By Robert A.J. Gagnon, Ph.D.
In the previous installment we showed how ironic and absurd it was for a Presbyterian Church USA hymnal committee to think it was their “educational mission” to censor the song “In Christ Alone” for the words “the wrath of God was satisfied” given that this doctrine played a crucial role in the understanding of salvation put forward by the father of Reformed faith, John Calvin, and by virtually every Reformed confession in the PCUSA’s own Book of Order.
As the chair of the Presbyterian Committee on Congregational Song tells it in her Christian Century article “Debating Hymns,” the nine members of the hymnal committee voted against the hymn “In Christ Alone” after voting for it. They did so because “it would do a disservice to [the committee’s] educational mission [of forming the faith of coming generations] to perpetuate … the view that the cross is primarily about God’s need to assuage God’s anger.” The song was acceptable when they thought the original lyric was “the love of God was magnified” but couldn’t be stomached once they realized that the original wording was “the wrath of God was satisfied.”
Either these nine committee members are ignorant of the witness of Scripture, or they have little concern for what Scripture says when it conflicts with their own preconceived views of what God is like. What better place to demonstrate the significance of the scriptural theme of what I call “substitutionary amends” (but which is more commonly known by the infelicitous expression “penal substitutionary atonement” or just “penal substitution”) than to turn to the single most important theological letter in the New Testament, Paul’s letter to the Romans.
The case for and in Paul’s Letter to the Romans
Although Romans is not a systematic “compendium of Christian doctrine” (as the Reformer Melanchthon once called it), it is the closest thing that we have to a full presentation of Paul’s gospel. The church has long recognized that Paul’s letter to the Romans is the definitive unpacking of the gospel in the New Testament. Indeed, Romans has played an indispensable role in renewing the church over the past two millennia.
Central to the presentation of the gospel in Romans is the combination of the twin theme sets of God’s wrath and judgment on the one hand and God’s love and grace on the other. Paul depicts Christ’s death on the cross as the God-initiated, amends-making, and price-paying pivot. Christ’s atoning death makes it possible for God to move those with faith from being under his wrath and destined for destruction to being under his grace and destined for salvation.
The cross is at one and the same time the greatest demonstration of God’s love for humanity and the definitive satisfaction of God’s justice. Were it not necessary that amends or restitution be made for human sin, the death of Jesus on the cross would have been for nothing. Had God not loved his rebellious human creation, nothing could have induced him to allow his Son to die an excruciating and ignominious death. The cross is motivated by God’s love and necessitated by God’s justice.
God’s wrath and judgment in Romans 1:18-3:20
The concepts of God’s wrath and God’s judgment dominate Rom 1:18-3:20 where Paul lays out most fully a diagnosis of the human problem (note that prior to 1:18 is the letter prescript [1:1-7], thanksgiving [1:8-15], and thesis statement [1:16-17]). God’s wrath or anger (Gk. orge) against sinful humanity is mentioned five times, including the kickoff verse in 1:18 (thereafter 2:5 [twice]; 2:8; 3:5; later three more times in 4:15; 5:9; 9:22). God’s role as punishing judge is mentioned almost a dozen more times in the same section (1:32; 2:2-5, 9, 16; 3:4, 7-8, 19; a theme continuing elsewhere in Romans, particularly 6:15-8:17).
Given this emphasis on God’s wrath and judgment, there is no place in the discussion for Satan as the one to whom amends is made. Amends is made to God through Christ at God’s own initiative and at greatest cost to God and God’s Son. It is impossible to explain how God’s wrath and judgment are averted apart from Christ making amends to God for human sin. As Calvin rightly put it: “If the effect of [Christ’s] shedding of blood is that our sins are not imputed to us, it follows that God’s judgment was satisfied by that price (…eo pretio satisfactum esse iudicio Dei; Institutes 2.17.4).
Romans 1:18 sets the stage for what follows (through 3:20) with a reference to God’s (not Satan’s) wrath:
For the wrath of God is being revealed from heaven upon all ungodliness and unrighteousness of humans who, in unrighteousness, are suppressing the truth.
An explanation follows about how God “hands over” humans who do not “honor God as God” to enslavement to their self-dishonoring sinful desires — a sort of passive-aggressive stage of God’s punishment. This handing over of humans to the controlling influence of their preexisting sin causes people to heap up their sins so as to incur God’s cataclysmic judgment at the end. It is “the righteous decree of God,” not of Satan, “that those who are practicing such (sinful) things are worthy of death” (1:32).
“The judgment of God,” not of Satan, is imposed rightly (literally, “in accordance with the truth”) “on those who practice such things” (2:2). It is foolhardy to think that one can commit such offenses impenitently and “escape the judgment of God,” even if (not especially if) one judges those who do such things (2:3). The fact that God threatens wrath upon the unrepentant does not cancel out the fact that God also has a “wealth of kindness and forbearance [literally, a ‘holding back’ of his wrath] and patience” (2:4). On the contrary, these qualities are supposed to “lead” people “to repentance” (2:4). Those who do not repent “store up … wrath on the Day of Wrath, that is, (the day) of the revelation of the righteous judgment of God” (2:5).
The message here has everything to do with the debt that humans incur before God for their wrongdoing and nothing to do with paying off a debt to Satan. Lest one miss the point that God is an active judge in all this, Paul adds a quotation from Prov 24:12 (= Ps 62:11): God “will repay to each in accordance with his works” (2:6). It is not as if death and permanent exclusion from God is merely a natural or mechanistic outgrowth of one’s choices over which God has no active involvement. God actively repays. And what does God repay to the impenitent? Paul is clear: “wrath and fury” (2:8) and “affliction and distress” (2:9). By “wrath” he clearly means the punishment that God actively inflicts of exclusion from eternal life (note the contrast with “eternal life” in 2:7). Later in ch. 2 Paul refers to “the day when God judges the hidden things of people” (2:16).
Particularly significant is the theme of God’s judging wrath in Paul’s dialogue with an imaginary Jewish interlocutor in Rom 3:1-8. At stake is the question of whether God can be faithful, righteous, and true to his covenant promises to Israel if he pronounces eschatological judgment on Jews who violate the covenant through their sin. Paul’s emphatic response is “May it not happen!” (Gk. mē genoito; 3:3). Paul cites Ps 116:11, “every human is a liar,” and then David’s words in Ps 51:4 (traditionally associated with the Bathsheba episode), which state that God will “prevail when he makes his case for judgment.” Paul has put before his imaginary Jewish dialogue partner the scene of a law court: God takes the stand in his own defense and shows why his judgment of sinners is right and why no human being can claim his judgment to be otherwise.
Paul then asks his interlocutor rhetorically: “The God who brings on us wrath is not unrighteous, is he?” (3:5). Paul again answers emphatically: “May it not happen! For otherwise how will God judge the world?” Note that the phrase “bringing on wrath” parallels the verb “judge.” It has an activity-oriented sense. God inflicts the recompense for sin associated with his anger toward human unrighteousness. The context is that not even Jews in covenant with God will escape God’s judgment, sans reception of the gospel about Christ (the judgment of Gentiles is obvious). The Jewish interlocutor protests: “But if the truthfulness of God abounded by means of my lie to his glory, why am even I still being judged like a (Gentile) sinner?” (3:7). Paul will have none of it, declaring that God’s “judgment is just” on those who abuse God’s grace (3:8).
Paul then proceeds with a litany of OT citations purporting to show that there is no such thing as a righteous person (3:10-18) because, quite simply, “all are under sin,” not just Gentiles but Jews and Gentiles alike (3:9). The conclusion culminating from the prior discussion is (or ought to be) self-evident: the Law “speaks to those in the law [i.e., even Jews] in order that every mouth should be shut and the whole world [i.e., not just the Gentile world] should become liable to God’s punishment” (3:19). Consequently, humanity is left before and outside the presentation of the gospel under God’s wrath, righteous decree, judgment, and punishment, with nothing from their own behavior to rescue them since (as Ps 143:2 states), “no flesh will be justified before” God (3:20).
Again, there is no thought anywhere here of owing something to Satan. Sinners stand before God alone. They incur God’s wrath, God’s judgment. Unless someone or something comes along to make recompense for the misdeeds done by humanity, all face destruction at the hands of God. The destruction comes not because God lets natural consequences take hold but rather because God steps back into the picture as an active Judge to inflict punishment on the unrighteous.
Jesus’ death as the paying a price and making amends to God in Rom 3:21-26
After showing in 1:18-3:20 that all humanity rightly stands under God’s wrath and deserving of God’s cataclysmic judgment because of their sins, Paul offers in Rom 3:21-26 what is arguably the single most important unfolding of the core gospel in the Pauline corpus. According to Paul (and it is “according to Paul” whether or not there is a hymnic fragment in 3:25-26a), we are
24being justified (= pronounced righteous) as a gift by his (= God’s) grace through the redemption [or: the ransoming] that is in Christ Jesus, 25whom God set before himself as an amends-making offering [or: propitiatory gift, atoning sacrifice] in [= by] his blood, through faith, for an indication of his righteousness, because of the letting go of the previously occurring sins 26in God’s holding back….
It is commonplace for theologians to claim that there are many different ways of conceiving the atonement, of which “penal substitution” is only one alongside of many others such as redemption, justification, reconciliation, victory over spiritual powers and Christ-as-example. This is an instance where theologians are commonly wrong, confusing the results or effects of the atonement (or, in the case of Christ as example, not even an effect) with the atonement proper. Paul indicates here that believers are justified “through” or “by means of” something. From the Godward side it is “by his grace” and from the human side it is “through faith.” When talking about the Christward side it is “through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus,” a means that is further clarified as God setting “Christ before himself as an amends-making offering by his blood (i.e., death).”
(a) Redemption as Paying a Price of Release to God
The Greek word for “redemption” in Rom 3:24 is apolutrōsis, derived from lutron meaning “ransom, price of release.” This is commercial imagery, involving the payment of a price to achieve for another freedom from captivity or slavery. Paul elsewhere confirms the purchase and price imagery when he says: “you were bought with a price (timē)” (1 Cor 6:20; 7:23). The price paid is made clear in Rom 3:25: “in [= by] his blood,” i.e., by means of Christ’s death.
That it is Jesus’ death on the cross which is the price paid to God to release us from God’s judging wrath is further confirmed through a comparison with other texts: “justified in [= by] his blood … reconciled to God through the death of his Son” (Rom 5:9-10); “in whom we have the redemption [or: ransoming] (apolutrōsis) through his blood, the forgiveness of the transgressions, in accordance with the riches of his grace” (Eph 1:7); Christ “gave himself as a ransom (anti-lutron) for all” (1 Tim 2:6); Christ “gave himself for us in order that he might ransom [or: redeem] us from every lawless act” (Tit 2:14; using a form of the Gk. verb lutroō); “he is the mediator of a new covenant…, a death having occurred for the redemption [or: ransoming] (apolutrōsis) from the trespasses committed under the first covenant” (Heb 9:15; cp. 9:12: Jesus “through his own blood entered once into the Holy Place [= heaven], having obtained eternal redemption [lutrōsis]”); “you were redeemed [or: ransomed] from your empty way of life … by the precious blood of Christ, as of a lamb unblemished and spotless” (1 Pet 1:18-19; using a form of the Gk. verb lutroō); “the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell before the Lamb … [and] sing a new song: ‘Worthy are you to take the scroll and to open its seals, for you were slain and you bought for God in [= by] your blood (persons) from every tribes and language and people and nation” (Rev 5:9; compare “the one who released us from our sins in [= by] his blood” in 1:5; and the saints conquered Satan “because of the blood of the Lamb” in 12:11). Clearly the consensus witness of the New Testament writers is that Jesus pays the price for our release from enslavement to sin and death through his own substitutionary and amends-making death on the cross.
(b) Atoning Sacrifice as the Making of Amends to God
The Greek word in Rom 3:25 translated above as “amends-making offering” is hilastērion (an adjective being used as a substantive or noun), related to the verb hilaskomai meaning “to appease, propitiate, conciliate,” often by making amends or restitution (note that the dominant usage in two first-century Jewish authors, Philo and Josephus, is with God or God’s anger as the object). We have a half dozen or more Greek inscriptions and texts from the ancient world where the adjective hilastērion appears. It is used consistently either with nouns for sacrifice or offering (thusia, anathēma) or as a substantive with such nouns inferred. A synonymous noun, hilasmos, is used of Christ in 1 John 2:2 and 4:10, linked to the phrase “for ours sins.” The verb hilaskomai appears in Heb 2:17: Jesus became “a merciful and faithful high priest in things relating to God in order to expiate [or: wipe away] the sins of the people”; or possibly: “… to make amends [or: propitiation, atonement] (to God) for the sins of the people.”
The imagery behind hilastērion is cultic, calling to mind the sacrifices in the tabernacle (tent shrine) and in the temple. The core concept behind it, however, is not limited to the sacrificial realm, any more than the commercial image of redemption or paying a ransom price is limited to actual release of slaves and captives. Behind both images, redemption (ransom) and propitiatory sacrifice, lies the bedrock concept of restitution and the making of amends to God for sins.
Some have played off the meaning of “(means/place of) expiation” against the meaning “(means/place of) propitiation” (expiation refers to the wiping away of sins, propitiation to the assuaging of someone’s wrath). This misses the point that in Scripture amends is made for sin (expiation) and to God (propitiation). It is not a case of either-or but of both-and. There is no expiation of sin apart from amends made to God. The argument that propitiation of God cannot be intended here because God is depicted in Rom 3:25 as the one making the offering also misses the surprising point: God is making amends to himself through an offering that he provides (note the middle voice of pro-etheto, from pro-tithēmi, a verb that in the middle can function with direct reflexive force: “set before himself”; cp. 2 Cor 5:18: God “reconciled all things to himself”). It is his wrath and his judgment that is in view throughout the argument in 1:18-3:20. Undoubtedly there is an echo here to God’s provision of an offering in place of the sacrifice of Isaac in Gen 22:1-18, to which story Paul clearly alludes later in Rom 8:32 with his remark that God did not “spare his own Son.” In making amends to himself, God satisfies his own holy demands for justice and diverts the manifestation of his wrath away from believers who receive Christ’s death as their own.
Still others translate hilastērion as “mercy seat” since this is the common meaning of hilastērion in the Septuagint (the standard Greek Old Testament), which translates Hebrew kapporeth (from the verb kipper meaning “cover over, atone for, make atonement or propitiation for”). “Mercy seat” is an awkward English translation for the golden lid on top of the ark of the covenant by William Tyndale (1534) by way of Luther’s “Gnadenstuhl.” A better translation is “the atonement lid,” that is, the place where the sins of the people are covered over or atoned for and where amends are made to God via the purifying of his sanctuary. The concept of amends-making is crucial to the image of the atonement lid so that, even if hilastērion in Rom 3:25 were so translated, it would still lead us back to the concepts of restitution and amends to God.
Nevertheless, while there is almost certainly an echo here to the Day of Atonement ritual (Lev 16), Jesus is probably not being called “the atonement lid” (an image that sounds more Johannine than Pauline) any more than are the priest Eleazar and the mother with her seven sons martyred just prior to the Maccabean Revolt when the term was used of them. They had “become, as it were, a ransom [lit., a life/soul in exchange] (Gk. antipsychon) for the sin of the nation; and, through the blood of those pious ones and the amends-making [or: propitiatory] offering (hilastērion) of their death, the divine Providence saved Israel after it had been badly treated” (4 Macc 17:21-22; compare 6:28-29).
A direct correlation with the so-called “mercy seat” would also be problematic in view of the fact that “the blood” is identified as Jesus’ own in Rom 3:25, suggesting the image of Jesus as the sacrifice itself rather than the lid on which the blood is sprinkled (the image of Jesus as sacrificial sin-offering is a common theme of NT soteriology; e.g., Rom 8:3; 1 Cor 5:7; 2 Cor 5:21; Eph 5:2; 1 Pet 1:19; Heb 7:27 and often; John 1:29, 36; Rev ; Acts 8:32; Rev 7:14 and often).
According to Paul, God had to offer Christ as a ransom and amends-making offering “in order to demonstrate his righteousness” (Rom 3:25). Paul explains that in the pre-Christ era God had merely passed over sins or let them go in the sense of leaving them unpunished. He had “held back” his wrath without actually providing full restitution and amends for sinners (a mere cease-fire rather than an actual peace; 3:26a). In now providing such definitive restitution and amends God demonstrated his righteousness in the twin sense of being the only one “in the right” and being mercifully faithful to his promises of old by “pronouncing right (justifying) the one whose life is based on faith in Christ” (3:26b).
(c) Connecting the Problem and Solution
Given the context of the preceding discussion which emphasizes God’s wrath and God’s judgment of sinners (of which Paul reminds readers in 3:23: “for all sinned and are falling short of God’s glory”), it ought to be obvious that the price paid and amends made by Christ’s death are directed toward God — not Satan (who isn’t even mentioned until 16:20) or anyone or anything else. The claim that Christ’s atoning death does not satisfy God’s wrath or judgment is preposterous in view of such a context. Certainly it is bad exegesis to overlook a connection between the presentation of the problem for humans in 1:18-3:20 (viz., God’s wrath and judgment upon sinful humanity) and the presentation of the solution in 3:21-26 (viz., God’s offering of Christ as ransom and restitution). Sacrifices are to be made only to God and there is obviously sacrificial imagery applied to Christ’s death here. God is the one who forgives, not Satan, because sin creates a debt to God, not Satan. God is the one to whom we must be reconciled, not Satan (as Rom 5:10; 2 Cor 5:18, 20; Col 1:20; Eph 2:16 show). God is the one who must pronounce us to be righteous (i.e. justify us) or not, not Satan (as Rom 3:26 and many other texts show). We also have OT texts like Exod 30:11-16 that talk about ransom being paid to God for one’s life.
Later in Rom 4:15 Paul notes that the Law of Moses only “produces wrath.” In other words, the Law does not empower anyone to keep its commands. So humans through the Law heap up transgressions of known commands and reap as a result “wrath,” God’s retribution for sins (the sixth mention of wrath in the letter). It is through Christ’s atoning death that we are saved from the coming “wrath” of God (5:9; the seventh mention of the term in Romans). The coming wrath of God occurs when God’s anger toward sin culminates in the final punishment of unbelieving sinners: namely, their permanent exclusion from God’s kingdom.
So we have seen that in arguably the greatest presentation of the gospel in all of Paul’s letters (and possibly in the entire New Testament) Paul identifies the core precisely in the manner that nine members of the PCUSA hymnal committee reject as harmful to the “educational mission” of the hymnal. Christ’s death is the God-initiated restitution for sins that satisfies God’s justice and releases believers from being the recipients of God’s wrath on the Day of Judgment.
Other places in Paul’s letters addressing substitutionary amends to God
It is hardly the only place in the Pauline corpus where this theme is put forward, though we will have to content ourselves with just a few references to make the point (see also above the series of citations regarding redemption and paying a price of release). In Rom 5:9-10 Paul both says that Christ’s death/blood saves us from the wrath to come and refers to justification and reconciliation not as atonement per se but as the benefits brought about by means of the atonement. How can Christ’s death save us from God’s wrath if it does not “satisfy” the penalty or punishment imposed by God on sinners?
In Rom 8:3 Paul highlights God’s act of sending Christ “in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin.” To speak of Christ coming “in the likeness of sinful flesh” is to depict him as bearing vicariously the human sinful condition. The phrase “for sin” (Gk. peri hamartias; literally, “concerning sin”) refers at the very least to Christ’s death as atoning for or dealing with sin. The sense may well be “for a sin offering” since it is a common phrase in the Septuagint for this meaning (translating Heb. lehatta’th). Similarly, Paul refers in 2 Cor 5:21 to God making Christ “who knew no sin to be sin [or: a sin offering] on our behalf.” Since God’s judgment and wrath falls on sin and sinners, how is it possible to regard the one whom God made to be sin or a sin offering as not being the recipient of that judgment and wrath in our place, his life for ours offered to God in perfect amends and restitution for our sins?
In Gal 3:13 Paul affirms: “Christ bought us out from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us.” Later in 4:4-5 he adds: “God sent forth his Son, … coming into being under the law, in order that he might buy out (from enslavement) those under the law” (using a form of the verb ex-agorazō, from agorazō “buy in the agora [market-place]” + ek– “from, out”). Whose law do nine members of the PCUSA hymnal committee think Paul has in view? The law of some evil Craftsman? Clearly for Paul the law is God’s law and the curse is the curse that God imposed on those who violated his (God’s) commands. If that curse, which is a manifestation of God’s wrath, fell on Christ rather than on us then surely Christ’s death satisfied God’s wrath against violators of his law. That he satisfied it is clear from the fact that by experiencing the law’s judgment in our stead he paid the price to the Giver of that law for our release from it.
Every Pauline text that talks about Christ’s death “for” (Gk. huper or peri) “our sins” or “us” has in view Christ’s death as an amends-making, price-paying offering to God (Gal 1:4; 1 Cor 15:3; Rom 5:8; 8:32). Paul appropriated these short-hand confessional formulae from the earliest reflections of Christ’s death by the churches in Jerusalem and Antioch, the first two major centers of Christian faith. They reflect bedrock Christian views to which believers must hold firmly if they are to be saved (1 Cor 15:1-3).
Even the oft-cited text by proponents of an exclusive “Christus Victor” model about Jesus disarming the powers in Col 2:15 can hardly be used in antithesis to substitutionary amends. To do so would be to ignore the point in the preceding verse, Col 2:14, that the disarming of the powers is only possible because Christ first “wiped away the hand-written note of debt (IOU) with its legal demands.” Sin creates a debt ultimately to God (cp. the Lord’s Prayer: “forgive us our debts” [Matt 6:12; Luke replaces “debts” with “sins,” 11:4]); also the law is God’s law. It is because of rampant sin on earth that “the wrath of God is coming” (3:6). Only after the debt is cancelled by Christ’s payment of the price of release to God does he triumph over the powers. Similarly, Col 1:14 speaks of the forgiveness of sins performed by God (cp. 3:13: “as the Lord has forgiven you”) and arising from Christ’s payment of the ransom of his life (apolutrōsis). Justification, reconciliation, and victory over the powers are not on the same level as redemption and sacrifice as atonement models. The former are made possible by the latter. Redemption and atoning sacrifice are the chief metaphors describing the mechanism of how Christ’s death brings about righteous status, peace with God and defeat of evil powers.
A brief excursion into other Biblical texts
Nor should we forget Jesus’ own words where, at least in the Markan framework, Jesus uses the image of his own life given up as “a ransom for many” in a context of talking about “the cup” of God’s wrath that he is about to drink (Mark 10:38-39, 45; compare Isa 51:17 and Ps 75:8 which refer to the cup of God’s wrath). Then too we regularly recite Jesus’ words at his last supper with his disciples, in which he alluded to his blood (sacrificial death) as a covenant-inaugurating act that would change God’s relationship with his people by atoning for their sins before God (Matt 26:28; 1 Cor 11:25).
The unknown author of Hebrews repeatedly pictures Christ as “offering himself” in death “once-for-all-time” to make amends “for sins” (7:27). In addition to the redemption motifs in 9:12, 15 and the expiation motif in 2:17 (above), compare the following texts: 9:14: Christ “offered himself without blemish to God”; 9:22: “without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins”; 9:26, 28: Christ “appeared once at the end of the ages for the setting aside [or: removal] of sin through his sacrifice … having been offered once to bear the sins of the many”; 10:4, 10, 12, 26: unlike “the blood of bulls and goats” that does not “take away sins,” “we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all time,” “a single sacrifice for sins.” As 9:14 indicates, Christ offered himself “to God” (not Satan), in keeping with all prescribed sacrifices in ancient Israelite cult. Given this, the “setting aside,” “taking away,” “expiating,” or “ransoming [i.e., paying the price of release] from” sins accomplished by Christ’s death can have in view only a satisfaction of God’s wrath toward sin.
Clearly, too, this is what is in mind in John 1:29 when John the Baptist is said to have declared of Jesus, “Look, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (cp. also 1 John 3:5: “he was manifested in order to take away sins”). Similarly, John of Patmos portrayed Jesus primarily by the image of the Lamb of God exalted in the throne room of God (Rev 4), whose “blood” “bought for God” people from every nation (Rev 5:9) and “released us from our sins” (1:5). His “blood” or death also led to the conquering of Satan (12:11), not because a price was paid to Satan or amends were made to him but rather because the restoration of a relationship with God and deliverance from God’s coming wrath and judgment (pictured in great depth throughout Revelation, especially chs. 19-21) terminate whatever dominion Satan might exercise through the weapons of sin and death.
Apparently nine members of the hymnal committee believe that it is necessary that we do away with the image of God’s wrath being poured vicariously on the Suffering Servant in Isaiah 53:4-12. This text, which exerted an enormous influence on the understanding of Jesus’ death held by the early church and the writers of the New Testament, states that God strikes the Servant down, wounds him, crushes him, chastises him, strikes him with our iniquity, and makes him a guilt offering. There is no possible way of viewing this passage as doing anything other than referring to God’s wrath as satisfied in his Servant’s suffering.
Should I be thankful as a tenured PCUSA professor of New Testament teaching at a PCUSA seminary, who regularly teaches courses on NT letters, particularly Paul’s (of which Romans is my favorite interest), that nine members of a PCUSA hymnal committee were so protective of me that they don’t want me harmed by singing in church, “Til on that cross as Jesus died / The wrath of God was satisfied”? To think that all this time I have loved both the lyrics and the tune but was just too uninformed or obtuse to figure out that the writers of this song had snuck in dangerous theology that (despite the song’s other assurances of love) will lead me and my family to believe that God hates us.
The only problem is, I just wish that certain figures in our past had just taken better care to get their theology straight: the author of Isaiah 53 and other OT authors that speak of making amends or paying ransom to God as a means to averting God’s wrath; Jesus; Paul and other New Testament authors; many Church Fathers (i.e., the concept that God’s punishment of sinners being transferred to Christ doesn’t begin in the Scholastic period with Anselm; see Appendix below); Calvin and Reformers after him; and so many others.
There is an even bigger problem. I have to wonder: If God’s wrath and judgment is not satisfied by Christ’s death, then doesn’t it follow that our sins are still imputed to us such that we still face God’s wrath? Or did God’s wrath against sinners simply disappear in a cloud of smoke for no reason whatsoever?
A majority of the hymnal committee wanted to send a message to PCUSA churches by omitting “In Christ Alone”: We don’t want to perpetuate the view — ironically, a strongly emphasized Reformed view of salvation — that Christ’s death made amends to God for our sins such that it satisfied God’s justice and wrath. According to this group of nine, this view of Christ’s death is bad enough to justify reversing a prior vote for inclusion in the hymnal, even though the theme is mentioned in only one line in the hymn. What can we label this? Censorship? Intolerance? Arrogance? Scriptural ignorance? Blasphemy? Foolishness? Some of the above? All of the above? You be the judge.
As for me, I think that PCUSA churches should send a message back to the hymnal committee and the publisher that, until they change their “tune” by adding the song, we are not going to purchase the hymnal.
Appendix: A Sampling of Texts from the Church Fathers on Christ’s Death as Satisfying God’s Punishment of Our Sins
While I am not aware of Church Fathers using the precise language of “satisfying God’s wrath,” the concept of Christ receiving the punishment from God that would otherwise fall on those who would come to be in him is certainly not first found in Anselm. Again, no attempt is being made here to be exhaustive. Emphases are mine.
Eusebius of Caesarea (Greek; 263-340) states that
the Lamb of God … was chastised on our behalf, and suffered a penalty he did not owe, but which we owed because of the multitude of our sins; and so he became the cause of the forgiveness of our sins, because he received death for us, and transferred to himself the scourging, the insults, and the dishonor, which were due to us, and drew down upon himself the appointed curse, being made a curse for us. (Demonstration of the Gospel 10.1)
Christ transfers to himself the punishments from God due us and takes upon himself the law’s curse, chastised by God on our behalf, and suffering God’s penalty of death brought on by our sins. Clearly for Eusebius Jesus suffered the judgment of God that otherwise would have befallen us.
In the view of Athanasius of Alexandria (Greek; 295-373),
Formerly, the world, as guilty, was under judgment from the Law; but now the Word has taken on himself the judgment, and having suffering in the body for all, has bestowed salvation to all… [God] has taken on Him [Christ] the curse which lay against us. (Four Discourses Against the Arians; trans. NPNF² 4:341, 374)
To say that God put on Jesus our “judgment from the Law” and “the curse that lay against us” is to say nothing other than he took upon himself the wrath of God that would otherwise fall on us.
According to Macarius of Jerusalem (Greek; bishop 312-c. 335) Jesus “came as the Savior of all, and in our name bore, in his own flesh, the punishment owed by us” (Acts of the Council of Nicea, Book 2). The punishment due us is the punishment that comes from God for our sins.
According to Hilary of Poitiers (Latin; 315-67), under the Law of God given to Moses,
whoever failed to sacrifice laid himself open to the curse…. It was from this curse that our Lord Jesus Christ redeemed us, when, as the Apostle says: “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law, being made a curse for us, for it is written: ‘Cursed is every one that hangs on a tree’” [Gal. 3:13]. Thus he offered himself … voluntarily a victim to God the Father, in order that by means of a voluntary victim the curse which attended the discontinuance of the regular victim might be removed. (Homily on Psalm 53)
In this text Christ offers himself as sacrificial victim to God, not to Satan, on which the curse of God’s Law falls.
The inestimable Greek Father John Chrysostom (archbishop of Constantinople; Greek; 344-407) compared God to
a king, beholding a robber and malefactor under punishment, [who] gave his well-beloved son, his only-begotten and true, to be slain; and transferred the death and the guilt as well, from him to his son (who was himself of no such character), that he might both save the condemned man and clear him from his evil reputation. (Homilies on Second Corinthians 6; trans. NPNF¹ 12.335)
Here Chrysostom clearly states that the king’s punishment of we sinners was transferred to the king’s son. If God transfers to Christ our punishment and punishes him instead of us it is the same as saying God’s wrath fell on Christ instead of us.
A hat tip to my colleague, Prof. Dr. Edith Humphrey, who alerted me to this lovely text from Chrysostom:
How was the wrath (of God) lifted up (off us)? How? … For this is the wondrous thing, that when not those unjustly angry with God (made an appeal for reconciliation) but Him who was justly vexed appealed to us, in this way peace came about. For “on behalf of Christ we are ambassadors, as though God were appealing through us” [2 Cor 5:20]. What is this? He himself has been treated outrageously and (yet) he himself makes the appeal (for reconciliation)? Yes, for he is God, and because of this, like a people-loving father he makes an appeal.
And see what happens: The Son of the One who makes the appeal is Mediator…. God was angry toward us. It is we who were turning ourselves away from God, the people-loving Master. Christ, by putting himself in the middle, reconciled each nature (to the other, the human and the divine). And how did he put himself in the middle? It was he who took upon himself the punishment that was due us from the Father. He endured both the punishment from the one side (God) and the reproaches from the other side (humans).
…“Christ,” it says, “bought us out from the curse of the law by becoming for us a curse” [Gal 3:13]. You saw how he took upon himself the punishment from above that had to be borne. See how also he endured the reproaches that had to be borne from below: “The reproaches of those who were reproaching you,” it says, “fell on me” [Ps 69:9, cited in Rom 15:3]. Haven’t you seen how he dissolved the enmity, how he did not stand aside before doing all (that could be done) and suffering and exerting himself, until he brought the combatant and enemy up to God himself and made (him) a friend (to God)? (On the Ascension of Our Lord Jesus Christ; Migne 50.441b; trans. by R. Gagnon with E. Humphrey)
Chrysostom again makes clear that Christ, whom God in his love sent as a mediator, “took upon himself the punishment that was due us from the Father” and by which believers were rescued from God’s wrath.
Augustine of Hippo (Latin; 354-430) wrote:
If we read, “Cursed of God is every one that hangs on a tree” [Gal. 3:13; Deut 21:23], the addition of the words “of God” creates no difficulty. For had not God hated sin and our death, he would not have sent his Son to bear and to abolish it. And there is nothing strange in God’s cursing what he hates…. He was cursed for us…. [Christ] submitted as man, and for man, to bear the curse which accompanies death. And as he died in the flesh which he took in bearing our punishment, so also, while ever blessed in his own righteousness, he was cursed for our offences, in the death which he suffered in bearing our punishment. (Augustine, Reply to Faustus the Manichaean 6; trans. NPNF¹ 4:209)
Once again, Christ bears the punishment from God that we would otherwise bear, cursed for our offenses.
According to Proclus of Constantinople (Greek; d. 446):
The nature of man owed much in consequence of sins, and was in perplexity over the debt…. There was therefore need of one of two things— either that death, arising from the condemnation, should be laid upon all, since also all sinned; or that such a payment should be made in recompense as to satisfy every righteous demand. A man, therefore, could not save us; for he lay under the debt of sin…. It remained, therefore, that the sinless God should die in behalf of those who had sinned…. [God] made man of a virgin … and paid the ransom in what he was…. Oh great work! he purchased immortality for others, for he was himself immortal. (Homily on the Nativity of Christ; trans. C. Moss [Le Museon, 1929])
Note that Proclus states that Christ “satisfied every righteous demand” by making recompense and ransom through his death. “Righteous demand” indicates a demand from God; sin creates a debt when the demand is not met. How is this different than saying that God’s wrath was satisfied in Christ’s death?