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Substitutionary atonement debate sparked by editorial on ‘In Christ Alone’ lyrics

NASHVILLE (BP) — The centrality of the doctrine of substitutionary atonement is being emphasized by Southern Baptist leaders after a state newspaper editor wrote that he does not sing certain words of a popular hymn due to its mention of God’s wrath.

Substitutionary atonement refers to the belief that Jesus died in the place of sinners, taking on Himself the wrath of God that they deserved.

Bob Terry, editor of The Alabama Baptist, in an Aug. 8 editorial, paralleled the angst expressed by a Presbyterian Church USA hymnal committee in rejecting the song “In Christ Alone” because of the line “Till on that cross as Jesus died/The wrath of God was satisfied.”

“Some popular theologies do hold that Jesus’ suffering appeased God’s wrath,” Terry wrote. “That is not how I understand the Bible and that is why I do not sing the phrase ‘the wrath of God was satisfied’ even though I love the song ‘In Christ Alone.'”

Terry’s editorial prompted numerous reactions on Twitter from concerned Southern Baptist leaders, including Daniel Akin, Hershael York, Chad Brand and Jason Duesing, as well as an official statement from Rick Lance, executive director of the Alabama Baptist State Board of Missions, and a clarification by Terry.

A clarification by Terry was issued to the media Aug. 12 in which he wrote that some of the controversy could relate to “different meanings of the word ‘wrath.'”

In his editorial, Terry wrote that the Bible “speaks clearly about the wrath of God and warns that it is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of an angry God.”

“Yet there remains a question about whether God was an angry God at Golgotha whose wrath had to be appeased by the suffering of the innocent Jesus,” Terry wrote. “Sometimes Christians carelessly make God out to be some kind of ogre whose angry wrath overflowed until the innocent Jesus suffered enough to calm Him down.”

Terry concluded, “God is not the enemy. He is our seeking Friend (Luke 15). That is why I prefer to focus on His love evidenced at Calvary rather than on His wrath.”

In a clarification posted above the original column, Terry said the editorial was not about atonement but “about what has been called ‘the mindset of God’ at Calvary. Some emphasize God as angry and vengeful. To me this does not properly recognize God’s love expressed in the incarnation….”

Lance, along with Alabama State Board of Missions President John Killian, released a statement Aug. 9 in response to the editorial, noting, “We share the expressed concerns of many who have disagreed with the article.”

Lance and Killian, pastor of Maytown Baptist Church, affirmed the lyrics of the hymn In Christ Alone and wrote, “As Alabama Baptists seek to be true to Scripture, we affirm the essential and historic Christian doctrine of substitutionary atonement.” They offered their prayer support to Terry and the newspaper’s staff “and we call on all who have expressed concern to pray as well.”

In a tweet Aug. 9, Lance wrote, “I love the Gettys! I love ‘In Christ Alone.’ I believe in the substitutionary atonement of Christ!” and he linked to a video performance of the song. Keith Getty co-wrote the song, and his wife Kristyn sings it. In a second tweet, Lance wrote, “I especially love the lyrics affirming substitutionary atonement.”

Akin, president of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, tweeted a link to Terry’s column Aug. 8, adding, “Baptist[s] should be embarrassed by this!” In a subsequent tweet, Akin indicated that Terry was saying Jesus didn’t satisfy the wrath of God “after misrepresenting what is meant.”

“To deny the wrath of God was poured out on Jesus at the cross reveals a basic misunderstanding of God’s holiness/love & sin’s gravity/cost,” Akin tweeted.

For Akin and others, it’s not an either/or proposition; it’s that God’s love and His wrath both are vital elements of the cross.

York, professor of Christian preaching at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, tweeted a link to the editorial and wrote, “I am stunned at this.” In subsequent tweets, York quoted Isaiah 53:10 and wrote, “To whom did He make an offering for guilt and why, if God were not angry at sin? Why was God pleased to crush Him if not for sin?”

York also tweeted, “Why did God forsake His own Son if not for the awfulness of my sin? … God was always FOR me and always AGAINST my sin — which is precisely why He sacrificed His own Son. … Please @drbobterry, if you challenge satisfaction element of the atonement, have the intellectual honesty to not misrepresent it. An ogre?”

Chad Brand, professor of Christian theology at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, in a comment posted below Terry’s editorial, said there are several flaws in the column, particularly, “that you leave out the entire issue of propitiation,” which is the doctrine that the wrath of God was satisfied by Christ on the cross.

Brand noted that although Terry cites the Holman Bible Dictionary, he cites the old edition no longer published by LifeWay Christian Resources.

“The article on expiation in the Holman Illustrated Bible Dictionary has a new article which specifically argues for a biblical understanding of propitiation,” wrote Brand, one of three general editors of the newer version.

Jason Duesing, vice president for strategic initiatives and assistant professor of historical theology at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, tweeted, “The substitution of Christ’s sacrifice is not the stuff of preference, but rather something vital to embrace.”

Duesing, in a blog post Aug. 9, said a believer’s hope is found in Christ’s sufficient sacrifice, “and about this hope we should sing as if our lives depended on it, for they do.”

In a post on the Baptist21 website Aug. 9, Nathan Akin, pastor for disciple-making at Imago Dei Church in Raleigh, N.C., wrote that when denominations that question the authority of Scripture reject In Christ Alone, “we should not be surprised.”

“However, when SBC Convention leaders question the content of that song and say they will not sing the line in question … this should be alarming for Alabama and Southern Baptists,” Akin wrote.

Terry, Akin wrote, “seems to indicate we either need to emphasize [God’s] love or his wrath,” whereas both are on display at the cross and in the song. Akin added that Terry “seems to deny or at least minimize Penal Substitution,” and the editorial “is a stinging reminder that the Conservative Resurgence is not over.”

In his clarification, Terry referenced the line in his editorial which said, “… it is God’s grace that initiated the sacrifice of Jesus to provide covering and forgiveness for our sin and that His sacrifice satisfied the holy demands of God’s righteousness for sin to be punished.” Terry said that line in his editorial “is an affirmation of the penal substitutionary atonement understanding of salvation.”

R. Albert Mohler Jr., president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, wrote in a blog post Aug. 12 that “the substitutionary nature of Christ’s death on the cross was a major issue in the Conservative Resurgence” within the SBC in the last quarter of the 20th century.

“In its earliest phase, modern theological liberalism developed an antipathy to the substitutionary nature of the atonement,” Mohler wrote at albertmohler.com.

Mohler recounted a debate in 1987 between Fisher Humphreys, a professor at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary at the time, and Paige Patterson, now president of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. “The lengthy debate revealed a deeper divide over the nature of the atonement than many Southern Baptists had been prepared to acknowledge,” Mohler wrote.

The Bible, in both the Old and New Testaments, Patterson said in the 1987 debate, reveals an atonement model that is central and essential, and that model was both penal and substitutionary.

“Looking at the debate, now more than a quarter century behind us, it appears that the main issue was the centrality of substitution and the fact, as Patterson rightly insisted, that all other understandings of the cross in the Bible are themselves dependent on penal substitution,” Mohler wrote.

In his statement to the media Aug. 12, Terry pointed to previous editorials he has written on the atonement for clarification of his views.

Regarding the word “wrath,” Terry wrote, “If the meaning is that on Calvary God’s punishment for our sins was poured out on Jesus, then that is certainly biblical and something I would never question. That is my understanding of penal substitutionary atonement and is what I have written through the years.

“If the meaning of ‘wrath’ is that God is vindictive and took joy in punishing His Son then that is not how I find God described in the Bible,” Terry wrote.
Erin Roach is assistant editor of Baptist Press. Get Baptist Press headlines and breaking news on Twitter (@BaptistPress), Facebook (Facebook.com/BaptistPress) and in your email (baptistpress.com/SubscribeBP.asp).

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