The Presbyterian (PCUSA) hymnal controversy around the doctrine of the atonement Part 2: Irony and Lunacy

Gagnon 5

Robert Gagnon

By Robert A.J. Gagnon, Ph.D.

In the previous installment we examined why the PCUSA hymnal committee rejected the popular worship song “In Christ Alone” and the furor that developed around that rejection.


Presbyterian hymnal committee rejects a song for promoting a Reformed view of salvation

One wonders whether the majority of the Presbyterian Committee on Congregational Song caught the incredible irony of rejecting a song from the new Presbyterian hymnal on the basis that it put forward a theme that is commonly regarded as a distinctive part of the Reformed view of salvation. It would at least be understandable (though not justifiable, given the Biblical basis for the idea) if a non-Reformed hymnal committee rejected the song because it spoke once of Christ’s death satisfying God’s wrath. But for a Presbyterian hymnal community to do so borders on theological lunacy.

It is not just a matter of the majority saying: “We personally don’t like this theme of Christ’s death satisfying God’s wrath. Yet we will not deny the song to others who use this hymnbook because (1) it is such a widely cherished worship song with undeniably beautiful lyrics; and (2) the theme of Christ’s death satisfying God’s judgment has historically been a distinctive feature of Reformed soteriology ever since the inception of Reformed faith. As such the song is meaningful to most in the Reformed faith.”

Instead of taking this reasonable approach, nine members of the committee decided to remove a song because they discovered that the single line reading “the love of God was magnified” originally read the very Reformed (and Biblical) notion that “the wrath of God was satisfied.” As the chair of the committee herself tells it, it was only after their three-and-a-half years of quarterly meetings and after all the songs (including this one) had already been accepted, that nine members voted to censure this song. They were on a “mission,” states the chair: A mission to educate Presbyterians to stop believing a major feature of their own confessional heritage.

How significant a part of the Reformed view of salvation is the theme that Christ’s death satisfies God’s wrath? Without any pretense of being exhaustive, we will look at two lines of evidence: (1) John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion (1559; 1st ed. 1536); and (2) the Reformed confessions found in the PCUSA Book of Confessions.


Calvin on Christ’s death as satisfying God’s judgment and appeasing God’s wrath

I provide just enough examples to underscore the reader the significance that the doctrine of satisfying God’s judgment and appeasing God’s wrath plays in Calvin’s soteriology. I am using the standard translation by Ford Lewis Battles in the Library of Christian Classics (ed. John T. McNeill; Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1960). Emphases are my own.

Two points about vocabulary are in order before we enter a discussion of Calvin’s views. One point has to do with the slightly different verb-object vocabulary used in “In Christ Alone” and in Calvin’s Institutes. The song “In Christ Alone” states “the wrath of God was satisfied.” Technically, I suppose, one should speak (as Calvin does) of satisfying God’s judgment and appeasing or propitiating God’s wrath (note: the Reformed confessions speak of satisfying God’s justice). Yet one should not be too demanding of a song or poem which needs to worry about syllable count (one-syllable “wrath”) and rhyme (“satisfied” with “died”). At any rate in Pauline usage wrath and judgment have significant overlap since Paul often gives wrath an activity-oriented sense, as in Rom 2:5: those who do not repent “store up … wrath on the Day of Wrath and of the Revelation of the Righteous Judgment of God.” There the Day of Wrath refers to the moment when God executes righteous judgment on wrongdoers, not the moment when God first becomes angry toward sin. To say this, however, does not mean that God is not angry toward sin and impenitent sinners, as though Scripture viewed God as an impassive or robotic being.

The other vocabulary point has to do with the use of the word “appease” in the translation of the Institutes (which translates the Latin verb plācāre, from which we get the verb “to placate”; it is related to the verb placēre “to please”). When Calvin wrote of “appeasing” or “placating” God’s wrath he obviously did not mean making efforts to mollify an unjustly belligerent deity at the expense of justice or other principles. That image of sacrificing justice to accommodate an evil ruler has dominated the modern concept of appeasement, thanks to the actions of British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain in response to Hitler’s demands on Czechoslovakia in the Munich Conference of 1938, about four centuries after Calvin’s first edition of the Institutes (1536). Calvin meant by the term “appease” pleasing God by satisfying or fulfilling God’s righteous requirements. The linking of the verb “satisfied” with the noun “wrath” in “In Christ Alone” avoids the Munich connotation even as it achieves the necessary rhyme with “died.”

We begin with a basic principle from Calvin, one that can only be refuted by eliminating one or more pillars of New Testament soteriology (soteriology is the study of salvation):

If the effect of His 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; 2.17.4)

I wonder if the nine members of the hymnal committee who voted against “In Christ Alone” after they voted for it bothered to reflect on the beauty, simplicity, logic and Scriptural fidelity of a point such as this. If the effect of Christ’s death on the cross is that God no longer holds our sins against us, then the only valid conclusion is that Christ’s death satisfied (i.e., fulfilled the demands of) God’s judgment or wrath. The only alternatives are:

  1. Deny that God was ever going to hold us accountable for our sins anyway. To claim such would be tantamount to calling a lie all the warnings that Jesus and every NT writer issued regarding God’s coming judgment (wrath) against sinful humanity.

 2. Deny that Jesus’ death had anything to do with amends or restitution for our sins or paying a price for our release or ransoming or washing away our sins or effecting forgiveness of sins. Deny too that God made Jesus sin or a sin offering on our behalf.

Both denials, 1 and 2, are denials of the central witness of Jesus and Scripture generally. If God was never going to judge us anyway, Christ’s death was (as Paul would say) for nothing, in vain. As Paul notes in Gal 2:21, “I do not set aside the grace of God. For if righteousness is through the law, then Christ died gratuitously.” If, on the other hand, the righteous judgment of a holy God is something that truly exists and Christ’s death did not satisfy God’s wrath, then (in the words of John 3:36) “the wrath of God remains on” us.

In short, if Christ’s death did not satisfy God’s wrath, either Jesus’ death was for nothing or we still face the prospect of terrible judgment at the hands of God. Once one concedes that sinful humanity was in a precarious position in relation to God’s judgment and that Christ’s death resulted in our sins being washed away, then the conclusion that Christ’s death satisfied God’s judgment and appeased God’s wrath is inescapable.

Those who want to “correct” Calvin by pointing to the cross as an action of God’s love are correcting only their falsified cipher of Calvin, not the real Calvin. Calvin understood that God’s love was the motivating power behind sending Christ to make amends for our sin. He knew full well that God did not first begin to love us after Christ reconciled us to God by His death. Calvin cited approvingly and at length this excerpt from Augustine, John’s Gospel 110.6 (trans. NPNF 7.411).

Augustine … taught … “It was not after we were reconciled to Him through the blood of His Son that He began to love us. Rather, He has loved us before the world was created…. The fact that we were reconciled through Christ’s death must not be understood as if His Son reconciled us to Him that He might now begin to love those whom He had hated…. Therefore, He loved us even when we practiced enmity toward him.” (2.16.4)

At the same time, the love of God does not operate in complete disregard of God’s righteousness but rather seeks a solution that satisfies God’s justice. “God’s wrath and curse always lie upon sinners until they are absolved of guilt. Since He is a righteous Judge, He does not allow His law to be broken without punishment, but is equipped to avenge it” (2.16.1). The wrath of God against sin does not swallow up God’s love for those whom He created. It is God who takes the initiative through Christ to absolve our guilt. There is no question in Calvin’s theology of Christ compelling God to do something that God had not determined beforehand to do. The love of God does not so much triumph over the wrath of God as find a way to meet its righteous demands while still rescuing those who justly deserve to receive that wrath.

God, who is the highest righteousness, cannot love the unrighteousness that He sees in us all. All of us, therefore, have in ourselves something deserving of God’s hatred. With regard to our corrupt nature and the wicked life that follows it, all of us surely displease God, are guilty in His sight, and are born to the damnation of hell. But because the Lord wills not to lose what is His in us, out of His own kindness He still finds something to love. However much we may be sinners by our own fault, we nevertheless remain His creatures…. Thus He is moved by pure and freely given love of us to receive us into grace…. So long as we remain sinners He cannot receive us completely. Therefore, to take away all cause for enmity … He wipes out all evil in us by the expiation set forth in the death of Christ…. “because He first loved us” [1 John 4:19]. (2.16.3)

While Calvin speaks above of Christ’s atoning death as an act initiated by God, he could rightly speak also of Christ playing the priestly role in relation to God, offering Himself as a sacrifice to appease God’s wrath. This is not a contradiction in Calvin’s thinking. God devises a way for Christ to appease God’s wrath and satisfy God’s judgment, namely, through Christ’s God-ordained death on the cross.

God’s righteous curse bars our access to Him, and God in His capacity as judge is angry toward us. Hence, an expiation must intervene in order that Christ as priest may obtain God’s favor for us and appease His wrath…. with a sacrifice…. [Christ] made satisfaction for our sins [Heb 9:22]…. We … have no access to God unless Christ, as our High Priest, having washed away our sins, … obtains for us that grace from which … our transgressions … debar us….. [Christ] was to be both priest and sacrifice. This was because no other satisfaction adequate for our sins, and no man worthy to offer to God … could be found. Now, Christ plays the priestly role, not only to render the Father favorable and propitious toward us by an eternal law of reconciliation, but also to receive us as His companions in this great office. (2.15.6)

I take it to be a commonplace that if Christ made satisfaction for our sins, if He paid the penalty owed by us, if He appeased God by His obedience—in short, if as a righteous man He suffered for unrighteous men—then He acquired salvation for us by His righteousness…. But reconciliation has no place except where an offense precedes it…. God, to whom we were hateful because of sin, was appeased by the death of His Son to become favorable toward us. (2.17.3)

For Calvin the concept of God’s wrath is not hostile to the concept of God’s love, as if Christians must believe in one or the other. Rather, the concept of God’s wrath must be grasped if we are to have any hope of understanding the magnitude of God’s love for us and any hope of feeling the kind of gratitude to God that we ought to feel. The love of God isn’t something that God owes to us but is instead something for which we owe gratefulness to God, given what we deserve from God’s wrath.

How miserable and ruinous our condition is apart from Christ. For if it had not been clearly stated that the wrath and vengeance of God and eternal death rested upon us, we would scarcely have recognized how miserable we would have been without God’s mercy, and we would have underestimated the benefit of liberation…. By [Christ’s] expiation He made satisfaction and sacrifice duly to God the Father; … as intercessor He has appeased God’s wrath…. To sum up: since our hearts cannot, in God’s mercy, either seize upon life ardently enough or accept it with the gratefulness we owe, unless our minds are first struck and overwhelmed by fear of God’s wrath and by dread of eternal death, we are taught by Scripture to perceive that apart from Christ, God is, so to speak, hostile to us, and His hand is armed for our destruction; [which in turn leads us] to embrace His benevolence and fatherly love in Christ alone. (2.16.2)

Calvin repeatedly defines how it is that Christ’s death satisfies God’s judgment and appeases God’s wrath. Christ’s death is both a sin-bearing sacrifice to God (expiatory and propitiatory) and a ransom or price paid to God to compensate for our sins. Christ takes our penalty upon himself, a penalty imposed by God for sins, and thereby achieves satisfaction to God for our sins. One can readily see from the quotations both above and below that Calvin doesn’t tire in making these points repeatedly.

Christ was offered to the Father in death as an expiatory sacrifice that when He discharged all satisfaction through His sacrifice, we might cease to be afraid of God’s wrath…. He who was about to cleanse the filth of those iniquities was covered with them by transferred imputation…. Christ is our redemption, ransom and propitiation…. Christ’s shed blood served not only as satisfaction, but also as a laver … to wash away our corruption. (2.16.6).

[The statement] “Christ … became a curse for us,” etc. [Gal 3:13] … [means that] Christ [came] to be burdened with a curse … to acquire righteousness for others by paying what they owed. Isaiah’s testimony is also clear … [Isa 53:5]. For unless Christ had made satisfaction for our sins, it would not have been said that He appeased God by taking upon Himself the penalty to which we were subject. (2.17.4)

The apostles clearly state that He paid the price to redeem us from the penalty of death … [Rom 3:24-25; 1 Pet 1:18-19]. This comparison [of Christ ransoming us not with money but with His precious blood] would not apply unless satisfaction had been made for our sins with this price…. [Paul in Col 2:14] notes there the payment or compensation that absolves us of guilt…. What was the purpose of this subjection of Christ to the law but to acquire righteousness for us, undertaking to pay what we could not pay? (2.17.5)

Christ has provided full satisfaction…. John “sets forth Christ as the propitiation of sins…. an everlasting propitiation by which sins may be expiated…. He alone is the Lamb of God, He also is the sole offering for sins, the sole expiation, the sole satisfaction…. Taking upon Himself the penalty that we owe, He has wiped out our guilt before God’s judgment. From this it follows that we shall share in the expiation made by Christ only if that honor rest with Him which those who try to appease God by their own recompense seize for themselves. (Calvin’s point in this last sentence is that Christ alone has the honor of being the sole person who has appeased God by the recompense of his death; 3.4.26)

[Christ] bore the punishment and vengeance due for our sins…. Christ bore the penalty of sins to deliver His own people from them…. [He was] the very price and satisfaction of redemption. This is why Paul writes that Christ gave Himself as a ransom for us…. The Lord [in the law of Moses] … requires a complete payment in sacrifices…. How does it happen that He … requires sacrifices alone in expiation, unless He wills to testify that there is only one kind of satisfaction by which His judgment is appeased? For such sacrifices as the Israelites offered … were judged in their very reality, that is, by the unique sacrifice of Christ…. See, indeed, there is satisfaction. (3.4.30)

Clearly the concept of satisfying God’s judgment and appeasing God’s wrath through Christ’s death was not a side issue for Calvin’s view of salvation but rather a central and distinctive feature of it. Nine members of the hymnal committee believe that it is their educational mission to dissuade Presbyterians from following a key aspect of the soteriology of the father of Reformed theology.


The Reformed confessions in the PCUSA Book of Confessions on Christ’s death as a satisfaction of God’s justice

The irony of the committee majority’s action is magnified even further when it is recognized that nearly every major Reformed confession in the PCUSA’s own Book of Confessions strongly affirms the concept of Christ’s death satisfying God’s wrath. Indeed, all but the Scots Confession (1560) and the American Confession of 1967 use the specific language of “satisfying God’s justice,” not merely as a throwaway theme but as one of the central explanations (if not the central explanation) of how it is that Christ’s death atones.

What I offer below is not an attempt to give an exhaustive list of references. Rather I focus merely on places where the words “satisfy” and “satisfaction” are used in connection with Christ’s death and even in those places I have been highly selective. I have chosen only a few highlights to make the point of how important a theme this is in history of Presbyterian doctrine. Emphases in the text are my own.

The Scots Confession (1560) clearly contains the concept of satisfying God’s wrath since it speaks of Christ as

a voluntary sacrifice unto His Father for us … [who] suffered for a season the wrath of His Father which sinners had deserved … to make full atonement for the sins of His people…. the everlasting atonement thereby purchased for us. (Ch. 9 [3.09])

The German Heidelberg Catechism (1563; here citing the PCUSA’s new translation) states:

12 Q. According to God’s righteous judgment we deserve punishment both now and in eternity:  how then can we escape this punishment and return to God’s favor?

A. God requires that His justice be satisfied. Therefore the claims of this justice must be paid in full, either by ourselves or by another.

According to the Swiss Second Helvetic Confession (1566),

Ch. 14 [5.105]. SATISFACTIONS. We also disapprove of those who think that by their own satisfactions they make amends for sins committed. For we teach that Christ alone by His death or passion is the satisfaction, propitiation or expiation of all sins (Isa., ch. 53; I Cor. 1:30). Yet as we have already said, we do not cease to urge the mortification of the flesh. We add, however, that this mortification is not to be proudly obtruded upon God as a satisfaction for sins, but is to be performed humbly, in keeping with the nature of the children of God, as a new obedience out of gratitude for the deliverance and full satisfaction obtained by the death and satisfaction of the Son of God.

Ch. 15 [5.108]: IMPUTED RIGHTEOUSNESS. For Christ took upon Himself and bore the sins of the world, and satisfied divine justice. Therefore, solely on account of Christ’s sufferings and resurrection God is propitious with respect to our sins and does not impute them to us, but imputes Christ’s righteousness to us as our own (II Cor. 5:19 ff.; Rom. 4:25)….

According to the Westminster Confession of Faith (1647),

8.5 [6.047]. The Lord Jesus, by His perfect obedience and sacrifice of Himself, which He through the eternal Spirit once offered up unto God, hath fully satisfied the justice of His Father; and purchased not only reconciliation, but an everlasting inheritance in the kingdom of heaven, for all those whom the Father hath given unto him.

13.3 [6.070]. Christ, by His obedience and death, did fully discharge the debt of all those that are thus justified, and did make a proper, real and full satisfaction to His Father’s justice in their behalf. Yet inasmuch as He was given by the Father for them, and His obedience and satisfaction accepted in their stead, and both freely, not for anything in them, their justification is only of free grace; that both the exact justice and rich grace of God might be glorified in the justification of sinners.

According to the Westminster Shorter Catechism (1647),

Q. 25. How doth Christ execute the office of a priest?   A. Christ executeth the office of a priest in His once offering up of Himself a sacrifice to satisfy divine justice, and reconcile us to God, and in making continual intercession for us.

According to the Westminster Larger Catechism (1647),

Q. 38. Why was it requisite that the Mediator should be God?  A. It was requisite that the Mediator should be God; that He might sustain and keep the human nature from sinking under the infinite wrath of God, and the power of death; give worth and efficacy to His sufferings, obedience and intercession; and to satisfy God’s justice, procure His favor, purchase a peculiar people, give His Spirit to them, conquer all their enemies, and bring them to everlasting salvation.

Q. 52. How was Christ exalted in His resurrection?  A. Christ was exalted in His resurrection, in that … He declared Himself to be the Son of God, to have satisfied divine justice, to have vanquished death and Him that had the power of it, and to be Lord of quick and dead….

Q. 71. How is justification an act of God’s free grace?  A. Although Christ by His obedience and death, did make a proper, real and full satisfaction to God’s justice in the behalf of them that are justified: yet inasmuch as God accepteth the satisfaction from a surety, which He might have demanded of them; and did provide this surety, His only Son, imputing His righteousness to them, and requiring nothing of them for their justification, but faith, which also is His gift, their justification is to them of free grace.

The Confession of 1967, in giving an array of understandings of Christ’s death,  has sacrificial and purchase images dominating:

[9.09]: God’s reconciling act in Jesus Christ is a mystery which the Scriptures describe in various ways. It is called the sacrifice of a lamb, a shepherd’s life given for His sheep, atonement by a priest; again it is ransom of a slave, payment of debt, vicarious satisfaction of a legal penalty, and victory over the powers of evil.

The only specifically Reformed confessions in the Book of Confessions that do not contain the full concept of satisfaction of God’s justice through Christ’s death are the 1934 Theological Declaration of Barmen (which didn’t address issues of soteriology directly anyway) and the 1991 Brief Statement of Faith (which at least mentions Jesus “giving His life for the sins of the world”).

I understand that the confessions are a witness in time to the views of the Reformed / Presbyterian churches. I understand too that this or that theological theme that occurs in a document or two might be subject to revision. However, when a given theological theme plays a significant role in Reformed theology across the whole span of the confessions, as well as in the work of the father of Reformed theology (Calvin), it ought to be accorded a measure of respect. Elimination of a song in a Presbyterian hymnal for the sole reason that it mentioned said theme in a single line is a case of irony bordering on theological lunacy.

One can only wonder what the nine members of the committee were thinking when they rejected “In Christ Alone” for stating that by Christ’s death “the wrath of God was satisfied.” Did they think: “We certainly can’t be having Reformed Christians sing in Reformed churches distinctive Reformed themes found everywhere in our Reformed Book of Confessions that have defined Reformed soteriology for almost five centuries. It is our duty to censor such things!” Or were they simply ignorant of the significance of this doctrine for Reformed soteriology?

Again, the outrageous character of the majority’s decision is not just that they personally reject an emphasis of Reformed soteriology but, more, that they thought it was their “educational mission” to censor this very Reformed theme so that it might not be “perpetuated” in Reformed churches. Even if the majority doesn’t have the good sense to believe this theme, they should have shown respect for those who value it as an integral part of the Reformed heritage.


In the next installment we will discuss the basis in Scripture for the theological theme that Christ’s death satisfied God’s wrath.