In his recent article No Squishy Love, Timothy George, Dean of Beeson Divinity School, told of how the PC(USA) committee given the responsibility for compiling a hymn book chose to reject the ever popular modern Christian hymn “In Christ Alone” by Keith Getty and Stuart Townend. Why reject a hymn nearly universally popular in the evangelical community? George tells us it is because of two lines of a verse reading, “And on the cross, as Jesus died / the wrath of God, was satisfied”.
Of course, any evangelical Christian paying attention knows that the wrath of God is a controversial subject. Recent books, such as New York Times Best-Seller “Love Wins” by Rob Bell makes this plain. Mark Galli touches on this in Christianity Today saying that Bell’s book is filled with powerful rhetoric, carrying the reader along even when “he says that substitutionary atonement, for example, can be ‘toxic,’ making people think that Jesus saves us from God.” This misconstrual of the wrath of God, however, comes down to a mistaken anthropomorphizing of God. God’s wrath is not like our wrath, his punishing not like our punishing. Indeed, George makes this plain, responding to the common caricature that “God [is] having a temper tantrum or acting like a big bully who needs to be “appeased” before he can forgive”. In light of all of this, it is easily noted that the reason for the furor surrounding Bell’s denial of penal substitutionary atonement is because the doctrine is foundational to the very meaning of Evangelicalism and Bell attacked it all the while claiming to be himself an Evangelical. Indeed, you would be hard-pressed to find any self-proclaimed Evangelical that remained Evangelical whom denied penal substitutionary atonement. The caricature is easy: This is mainly Martin Luther and John Calvin and their followers, but the truth is to the contrary. From George Whitefield and Jonathan Edwards, to John Wesley and Billy Graham, penal substitutionary atonement has been a mainstay of Evangelicalism’s preaching and teaching. Evangelicals do not merely preach Christ; Evangelicals preach “Christ and him crucified” (1 Cor 2:2).
The aforementioned it why it is so utterly shocking to see a denial of penal substitutionary atonement by the Editor of the Alabama Baptist Newspaper (SBC), Dr. Bob Terry. Terry sums up George’s discussion of the PCUSA’s decision, then turns a corner, telling us that “there remains a question about whether God was an angry God at Golgotha whose wrath had to be appeased by the suffering of the innocent Jesus. Sometimes Christians carelessly make God out to be some kind of ogre whose angry wrath overflowed until the innocent Jesus suffered enough to calm Him down. It is the ultimate ‘good cop/bad cop’ routine where God is against us but Jesus is for us.” This is nearly the exact caricature Terry warned against. Terry goes on to say, “Some popular theologies do hold that Jesus’ suffering appeased God’s wrath. That is not how I understand the Bible and that is why I do not sing the phrase ‘the wrath of God was satisfied’ even though I love the song ‘In Christ Alone.’”
Terry goes on to speak of the hypostatic union, the incarnation, and universal redemption (in the cosmic sense). His reasoning here is a bit confusing, to be honest. He says, “That humankind was estranged from God by sin is not in doubt. Nor is there any question that the place of that reconciliation was the cross or that Jesus was the instrument of that reconciliation. Mankind could not overcome being separated from God by itself. God is the one who took the initiative for reconciliation, the One who continues to take the initiative. God wants to forgive. That is why He sent His Son (John 3:16). God is always the active agent in reconciliation. He is not reconciliation’s object.” Continuing in this stream, Terry sums it all up with, “But God is not the enemy. He is our seeking Friend (Luke 15). That is why I prefer to focus on His love evidenced at Calvary rather than on His wrath.”
Dr. Terry prefers to focus on His love evidence at Calvary, rather than on his wrath. The problem is not Dr. Terry’s preference, however misguided it may be. The problem is his denial and mockery of penal substitutionary atonement. No preacher of this atonement would ever preach the message as a ‘good cop/bad cop’ message. Perhaps Dr. Terry has forgotten the beginning of John 3:16, “For God so loved the world that he sent his only begotten son…” The love of God towards sinners is such that he sent his Son to die for our sin. As Romans 5:8 tells us, it is God who shows his love for us in that while we were sinners, Christ died for us. But make no mistake: the death of Jesus Christ was not merely sentimental. Jesus did not have to die so that man would know God loved his creation. No, Jesus died for sin. Jesus died to appease the wrath of God. The same God that ‘so loved the world’ also ‘hates all evildoers’ (Psalm 5:5). We know, of course, as Hebrews 9:22 tells us, “without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins.” As Dean George wrote, “The full New Testament teaching about the cross involves both expiation, which means providing a covering for sin, and propitiation, which means averting divine judgment. The semantic range of the Greek words hilasmos/hilasterion includes both meanings. That is why the wrath of God cannot be brushed out of the story without remainder.”
Terry writes, “Scholars will continue arguing about whether the sacrificial system of the Bible, of which Jesus was the ultimate sacrifice, had God as its subject or its object. If He is the subject then God acted to cover and forgive sins through the sacrificial system. If He is the object then God received the offerings for sin that in some ways pacified His anger and need for justice”. One must wonder where Dr. Terry got this false dichotomy? Subject and object of the atonement? No subject exists for sacrifice without an object. If not God, who? If the sacrifice is not an offering with an aroma pleasing to God, then to whom is it given? The only other option is this: Man. Jesus offered his sacrifice to man. This is an absurdity beyond comparison. As Hebrews 7:27 tells us, “[Jesus] has no need, like those high priests, to offer sacrifices daily, first for his own sins and then for those of the people, since he did this once for all when he offered up himself.” The obvious question that follows is this: To whom did the priests offer sacrifices?
Without the cross of Jesus Christ as a offering unto God to appease the wrath of God, there is no salvation. Without penal substitutionary atonement, none can be accepted before God. The prophet Isaiah tells us as much, saying (in Isaiah 53),
[It] was the will of the Lord to crush him; he has put him to grief;
when his soul makes an offering for guilt,
he shall see his offspring; he shall prolong his days;
the will of the Lord shall prosper in his hand.
Out of the anguish of his soul he shall see and be satisfied;
by his knowledge shall the righteous one, my servant,
make many to be accounted righteous,
and he shall bear their iniquities.
We can not know salvation outside of this: That Jesus was put to death by the will of the father through the actions of sinful man and by that offering, man is accepted as righteous before God, his own offspring, by faith in that very same sacrifice.
Southern Baptists all over agree on this fact: Founders (Boyce, Broadus, P.H. Mell, etc.), Calvinists, Traditionalists, and every one affirming the Baptist Faith & Message 2000.
The oldest confessional statement in the Southern Baptist Convention, The Abstract of Principles (the foundational document of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary) Article VI- The Fall of Man reads:
his posterity inherit a nature corrupt and wholly opposed to God and His law, are under condemnation, and as soon as they are capable of moral action, become actual transgressors.
It continues in Article XI- Justification:
Justification is God’s gracious and full acquittal of sinners, who believe in Christ, from all sin, through the satisfaction that Christ has made.
The Abstract of Principles, however, is a Calvinistic document. Is that the problem? SBC life has been embroiled in the Calvinism debate for some time.
“A Statement of the Traditional Southern Baptist Understanding of God’s Plan of Salvation” aka the non-Calvinist statement on the doctrines of salvation reads as follows:
We affirm that the penal substitution of Christ is the only available and effective sacrifice for the sins of every person.
That seems pretty clear.
And lastly, the Baptist Faith & Message 2000. The BF&M 2000 is the benchmark doctrinal statement of the SBC. Albeit, you can be an SBC church member without affirming the statement, in general this statement broadly represents the views of SBC churches everywhere. In Article II, Sect. B it reads:
He honored the divine law by His personal obedience, and in His substitutionary death on the cross He made provision for the redemption of men from sin.
Again, there’s a fair amount of clarity there. Biblical clarity.
This Biblical clarity must be demanded from our leaders. All Alabamian Baptists ought to be outraged by this treatment of one of the core doctrines of our faith. If one were reading lazily, he or she might even forget it is Terry responding to George and not the other way around. Terry’s cursory reading and twisted treatment of the doctrine of the atonement demands Baptists in Alabama not rethink the atonement, but rethink the Alabama Baptist Newspaper and it’s leadership, particularly Dr. Terry’s.
UPDATE– Note of interest for Alabama Baptists: As self-reported (in a bit of irony) by the Alabama Baptist Newspaper, nearly $600,000 in Cooperative Program money went to this newspaper in 2012. A cursory glance at the linked report will show that to be more than was spent on college ministry statewide, disaster relief, and evangelism employees who, no doubt, do not preach a gospel devoid of penal substitution.
This post is already considerably longer than it should be. For fuller treatment’s of the doctrine of substitutionary atonement, see this book of essays It Is Well: Expositions on Substitutionary Atonement , this video of Jarvis Williams (of SBTS) from desiringgod.com, or John Stott’s classic treatment of the doctrine in his book The Cross of Christ.
Until then, let us all pray for Dr. Terry and for wisdom both for the Alabama Baptist Newspaper and the Alabama Baptist State Convention. It is my hope that the Holy Spirit convicts Dr. Terry of his misguided view on penal substitutionary atonement and leads him into truth.
- Contact the Alabama Baptist Newspaper with your concerns.
Email: firstname.lastname@example.orgTelephone: 205-870-4720Fax: 205-870-8957
- Contact the Alabama Baptist Convention.