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"In Christ Alone," the Wrath of God, and a sad day for the PCUSA

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In a recent issue of The Christian Century (May 1, 2013; written by Mary Louise Bringle) it was reported that the Presbyterian Committee on Congregational Song (PCOCS), operating under the authority of the Presbyterian Church, U. S. A. (PCUSA) evaluated the theological merits of the popular worship song, In Christ Alone (written by Keith Getty and Stuart Townend). Evidently they are preparing for the release of the denomination’s new song collection, Glory to God.

As you probably know, the second stanza of the song contains the line, “Till on that cross as Jesus died, the wrath of God was satisfied.” An earlier version of the denomination’s hymnal had changed it to read, “Till on that cross as Jesus died, the love of God was magnified.” Although no one would deny that God’s love was magnified in the death of Christ for us, Getty and Townend, much to their credit, refused to approve the change. The committee, wrote Bringle, was faced “with a choice: to include the hymn with the authors’ original language or to remove it from our list.”

The final vote was six in favor of retaining the song with its original wording and nine against. The “No” votes prevailed and the song was removed.

I must say that, although disappointed, I’m not surprised by this event. It is simply one more stage in the gradual redefinition of God in which his wrath is no longer regarded as a personal attribute but, at best, an impersonal expression of the law of consequence (needless to say, without divine wrath, one wonders what that “consequence” could possibly be).

For many, the concept of wrath is thought to be beneath God. NT scholar C. H. Dodd (d. 1973), for example, spoke for many when he said that the notion of divine wrath is archaic and that the biblical terminology refers to no more than "an inevitable process of cause and effect in a moral universe." In other words, for such as Dodd, divine wrath is an impersonal force operative in a moral universe, not a personal attribute or disposition in the character of God. Wrath may well be ordained and controlled by God, but is clearly no part of him, as are love, mercy, kindness, etc.

Clearly, Dodd and others misunderstand divine wrath. It is not the loss of self-control or the irrational and capricious outburst of anger. Wrath is not the expression of a celestial bad temper or God lashing out at those who "rub him the wrong way." Divine wrath is righteous antagonism toward all that is unholy. It is the revulsion of God's character to that which is a violation of God's will. Indeed, one may speak of divine wrath as a function of divine love! For God's wrath is his love for holiness and truth and justice. It is because God passionately loves purity and peace and perfection that he reacts angrily toward anything and anyone who defiles them. J. I. Packer asks this question:

"Would a God who took as much pleasure in evil as He did in good be a good God? Would a God who did not react adversely to evil in His world be morally perfect? Surely not. But it is precisely this adverse reaction to evil, which is a necessary part of moral perfection, that the Bible has in view when it speaks of God's wrath" (Knowing God, 136-37).

Leon Morris agrees:

"Then, too, unless we give a real content to the wrath of God, unless we hold that men really deserve to have God visit upon them the painful consequences of their wrongdoing, we empty God's forgiveness of its meaning. For if there is no ill desert, God ought to overlook sin. We can think of forgiveness as something real only when we hold that sin has betrayed us into a situation where we deserve to have God inflict upon us the most serious consequences, and that is upon such a situation that God's grace supervenes. When the logic of the situation demands that He should take action against the sinner, and He yet takes action for him, then and then alone can we speak of grace. But there is no room for grace if there is no suggestion of dire consequences merited by sin" (The Apostolic Preaching of the Cross, 185).

But does the Bible actually speak of wrath as a characteristic feature of God’s nature? Indeed it does. The terminology for wrath is itself instructive in this regard.

The Greek word thumos is derived from thuo which originally meant "a violent movement of air, water, the ground, animals, or men" (TDNT, III:167). It came to signify the panting rage which wells up in a man's body and spirit. Thus thumos came to mean passionate anger, arising and subsiding quickly. It occurs twice in Luke, five times in Paul, once in Hebrews, and ten times in Revelation. Outside of Revelation it is used for God's wrath only once (Rom. 2:8). In Revelation it refers to God's wrath seven times, six of which have the qualifying phrase "of God" (14:10,19; 15:1,7; 16:1; 19:15).

The word orge is much more suited to a description of God's wrath in the NT. It is derived from orgao, which speaks of "growing ripe" for something or "getting ready to bear". It thus gave orge the meaning of a settled disposition or emotion arising out of God's nature. It is specifically said to be "of God" in John 3:36 (on the lips of Jesus, no less); Romans 1:18; Ephesians 5:6; Colossians 3:6; and Revelation 19:15. We read of the "wrath of the Lamb" (a shocking juxtaposition of terms, to say the least) in Revelation 6:16 (see also Rev. 6:17; 11:18; 14:10; 16:19). One should especially take note of Revelation 19:15 where John speaks of "the wine press of the fierce wrath of God, the Almighty," where "fierce" is a translation of thumos and "wrath" is a translation of orge.

Numerous texts could be cited, but let me bring this to a close by mentioning only two. The Apostle John is quite explicit when he declares that “whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him” (John 3:36). Paul echoes John with this statement: “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth” (Romans 1:18; see also Ephesians 5:6).

Here is why this was such a sad day for the PCUSA: If Jesus Christ did not himself suffer under and satisfy the wrath of God, we will. The only reason the wrath of God does not “remain” on sinners is because it fell on Christ. The only hope we have that God’s wrath is not “against” us is that it was against Christ. If Jesus did not propitiate the Father’s wrath and satisfy in himself, on the cross, the holy and righteous demands of divine justice, we have no hope. Worse still, we have no gospel, no good news, nothing to offer a lost and dying world.

Praise God from whom all blessings flow! And one of the greatest and most precious of those countless blessings is the provision of a substitute, his Son, to endure our death and exhaust in himself the wrath we so richly deserved. I have one hope for eternal life, one foundation for the forgiveness of sins, and it is the glorious truth that “on that cross as Jesus died, the wrath of God was satisfied!”

3 Comments

Trey, how would you see 'wrath towards God' working out in Romans 1:18? It doesn't seem to fit the context. It would mean that the wrath of sinful men against God (my paraphrase of your definition) comes from heaven. It would also mean that the wrath of sinful men against God has a double object, God and 'all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men.' I don't see how it fits, but I am curious to know how you would understand how you would understand this verse with the meaning 'object of wrath by those who rebel in sin'.

Huh?

Is it possible that the phrase "wrath of God" generally taken as a subjective genitive or genitive of possession could actually be an objective genitive. (e.g. "wrath of God" in the formal mean's God's wrath, or the wrath that God issues is forth. In the latter (objective genitive) it means "wrath toward God"). Since the term "wrath" carries a verbal idea, subjective and objective genitives are at least as likely as genitive of possession, if not more so, and the subjective rendering seems too awkward to be sensible. Given that, an objective genitive (which would indicate God is not wrathful, but is an object of wrath by those who rebel in sin) could be possible. Given that other references to wrath above are to actions or behavior, but not persons, the change of the phrase might be justifiable. I'm not saying it has to be that, but it may be something to think about.

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