“The love of God was satisfied”

April 20, 2011

At least one person (besides the people in the Vinebranch band) noticed with curiosity a change that I requested in the closing song on Sunday, “In Christ Alone.” The change related to this stanza:

‘Til on that cross as Jesus died
The wrath of God was satisfied
For every sin on Him was laid
Here in the death of Christ I live, I live

That’s almost perfectly good—a slightly prosaic but effective statement of the penal substitution theory of atonement. If you’ve been reading this blog for long, you know that I’m a fan of penal substitution—not to the exclusion of all other theories or images of atonement that are also found in the Bible.

But whatever else we mean by atonement—the means by which human beings are reconciled to God through the cross—let’s at least mean that God did something objective to take care of humanity’s problem with sin and evil once and for all. The predominant biblical idea is that Christ’s death on the cross—in continuity with the Old Testament’s motif of sacrifice—was “substitutionary”; Christ died in our place; God took upon himself the penalty that our sin deserved. Among many other Old Testament references, see Isaiah 53 for the motif of the righteous suffering on behalf of the unrighteous—in order to bring healing.

Sin offends God’s holiness, which is another way of saying that justice matters to God. It’s true that I personally don’t want God to hold me accountable for my share of evil and death-dealing in this world. But I can at least want other evildoers to be punished for their share—you know, at least the really bad people like Hitler or Osama bin Laden. 

Of course, if justice has any meaning, God can’t be selective. My sin offends God’s holiness and needs to be accounted for, too. We human beings want a god who shrugs and says, “Your sins are no big deal. I forgive you,” but this is a god in our image, not the God of the Bible—not to mention the God revealed in Christ who pronounced harsh judgment against sin and constantly told sinners, “Go and sin no more.”

So this song’s verse describes the means by which God deals with our problem of sin. Lines 1, 3, and 4 I loudly affirm. Line 2 I can live with—if I could only footnote it with an asterisk! The problem is that it doesn’t begin to say enough for me. Moreover, the risk of misinterpretation is so great that it might not be worth singing.

The problem is that when we speak of “wrath,” popularly understood as anger, we tend toward thinking of the caricature of penal substitution that is already out there for mass consumption. It’s the caricature that every New Atheist, for example, criticizes us Christians for endorsing: that an angry God sent his innocent Son to die on the cross.

This isn’t right at all. God is Triune. What God the Father willed, God the Son also willed. The cross is God’s giving of God’s self as the solution for our sin problem. John’s gospel necessarily rounds out the picture of Jesus’ prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane (“…but not my will but thine be done”) by Jesus’ telling his disciples, “Now my soul is troubled. And what should I say—’Father, save me from this hour’? No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour” (John 12:27).

The cross, therefore, must be understood first (middle, and last) as an act of God’s love. What God does on the cross, God does out of love. Everything else, including satisfaction for sin, proceeds from love—it’s shaped by it, constrained by it, and is consistent with it. Otherwise, it’s not from God.

Therefore, God’s wrath—a fine biblical word that attempts to measure the distance between God’s holiness and our sinfulness—is not one of God’s attributes among others, including love. Wrath is subsumed under God’s love—i.e., whatever wrath is, it necessarily proceeds from God’s love. It’s not hard to imagine how this is the case: A loving God must also be just. A just God must punish sin. A perfectly loving and perfectly just God offers God’s self to bear the penalty on behalf of the world that he loves.

Regardless, my point is that “wrath” is not primarily what the cross is about. Not even close. To emphasize God’s wrath in relation to the cross is very nearly missing the point: It’s like seeing the movie The Social Network and saying, “Wasn’t that a great movie about Harvard University?” Well, yes but…

All that to say that I changed the line to “The love of God was satisfied,” which in my view gets at the heart of the meaning of the cross. It wasn’t even my idea. My man N.T. Wright came up with it, in this excellent essay defending penal substitution from its (many) critics. In this section, he writes appreciatively about “In Christ Alone”:

We must of course acknowledge that many, alas, have since then offered more caricatures of the biblical doctrine. It is all too possible to take elements from the biblical witness and present them within a controlling narrative gleaned from somewhere else, like a child doing a follow-the-dots puzzle without paying attention to the numbers and producing a dog instead of a rabbit.

This is what happens when people present over-simple stories with an angry God and a loving Jesus, with a God who demands blood and doesn’t much mind whose it is as long as it’s innocent. You’d have thought people would notice that this flies in the face of John’s and Paul’s deep-rooted theology of the love of the triune God: not ‘God was so angry with the world that he gave us his son’ but ‘God so loved the world that he gave us his son’. That’s why, when I sing that interesting recent song ‘In Christ alone my hope is found’, and we come to the line, ‘And on the cross, as Jesus died, the wrath of God was satisfied’, I believe it’s more deeply true to sing ‘the love of God was satisfied’. I commend that alteration to those who sing that song, which is in other respects one of the very few really solid recent additions to our repertoire. So we must readily acknowledge that of course there are caricatures of the biblical doctrine all around, within easy reach – just as there are of other doctrines, of course, such as that of God’s grace.

10 Responses to ““The love of God was satisfied””

  1. Nice work navigating some tricky waters here, Brent! I preached from Romans 3:21-26 last week & ended up in a similar place. The cross is where God’s justice, his mercy/patience & his grace intersect.

    BTW, have you ever noticed that Paul’s take on God’s wrath in Romans 1 is passive — God’s wrath gives people over to their sinful desires, to shameful lusts & to a depraved mind? It’s as if God’s wrath is what prompts God to let people have nothing to do with him — possibly so they’ll bottom out & turn back to him (like the man turned out of the Corinthian church).

    If that’s the case, then God’s wrath is actually the tough side of God’s love.

    • brentwhite Says:

      Thanks, John, and good point! Wrath must spring from love, and your insight makes clear how that’s possible. Christians sometimes pit God’s love against something else… holiness, wrath, judgment, etc. Nothing competes with God’s love. It’s all a part of love.

  2. As someone who grew up on hymns, and with a pastor and worship leader whose combined ages are less than 10 years more than mine, I like that the modern hymns (or re-worked old hymns) get into the mix of our music. But the new ones deserve a discerning eye just as much as the old ones.

    This issue may have seemed small, but it is very important. Good catch.

    • brentwhite Says:

      The shame is that this hymn is generally quite good: an actual contemporary hymn—not just a praise and worship song.

  3. brentwhite Says:

    I’m not sure who you’re arguing with here, Nick, but it isn’t me. I don’t go for all that Protestant vs. Catholic stuff. I do know that, contrary to your blog post, there is no one “Protestant” view of atonement and there is no one “Catholic” view of atonement. Penal substitution, properly understood, has enjoyed broad support since the Patristic era. The Reformers didn’t invent the concept! If anything, their view of penal substitution owed more to St. Anselm (a pretty good Catholic!) than the Christian thinkers of the first four centuries.

    Curiously, the Catholic Church never dogmatized one view of atonement—which is very wise. It’s not something that Protestants and Catholics have to divide over. Let’s celebrate what we have in common!

    I read your blog post quickly and maybe I missed something… But I notice in your proof-texting of the OT, you leave out Isaiah 53 and the Suffering Servant. That’s the most influential OT text for substitution.

    • Nick Says:

      Hello Brent,

      I was not implying there is only one Protestant view *today*, but there certainly is only one acceptable view if one is Lutheran or Calvinist. That’s why if you regularly examine various Reformed blogs today, they will jump all over anyone questioning PSub.

      I don’t agree with the claim PSub has patristic support, and I’ve never seen any good proof for that claim. The Reformers taught the core concept of the Cross was that the Father poured out His Wrath on His Son – yet this is foreign to the Fathers, St Anselm, and Scripture.

      If you are interested at a non-PSub look at Isaiah 53, see this other Article.

      One important thing to keep in mind is that Catholics believe in propitiation, satisfaction, atonement, etc, just not involving Psub.

      • brentwhite Says:

        All I can figure is that you’re defining penal substitution very narrowly and calling it the “Protestant” view. I agree that there are caricatures of what exactly substitution is. This isn’t even controversial. See Thomas Oden’s chapter, “In Our Place,” in _Classic Christianity_ (New York: HarperOne, 1992) 401-442, for a full discussion. I’m understanding substitution much more broadly than you. Or read this nice N.T. Wright essay on the subject: http://www.fulcrum-anglican.org.uk/news/2007/20070423wright.cfm?doc=205

        As for what you say Catholics believe, Protestants believe those things, too. Mainstream Lutheran and Reformed thinking is much broader than you know. There are “fundamentalists” of all Christian persuasions, who represent fringe viewpoints.

  4. Rhys Laverty Says:

    This is a pathetic warping of a marvellous Biblical truth. The Cross IS a laying down of Christ’s life in love, but it is also the satisfaction of God’s wrath. Sin is punished at the cross, so God’s wrath need not be born any more against those who are in Christ! His wrath against sin, which MUST burn, burns rightly at the cross, as Jesus becomes a curse and sin itself. But God’s wrath meets his mercy and love there. Never, EVER play down the fact that the cross is the place where God JUDGED sin. He didn’t JUST wash it away, he did that by JUDGING it in Christ, pouring out his wrath on Jesus out of love. If people “misunderstand” that, or perceive it as caricature, you don’t sugar coat it or attempt to make it more palatable. You preach Christ crucified faithfully, and with the confidence in the Spirit that the Gospel is sufficient to change people’s hearts without our own edits to it. That song isn’t meant to be a cast iron, hyper-sensitive introduction to the Gospel for a non-believer – it’s a marvellous celebration of the fact that, for the believer, Jesus bore the WRATH that we deserve, out of love on the cross.

    • brentwhite Says:

      Rhys, I hate to think how angry you’d be if I actually disagreed with you about penal substitution! Since you can easily find many other Christians who reject penal substitution altogether, why don’t you save your vitriol for them?

      It’s not a “pathetic warping” of the doctrine to say that God’s wrath is subsumed by God’s love. Out of love, God the Son, who wants what his Father wants, chose the cross as the means to reconcile humanity to God. God’s wrath isn’t something other than God’s love; it’s a consequence of God’s love. I made this clear in the post—not that you bothered to engage my argument at all.

      Besides, changing a song lyric isn’t exactly the same as changing the Bible. Where exactly in scripture can we find the words “the wrath of God was satisfied”? Nowhere. Paul’s most straightforward substitutionary language is 2 Corinthians 5:21: “He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.” No mention of the satisfaction of God’s wrath there. Not that I disagree with the idea—again, as I clearly said in my post.

      But why get so worked up about a certain formulation of words that isn’t even in the Bible?

      The truth of what God accomplishes on the cross isn’t a collection of words. We use words in a feeble but necessary attempt to get at the truth, but the truth behind the words is something else—something much bigger. Since the meaning, nuance, and connotation of words change over time, we should always be open-minded about finding better and more accurate ways of expressing the truth.

      Even Bibles get revised to reflect changes in language. But again, we’re not even talking about the Bible.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: