‘On the cross, when Jesus died’ was the ‘wrath of God satisfied’?

‘In Christ Alone’ by Stuart Townend and Keith Getty is one of the most popular ‘modern hymns’, and will no doubt be sung aplenty in this Easter season. I have been especially enjoying their continued output over the last couple of years; the musical interest combined with substantial, theological lyrics are just what many churches need in their sung worship. But because they do make theological claims, these sometimes provoke controversy. In 2013, the Presbyterian Church (USA) decided to drop this hymn because the song’s authors refused to change a phrase about the wrath of God.

The original lyrics say that “on that cross, as Jesus died, the wrath of God was satisfied.” The Presbyterian Committee on Congregational Song wanted to substitute the words, “the love of God was magnified.”

The song’s authors, Stuart Townend and Nashville resident Keith Getty, objected. So the committee voted to drop the song.

Critics say the proposed change was sparked by liberals wanting to take God’s wrath out of the hymnal. The committee says there’s plenty of wrath in the new hymnal. Instead, the problem is the word “satisfied,” which the committee says refers to a specific view of theology that it rejects.

In my experience, many Christians want to revise this phrase, and sing something different in practice, and the issue continues to provoke intense discussion. What is at stake in this particular phrase? There are three aspects: what the NT says about Jesus’ death; the status of particular doctrines; and the issue of copyright in hymns and songs.

51CAuxMGYLLOn the question of wrath in the NT, several things are worth bearing in mind. First, in the NT, whilst there is plenty of discussion about God’s wrath (or sometimes just ‘the wrath’) God is never described as being ‘angry’. Wrath is always a noun, and never a verb. Stephen Travis in Christ and the Judgement of God talks of it as an effectus not an affectus, an attitude rather than a feeling. I remember his former colleague Michael Green describing God’s wrath as ‘his settled opposition to all that is evil.’

Secondly, it is described as something both present (for example in Romans 1) and future (in Romans 5.9). In fact, Romans 5.9 is the only verse in the NT which links Jesus’ death with deliverance from wrath explicitly, and here Paul clearly has the final judgement in mind, not some transaction which takes place on the cross at the time of Jesus’ death.

Thirdly (for the sake of good Anglicans) it is important to note that the Book of Common Prayer does make use of the idea of satisfaction:

All glory be to thee, Almighty God, our heavenly Father, for that thou, of thy tender mercy, didst give thine only Son Jesus Christ to suffer death upon the Cross for our redemption; who made there (by his one oblation of himself once offered) a full, perfect, and sufficient sacrifice, oblation, and satisfaction, for the sins of the whole world…

But it is worth noting that the ‘satisfaction’ of honour is a mediaeval idea, originating with Anselm of Canterbury in the eleventh century, not one that is found in the NT in relation to Jesus’ death. In any case, the BCP does not talk of ‘satisfying God’s wrath’, and the emphasis here comes from its root in the Middle English satisfien, from Anglo-French satisfier, modification of Latin satisfacere, from satis ‘enough’ and facere ‘to do or make’ and thus means paid or discharged in full. Hence I am very happy to use the words of the BCP, but still not to sing the phrase in the Townend hymn. It is also worth noting the danger of the argument ‘If you reject the phrase “the wrath of God is satisfied” are you suggesting Jesus’ death was not enough to satisfy God’s wrath?’ It is the question, not the answer, that I am rejecting. Jesus’ death is enough; but ‘satisfaction of God’s wrath’ is not language the NT would recognise.

The real danger in talking of Jesus satisfying God’s wrath is that we separate the actions of the Trinity at the cross. It appears to portray loving Jesus saving us from an angry God who metes out his punishment upon the innocent. Instead, we should see in the open arms of Jesus a welcome by a loving Father, who no longer counts our sin against us—it is from our sin and its consequences that Jesus saves us, rather than from a hateful God.

This moves us into the question of doctrine of the atonement. This is not the place to tackle this massive subject in full (!), but we must immediately recognise that the NT uses a whole range of metaphors for what happened on the cross. Apart from the language of taking our place and bearing our sins (1 Peter), the cross and resurrection of Jesus dethroned the powers (Ephesians), ended our shame (Hebrews), brought us into friendship with God (2 Cor), recapitulated the story of Israel (Matthew and Acts), began the redemption of the whole creation (Romans 8), started the recreation of humanity (Romans and 1 Cor) and reconciled the world to himself (2 Cor 5).

I have argued elsewhere that ‘reconciliation’ actually sits at the centre of Paul’s theological understanding of what God has done for us in Jesus. The late Tom Smail explored a whole range of images and ideas in his excellent Windows on the Cross which is a great resource for preaching. If we are going to engage our culture with the meaning of Jesus, we would do well to draw on the whole range of ways that Scripture uses.

However, in an earlier online discussion, one contributor expressed a view I have come across often, in objection to changing the words of this hymn:

I believe that the traditional language of the satisfaction of God’s wrath expresses the model at the very heart of the atonement and the Gospel…Further, if you don’t like the doctrine that the cross satisfied God’s wrath, don’t sing it, don’t call yourself a classical evangelical, and leave the COE. Since the BCP is part of the doctrine of the COE, to reject the BCP’s language about satisfaction is to reject the COE’s doctrine, and, for clergy, break their ordination vows. Further, Penal substitution has historically been a key belief for evangelicalism.

This is a pretty remarkable claim: if you don’t believe this phrase (even though it does not occur in the NT, is not found in the creeds, and does not in this form occur in the BCP) you are not really a proper Anglican, let alone an evangelical (though again the phrase is absent from both UCCF and CEEC bases of faith), so I suppose there is a question about whether you could call yourself a Christian at all! At one point, it sounded as though this correspondent was putting the doctrine of ‘penal substitution’ (that Jesus died in our place, being punished by God for our sins, and so satisfying God’s wrath) on the same level as belief in the Trinity, though in fact he pulled back from that in a later comment.

in-christ-aloneHere, as elsewhere, we have got ourselves into a very bad place of ‘culture wars’ in relation to doctrine, and on this (as well as eg the issue of women in leadership) it seems almost impossible to have a sensible discussion. More than that, for me it suggests a real problem in how we view doctrine. Is Scripture supposed to lead us to right doctrine, or does good doctrine help us to read the Scriptures? In my view, it is clearly the latter—it is Scripture that is ‘God-breathed’ (2 Tim 3.16) and not any doctrine textbook. This isn’t about saying truth is unimportant; it is saying that truth is not best expressed by a set of propositions alone. God did not make a mistake when he gave us the Scriptures, in all their variety and (apparent) contradictions. And our unity is not found in agreement on a particular statement of doctrine. It is found in the person of Jesus, crucified and risen, whom we proclaim as Lord, and to whom we find faithful testimony in the Scriptures. Our unity is, in fact, ‘in Christ alone.’

When Stephen Travis revised Christ and the Judgement of God, he included an additional chapter specifically responding to those proposing penal substitution as the main (or only) way to understand Jesus’ death. The chapter is a tour de force, a masterly exploration of the issue, fully engaging with alternative views, and is worth reading in full. He comments:

Most interpreters of Paul would agree with Howard Marshall, that ‘Paul’s vocabulary expresses the results of Christ’s death rather than its character, and this fits in with New Testament thought in general, which is more concerned with the nature of salvation than with the precise way in which it has been achieved.’ (p 181)

There is no place [in the OT] for the popular idea that in the sacrificial ritual God is somehow punishing the animal…or for the inference that something parallel to that is happening in the sacrificial death of Christ. (p 197)

Paul’s understanding of the death of Christ includes, but does not place at the centre, the idea that he bore the retributive punishment for our sins…To understand the atonement exclusively in those terms involves a misunderstanding of what Paul means by ‘the wrath of God.’ (p 199)

The meaning of the cross is not that God punished his Son in order to avoid punishing humanity, but that in Christ God himself took responsibility for the world’s evil and absorbed its consequences into itself. (p 200)

Finally comes the (comparatively minor) question of copyright. The Presbyterian Church were right to consult the hymn’s authors before changing the words in a published work. But what is copyright about? Principally two things: recognition of the author; and recompense for the work. It is not about hymn writers controlling our doctrine. In fact, if you read the words of the song, it is full of biblical language, and would be thought of as theologically ‘conservative’, even without this one phrase. There is plenty else here that I would hope the writers are pleased that people want to sing. So my recommendation would be to use it, to amend this one phrase, to credit the original writers, to note the amendment, and to pay up your royalty fee. Who knows? You might even end up provoking reflection on what Jesus’ death and resurrection (the NT holds the two together) actually mean for us.

Some time after first posting this discussion, I read a very good piece on The Gospel Coalition blog by Derek Rishmawy. I think Derek would want to staunchly defend the idea of ‘penal substitution’ as a way of understanding the significance of the death of Jesus, and is speaking to an audience who would agree with that, but he offers three important qualifications which match my concerns quite closely.

1. Don’t Break Up the Trinity

One common mistake is to speak as if the cross momentarily divided the Trinity. We sing rich hymns with lines like “the Father turned his face away” and mistakenly gain the impression that, on the cross, God unleashed his judgment on Jesus in such a way that ontologically separated the Father from the Son. This suggests a split in the being of the eternal, unchangeable, perfect life of Father, Son, and Spirit.

What’s more, this isn’t the historic orthodox view of penal substitution—at least not as we encounter it in Calvin. He’s quite clear:

Yet we do not suggest that God was ever inimical or angry toward [Jesus]. How could he be angry toward his beloved Son, “in whom his heart reposed” [cf. Matt. 3:17]? How could Christ by his intercession appease the Father toward others, if he were himself hateful to God? This is what we are saying: he bore the weight of divine severity, since he was “stricken and afflicted” [cf. Isa. 53:5] by God’s hand, and experienced all the signs of a wrathful and avenging God. (Institutes of the Christian Religion, II.xvi.11)…

2. Don’t Forget Love Came First

A second mistake is connected to the first. Many have rejected the atonement as the satisfaction of God’s justice because they’ve gotten the impression that Calvary is about a loving Jesus satisfying an angry Father out for blood. Even when not explicitly taught this way, many in the pews can get this impression.

But this isn’t what we see in Scripture. Instead, we see the triune God of holy love purposing from all eternity to redeem sinners for himself…

3. Don’t Assume Wrath Is Everything 

I’ve focused on issues connected to wrath and punishment because Reformed evangelical preaching tends to rightly focus on penal substitution in its preaching of the cross. Penal substitution is central and foundational. Don’t forget, though, that the cross achieved even more. Christ accomplishes a lot in his life, death, and resurrection. Herman Bavinck notes the diversity of the New Testament witness: “Like the person, the work of Christ is so multifaceted that it cannot be captured in a single word nor summarized in a single formula.” We must remember not to sideline the various other aspects of Christ’s cross-work.

For instance, when was the last time you preached on Christ’s victory over the powers of sin, death, and Satan? The drama of the gospel isn’t just about interpersonal reconciliation between God and humanity, as glorious as that is, but also about its payout in liberating God’s people from the clutches of his enemies. The apostle John tells us the same Christ who came to make atonement for sin (1 John 2:2) also came to destroy the Devil’s works (1 John 3:8).

On this last point, in a 2008 comment Steve Holmes questions the linking of ‘wrath’ with ‘satisfaction’, and even the connection between ideas of God’s wrath and any understanding of ‘penal substitution’:

If I had any idea what it meant, I could come to a theological judgement about it, but as written, it verges on nonsense. I can see no meaning of the two words ‘wrath’ and ‘satisfy’ that allows them to be combined like this – and that is not a theological judgement, it is a grammatical one, informed by nothing more (and nothing less) than the OED.

To ‘satisfy,’ I discover there, has several meanings. They cluster around the sense of an obligation being fulfilled. Thus, in atonement theology, we speak of Christ making satisfaction in terms of paying a debt, or suffering a required penalty, and so justice is satisfied. ‘Wrath,’ however, cannot be construed as an obligation; it is an attitude. As such, wrath might be appeased or averted or mollified or changed – the former pair being more theologically interesting than the latter pair – it cannot be satisfied in any meaningful sense of that term.

Of course, we might claim with sense ‘At the cross, God’s justice was satisfied, and so God’s wrath was averted.’ That may or may not be good theology, but it at least means something. But ‘wrath’ cannot be ‘satisfied,’ if the two words retain any recongisable meaning…

It seems to me clear that belief in God’s wrath, and belief in penal substitution, are logically distinct ideas, with no mutual entailment. This simple point has been missed on both sides of the debate, and much confusion has arisen as a result. God may be full of wrath towards sinners until atonement is made, but that atonement be made in a hundred non-penal ways.

The delinking of wrath and substitution here is really helpful and important.

So, when speaking of Jesus’ death for us, we need to focus on the unity of action of Jesus and the Father (and the Spirit), the primacy of love, and the cross as defeating the powers, reconciling us with God and one another, liberating us, demonstrating God’s love, leaving us an example, destroying the work of the devil and signalling the beginning of the end of ‘this age’, as well as dealing with sin and obtaining the assurance of forgiveness. Whether that leaves much of the more common uses of ‘penal substitution’ in preaching and teaching is an interesting point of debate.

I am not quite as convinced as Derek that, for example, having a developed understanding of the ‘two natures’ of Jesus will help us out of this. In the end, the idea that God himself becomes part of our world, and out of his love for us takes on the very sin which has separated, alienated and enslaved us, is a mind-boggling mystery. That does not mean we shouldn’t speak of it, still less that we shouldn’t preach on it (on Good Friday of all days, as some have suggested!). But it does mean that we should be careful to deploy the language and metaphors that we find in the New Testament—and ‘satisfying God’s wrath’ isn’t part of it.

(Previous, shorter versions posted in 2013 and 2017.)

Looking ahead to Easter Sunday, join our discussion about John 20 and the resurrection:

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258 thoughts on “‘On the cross, when Jesus died’ was the ‘wrath of God satisfied’?”

  1. Geoff

    Yes, I would view it in these terms. In his little book of Keswick sermons (Men Made New) Stott took a more Augustinian view as I remember but by the time of his BST commentary he took a position more akin to what you are saying which is where I am comfortable,

    I fear we often use Romans 7 as a justification for our frequently poor levels of godliness which I don’t think it is what is at all intended by Paul.

  2. How does one make it through a discussion on this subject without once mentioning the word “propitiation”, which, by the way, is in the Bible?


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