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Orthodoxy and In Christ Alone

By August 6, 2013 13 Comments

Note: Because of the timeliness of this blog post and because it makes such excellent observations, I invited my colleague, Greg Scheer, to post today in my stead.    His insights here are very thought-provoking in several directions at once.   — Scott Hoezee

Righteous indignation has flowed freely in response to the Presbyterian (PCUSA) church’s decision to exclude the song “In Christ Alone” from their new hymnal because of the phrase “the wrath of God was satisfied.” The hymnal committee requested to change the line to “the love of God was magnified,” but the authors—Keith Getty and Stuart Townend—refused. This has been declared “squishy love” by Timothy George ( and an abandonment of orthodoxy by David French ( It seems the song is being held up as a litmus test for orthodoxy.

I’m not a theologian except in the sense that I spend many of my waking hours writing, choosing, or thinking about the songs of the Church. I suppose that makes me a musical theologian. In that capacity, I’ll make a few comments about this musical/theological controversy.

Keith Getty (and his writing partners Stuart Townend and wife Kristyn) has been championed in “new reformed” circles because his music is seen as deeper than the average praise song and more conservative than mainline hymnody. In short, he writes praise songs for right-leaning Christian intellectuals. Being a right-leaning Christian intellectual, I appreciate his work. He’s a fine songwriter, and I’m all for him and many other songwriters who are helping us to sing a more robust faith.

However, I’m increasingly concerned that “good theology” in some circles means “bloodier-than-thou” theology. In some minds, if the gore of the cross is not fully explored, then a song isn’t really orthodox or deep. They don’t want to sing anything less than a wrathful God who tortured Jesus on the cross for us worms. Certainly the cross stands at the center of our faith, but it is only—quite literally—the starting point. The full biblical witness is expansive. Singing of justice, for example, is not diminishing the church’s witness to the same plane as “Sierra Club, Greenpeace, Occupy Wall Street, or a subscription to Mother Jones” as David French implies; instead, justice is a key biblical motif that Christians take up because of the cross, rather than instead of it.

But the real question is whether the PCUSA hymnal committee broke with orthodoxy when it voted not to include “In Christ Alone” because of the line “the wrath of God was satisfied.” I believe their decision centers not on their atonement theology, but on the wording of the phrase “the wrath of God.”

 Any attempt to attach a human emotion to God is doomed to fall short of who God really is. “Wrath” is no exception. The songwriters certainly intended to say that a holy God can’t abide sin, and only a sinless sacrifice could reconcile God and humans. But using the word “wrath” colors how we hear the theological message. Was God angry? Was God mad at Jesus? Of course, we know that the songwriters mean “righteous indignation” rather than something like heavenly road rage, but the choice of the word “wrath” carries subtext. Think of it this way: it would be valid to say that God hates sin, but if Townend and Getty had written the lyric, “Till on that cross as Jesus died/The hatred of God was satisfied,” it would communicate something unintended about the nature of God. A previous hymnal got approval to change the line in question to “The love of God was satisfied.” I like the way this focuses our attention on love as God’s motivating attribute, without diminishing the need for a sacrificial Lamb of God.

 Still not convinced that this is a semantic rather than a theological question?

 A quick look at the contents of the hymnal in question shows that the PCUSA’s Glory to God didn’t need Getty to complete their theology of the atonement. As they point out at their website ( the collection includes such hymns as “Rock of Ages,” “Judge Eternal,” and “Lamb of God.” It also includes sentiments such as “Forbid it Lord, that I should boast/save in the death of Christ my God,” “I’m saved because of his blood,” and “My hope is built on nothing less than Jesus’ blood and righteousness.” Unorthodox, indeed!

This controversy has been good advertising for the Gettys. Links to their music have been included in every blog post that has discussed the PCUSA’s decision. NPR even ran a piece recently that seemed to promote the idea that the Gettys are single-handedly reviving modern church music:   ( “In Christ Alone” is what theologically informed orthodox Christians sing, as opposed to vapid Praise & Worship or unorthodox liberal mainline hymns. In some circles, the PCUSA’s decision is cast as a direct attack on the Christian faith. They can’t even conceive of orthodox worship taking place without the song. Truth is, the Church has been singing the full faith for centuries before the Gettys came along.

Personally, I would have included the song in the hymnal. God’s wrath is not the primary topic I want to communicate to God’s people, but the song has enough to commend it that it seems a pity to exclude it. And certainly the larger Glory to God hymnal paints a broad enough picture of God that one mention of wrath will be interpreted in a larger context. But whether I, the PCUSA, or a hundred irate bloggers would or would not include the song in their hymnal is not as important as the way these conversations play out among brothers and sisters in Christ. There was a distinct glee that accompanied the pronouncements that the mainline church is now officially apostate because it doesn’t devote a page of its hymnal to a Keith Getty song. Not only is this a thin assessment of orthodoxy, but an ungracious assessment of fellow believers.

I fully expect to spend eternity with Keith Getty, Stuart Townend, and the entire editorial board of the PCUSA hymnal. I wish we would spend more of our energies now preparing for that reality rather than pointing fingers and flaunting our more-orthodox-than-thou attitudes. Our orthodoxy and our justification is found in Christ alone. And I don’t mean the song…


— Greg Scheer is Minister of Worship at Church of the Servant in Grand Rapids and Music Associate at the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. His writings include The Art of Worship: A Musician’s Guide to Leading Modern Worship (Baker Books, 2006) and contributions to The HymnCall to Worship, Worship Leader, and the New Songs of Celebration Render (ed C. Michael Hawn, GIA 2013). His music is available from Augsburg Fortress, GIA, Abingdon Press, WorshipToday, Faith Alive, in numerous hymnals—including the PCUSA’s Glory to God—and at


Scott Hoezee

Scott Hoezee is Director of the Center for Excellence in Preaching at Calvin Theological Seminary.


  • Todd Z. says:

    I appreciate the thoughtful response about the "heat" this decision has caused and reminding us of the breadth of Christian theology in which the cross is a central theme, but far from the only one.

    However, the issue may not be about "wrath." Some would say it is about the word "satisfied." An acquaintance passed along a link to an article where a member of the editorial board of this hymnal was interviewed.

    I'll let you read it for yourself:

    By the way, your song based on Psalm 145–"One Generation Shall Call to the Next" is a new favorite of our church. Thank you.

  • Jake says:

    It's always good to be reminded that grace trumps self-righteousness and anger.

  • Ron Rienstra says:

    <stands up, begins clapping slowly, but enthusiastically>

  • Laura says:

    Did the Calvin Institute for Christian Worship have permission to change the words of "In Christ Alone" in "Contemporary Songs for Worship"? They changed "no scheme of man" to "no human plan", a change that, I think, softens the effect with general rather than specific words.

  • Thanks for the great reflections, Scott. It's awesome to see such careful thought and broader conversation about music and worship. I think your distinction between atonement theology and the wrath of God phrase is helpful, though such matters are hopelessly connected as well.

    Readers might be interested in my reflections, as a member of the Presbyterian committee: The Wrath of God, PCUSA, & a Hymnal

  • Sorry, I mean "Greg" above, not "Scott" though I'm grateful for Scott providing a place to host the conversation.

  • Michael Hawn says:

    Thanks Greg for a thoughtful and well-considered commentary. Most every hymnal has its "tempest in a teapot." For The United Methodist Hymnal (1989) it was the initial exclusion of "Onward Christian Soldiers," a decision that was later revoked, but which gave the hymnal great publicity in a variety of national media (print and broadcast).

    A few folks have cast this as a conservative/liberal struggle. I regret that it seems necessary to use this ineffective and politically charged dichotomy to frame discussions by thoughtful and discerning Christians regardless of position. One question for any hymnal committee is to balance the tradition (in this case Reformed) with the ecumenical church. As you mention in your response, the atonement theory that focuses on the Wrath of God is certainly one perspective. I would hope that other entries in the hymnal also focus on the love of God. I would hardly consider John 3:16–the first scripture I learned as a child–to be "Squishy love."

    Those that lean toward the need for a God of love in a world full of oppression, hate, greed, and abuse should not be cast as liberal. For many people in the midst of these and other manifestations of the human condition, the wrath of God is not Good News. At the same time, faith is not easy and grace is not cheap.

    Like any congregational song in a larger collection, it needs to be considered in the context with other hymns on a similar theme. Getty and Townend are indeed offering some thoughtful sung expressions for current Christians. Given the plethora and quality of songs for Christians in the 21st century, it would be inaccurate, however, to suggest that they are "single-handidly reviving modern church music." Such simplistic claims are common in media.

    Anytime a song moves beyond it's culture (denominational, ethnic, and historical) of origin, it will be subject to a more ecumenical analysis. There are many reasons that hymnal editors change texts to fit their context. With all due respect, Timothy George cites examples that are mostly extreme and may leave the impression that all textual alterations are heretical in nature. This is hardly true, but textual alterations do make a difference in poetic integrity and theological focus–some for the better and some not so.

    It appears that, above all, how we sing our faith still matters and that is what I want to carry away most of all from this discussion. We might bring equal theological discernment to other favorites we sing and revel in various views shared. While a hymn (and by that I mean any congregational song) is a theological document, it is not an official confession or creed. It is lyrical theology–a sacred art work. As such, it leaves room for reflection and varying interpretations. Thank God that the unity of the Christian community does not demand uniformity in all things.

  • david bunker says:

    It is the assumption, somewhat arrogant I might add, that God needs a screener for every song the Church sings to measure its piety in the text. One of the reasons African American hymnody has had such a powerful & long lasting imprint on so many around the world is that the heart of God is so deeply "felt" the truth of God seems evident. We modernists are so entrenched in our cerebral encounter with God we now argue over the heart's delight, the fears planted deep in the soul & the poetry of praise. We are a lesser people for it.

  • Tim says:

    The wrath of God is a biblical theme (Rom. 1; Eph. 2). The wrath of God is not a capricious emotion–as in humans. Our anger is typically motivated by our selfishness. God's anger is provoked only by sin.
    This issue seems to hinge on the the propitiation vs. expiation argument. Did Christ's death satisfy God's anger or remove our guilt? Expiation describes the latter; propitiation includes both aspects.
    Scripture is clear that we deserve God's wrath. God absorbed his own wrath through the offering Jesus.
    See John Stott's "The Cross of Christ."
    "It is God who in holy wrath needs propitiating, God himself who in holy love undertook to do the propitiating and God himself who in the person of his son died for the propitiation of our sins. Thus God took his own loving initiative to appease his own righteous anger by bearing it his own self in his own son when he took our place and died for us. There is no crudity here to evoke our ridicule, only the profundity of holy love to evoke our worship." 172-173.

    It is here that love and grace make sense. Our sin is utter rebellion and thus deserves God's wrath. His wrath was satisfied as the Lamb of God offered himself. It is only through this propitiation that reconciliation is possible.

  • Jill Friend says:

    Thanks for a thoughtful post Greg. Our congregation also loves to sing your song "One Generation…" or "We Will Extol You, God and King" as it is called in "Lift Up Your Hearts". I am grateful for so many new hymn writers who are writing so many wonderful new expressions of faith for the church. Thank you for your perspective on the tone of our conversations around these kind of topics.

  • Greg Scheer says:

    Thank you for all of your insights. It does my heart good to hear worshipers discussing deeply and graciously the songs we sing in church. We may come to different conclusions about "In Christ Alone" and other issues, but we all believe that it matters. That's important.

    As Michael mentioned above, a song is a theological document, but not an official creed. This is the tension I continue to explore. On the one hand, songs do form our faith in real ways. (What I call a "theology of the heart.") On the other hand, songs can't be expected to be precise theological documents in the same ways as our creeds and confessions. (And even our creeds and confessions only begin to scratch the surface of the "depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God.")

    So we muddle along as faithfully as we can, attempting to place a good diet of sung theology on our people's plates each week. Thank you all for co-muddling with me!



    PS – Laura, my understanding is that the changes made to "In Christ Alone" in Contemporary Songs for Worship were done with the permission of Keith Getty, a friend of the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship and FaithAlive. When later requests were made, Stuart Townend was involved, and he was against any changes. Don't quote me on that, though.

  • Laura says:

    Greg – You realize you just put that "don't quote me" on the internet. 😉
    I wanted to agree with the others on your "One Generation" song as well as your other great arrangements in "Contemporary Songs for Worship". My congregation is willing to sing new songs but some really want notes and not just lyrics. This little songbook is a balanced "greatest hits" of the last 10 or so years. I just wish there was a CD to go along with it to help people learn them who don't play piano.

    One more "shout out" for your book, "The Art of Worship – A Musician's Guide to Leading Modern Worship". A unique book. It helps those churches and music ministers deal with blended worship which is where most of us are. Interestingly, I picked it up at the Sovereign Grace Worship Conf led by Bob Kauflin, a group that is "reformed" in lyrics, charismatic in style.

    Here's a quote from Greg's book to whet someone's appetite:
    "Two worlds collide in today's worship: the world of the classically trained organist, choir director, or music minister, and the world of the play-by-ear, chord-chart-reading pop musician. Although these worlds have much in common, they rarely meet and they have no common language. It is my contention that each of these musical worlds has strengths and weaknesses and much to learn from each other."

  • Of course, there are some who think that the PCUSA/UPCUSA/PCUS apostasized decades ago. There's no glee in apostasy, just the grim truth. Our reluctance to embrace that judgment hints that we might be heading down the same path. I heard the complaint about "In Christ Alone" in discussions of its inclusion in Lift Up Your Hearts. I was aghast and said so at the time. Maybe the Heidelberg Catechism is no longer our confession but just the confession of the church way back when, as it is in the PCUSA today.

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