Why we should sing that “on the cross … the wrath of God was satisfied”

Not everyone likes Stuart Townend’s hymn “In Christ Alone.” Some people have a particular problem with the lyrics

“On that Cross as Jesus died, the wrath of God was satisfied.”

Apparently the alternative line “…the love of God was magnified.” Has been suggested.  Ian Paul has blogged about this over at www.psephizo.com where he notes that the Bible does talk about God’s wrath and additionally that Anglican liturgy includes the concept of satisfaction.  However, he also argues that the concept of “satisfaction” is a medieval concept to do with someone’s honour being satisfied. Overall, the article is balanced but I do get the impression that Ian is uncomfortable with the lyric.

I think it is worth noting five important points here.

  1. There’s been a lot of running around, hand wringing and general nonsense among the opponents of Penal Substitution about the idea of Satisfaction. The argument is basically that Anselm, a medieval theologian was the first to talk extensively about this concept that that he was drawing on feudal concepts of satisfaction. That’s where we then get a logical misstep. Just because a medieval theologian talks a about a concept does not mean that it is a medieval concept. The concept of honour/shame is something that seems to run deep in a number of societies. Ironically, we are constantly being told that our theology talks too much about guilt/punishment and not enough about honour/shame. Well, here’s a theology that talks about “honour/shame.” By the way, the concept of God’s honour and glory is central to the Gospel story.[1] That’s not to say that Anselm got things perfectly spot on and in fact, the Reformers including Calvin and Luther didn’t simply import his theology into their context, rather, they went back to what the Bible said.
  2. We must start with God’s Love and it is right to reflect on how God’s Love was magnified at the Cross. However, that would still beg the question “How was God’s love magnified there.” Why exactly was the Cross necessary to demonstrate God’s Love. Indeed was it just a demonstration and magnification in that sense? No, it was God’s Love enacted. On the Cross, we see God’s Love in action because He was dealing with the problem of Sin.
  3. I think that Ian is right to carefully distinguish God’s wrath from some mere feeling. It’s not that God is a cross and angry character. I’m not sure that there’s much help in distinguishing anger/wrath as a noun from “being angry” as a verb though. Wrath is clearly something that is done.  Nor should we expel emotion from the word as though emotion itself is a negative thing for God. However, “Michael Green describing God’s wrath as ‘his settled opposition to all that is evil’”[2] probably gives us the right sense of the word’s Biblical meaning.
  4. Townend is expressing a concept poetically. A lyric may need some unpacking and expanding into a propositional statement to give clarity to what we mean by it.
  5. Townend’s lyric poetically picks up on Paul’s teaching in Romans 3:21-31. Have a look at that passage and you will realise that it is explicitly to do with punishment. In fact, at the heart of the argument is the question of God’s justice. Notice that for Paul, the issue was not whether or not God was just in punishing sin but rather was he just when he didn’t punish sin and showed mercy. Paul’s point was that those who came before Christ were included in what God was doing in Christ.  Then, when we go back to Isaiah 53, we discover that Jesus, the faithful servant” was pierced and crushed for our sin.  It is right to talk about God punishing sin and so it is right to talk about Jesus bearing the punishment for our sin.

Now there is a risk that when we sign about God’s wrath being satisfied that we start thinking about an angry God lashing out and Jesus getting in his way like a big brother stepping in the way of his drunk dad’s blows.  However, that is not what is being described either in the Bible passages or the song.

No, the point remains very simply that sin does deserve punishment. That punishment is death.  However, the just punishment has already been received.

On the Cross, Jesus declared “It is finished.” In other words, there is no further punishment to bear. Jesus had dealt with sin and death once for all.

“On the Cross when Jesus died the wrath of God was satisfied.”

[1] Consider Isaiah 42:8 Isaiah 48:11. Consider as well how the Old Testament prophets draw on the imagery of adultery and prostitution to describe the seriousness of Israel’s sin and rebellion.

[2] https://www.psephizo.com/biblical-studies/on-the-cross-when-jesus-died-was-the-wrath-of-god-satisfied/