Sunday, June 22, 2014

Worshiping Wrath? - by Martin Little

Worshipping Wrath: Is There Place for God's Anger in Congregational Worship?
Martin Little[1]

In 2013, the worship committee of Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) voted to remove the Getty/Townend hymn 'In Christ Alone' from its newly published hymnal, the denomination's official sung worship collection.  What swung it was the line, “'Til on that cross as Jesus died / The wrath of God was satisfied.  An attempt to include an amended version saying 'the love of God was magnified' was refused outright by the songwriters, so the committee vetoed the song.  As a 'sign-of-the-times' headline, the story made several mainstream news outlets.[2]

Do we have a problem with wrath?  Should we?  I am going to address the context of worship as both a way into, and an application of, how Christians deal with the concept of the wrath of God.

A wide spectrum of views exists on the wrath of God, but I see two broad approaches.  One might be called the 'personal' view or 'anthropomorphic' view: wrath is an emotion (at least analogous with human feelings) that God 'feels' because he is a person.  Wrath is also associated with the effects of this feeling: God's righteous acts of direct judgement.  Authors like John Stott are quick to point out that the wrath is not some capricious lashing out, but rather a steady, constant and just opposition to sin.[3]  Those who accept this view of wrath tend toward a penal view of the Atonement, though there are notable exceptions.[4] 

We could call the other stream the 'impersonal' or 'cosmic' view: wrath is the inevitable consequence of sin, to which God consents or 'gives us over'. This language of 'giving over' has a good biblical pedigree, notably in Isaiah 64 and Romans 1. Crucially, this view of wrath is seen to develop throughout Scripture.  A.T. Hanson demonstrates that in the OT, wrath is often personal and anthropomorphic.  But this gradually gives way to the impersonal view that he says dominates the NT.[5]  A version of this is developed by my tutor at Westminster Theological Centre, Brad Jersak, who describes wrath as the result of 'divine consent' - God allowing us the freedom to sow and reap the destructive consequences intrinsic to sin.[6]

When we worship God, we typically speak of his majesty, his power, his goodness, and - the crowning essence of his nature - his love.  His wrath doesn't often get a look in. Theologically though, both these approaches to wrath seek to reconcile God's wrath with his love.

[1] This paper was originally presented at Kingdom Theology Conference 2014: 'Where Hope and Loss Meet: A Theology of Tragedy and Promise', Westminster Theological Centre / Trinity College Bristol, Cheltenham, UK, 21 June, 2014.  I am grateful to Rev. Dr Brad Jersak for editing the first draft of this paper, and for his helpful suggestions.
[2] Cf. Bob Smietana, 'Presbetyrians decision to drop hymn stirs debate',, August 5, 2013, August 5, 2013 .  For further reflections on the hymn selection process, see the article by the chair of the committee, Mary Louise Bringle, "Debating Hymns",, May 1, 2013. .
[3] John Stott, The Cross of Christ, (20th Anniversary Edition, Nottingham: IVP, 2006), 202.
[4] Clark Pinnock for example.  See Most Moved Mover: A Theology of God's Openness (Carlisle: Paternoster, 2001), 82-83.
[5] A.T. Hanson, The Wrath of the Lamb, (London: SPCK, 1957) passim.
[6] Brad Jersak, 'Wrath and Love as Divine Consent', Clarion Journal of Spirituality and Justice (July 23, 2012). The arguments here are developed in his forthcoming book A More Christlike God.