Originally published in Baptist Press
One of Christianity’s most popular worship songs has been deemed too controversial to be included in the latest edition of the hymnal for the Presbyterian Church (USA).
“In Christ Alone,” a modern hymn written by Keith Getty and Stuart Townend, consistently ranks in the top 20 songs sung in churches of all stripes, according to Christian Copyright Licensing International. Yet it contains one line that the PCUSA’s Committee on Congregational Song did not wish to include in the denomination’s hymnal.
The line in question is from the song’s second verse: “Till on that cross as Jesus died/The wrath of God was satisfied.” Not wishing to portray a wrathful God, the committee asked to change the line to “Till on that cross as Jesus died/The love of God was magnified.” The song’s writers denied their request.
The decision made waves this week, as people learned about it from evangelical bloggers and through social media.
Timothy George, dean of Beeson Divinity School at Samford University, was among the first to comment on the controversy.
“Sin, judgment, cross, even Christ have become problematic terms in much contemporary theological discourse,” George wrote in a blog post on firstthings.com. “But nothing so irritates and confounds as the idea of divine wrath.”
Russell D. Moore, president of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, wrote a piece for The Washington Post regarding the song’s rejection.
“As an evangelical, I would argue that it’s necessary to sing about the wrath of God,” Moore wrote, “because we are singing not just from and to our minds, but to and from our consciences. There’s a reason why evangelical congregations reach a kind of crescendo when they sing out that line in the Gettys’ song. It’s not because, per the caricature, we see ourselves as a ‘moral majority’ affirming our righteousness over and against the ‘sinners’ on the other side of the culture war.
“Instead, it’s just the reverse. When Christians sing about the wrath of God, we are singing about ourselves. Our consciences point us to the truth that, left to ourselves, we are undone,” Moore wrote. “We’re not smarter or more moral than anyone else. And God would be just to turn us over to the path we would want to go — a path that leads to death. It is only because Jesus lived a life for us, and underwent the curse we deserve, that we stand before God. The grace of God we sing about is amazing precisely because God is just, and won’t, like a renegade judge, simply overlook evil.”
In a May article in the Christian Century, Mary Louise Bringle, a member of the PCUSA committee that rejected the hymn, discussed the decision.
According to Bringle, in reviewing other recently published hymnals, the committee discovered the revised lyric, “The love of God was magnified.” These hymnals had changed the line, apparently without the authors’ permission. When the PCUSA group sought permission from the authors and were denied, the song moved from the “yes” pile to the “no” pile by a vote of 6-9.
The committee decided “it would do a disservice to this educational mission [of the new hymnal] to perpetuate … the view that the cross is primarily about God’s need to assuage God’s anger,” Bringle wrote.
Boyce College professor Denny Burk was not surprised.
“Although not all PCUSA churches are theologically liberal, the denomination by and large is,” Burk wrote on his blog, dennyburk.com. “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.”
Moore agreed that God’s wrath is essential to the Gospel.
“I’m hardly one to tell Presbyterians what they ought to have in their hymnals,” Moore wrote. “But the Gospel is good news for Christians because it tells us of a God of both love and justice. The wrath of God doesn’t cause us to cower, or to judge our neighbors. It ought to prompt us to see ourselves as recipients of mercy, and as those who will one day give an account. If that’s true, let’s sing it.”