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how to tell the biblical story in a way that makes a difference

And on the cross where Jesus died, the wrath of God was satisfied…

I started writing this on Sunday morning before going off to church. It’s a reflection on a piece by Roger Olson about the difficulties many Christians have in using the language of divine wrath. He had come across a revised version of the song “In Christ Alone”, by Getty and Townend, in which the line “And on the cross where Jesus died, the wrath of God was satisfied…” had been replaced with “And on the cross where Jesus died, the love of God was magnified…”. You can see what the editor was up to. Coincidentally—and wonderfully—the first song we sang at church was “In Christ Alone”. The unexpurgated version. And I was reminded of one or two other objections that I have to the “theology” of this charming song. You can listen to it live at the Gospel Coalition, with lyrics.

Olson wonders whether the redaction is symptomatic of a widespread tendency among evangelicals to avoid “wrath of God” language:

My question is this: Are we giving up, dispensing with, the concept of “wrath of God” and, if so, is that what we should do?

He understands that many Christians are uncomfortable with the sort of hellfire-and-brimstone rhetoric that has people cowering before an incensed and vindictive deity. But the Bible has a great deal to say about the wrath of God. Are we free simply to ignore it?

Olson finds a solution to the problem in Kazoh Kitamori’s book, Theology of the Pain of God, first written in Japanese in 1958. Kitamori’s argument is that God loves people who, because of sin, are objects of his wrath, and the resulting tension is the pain of God. Wrath is real, but love transmutes it into pain. In other words, the tension between wrath and love is resolved in the cross. Olson writes:

Wrath of God must be interpreted as the expression of God’s love when it is betrayed and rejected. Otherwise we have either a monstrous God or a Janus-like (two-faced) God. God’s essence is love; wrath is not an attribute of God but the form God’s love (and justice) takes in the face of betrayal and rebellion. But the wrath is consumed by God’s love in pain.

This may be tolerable as a theological account—I have reservations about the implication that God suffers on the cross. But we are still a long way from the biblical argument about wrath. Theology always needs to make the case in synchronic, abstract, rational, universally applicable terms. Scripture makes the case in diachronic, narrative, historical, contingent terms.

Mostly in scripture “wrath of God” denotes God’s judgment either of his people or of the enemies of his people. It is not used existentially or metaphysically for a final judgment of human sin. It is not used in the personal sense implied in modern worship songs such as “In Christ Alone”, though obviously individuals are implicated in the political events to their cost. Wrath takes the form of invasion, war, famine, disease, destruction and exile.

This is no less true of the New Testament. When John the Baptist says to the Pharisees and Sadducees, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” (Matt. 3:7), he has in mind something like the Babylonian invasion and the destruction of Jerusalem and temple with immense loss of life—in other words, the wrath to come was to be the war of AD 66-70. When Paul describes the faith of the Thessalonians, who have turned from their idols and are waiting for God’s Son from heaven to deliver them from the “wrath to come” (1 Thess. 1:10), he means the overdue judgment of God against the whole system of pagan imperialism.

As an act of atonement Jesus’ death on the cross saved part of Israel from the wrath of God understood in just these historical terms. The destruction of Jerusalem and the temple in AD 70 was YHWH’s final judgment against his rebellious people under the terms of the Law. If Jesus had not died, that would have been the end of it. But Jesus’ opened up a narrow road of suffering that would lead to life in the age to come, to a renewed covenant according to the Spirit; and the New Testament tells the story of how a small number of Jews, joined later by believing Gentiles, followed him down that path.

Olson argues that Kitamori’s theology of the pain of God solution does not require belief in the cross as “penal substitution”. I’m not sure what his objections to “penal substitution” are, but it seems to me that if Jesus was executed on a Roman cross as a king who opposed Caesar (cf. Jn. 19:12) forty years before thousands of Jews were crucified in sight of the walls of Jerusalem for their defiance of Rome, as the outworking of God’s wrath against his people, it is entirely fitting that we think of his death as pre-empting the punishment that was about to come upon the nation.

So yes, I think that in our worship we should be telling the story of how Jesus died on the cross because of God’s wrath against Israel, and how by his death he prepared the way for a new existence of the family of Abraham in the age to come, no longer subject to the condemnation of the Jewish Law. How exactly we use atonement language to express this idea is a matter for discussion—Olson appears to have problems with the word “satisfied”. But the main point to stress is that we are remembering a historical event, a transformative moment in the narrative of the people of God, not affirming a universally and personally applicable theological proposition.

The basic problem with modern worship songs like this one is that they rewrite Israel’s story as though it were the individual believer’s story. It works up to a point. Some parts make sense, many parts don’t. In this particular case, I don’t think that the eschatological language can be so easily transposed. “Wrath of God” refers, as I’ve said, to historical events. The phrase “No pow’r of hell” presumably alludes to the statement “the gates of hell shall not prevail against it” (Matt. 16:18 ESV). It’s a poor translation. Jesus means only that death (“the gates of Hades”) will not prevail over the church that is built on the rock of Peter or of his confession. The language of Jesus coming or returning has in view, broadly, the deliverance and vindication of his disciples at the time of the historical manifestation of God’s wrath.

So if the evangelical church is going to worship biblically, I suggest that it needs to get over its self-indulgent fixation on me-and-my-relationship-with-God, no matter how moving such worship may be, and learn to retell, lament and celebrate, as the psalmists so often do, the whole story of God’s people.

Comments

Andrew - church attendance must be a very frustrating experience for you. I think the heart of what you have to say here, having dealt with Roger Olson and Kazo Kitamori, might be summed up in the sentence:

“Wrath of God” refers, as I’ve said, to historical events.

Jesus did not die on the cross to save us generally from God’s wrath against sin, but to save Israel (those who were willing) from “God’s wrath against Israel”.

To which I’ve always made the point, and once did in an enormously lengthy discussion on this website’s predecessor, that “wrath of God”, as expressed in the OT prophetic figures such as Day of Wrath, or Day of the Lord”, could have both an immediate or imminent historical sense, and a more distant sense - looking, indeed, to God’s final judgment on sin. A good example (admittedly without using the precise words but clearly referring to the same scenario) would be Joel 3, where an elusive historical judgment against Israel’s enemies in history more appropriately fits with and points to a final judgment on those enemies to come (especially v.2, and 12 onwards, and more especially in the light of verse 17 onwards). Indeed, the specific historical enemies of Israel and God’s dealing with them drop out of the picture in the latter part of the prophecy. Egypt and Moab are only included as figurative types and examples.

In the New Testament, teaching and parables which might have application to a coming judgment on Jerusalem in AD 70 are also appropriately understood as a final judgment to come. A good example would be Matthew 3:12. The same applies to Matthew 24, where an initial application is clearly to AD 70, but more distant occurrences are also clearly in view. The one is seen through the other, to the extent that we have largely lost sight of the other, historically fulfilled significance of the prophecy.

Looking through immediate events to further events to come is a common feature of biblical prophecy, and no less so in prophecy or teaching about “the wrath of God”.

It also makes sense philosophically. If God shows his wrath against sin in history, is it likely he will be any different when he wraps up history? Kitamori’s resolution of the “love” and the “wrath” of God, required by anyone who takes time to think about the subject, is not new or original. The pain of the conflict in the heart of God is at the heart of Hosea, 11:8b especially.

Apropos to this (sort of), Ian Paul (http://tinyurl.com/ydbmefxo) recently posed the question:

“This leaves me with a challenge: can we (can I?) recover a theology of lostness that is motivating, realistic, credible and sustainable? Answers on a postcard, please…”

Is this a valid question within post-biblical narrative theology?

Good question. I’ll try and address it later in the week.

Andrew,

I appreciate your points; however I’m wrestling with this one:

I think that in our worship we should be telling the story of how Jesus died on the cross because of God’s wrath against Israel, and how by his death he prepared the way for a new existence of the family of Abraham in the age to come, no longer subject to the condemnation of the Jewish Law. How exactly we use atonement language to express this idea is a matter for discussion—Olson appears to have problems with the word “satisfied”. But the main point to stress is that we are remembering a historical event, a transformative moment in the narrative of the people of God, not affirming a universally and personally applicable theological proposition.

I agree that we should be faithful to telling the story of Israel, and not get it into our minds that because of the cross Israel and the Law no longer matter; but rather see the Law and the cross as instruments of the same grace. The Law, in that while Israel was a stubborn and stiff-necked people, God showed grace by giving them his Law that they, and the nations, might know what sin is. The cross, in that through Christ, sin is condemned and the righteous requirements of the law are fulfilled, first in Israel and then for the Gentile.

I don’t have any problems with “wrath of God” language but also wrestle with the word “satisfied”. Was it God’s wrath, or his discomfort with pain that was the motivation for his grace? Or was his grace poured out motivated by his love? Was it to obtain “satisfaction” for wrath? Or was it a demonstration of his righteousness as a fullfillment of the Law?

In regards to your point on not affirming a universally and personally acceptable theological proposition; and I would appeal to Romans 3:29-31:

Or is God the God of Jews only? Is he not the God of Gentiles too? Yes, of Gentiles too, since there is only one God, who will justify the circumcised by faith and the uncircumcised through that same faith. Do we, then, nullify the law by this faith? Not at all! Rather, we uphold the law.

It was the Jews in Jerusalem who did not require the Gentile believers to become Jewish in order to worship God. The Jews worshipped God as Jews, and the Gentiles as Gentiles; each through the same faith. For Getty and Townsend “In Christ Alone” is nothing more than an expression of worship as a post-cross Gentile narritive.

It is also my understanding that the psalmists aren’t immune from the same “self-indulgent fixation on me-and-my-relationship-with-God” worship. So, how might we worship God in a manner that is authentic to our personal narrative with God while still being faithful to the rest of his story?

The Jews worshipped God as Jews, and the Gentiles as Gentiles; each through the same faith.

Stephen, I may be missing your point here, but, to try to clarify, my argument runs as follows:

  • The core soteriological assertion in the New Testament is not that Jesus died for humanity (in universal terms) but that Jesus died for God’s people (in historical terms), so that there would be life after the destruction of AD 70. The Johannine texts perhaps see things differently.
  • One rather unforeseen consequence of Jesus dying because of the sins of Israel was that Gentiles were incorporated into the people of God. But this is not a simple universalization of the gospel: Gentiles are brought into the story of the salvation of the people of God—they are “saved” by the salvation of Israel.
  • The faith of the Jews was that Jesus had died for the sins of his people but God had vindicated him by raising him from the dead and making him judge and ruler both of Israel and of the nations.
  • The faith of the Gentiles was exactly the same: they too believed that Israel’s God had intervened in the narrative of his people in this way and to this effect. They believed in the salvation of a people not in the salvation of people. This is where we diverge from the soteriology of “In Christ Alone”, which is reduced to “Jesus died for me”, more or less to the exclusion of the political narrative.
  • The “wrath of God” in scripture, at least as far as this central argument is concerned, belongs to the public narrative not the personal narrative. Getty and Townend make it part of the personal narrative.

It is also my understanding that the psalmists aren’t immune from the same “self-indulgent fixation on me-and-my-relationship-with-God” worship. So, how might we worship God in a manner that is authentic to our personal narrative with God while still being faithful to the rest of his story?

I agree that both poles—the corporate and the individual—are relevant for worship. There is also a cosmic dimension—the worship of the creator. The point to keep in mind with the Psalms, however, is that the individual is often the king, whose experience represents or embodies in obvious ways the experience of the nation. The corporate story is entailed in the personal story in a way that is not true for your average individual believer today.

By NT are you referring to Matthew, Mark, and Luke? Specifically Matthew 24, Mark 13, and Luke 21? Each of these, as I’m sure you would agree, are speaking about the destruction of the temple in AD 70; and not about a future eschatological event. However, I’m inclined to believe that Jesus DID die for humanity (in universal terms) through his death for God’s people Israel (in historical terms); and this was not “unforseen” (or at least should not have been by the Jews) but rather foretold in the call of Abram who God blessed and made into a great nation for the purpose of blessing all peoples on earth.

We might say, for the Gentiles (or at least I would) the “gospel” was in fact that God was going to fulfill the promise and purpose of Abraham through Christ which would result in the blessing/salvation of the nations. It is my understanding the destruction of the temple shifted the worship of God from a temple-centric espression to a Christocentric one; with the disciples as the remnant of Israel that would fulfill the Abrahamic covenant (As perhaps expressed in the Johannine and Pauline texts?)

I agree with you that it is not through a “different” faith. The Jews are apart of the Abrahamic covenant as his offspring, and the Gentiles become apart through the same faith of Abraham. I cannot say one way or another what the Gentiles did or did not believe at that time (i.e. They believed in the salvation of a people not in the salvation of people). However, it would seem that the outpouring of the H.S. in Acts 10 indicates God’s acceptance and salvation for all people as a continuation of what God did in Israel (described by Peter in the words of Luke, Acts 10:34-43). If it was only for the salvation of ‘a’ people (Israel) then the council at Jerusalem came to the wrong conclusion, and the Gentiles must become Jewish first to be eligible for salvation.

This brings me to the point I was trying to make when I said: “The Jews worshipped God as Jews, and the Gentiles as Gentiles; each through the same faith.” It is our faith in Christ as Savior that “saves” and not our historical narrative; however, without the narrative we could not come to understand what that faith (Abrahamic) looks like. As you point out: “The faith of the Jews was that Jesus had died for the sins of his people but God had vindicated him by raising him from the dead and making him judge and ruler both of Israel and of the nations,” this is important for the Jews as people under the Law because it identifies Jesus as the fulfillment of the Law and thus provids the faith that is not through the Law (such as Abram’s faith).

In a similar manner for the Gentiles, that Jesus had died for the sins of his people and having been vindicated by God by his raising him from the dead and making him judge and ruler both of Israel and of the nations; also gives the Gentiles the same faith that is not through the Law. However, for the Gentile his faith is only possible and understood because God in Christ fullfilled his promise to Israel first. Just as Abraham in hope believed in the promise of God for him through Israel, the Gentiles can also believe in the promise of God for the nations because the promise to Israel has been fullfilled.

Thinking about all this further, I lean toward a both/and approach. When we look at the biblical historical narrative I believe we have to look at the dual contexts in play. 1) The context of the Jews and what this means to them. 2) The context of God himself and what this means to him. As a Gentile (whom God knew before he knit me together, who knows every hair on my head, and to whom my personal knee will bow and submit too) I can only worship our Lord Jesus Christ as one who stands on the foundation of Israel’s narrative which has Christ as the Cornerstone.

That’s what I was trying to say. I might be missing a few things, but that’s where I’m at right now.

However, I’m inclined to believe that Jesus DID die for humanity (in universal terms) through his death for God’s people Israel (in historical terms)…

I would agree with this formulation. The redemption of Israel had consequences for the Greek-Roman world, and beyond that horizon for subsequent humanity.

…and this was not “unforseen” (or at least should not have been by the Jews) but rather foretold in the call of Abram who God blessed and made into a great nation for the purpose of blessing all peoples on earth.

This I question, though. I have argued recently against the idea that the Old Testament foresees the systematic “end-time” inclusion of Gentiles in the covenant people, and I wonder how you would demonstrate from the Old Testament that there would be an “atonement” for the nations.

“How you would demonstrate from the Old Testament that there would be an “atonement” for the nations?”

Another question: “What did Israel believe the blessing for the nations to be?” Although I’ll cheat a bit and caveat this with Isaiah 55:9 (it’s the bit about higher thoughts).

I don’t think we could make the arguement that Abraham was thinking of atonement when God said “all peoples on the earth would be blessed through you” as the Law had not yet been given. I’m not even sure we can make the arguement that Moses (who was potentially under the Law when he documented the Abram account) was thinking about atonement either.

I would probably make the arguement that, among other things, Israel believed God would bless the nations with peace, and therefore no longer subjecting them to his wrath, (Isaiah 2:4, Psalm 46:9-10); while Israel will be blessed with satisfaction, and/or justice, for the wrongs other nations committed against Israel. Thus, Isaiah 52:10 would read to Israel: “The Lord will lay bare his holy arm in the sight of all the nations, and all the ends of the earth will see the salvation of our God…for Israel” (Emphesis mine). Along with Psalm 23:5, where a table is prepared for Israel in the presence of the nations where they can observe the anointing, and hence validation, of Israel and the abundance of blessing from the Lords table.

This is how I see Israel responding to what God was doing, which was also what was getting them into trouble. It is my understanding that while the NT uses “Gentile” the OT might use “foreigner”. Rahab, Jonah, and Isaiah 56 are immediate examples that could serve as evidence to Israel that God was not only the God over Israel but all the peoples of the earth, As David himself acknowledges: “The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it, the world, and all who live in it…” I think the OT shows that God has not abandoned his desire to gather all the nations to himself.

The only evidence I could show pointing to an “atonement” for the nations would be God’s act of grace on Israel by giving them the Law to provide atonement for them. I then, shift from “What did this mean to Israel?” to, “What did this mean for God?” and would suggest that because atonement could only be done by a priest, and Israel was to be a kingdom of priests; the priestly nation of Israel was to provide atonement for the nations. Which would ultimately happen through Christ who has become our great High Priest.

That’s the top of my head, but I might have to think about it a bit more.

Wrath, vengeance, suffering…these are biological attributes of physical organisms that have evolved to benefit survival in a harsh world. A truly ineffable being would feel none of these emotions, much less be controlled by them like an impetuous child.