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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.