has done for us. Let’s sing and preach about His wrath, warn the unrepentant what’s coming, and tell them that through Christ alone, as the hymn states, they can avoid it. That is the gospel.