Friday, April 2, 2010

The wrath of God was satisfied (4/4)

A strong argument is being made in comments on the previous three posts that the modern hymn 'In Christ Alone' should either not be sung, or sung with the line 'The wrath of God was satisfied' changed to 'The love of God was satisfied', or only sung after sufficient explanation is given of what 'The wrath of God was satisfied' means.

As a matter of fact the last of those options could mean some occasions for singing the hymn, because any sermon on passages such as Isaiah 52-53, Romans 1-8, Ephesians 2, or Revelation 1, 15-19 should touch on the theme of God's wrath and its satisfaction!

I am not without sympathy to the argument being mounted because we live in an age conscious of the dangerous combination of anger and abuse, to which the word 'wrath' relates in respect of human experiences of angry authority figures abusing their power.

Nevertheless 'wrath' remains a word used on several occasions in the New Testament, even by as sensitive a translation as the NRSV. In particular it plays a role in the unfolding of Paul's argument through the early chapters of Romans.

In Romans 2:5-10, for example, we find,

"But by your hard and impenitent heart you are storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath, when God's righteous judgment will be revealed. For he will repay according to each one's deeds: to those who by patiently doing good seek for glory and honour and immortality, he will give eternal life; while for those who are self-seeking and who obey not the truth but wickedness, there will be wrath and fury. There will be anguish and distress for everyone who does evil, the Jew first and also the Greek, but glory and honour and peace for everyone who does good, the Jew first and also the Greek."

Then in Romans 3:5-6 we find:

"But if our injustice serves to confirm the justice of God, what should we say? That God is unjust to inflict wrath one us? (I speak in a human way.) By no means! For then how could God judge the world?"

In these passages 'wrath' relates clearly and directly to justice and the judgment justice requires, namely, that at some point in the history of humanity there will be a day of accountability or judgment for how lives have been lived, with good living rewarded and bad living receiving 'wrath and fury'. In this context 'wrath' has nothing to do with an emotive response and everything to do with justice applied impartially.

Is there a way out for sinners from the imposition of God's wrath? Paul's argument as it keeps unfolding in Romans yields the summary answer, 'Yes'. Thus we find familiar and beloved texts affirming,

"Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ." (5:1)

For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord." (6:23)

"There is therefore no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus." (8:1)

But what secures this way out? By what means are we justified, what action enables the free gift to supplant the wages of death, and what removes condemnation from sinners?

I suggest the turning point is in Romans 3:25 where Paul states that Christ Jesus who justifies and redeems us (3:24) has been put forward by God as a hilasterion ('sacrifice of atonement', NRSV; 'expiation' or 'propitiation', so other translations).

I do not think it is rocket science level of understanding to conclude that God's justice is 'satisfied' through Christ's sacrificial death. In particular that God's wrath, which is both his just disposition towards sinful living and the applied response of God to sinful living on the day of judgement, is satisfied. There is now no case to answer: the sinner has been justified through Christ, no condemnation is warranted, the application of 'wrath and fury' is not required.

God's justice is upheld through God's justifying action in Christ Jesus. That is the message of the cross. It is, in fact, a message of love as much as it is of justice, because without justice there is no love. (My disagreement with singing 'The love of God was satisfied' rather than 'The wrath of God was satisfied' is that doing so replaces a difficult word, 'wrath', in need of explanation, with a feel good word, 'love' which nevertheless also needs explanation, that is, in terms of justice)!

Briefly, without justice there is no love, because unjust treatment of one person by another is a denial of love. If I cheat someone I do not love them. But if I show mercy to, say, a burglar, without requiring repayment of what is stolen, I also fail to demonstrate love to the one who was burgled. Effectively I have cheated the one who was burgled. In all sorts of ways I the sinner act unjustly and therefore unlovingly. A wrathful response, whether by God, or by other people, is a loving response to my unjust actions to the extent that it is a powerful concern to end my unjust actions so that people may be properly loved instead.

If God in Christ on the cross was not acting justly then God was not acting lovingly.The miracle of the cross is that God in his omniscience sees everything, including the myriad ways in which sin infects the world with injustice permeating all relationships, and in one decisive action cleans up the infection and rights the injustice. It is also a mystery how this one action 'satisfies' the requirements of justice. But it does. That is our Christian confession.

Perhaps I should stop. I am not an expert on talking about justice, just relations, and that kind of thing. Back to the song.

I do not think my posts will have much effect on the many congregations around the world which cheerfully, and perhaps unreflectingly sing "The wrath of God was satisfied." But the posts are, along with helpful comments - thank you - helping me to think better.

So I conclude:

Theologically, 'The wrath of God was satisfied' is a reasonable summary of a complex argument by Paul unfolded through Romans which falls within the parameters of orthodoxy, but it is also controversial.

Pastorally, 'The wrath of God was satisfied' is unhelpful. I agree, it does require explanation. Notwithstanding the non-brevity of these posts, I think it could be given fairly succinctly.

My suggested alternative, which does not scan, is this: 'The justice of God was satisfied'.

But perhaps that is the key explanation which could be given each time before singing the song: 'The wrath of God was satisfied' means 'The justice of God was satisfied'.


Anonymous said...

It was notable, wasn’t it, that over almost a week of posting on this, the only people commenting in favour of your approach were people with doctorates. No ordinary pew-sitters appear to agree with your approach, even with such a very popular hymn!

Not wanting to help, but “justice of God was satisfied” scans fine. “The love of God” or the version you began with “The word of God” work fine.

If you think that “the justice of God” is an explanation that everyone in the pews can articulate appropriately, you must move in very erudite circles. Yet you regard “love” as “a feel good word, which nevertheless also needs explanation” – forgive me for thinking that the love of God is at the heart of every week’s service. In the circles I move God’s love could be articulated by 99.9% in the pews – God’s justice at a guess certainly only by a minority, certainly in the sense you are explaining it here.

“I do not think it is rocket science level of understanding to conclude that God's justice is 'satisfied' through Christ's sacrificial death.” Well, I do not have the level of understanding you suggest. And when you come to explain it – well, you just abandon the effort: “It is also a mystery how this one action 'satisfies' the requirements of justice. But it does. That is our Christian confession.” It is, IMO, NOT our Christian confession (sorry for capitals). It is your confession, not mine as a Christian. It is not in the creeds, and not required of us as a Christian confession, your excluding (one might say overconfident) insistence notwithstanding. My reading of the Romans texts that you refer to is not that God’s wrath is satisfied, but that it is waived. And there are perfectly acceptable commentators to this letter that share my reading of the text.

Tim Harris said...

A well-considered conclusion, Peter. It seems to me that in this portion of Paul we have something of the clash of cultures between Hebrew and Hellenist. Hebrew modes of expression characteristically employ the language of human emotion in reference to God, and hence the well-established biblical tradition of speaking of the 'wrath' of God with reference to the imperative of a good God in responding to all that is not good and right - a God who is compelled to uphold justice.

Yet this is counter-balanced by the equally strong biblical tradition of affirming and proclaiming the grace, mercy and love of God - no less the attribution of human qualities in conveying the character and ethos of God.

Having attended our parish's Good Friday service this morning, I have to agree with Anonymous in regard to the sloppiness of popular terminology with reference to the cross, with theological and pastoral concerns in equal measure.

Spurred on by your posts, I revisited NT Wright's commentary on Rom. 1:18, and much appreciated his treatment of this theme in Romans - affirming the theological importance of recognising God's 'wrath', while eschewing various ways of mis-reading Paul at this point.

If language of 'wrath' raises questions of a pastoral nature, what do you make of the robust language of penitence in the BCP MP general confession? ('Lord, have mercy upon us, miserable offenders') While I appreciate the candor of such confession, it also has the potential to unduly disturb those who suffer from chronic guilt complexes.

The challenge is always to convey theological truth in terms that are spiritually edifying - and the words of our songs are a key element in this. There are many more lines that need revision or clarification...

Tim Harris said...

Anonymous concludes: 'My reading of the Romans texts that you refer to is not that God’s wrath is satisfied, but that it is waived.'

The problem with this is that does not explain the cross. If all God needed to do was 'waive' the consequences of sin, why did Jesus need to be 'obedient to death, even death on a cross'?

Perhaps we can use Paul's explanation from elsewhere: 'God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us... For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.' (2 Cor. 5:19, 21)

It seems to me that Peter's conclusion and summary does a good job in reflecting a Christian confession that is true to Paul and the Apostles.

Is this beyond the reach of 99.9% of people in the pews? I suspect you underestimate the capacity of the average person to understand notions of justice. It is reflected every time someone objects 'it's not fair!' or 'it's not right'. And many people would be seriously troubled when wrongdoers are not called to account, let alone arbitrarily have the consequences of their wrongdoing 'waived' because the one responsible for upholding justice decided to favour them.

Peter Carrell said...

Hi Anonymous,
I have little to add to what Tim Harris says, but I would like to draw your attention to the Articles of Religion, which although not a formal confession of faith of Anglican churches such as my own, nevertheless is part of that written formularies of the church in which the doctrine of Christ is explained.

In particular I suggest the following articles are apposite to the exposition I have been engaged in:

Article 9: ORIGINAL sin standeth not in the following of Adam (as the Pelagians do vainly talk), but it is the fault and corruption of the nature of every man that naturally is engendered of the offspring of Adam, whereby man is very far gone from original righteousness, and is of his own nature inclined to evil, so that the flesh lusteth always contrary to the spirit; and therefore in every person born into this world, it deserveth God's wrath and damnation ...

Article 31: The offering of Christ once made is the perfect redemption, propitiation, and satisfaction for all the sins of the whole world, both original and actual, and there is none other satisfaction for sin but that alone ...

Anonymous said...

Peter in a comment yesterday acknowledged “that 'the wrath of God was satisfied' is heresy may stretch the bounds of orthodoxy”. I am not interested in stretching the bounds of orthodoxy, I am wanting to live simply at the heart of it.

Tim, you criticise the waiving of God’s wrath as seen in Romans by reputable commentaries with “the problem with this is that does not explain the cross”, yet do not attack Peter’s theory with the same critique whilst he admits, “It is also a mystery how this one action 'satisfies' the requirements of justice. But it does.” His theory no more “explains the cross” than my reading, which is the plain one, easily understood by everyone, not open to the caricatures here constantly mentioned, and certainly not stretching the bounds of orthodoxy.

As to your articles, Peter, whilst I do not hold them to be infallible, I do not even see there the point you are making – you are reading them through your God’s-wrath-satisfaction lenses –the articles you quote do not mention “the wrath of God is satisfied”. They use “wrath” and “satisfied” in quite different articles. The suggestion of Bishop Tom Wright that the love of God is satisfid, so strongly attacked by Rosemary, to my distress, is quite consistent with the articles which the Bishop of Durham has signed he accepts.

Wynston said...

And one of the great pleasures of being an Anglican is that we don't have to accept all of such things as the Articles of Religion!

Peter Carrell said...

Hi Anonymous,

For accuracy's sake I cite what I actually said re stretching the bounds of orthodoxy. It was:

"I do not agree that 'the wrath of God was satisfied' is heresy. It may stretch the bounds of orthodoxy, but no more than some of, er, N. T. Wright's prognostications."

Tim Harris's point does not require simultaneous criticism of my argument! His point is that the wrath of God being waived by the cross raises the question why the cross is necessary? Why not waiver it without the cross? My argument is that the cross is necessary to satisfying the requirements of justice. The fact that we may not understand exactly how satisfaction occurs alters not the fact of it being achieved.

Finally, I mentioned the two articles because they are part of a Christian confession beloved by many Anglicans (though not these days requiring their assent). I think the two articles thoroughly consistent with 'the wrath of God was satisfied' meaning the justice of God was satisfied. It is a possible and plausible Christian confession to confess that on the cross justice was satisfied.

To make that point is not to deny the possibility of arguing that "the love of God was satisfied" is also consistent with the articles. N. T. Wright is as skilled a theologian as any to do so.

Anonymous said...

I've come to this thread late at the end of a busy week and haven't read the comments very closely, so I'm not presuming to interact with them. I would only offer this brief remarks:
1. God's wrath is real and not anthropomorphic projection, but is wholly just and not like ours,which is infected with sin and deceit.
2. God's inmost nature is not wrath but love; wrath is only the response of His perfect holy nature toward sin, the rebellion that distorts his creation. This is well expressed in Don Carson's little book 'The Difficult Doctrine of the Love of God'.
3. The classic modern statement of penal substitution is still found in Packer's 1973 Tyndale lecture, which may be good reading at this time of year, especially for those not disposed to listen to it:
4. A good deal of similar stuff, at a more popular level, can be found in Stott's 'Cross of Christ'.


Tim Harris said...

Anonymous (Outis)

Pretty much agree with you, with one further qualification (which I think is implicit in your comment anyway). The use of 'anthropopathism' ('anthropomorphism' is to attribute human 'form' to something not human eg. God; 'anthropopathism is to attribute human emotion) is an appropriate descriptor of the word itself, but does not imply that there is not a reality behind such terms. It simply alerts us (as you do) that there may be some elements to human experience or expression of such emotions that are not to be attributed to God (eg. rage, or wrath grounded in self-interest).

The key element to uphold is God's impartiality in upholding justice and accountability for our wrongdoing. It is not about an 'angry' God needing satisfaction over personal affront (which human wrath often is). It is about a God who is just and right through and through, upholding such standards in the context of human/creaturely accountability. God can do no other, not we want God to be other than right and just. If I read you right, this is the point you are making.

The difficult doctrine of God's love (as picked up in Carson's excellent book) is how God's mercy can be expressed while satisfying justice.

This is where the language of reconciliation needs some distance from acquittal, and in some measure highlights the tension between expiation (which can convey legal notions: ie. we 'expiate' a fine), and propitiation (which is derived in cultic sacrifice). Jesus' costly work upon the cross achieves both (and more - redemption is another dimension, and vindication and victory yet another).

I'm interested that Peter didn't allude to Article 1 (the 'one living and true God, everlasting, without body, parts, or passions'). It is an Article I can affirm only with a mental 'footnote' with reference to Hebraic attribution of 'anthropopathisms' to God, indicating a dimension of divine 'passion' conveyed in part by such terms. Notwithstanding the use of such terms, there is indeed a valid caution in speaking of divine passions (coming from a more philosophical consideration - albeit a western and Greek notion).

I reread Packer's essay recently (now reprinted in Packer and Dever, 'In My Place Condemned He Stood'). It has lost none of its incisiveness and stands tall as a classic.

Grace and peace - in every dimension! this Easter.

Anonymous said...

"It is about a God who is just and right through and through, upholding such standards in the context of human/creaturely accountability. God can do no other, not we want God to be other than right and just. If I read you right, this is the point you are making."

Yes, you did, and you expressed my view better than I did. I know the distinction between anthropopathism and and anthropomorphism, but chose the latter (perhaps wrongly) to express the idea of God not just feeling but also acting like a human being. Of course there is rightful use of analogy in Christian theology: the Incarnation requires this, and it is one of the conundra of Islamic 'theology' (or religious philosophy) that its doctrine of 'shirk' keeps it from affirming anything positive about the 'emotions' of Allah, the 'totaliter aliter'. My difficulty in speaking about the wrath of God is my awareness of the sinful character of my own anger, which may not be justiified or may be immoderate. None of this applies of course to God and His Christ.
The question of God's "emotions" is a fascinating one. I suspect (but have no knowledge on the subject) that the reference to 'passions' in the Articles is a refutation of divine passibility, which was the subject of a book by Thomas Weinandy a few years ago and an article by him in 'First Things', whcih critiques Moltmann et al. It's another reminder that biblical theology and systematic theology need each other!

Christos aneste! charis kai eirene soi,


Scott Mackay said...

Thanks for this series Peter, it's been a helpful discussion.

It should be pointed out that it is actually a breach of copyright to change the words of a song for congregational use (without the permission of the author). See

Ian Paul said...

I have just blogged on this, and been referred to your posts, at

Peter Carrell said...

Thanks, Ian!