The Wages Of Sin Are A Slap On The Wrist summer Christianity Today reported that the Presbyterian Church USA was disallowing Keith Getty and Stuart Townsend’s hymn “In Christ Alone” into their hymn book because of a line that clashed with their theology. They sought permission to change the offending lines “Till on that cross as Jesus died/the wrath of God was satisfied” to “Till on that cross as Jesus died/the love of God was magnified.”

Until I read about this decision, I was unaware of the controversial nature of the doctrine referred to as “penal substitution.” To be clear, the PCUSA says the problem they had wasn’t with the idea of God’s wrath but with the idea of it being satisfied. Others, however, who have weighed in on the controversy, make it clear that they do indeed have a problem with the idea of God’s wrath. See for example this explanation:

What inevitably results from the penal substitution theory of the atonement is the picture of a God who is a blood-thirsty monster who demands violence and death in order to satisfy his boundless wrath and who apparently can conceive of no other response to sin other than murder (which ironically is itself a sin). (excerpt from “The Wrath of God Was Satisfied?”

I’ve heard similar accusations against God before. God is heinous, apparently, according to this view, because He actually meant what He said when He told Adam that if he ate of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, he would die. What’s more, when He said through the pen of Paul that the wages of sin is death, He only compounded the problem. Now people couldn’t view God the Father as heinous but Jesus as nice and loving because the New Testament was agreeing with the Old.

The ironic thing is that people who are rejecting God’s right to judge, are setting up themselves and their values as the “better way.” They are, in fact, judging God’s act of justice against sin and calling it “murder.”

People, apparently, don’t actually deserve to die. Our sin isn’t worthy of such a harsh punishment.

I’m not sure how those who hold this view explain that in fact, one out of one persons dies. We are actually and factually suffering the wages that God said would be ours as a result of sin.

The good news is that God has made a way of escape and life awaits us after death, if we accept by faith the gift of a cleared debt made possible by Jesus’s willingness to be our surrogate, to take the penalty we deserved.

The thing is, nothing could offer us a more complete view of God than this act of salvation. He is holy, so our sin separates us from Him. His is righteous, so His judgment is without error. He is just, so He doesn’t condemn that which is innocent. He is loving, so He is willing to redeem us at His own cost. He is merciful, so He forgives us when we have no hope of paying Him what we owe.

I could go on. It’s inconceivable that people who claim to be Christians are so willing to deny God’s nature in one area or another.

It’s honestly hard for me to imagine that thinking people could read the book of Leviticus and not see the picture of the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world in the sin offering or the peace offering or in the Passover, or that they could read Genesis and not see the substitution of a ram for Isaac as the substitution of Christ for sinners.

The only way I can make sense of these accusations against God is to suppose that those saying God is a murderer simply do not believe that the wages of sin is death. Apparently, in their view, the wages of sin is a slap on the wrist. What’s needed then, is not a substitute to pay the price, but a gentle reminder or a stern reprimand because surely sinners know better and simply need a refresher course in how to please God.


  1. I had no idea. I’m dumbfounded. Great post.


    • Yeah, Lisa, I was pretty dumbfounded, too. I was in the dark about the objections to what seems to me, obvious and elementary truth. 🙄



  2. hmmm. I’m surprised the PCUSA people said they believed that God had wrath. And then to say it hasn’t been satisfied??? What are we to do then, if it hasn’t been satisfied in Christ’s death? Are to die, also, to pay the price.

    But I am pretty sure that many in the PCUSA don’t believe that we need a blood atonement at all. That has been going for years in that church. I remember some twenty years ago when the PCUSA, United Methodist, and ECLA women had a joint conference and they had a big milk and honey ceremony and prayed to the Goddess Sophia. They said then they didn’t need a bloody man hanging on a cross.

    What a mess.


    • The article I read was updating the original and apparently the PCUSA had wanted it to be clear that they believe in God’s wrath. Said it came up in numerous other songs. I think the satisfied part is God turning His wrath on God. At least that’s what I assume from reading through other articles.

      I don’t know how that view has grown so.



  3. Be aware that the PC(USA) did not have the songwriters’ original lyrics in front of them, and they decided that they wanted to change them. In fact, they saw the hymn published in another hymnal, “Celebrating Grace,” a publication intended for use in Baptist churches, which had changed the line in question from the authors’ original “the wrath of God was satisfied” to “the love of God was magnified.” The Presbyterian hymnal committee assumed that this lyric changed had been approved by the copyright holder before being published in the Baptist hymnal. Unfortunately, this was not the case; the Baptists’ revision had never been approved. The Presbyterian hymnal committee was caught by surprise when their permission to publish the hymnal with the Baptist lyrics was denied. Further, the copyright holders are now in discussion with the Baptist hymnal publisher regarding that violation. Many conservative Christians like to criticize the PC(USA) for its more progressive understanding of the faith. But if the text revision was acceptable to conservative Baptists, why are people criticizing the PC(USA) for wanting to use it as well? This situation has just become a convenient, inaccurate, and in some cases deliberately disingenuous, vehicle to simply bash progressive Christianity in general, and those supposedly apostate members of the PC(USA) in particular. And yes, for full disclosure, I am a pastor in the PC(USA). Even fuller disclosure; I was taught Christology – including atonement theory – by Edwin van Driel, professor of theology at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, who was also part of the Presbyterian hymnal committee and one of the people carefully examining the theology of the hymns proposed for inclusion.

    Regarding the theological understanding of Penal Substitutionary Atonement: anyone studying the scriptures in a remotely comprehensive manner knows that there are a number of analogies put forth in the scriptures to explain the mystery of Christ’s atoning work, of how we are actually reconciled and made “at one” with God again. Penal Substitutionary Atonement – that the shedding of blood is a necessity in order for God to forgive sin, and that Christ’s blood served as the final, completely sufficient, only acceptable shedding of blood and sacrifice to God – is just one of these analogies offered in the scriptures. We in the western Christian church, and western Protestantism especially, have tended to focus on this one analogical understanding more than the others (Christus Victor, Ransom theology, and others). This was especially the case in U.S. Church history, as American Fundamentalists adopted PSA as one of its “Five Fundamentals.”

    The problem with any of the atonement theories specifically mentioned in the scriptures, or any atonement theories not specifically offered in scriptures but derived from them (just as we have derived the concept of the Trinity from the scriptures, even though the Trinity is nowhere specifically named, spelled out, or explained in any one location), is the problem common to most analogies – at best, they are incomplete pictures of the bigger picture they’re trying to make comprehensible; and at worst, they can give the exact wrong understanding if the analogy is pressed too far. Pressing the analogy of PSA far to the extreme, almost exclusively, causes just this sort of distortion of the nature of God, causing many to see God as a bloodthirsty tyrant – the actual opposite of the God who is by definition the ultimate of love, mercy, and justice combined. Over-applying it can quickly lead to an unscriptural, heretical understanding of the nature of God.

    In order to try to balance the differing analogies of atonement theory, the Presbyterian hymnal committee tried to select hymns that offered that same kind of theological balance. For better or worse, they committee already had a sufficient number of hymns that emphasized PSA and were looking to emphasize a somewhat different theological direction when they originally picked “In Christ Alone” (with the Baptist lyrics).

    That is what this whole situation is all about. It is not about Presbyterians believing that Christ was not the final, completely acceptable, fully sufficient means of atoning humanity with God. We do, of course, believe precisely that. We simply accept, as is consistent with the scriptures, that there are a number of ways to explain that which is ultimately unexplainable. The mystery of Christ’s atonement can only be discussed using a number of analogies, all of which are incomplete or inadequate in one way or another.

    On a personal note, do I think that there are more effective ways to explain Christ’s atoning work than PSA for our own particular time and place? Yes, I do, and I make no bones about it. However, this news story is not that Presbyterians are throwing out the historical concept of penal substitutionary atonement as without value. It’s strictly a story about a hymnal committee that was trying to maintain a sense of full theological balance, consistent with the full range of scriptures and our historical understanding of the faith. And for what it’s worth, I just received my personal copy of the new hymnal – “Glory to God” – in the mail this past week. And it is a great publication. The committee did an excellent job.


  4. Dwain, thanks for the details about the hymnal snafu. I didn’t mean to give the impression that I was lambasting the PCUSA. I don’t have any first hand knowledge of what the denomination does or does not believe.

    It just so happened I looked into attitudes about penal substitution because of a comment to an earlier post and found the report about excluding “In Christ Alone.” As I looked for more information, I came across the blog from which I quoted.

    I’ve come across others online who hold similar positions about penal substitution and how that “makes God look.” So when you say “this story,” I realize you’re talking about the decision of the PCUSA not to include “In Christ Alone” in the hymnal. That, however, is not the story I wrote about. Rather, I’m drawing attention to a growing resentment aimed at God whenever He’s acting as Judge.

    Does the sovereign God of the universe not have a right to do as He wishes with what He has made? Some today would say, No, he doesn’t. That’s the real problem.

    So, respectfully, Pastor Dwain, I’d encourage you to teach your congregation about penal substitution, along with the other aspects of the atonement. The fact that the people of our particular time and place no longer believe that humans are sinful is no reason for Christians to stop declaring the truth.

    How are we to answer God when He says to us, what did you do with the one talent I gave you to invest? I doubt if He’ll say, Well done good and faithful servant, if we answer, I held onto the talent you asked me to invest because I thought it would make the people of my time and place uncomfortable.



  5. Hi there would you mind letting me know which
    web host you’re utilizing? I’ve loaded your blog in 3 different web browsers and
    I must say this blog loads a lot faster then most. Can you suggest a good hosting provider at a fair price?
    Thanks, I appreciate it!


Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: