Just recently I couldn’t help but click on an article that referenced a favorite song that we sing in church. According to the article, the Presbyterian Church-USA has voted to remove “In Christ Alone” from a new edition of their church songbook that’s due out this fall. (Click here to listen to the song.) Apparently the leadership of the almost 2 million member denomination objected to the line that says “Till on that cross as Jesus died/The wrath of God was satisfied.” An alternate line was proposed: “Till on that cross as Jesus died/the love of God was magnified” but the writers said “no”, leading the committee to exclude the popular hymn.
After doing a little more reading, I discovered that the offending portion of lyric wasn’t “God’s wrath” as first reported, but instead it was the word “satisfied” that created the controversy. This innocent sounding term doesn’t mean to ‘gratify’ or ‘make happy’ as we might understand its common usage today. Instead, its theological definition, first explained by an obscure eleventh century monk, means to “mend what was broken” or “to make restitution.” This man’s ancient writings helped clarify “Christ suffering as a substitute on behalf of mankind to satisfy the demands of God’s honor.” For the centuries since then, the Messiah’s substitutionary sacrifice on our behalf has been a core teaching of orthodox churches, so it’s no wonder that the decision to expunge it from a denomination’s key musical publication drew the attention of many concerned Christians.
I love that song too, but the issue that bothers me about what happened in the PC-USA runs far deeper than lyrics. My main objection centers on a trend in the broader society toward growing more brazenly comfortable with sitting in judgment over the Bible, spiritual truth, and by extension, over God Himself. It seems that what people don’t like, don’t understand or what interferes with our perceived personal liberties and cultural perspectives can be pushed aside and dismissed by a simple majority vote.
That would be just fine if we were talking about a law in our country or some congressional ruling. That’s what makes our nation great. If there’s something you don’t agree with, put it to a vote and change it. Majority rules, right? Most of the time, that’s a fantastic way to guide the direction for a democratic people. But you can’t apply that approach to God. He is the holy, righteous Sovereign over the Universe. (1 Tim 6:15-16) He doesn’t have peers to answer to and His commands aren’t up for a vote. Despite what you might hear in the news these days, we are subject to Him, not the other way around.
I don’t want this post to seem like so many other articles that resort to throwing stones at people we don’t agree with. The hymnal issue is just a magnified example of the same issue we face personally every day: Will we conform our lives to God or will we try to bend Him to serve us? Answering that question has little to do with what we sing in church and everything to do with how we respond to God when what He says is at odds with what we personally want to do. Jesus said it succinctly “Anyone who loves me will obey my teaching..” (John 14:23) That means that we have to be vigilant to check our aspirations and consciously make them subservient to the Lord, because none of us is exempt from falling victim to the carnal tendency to try to elevate ourselves to a level equal to or even above the Almighty. That desire “to be like God” is what got the human race in trouble back all the way back in the Garden of Eden. (Gen 3:5-6)
The irony is that the only thing that could rescue Adam and Eve from the trap of sin is also the only thing that can rescue us from our self-centered, prideful, and self-destructive tendencies… and that is the substitutionary death of Jesus Christ that, as the song says, “satisfied the wrath of God.” I say, let’s keep that truth at the center of the hymnal, and more importantly, let’s keep it at the center of our lives as well.