In Christ Alone, but Not in the Hymnal: A Theological Reflection Case Study

“Fans of a beloved contemporary Christian hymn won’t get any satisfaction” in the new Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) hymnal, Glory to God, according to USA Today. When the hymn’s authors refused to change their lyrics the Presbyterian Committee on Congregational Song voted to drop it. Some say it’s about the “wrath of God.” Others that it’s the word “satisfied” and the theology that goes along with it. When Stuart Townend and Keith Getty wrote their 2001 hymn one stanza went like this:

In Christ alone, who took on flesh, Fullness of God in helpless babe! This gift of love and righteousness, Scorned by the ones He came to save: Till 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.

The new hymnal committee, though, had found the song in a recently printed hymnal by a group of Baptists where the words were different: “Till on that cross as Jesus died The love of God was magnified.” In the process of clearing copyrights the committee discovered that the authors had not approved and would not approve the change. The altered words went too far. 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. This was the view of Anselm of Canterbury and John 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 one’s personal view it is nonetheless a view held by some members of the Presbyterian family of faith. In addition, the hymnal is not a vehicle for one group’s perspective but rather a collection for use by a diverse body. Others pointed out that a hymnal does not simply collect diverse views, but also selects to emphasize some over others as part of its mission to form the faith of coming generations. They said it would be a disservice to this educational mission to perpetuate by way of a new text the view that the cross is primarily about God’s need (via Jesus’ death) to assuage God’s anger. Rather, Jesus’ death on the cross is the supreme example of God’s suffering love and that love changes our lives entirely.

As you reflect on the “work of Jesus on the cross” remember that the “Confession of 1967” says that “God’s reconciling act in Jesus Christ is a mystery which the Scriptures describe in various ways. It is called the sacrifice of a lamb, a shepherd’s life given for his sheep, atonement by a priest; again it is ransom of a slave, payment of debt, vicarious satisfaction of a legal penalty, and victory over the powers of evil. These are expressions of a truth which remains beyond the reach of all theory in the depths of God’s love for man. They reveal the gravity, cost, and sure achievement of God’s reconciling work.” (Book of Confessions, 9.09) Questions for Discussion What did Jesus accomplish on the cross? Is the cross necessary because of God’s wrath toward human beings because of our sin? Does “satisfied” mean that Jesus paid the whole price for sins, the price necessary to overcome God’s wrath? Or is the focus on the love of God thus “magnified”? What do you think? And why?

Sources: a USA Today article printed in the Charlotte Observer (August 10, 2013, p. 2E); an article by Mary Louise Bringle in the Christian Century (May 2013); Donald K. McKim, Presbyterian Questions, Presbyterian Answers; a blog by Adam Coleman.