Many years ago (we won’t say how long), my high school English class snickered our way through the classic American sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” by Jonathan Edwards. If the formal language wasn’t silly enough, statements like these surely were:
They deserve to be cast into hell; so that divine justice never stands in the way, it makes no objection against God’s using his power at any moment to destroy them. Yea, on the contrary, justice calls aloud for an infinite punishment of their sins.
Our teenage theology made no room for a vengeful God—if any God at all. He was supposed to be all about love, after all. Truth be told, none of us were completely sure, but laughter and derision made the underlying tension easier to handle.
This same tension over God’s love and wrath recently popped up in a controversial decision by the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). Committee members working on the denomination’s new hymnal wanted to add the modern hymn “In Christ Alone,” but to do so they asked for one significant change, as reported by Christianity Today:
[The committee hoped] to avoid theological controversy by altering the modern hymn’s 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.”
However, authors Keith Getty and Stuart Townend rejected the proposal. So the committee voted six to nine to bar the hymn.
“The song has been removed from our contents list, with deep regret over losing its otherwise poignant and powerful witness,” committee chair Mary Louise Bringle told The Christian Century. The “view that the cross is primarily about God's need to assuage God’s anger” would have a negative impact on worshippers’ education, according to Bringle.
One could argue that the committee is quibbling over the “primary purpose” of the cross. But the members seem to have lost sight of the foundations of the denomination. After all, the lyric is certainly in line with the Reformed roots of the PCUSA. John Calvin in his Institutes discussed God’s wrath in very similar terms to “In Christ Alone” (which might well get him banned, too):
for Christ could not merit anything save by the good pleasure of God, but only inasmuch as he was destined to appease the wrath of God by his sacrifice, and wipe away our transgressions by his obedience….
More worrisome, though, is how such a move highlights a growing tendency to soft-pedal God’s wrath by making the gospel message more palatable for the modern mindset. As Timothy George points out, this idea completely ignores vast swaths of Scripture and church history:
However we account for the work of Christ on the cross—and none of our atonement theories is adequate to explain fully so profound a reality—it surely means this: that God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself, and that this event involved his purposeful “handing over” and “delivering up” of his Son to a cursed-filled death at the Skull Place outside the gates of Jerusalem (2 Cor. 5:19; Rom. 8:32; Acts 2:23). As the early Christians understood Isaiah 53:4-5, Christ was pierced there for our transgressions, smitten by God and afflicted.
God’s unconditional love (hesed) blazes all the brighter when set against the backdrop of His wrath (Deuteronomy 7:9). This isn’t a disconnect, as the PCUSA committee contends; it’s a brilliant truth that makes the cross that much more amazing (Ephesians 2:16; Colossians 1:20). Or as Dr. J. Vernon McGee puts it so bluntly:
There’s only one place for the lost who have rejected the Lord Jesus Christ and that's with the devil and his demons. Don't say that a loving God is going to send you to hell - He's not. The thing that's going to send you to hell is that you're a sinner and you don't want to admit it. That's the problem with the human family. It's a self will, a desire to want to go their way. Yet God has provided a way for you to come. And any time you want to make the turn, a loving God will save you.