“"In Christ Alone" and Penal Substitution”Categories: Hymn Theory, M. W. Bassford
If there is anything in the worship traditions of the churches of Christ that frustrates me, it is the double standard of scrutiny applied to hymns with content versus hymns with no content. We have reversed the intent of Colossians 3:16, so that rather than seeking hymns that express a rich indwelling of the word, we primarily are concerned that hymns don’t teach false doctrine. As long as a hymn doesn’t teach false doctrine, it must be suitable for the congregation!
This goal produces a perverse result. Hymns that don’t teach anything obviously can’t teach false doctrine, so they slide into the repertoire without objection. On the other hand, hymns that are rich in Biblical content attract heightened scrutiny because they have something to say. Because such hymns commonly are written by denominational authors, they sometimes contain a questionable word or line. Then, brethren who have swallowed the camel of the hymn that says nothing strain at the gnat of ambiguous content. If only the concern aimed at the latter were directed at the former!
For instance, several months ago, I had a conversation with a brother about the hymn “In Christ Alone”, which I believe to be the strongest hymn yet written in this century. However, he was concerned that it taught the false doctrine of penal substitution in the line, “But on that cross as Jesus died/The wrath of God was satisfied.”
For those who aren’t up on their Calvinism, penal substitution is the idea that Jesus did not merely die on the cross in our place. Instead, He was punished on the cross in our place. In bearing our sins, He Himself became morally guilty, so that the wrath of God justly fell upon Him. There is much more to penal substitution than that, and it ties into a number of other Calvinist doctrines (especially the doctrine of eternal security) in complicated and logically intricate ways, but this summary should be enough to make the rest of this post make sense.
Can that couplet in “In Christ Alone” be read as teaching penal substitution? Undoubtedly. In fact, I would go further than that. The authors of “In Christ Alone”, Stuart Townend and Keith Getty, are Scripturally knowledgeable Calvinists. I believe they intended for the couplet to teach penal substitution.
That’s not really the question, though. In the churches of Christ, we have a looong history of reinterpreting Calvinist hymns to suit our doctrinal convictions. The last verse of “The Solid Rock”, anyone?
I think it’s perfectly legitimate for us to do that. The key is that many Calvinist hymns are Scripturally rich, so whatever understanding we apply to the underlying passages, we also can apply to the hymns that quote them. If we are paying attention at all to the words of “The Solid Rock”, we are doing this when we sing it, and there’s no reason why we can’t do the same to “In Christ Alone”.
I don’t know what connections others make when they sing that section of “In Christ Alone”, but I can’t help but think of the discussion in Romans of the wrath of God. Romans 1 reports that the wrath of God is revealed against all the unrighteous, but Romans 5 tells us that we can be saved from that wrath through Christ. Why? As Isaiah 53:9-10 reports, even though Jesus had done nothing wrong, God was pleased to crush Him and put Him to death as a guilt offering. If the wrath of God was not satisfied at that point, when was it satisfied? Indeed, I am reasonably certain that Townend and Getty relied on the NASB rendering of Isaiah 53:11 in writing the couplet.
I have no doubt that some will find this explanation, ahem, unsatisfying. Similar quibbles attach to “How Deep the Father’s Love”. In both cases, brethren allow ambiguous language to keep them from singing a doctrinally rich, profoundly meaningful hymn. I think that’s a shame, particularly when the alternative is too often semiliterate nonsense penned by a praise-band leader who might use his Bible for a pillow but not otherwise.
Yes, false doctrine can be drawn from hymns. False doctrine can be drawn from the Bible too. In neither case should the cure for falsehood be the avoidance of truth.