Gospels v Epistles
Preparing for a sermon this Palm Sunday past, I was struck by the way in which the gospels set out to explain how an innocent man died on a cross according to ordinary historical explanation: Jesus clashed with the authorities, provocatively rode on a popular wave of support into Jerusalem and then engaged in a protest action in the Temple, the heart of the political establishment of the elite leadership of Israel.
We look for the gospel writers' explaining Jesus death in terms of a theology of the cross but the signs are sparse. They offer us a history of the cross.
The epistles, however, offer virtually no history of the cross but plenty of theology of the cross. From the perspective of hindsight Jesus died on the cross because of God's great redemptive plan for humanity. Christ died for our sins. It matters little in terms of the theology of the cross which Jewish rulers shopped Jesus to the Roman authorities, whether Jesus was betrayed or denied, and why any of these actions took place (save as further examples of the sins for which Jesus died).
St Paul: Jesus was our substitute
'But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us. Much more surely then, now that we have been justified by his blood, will we be saved through him from the wrath of God.' (Romans 5:8-9)
Recently In Christ Alone has been sung at services of significance in our Diocese, mostly with the following verse unmodified,
"Till on that cross as Jesus died
The wrath of God was satisfied
For every sin on Him was laid
Here in the death of Christ I live,"
Often when singing this verse I have a bit of a debate in my mind. Perhaps you do too. It is a debate that was well rehearsed on ADU a few years back.* Is the line 'the wrath of God was satisfied' justified? If so, why and if not, why not?
I have no problem talking about God's wrath. It is a recurring theme in the Bible, in both Old and New Testaments. But talking about God's wrath is one thing (talk means we can have a discussion, offer some explanation, cite some supporting arguments, etc). Singing about it is another: we sing a line and move straight on to the next without time for questions.
I realise (now) that the word that makes me uncomfortable is 'satisfied.' Again, if we talk about it, we can tease out what is going on here. For instance we could talk about (from memory) Anselm and talk of satisfaction of God's honour. We could discuss whether 'satisfaction' of God's wrath is a biblical concept.
But does singing the line and moving on to the next one leave the impression of an angry God who will only be appeased by satisfaction? If so, does the line smack more of God's wrath motivating the death of Christ on the cross than the love of God?
Reading in Romans recently, I was struck by Romans 5:8-9 cited above.
Paul clearly states that:
- God's love is proven for us by Christ dying for us while we are sinners
- the effect of the death of Christ is that 'we have been justified by his blood'
- since we have been justified 'we will be saved through him from the wrath of God.'
Does any of this amount to 'the wrath of God was satisfied'?
In one sense at least, we do see God's wrath satisfied: the wrath of God is the punitive response of God to sin and to sinners - I am summarising the Bible in saying this (e.g. Deuteronomy 9:7; Nahum 1:2-6; Romans 12:17-21; Ephesians 2:3; Colossians 3:6).
God is just and thus not indifferent to sin and to sinners. God responds to sin But the death of Jesus imputes a new status to us sinners: 'we have been justified by his blood'.
Thus the wrath of God is satisfied at least in the sense that God has no need to respond to our sin since we are now viewed through Christ as justified.
But if we think of the wrath of God being satisfied in a different sense, the sense that the wrath of God is not satisfied until (say, noting a line in the song cited above) 'every sin on Him was laid', or the sense that it is an unappeased wrath which is only appeased by some mighty appeasing action (such as Jesus being punished instead of us being punished), then Romans 5:8-9 is not itself a text in support of some appeasing (= satisfying) action.
The blood of Jesus speaks of God cleansing us through the death of Jesus, rather than of God's wrath being appeased or satisfied.
One further point is notable in this Pauline text. Although the word 'substitute' is not used, the logic of the verses is crystal clear: if Christ had not died for us, we would remain dead in our sins, subject to the wrath of God. In his death Christ is our substitute. He dies in our place so that we might be justified through his blood and saved from God's wrath.
What then of the words of this famous and popular song, In Christ Alone?
Hesitantly I wonder if Romans 5:8-9 leads us away from 'The wrath of God was satisfied' to 'The wrath of God was set aside'.
What do you think?
* In 2010 there were five posts: one, two, three, four, five.
A masterly post by Ian Paul is published here with intensely interesting discussion following.