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Some years ago when Rob Bell was still pastor at the West Michigan megachurch Mars Hill, a few of my students (among others) noticed that when the Mars Hill congregation sang the Keith Getty / Stuart Townend song “In Christ Alone,” a part of a lyric went missing.  Specifically it was the line that on the cross “the wrath of God was satisfied.”  (And if at the time it was a little unclear what was behind this, Bell’s subsequent squishy book on hell clarified matters.)  Then some time later I heard that the committee putting together a new Presbyterian hymnal had asked Getty if they also could swap in something different for that one line in the song.  Getty said no, and last I knew, “In Christ Alone” was left out of the hymnal despite being probably the most globally famous worship song of the last quarter century.

At issue here is, in part, that aspect of traditional atonement theory called “penal substitution.”  The worldwide ecumenical church has never nailed down any one theory on Christ’s atonement as being thee defining theory without which one could not be considered orthodox.  The church writ large did do that on other topics including the Trinity and the incarnation / natures of Christ.  But where the atonement is concerned—and as detailed in Gustaf Aulen’s classic work Christus Victor—several schools of thought and models for the atonement emerged in history.

Penal substitutionary atonement is a leading model but also popular in history have been theories that suggest a radical victory over the devil, a kind of ransom paid to the devil, and in more modern times the (in my opinion vastly weaker and insufficient) idea of the atonement as a moral example meant to inspire change in human hearts.  As Aulen points out, one clear dividing line where atonement is concerned is how seriously a given theory takes sin and evil.  The more robust one’s view of sin’s gravity, the more robust the corresponding atonement theory will be.

In particular in history the most vigorous theories make it clear that God is the sole actor in the atonement because only God has the power—and the grace—to overcome the formidable problem and the cosmic disruption that just is sin.  Only God in Christ can conquer the devil, sin, and sin’s gravest penalty—and the last enemy—of death. 

Aulen also points out, however, that by the Middle Ages, theories on the atonement began to center on legal arguments with the courtroom becoming a leading image.  Christ’s work began to lose a bit of the cosmic drama depicted in Scripture.  The dramatic victory of life over death, of God over sin and the devil receded a bit in favor of more judicial, legalistic language and imagery.  Perhaps this is why some in church history have concluded that the atoning work of Christ is so rich, textured, and varied that only by allowing all of the leading biblical and theological images/models of the atonement to nuance and enrich one another do we even come close to grasping the enormity of what happened on and through Christ’s cross.

Well of course much more could be said (and much more was said by Fleming Rutledge in her outstanding book The Crucifixion, which I recommend in the highest).  But one thing that came through loud and clear to me in my education at Calvin Seminary is that we must never in all this depict an angry God.  Or at least we need to be very clear when associating God with anger that this is never a core attribute of God.  As the renowned Jewish scholar Abraham Heschel always pointed out, in the Hebrew Scriptures the God of Israel was never fundamentally angry.  If it’s an angry god you want, go to the Greeks or Romans who have gods who seem just basically hacked off all the time.  But although the God of Israel got rightly angered at sin, evil, and injustice and could not in the long run let such things stand, it was always Love offended and Holiness affronted that led to any divine anger toward the world or toward Israel specifically.  But as Heschel pointed out, if it’s God’s leading attribute you want, look no further than that classic Hebrew word chesed: lovingkindness, goodness, mercy, grace.

As my professors made clear, then, we do not believe in what German theologians termed “die Umstimmung Gottes” or a fundamental change in God’s attitude.  God was never an angry deity in need of placating.   God was always loving and that is why it is true that it was while we were yet sinners that God loved us enough to save us.  Yes, the offense of sin needs to be removed, its penalty paid for, its source in the devil vanquished, and its worst fallout of death defeated.  But not because God needed to change.

Of course, I am writing all of this because one of the decisions at the recent CRCNA Synod that has received a bit less attention had to do with penal substitutionary atonement.  After someone with serious questions about this—or maybe a tendency to deny this—got ordained in the CRCNA, there were calls to declare questioning or denying penal substitutionary atonement a heresy such that any who held to such views could be disciplined accordingly.  Synod stopped short of declaring this but did label a denial of this aspect of the atonement—which is the leading model in the Reformed Confessions—a “significant deviation.”

This was received with gladness among many but what troubles me is how some have talked about it since Synod 2022.  In one podcast I heard in late July, a leading pastor in the more conservative circles of the CRCNA said that in the wider church it is a real problem that “some react against the idea that God is an angry God” and that this has crept into the CRCNA.  He also suggested that the road back to a more robust orthodoxy will be to help people accept and get comfortable with the fact of “an angry God.”

I am going to give this colleague the benefit of the doubt that he misspoke, which is also why I am not identifying him here.  But the fact is that when some people want to drop a line like “the wrath of God was satisfied” from a song, the reason is precisely because they fear that such a sentiment is premised on the idea that the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ is fundamentally angry.  Or they worry that in the ears and hearts of some people, hearing a line like that in a song will prop up the image of the angry Father, which for many abused children is the last thing we in the church should ever wish to conjure about God or about Jesus.  It’s bad enough that in some evangelical churches Jesus is more and more portrayed like a gun-toting culture warrior of Rambo-esque proportions (and lord knows Rambo was nothing if not fundamentally angry).  But that’s hardly a trend to encourage.

So yes, I am all in favor of seeing sin as a problem of cosmic proportions.  I take the devil and death and evil with all due Calvinist seriousness.  And therefore I believe that a penalty had to be paid, a sacrifice had to be made, a victory had to be won, and death had to die.  Any atonement theory that tries to chip away at that will surely lead to other significant errors.  But let’s not for a moment talk about “an angry God” in general.  Because that kind of language can also quickly lead into all manner of errors even as it, unsurprisingly, does grave damage to a robust witness to the Gospel.

Scott Hoezee

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

12 Comments

  • Leonard J Vander Zee says:

    Scott, you mention hell in reference to Rob Bell’s “squishy” theology. In this context it’s important to remember that the classic doctrine of hell as eternal punishment does present a problem if one wants to eradicate the “angry God” picture. David Bentley Hart has pointed out in his rather angry book, “That All Shall Be Saved,” that maintaining a picture of a loving God in the light of the endless fires of hell is difficult to say the least. The problem, it seems to me, is the failure to keep our eyes firmly fixed on Jesus Christ as the ultimate and authentic face of God. Of course, Jesus himself famously mentions Gehenna, but Hart does a pretty good job, in my estimation, of dealing with that hellish problem.

  • RZ says:

    Thanks for the wise perspective here, Scott! Anger is presumptively attributed to God.
    As to atonement theories, I appreciate NT Wright’s image of St Paul pacing the room , rubbing his temples, trying to figure out the deep mysteries of the incarnation and the atonement, processing out loud from his context as a lawyer, a student of logic, a devout Jew, and a totally transformed missionary. How does one explain such wonders in words, let alone doctrine! Centuries later comes St. Augustine attempting the same thing. And today we are still unpacking the words of these authorities, whose words are already second or third- hand from the wonders themselves. How does one capture the motivation and the heart of almighty God? No wonder we have a half-dozen atonement theories!
    But the influencer who haunts me is Jonathon Edwards. I do not understand why there is such tacit approval for that famous sermon that does such harm to the image of God. Really? “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God”? “……dangling sinners over the flames of hell”?
    The abuse of the text, apparently for the purpose of fueling his personal revival, has been so destructive. Preachers quote him as if he was inspired!
    Once one assumes an angry, vindictive God, it is one small step to becoming an angry crusader for that God. Righteous zeal sounds so appropriate, but it can be so deceiving. Church history, anyone?
    Neuro- science has taught us that the angry, threat-response portion of the brain robs necessary energy from the discerning, reflecting, relational portion of the brain. Angry responses become increasingly normal, self-justified, and habitual. Neuropathways become ever-deepening neuro-trenches. “The end justifies the means. Win at all costs. Control the narrative!!! God is angry, so am I. And I am angry for God.”
    Not sure who said this originally, but I find it profound:
    Pay attention to your thoughts. They become your words.
    Pay attentin to your words. They become your actions (and your attitude).
    Pay attention to your actions. They become your habits.
    Pay attention to your habits. They become your character.
    Pay attention to your character. It will become your destiny.

    In summary, words matter, attitude matters, humility matters.

  • Jeff Brower says:

    Thoughtful reflections, Scott, I appreciate this. I think it was John Stott who said that the cross is like the rings of a tree–the cross section that we see is a manifestation of what runs up and down the length of the trunk. In the same way, the cross doesn’t change God but expresses his everlasting love.

    The parable of the unforgiving servant, if you think about it, hides a picture of the atonement. The king forgives the servant his debt, but where does the debt go? Does it just poof out of existence? No, the king assumes it. He puts it on his own shoulders, and swallows it. On the cross, the just king fulfills the demands of his own justice, the Holy Trinity, so to speak, swallows its own wrath, so that we might have life.

    My only question is, how would you square what you say here with HC Q and A 10 “God is terribly angry with the sin that we are born with as well as the sins that we personally commit”. Is there a nuance in the original language that’s lost in translation? Or does the fact that it’s framed in terms of his justice give a different interpretation to those words?

    • Eric Van Dyken says:

      Hi Jeff,

      It seems to me that the key to that sentence is the object of God’s wrath: “terribly angry with the sin”. We can and should rightly remember that our sin is very serious and God in his holiness and justice cannot countenance sin, such his anger burns against sin. But we can do this without more generally assigning anger as a defining attribute, particularly in the sense that we sometimes anthropomorphize God and can be tempted to imagine him as our grumpy uncle or the person who we know with a generally angry disposition. I don’t think the two are in disagreement, but as with so many things in Scripture, we must hold them in proper tension.

  • Tom Boogaart says:

    Scott, I have found these words from Heschel especially helpful in understanding the biblical notion of the wrath of God: “The wrath of God is a lamentation. All prophecy is one great exclamation: God is not indifferent to evil! He is always concerned, He is personally affected by what man does to man. He is a God of pathos. This is one of the meanings of the anger of God; the end of indifference.” Heschel’s notion of lamentation reframes the debate for us and shows the way forward. This and other insights are found in the chapter, “The Mystery and Meaning of Wrath” in Heschel’s book, The Prophets.

  • Eric Van Dyken says:

    Small correction: Synod used the phrase “serious deviation”, not “significant deviation.” This is consequential to the extent that the seriousness of the deviation is what drives the resultant conclusion that officebearers who deny this doctrine are worthy of special discipline.

  • Daniel Bos says:

    The Heidelberg Catechism in Q&A 1 has at least these two analogies to describe the atonement:

    “He has fully paid for all my sins with his precious blood,
    and has set me free from the tyranny of the devil.”

    Forgiven and redeemed plus ransomed, anointed, given new life. . . .
    “and makes me wholeheartedly willing and ready
    from now on to live for him.”

  • Steven L Skahn says:

    God’s anger flow from his being a God of love. Just as we cannot help but be angry when we see cruelty, so God cannot help, being a God of love and calling us to live lives of love, be angry when he sees the horrible things human beings do to each other. As the Bible says, God is love. If so, he cannot be angry with the lack of love he sees in this world.

  • Lena says:

    Scott, there are many, many Bible verses talking about God’s anger and the wrath of God. Also, Penal substitutional atonement is mentioned many, many times in the Bible and is at the very heart of the gospel. I’m not at all worried about a Rambo style Jesus in the Christian Reformed church, but I am concerned that CRC leaders might eventually only present the loving side of Jesus.

  • David E Stravers says:

    Scott, thanks for this. Have you ever reviewed N.T. Wright’s opinions regarding penal substitutionary atonement? (He’s opposed, I believe)

  • John Suk says:

    Of course, none of us (well, very few) want an angry God. But the article would have been strengthened by making a case for a God who is not angry. There are so many Old Testament stories that portray God in the “angry,” mode that it seems necessary to make the case that God is not usually angry about something or other. The myth and horror of the flood story, the plagues, the forty-two young men/boys killed by two she bears for teasing a prophet, the angel of death that killed seventy-thousand (as I recall) for David’s sin, the destruction of Israel and Judah for practicing freedom of religion — well, how is this not an angry God? If the New Testament is in view, the book of Revelation is another full of portraits of divine anger. Again, we don’t want an angry God, but you need to make the case in view of so much evidence to the contrary.

  • Joel DeMoor says:

    Thanks Scott. Our problem with anger, I suspect, is that we’ve never met anyone who can keep it fully loving. Appreciate your warning against using it as a wide lens, theologically or otherwise… The more pressing heresy these days though seems to be our desire to see God (and Jesus) as being as dipsychos (divided, two-souled, double-minded) as we are… loving/gracious/kind on the one side (i.e. only up to a point) and truthful/judgmental/wrathful/angry on the other side, as if these are just two halves of his character and essense, making him full of neither. God is altogether loving and holy and good etc. Grace is truth, radical hospitality is radical discipleship, his anger is an expression of his love, and never outside it. Jesus came inexhaustably full of both grace and truth, and we need to stop imagining them as two separable, limitable qualities (or conflicting priorities). He is One, and he prays by his Spirit and example, we may learn to be too.

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