Whenever I have the privilege of introducing myself as a Presbyterian pastor, more often than not it is usually with the caveat that I am pastor in “the other Presbyterian church.”
That, of course, is not strictly true, because there are several Presbyterian denominations in America: the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church, the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America, the Evangelical Presbyterian Church, the Bible Presbyterian Church and, my own denomination, the Presbyterian Church in America.There are, of course, still others not listed here, but what is significant is that most of these denominations (the venerable and historic ARP and RPCNA notably excepted) came into being because of the deadening grip of liberal, progressive theology in the two historic mainline Presbyterian denominations, the PCUSA (historically a Northern Church) and the PCUS (a Southern Church); the two joined as one national denomination in the 1980s as the PCUSA.
Though there are individual PCUSA congregations that are theologically conservative, at the General Assembly level this denomination essentially denies the evangelical and Reformed distinctives that have historically defined the Presbyterian Church: the verbal inspiration, inerrancy and authority of Scripture; the virgin birth, deity of and bodily resurrection of Christ; and the truth that faith “in Christ alone” is the one way of sinners to God (see John 14:6).
In light of these things, the recent rejection in the PCUSA of the Townend-Getty hymn “In Christ Alone” because of the words “till on that cross as Jesus died/the wrath of God was satisfied” is not only no surprise, it is completely understandable. Once one denies the Bible truly and authoritatively is God’s word, all that is left is human spin. You don’t like the wrath of God? That’s okay—in our modern enlightened state we “understand” that the writers of the New Testament had a hard time shaking the primitive, patriarchal view of God that their forbears possessed. Today we “know” that God is kinder and gentler—pure love.
It was just this kind of denial of biblical theological truth that ultimately led thousands of Bible-believing Presbyterians in 1973 to leave the then-PCUS to form the Presbyterian Church in America. The congregation I am privileged to serve as Pastor, McIlwain Memorial Presbyterian Church, was a leading congregation in this national movement; one of our congregants, the honorably retired evangelist-missionary Rev. Arnie Maves, boasts the honor of being the very first man to be defrocked by the Florida Presbytery (PCUS) for engaging in activity that led to the formation of what would become the first Presbytery of a denomination that had the audacity to believe the Bible was really the holy and inerrant Word of God. J. Gresham Machen would have been proud.
Biblically speaking, though, the love of God is actually defined by the reality of the wrath of God.
From the Bible’s perspective, the reality of God’s wrath toward sin could not be clearer. That wrath arises from God’s moral and ethical perfection—that is, he is both good and just. Both of these attributes are in fact what establish God’s wrath as the good and just response against evil. Indeed, apart from the reality of the perfect wrath of a holy and just God we have no confidence that evil will be judged as evil.
But what is extraordinary about the biblical doctrine of the wrath of God is that it is always put alongside the love of God:…but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God. For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life. (Romans 5:6-10, ESV; emphasis added)
We will never appreciate the love of God until we have had a personal face-off with the wrath of God. Simply put, the Bible teaches that all have sinned and fall short of God’s standard (see Romans 3:23). What this means is that, by the nature of that reality, we are liable to the just punishment that sinners deserve, which is God’s wrath.
Because God is morally and ethically perfect—good and just—he must show his wrath against sin, which assaults goodness and justice. Indeed, if he God doesn’t pour out his wrath on sin he is neither good nor just!
It is precisely at this point that the awesome love of God comes into magnificent focus. Romans 3 tells us that this very God, who is filled with just wrath toward sin, is the same God who himself presented Jesus, who was and remains God incarnate, “as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith…”(Romans 3:25). The word “propitiation” is the key: it directly refers to the satisfaction of wrath.
The point is this: God’s love is manifested in the fact that God was most definitely “not fair” toward sinners! Instead of giving us what we deserve—his just wrath—he gave us what we didn’t deserve: grace! What is more, God himself, in the second person of the Trinity, is the very One who satisfied that wrath. That is the epitome of love—that he “loved me and gave himself for me” (Galatians 2:20) so that I might escape what I deserve and instead be redeemed to glorify God and enjoy him forever!
What is sad about the “In Christ Alone” controversy in the PCUSA is that, in rejecting the biblical truth of the wrath of God, the leaders of that denomination have completely erased any context for defining how the cross could possibly magnify God’s love, as they suggested the words be altered to say. What was Jesus dying for if the cross was not the place where God displayed his wrath against sin? What in fact is sin if it is not the moral assault of God’s holy character and commands? More than that, why did Jesus even come? Yet all of this begs the question: the liberal, progressive theology the PCUSA has endorsed already denies the real fall of Adam that cast us into sin and rejects that Jesus is in fact God incarnate who died for sinners and was physically raised from the dead—so it really can’t affirm the wrath of God because there is no need for such personal redemption in the first place.
That is a lie from one place: the pit of Hell.
So, this Sunday at McIlwain Presbyterian Church we will be singing “In Christ Alone”—just as we have done many times before—as we celebrate that the love of God, where “the wrath of God was satisfied.”
That is indeed how the love of God is magnified.