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Great hymns have the ability to unite the family of God, throughout history and the world, in the truths about God that matter most. But when voices from within the church begin to question or deny what the church holds most dear, great hymns become flashpoint of controversy.
Such is the case with “In Christ Alone.” Some say they find it offensive enough to change one uncomfortable line, or abandon the song altogether. But I want you to see that the original line is deeply biblical and profoundly good news. The second verse says,
Till on that cross as Jesus died, The wrath of God was satisfied
Some find this line so troubling they have changed it to “the love of God was magnified.”
It’s certainly true that the love of God was magnified at the cross. Romans 5:8 says, “God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” And in Galatians 2:20, the apostle Paul refers to the magnifying of love at the cross when he refers to Jesus as the one “who loved me and gave himself for me.”
The cross is the pinnacle of God’s expression of his love for his people. It is the most magnificent single act of love in all of history. “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13) — and it’s even greater love when it’s the Son of God himself giving himself for sinners who have rebelled and rejected him.
So, yes, it is true that “the love of God was magnified” at the cross. But why would anyone want to change the original lyrics, from one true line to another? Because they take the original to be untrue, even offensive. Unless your mind has been shaped deeply by God’s self-revelation in the Bible, rather than the prevailing winds of modern society, you will find it offensive when the Scripture tells us that we all, every one of us, are sinners. And that “the wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23).
All human sin is high treason against the God who made us and to whom we owe ultimate allegiance. Our sin is an affront to him. And it is such a serious offense for us finite creatures to rebel against our infinite Creator that the just punishment for our sin, even in the seemingly smallest of expressions, is eternal death. God is an infinitely valuable person, and any sin against him, whether we think of it as big or small, is infinitely egregious — and the just punishment for it is an eternal punishment in hell.
Unless the grace of God intervenes.
Where does the wrath of God come in? It is his righteous response to the outrage that sin is. It would not be good news if God were unrighteous, and if he were not angry with genocidal dictators and the pimps of child prostitution. The love of God wouldn’t be very comforting if God didn’t get angry when people assault the weak and vulnerable, especially his loved ones. If he were to stand idly by, without wrath, when his loved ones are abused and hurt and mistreated, then we wouldn’t be very impressed by his love.
Because God is justly angry with human sin, the death of Christ at the cross is not only the magnifying of God’s love; it’s also the satisfying of God’s wrath on behalf of those who believe in him. Because the Father loved us, even while we were sinners, and because Jesus also loved us, they partnered together to bring about our salvation through the sinless Son of God willingly dying the death we sinners deserve — the love of God in the Son of God rescuing us from the wrath of God, without compromising the justice of God, to the glory of God.
That God has wrath against human sin that needs to be satisfied may be terribly offensive, if there’s no Savior. But if the love of God has made a way, then we only diminish his love when we mute his wrath.
The way to let the love of God shine its brightest is not to let his righteous wrath go dark, but to acknowledge it, and stand in awe of what we’ve been saved from by the amazing self-giving of God’s Son, and to invite others into the rescue.
Desiring God partnered with Shane & Shane’s The Worship Initiative to write short meditations for more than one hundred popular worship songs and hymns. The Worship Initiative is an online platform devoted to training musicians for songwriting and worship leading.
This meditation was written to accompany the song “In Christ Alone” which is included in Volume 1.
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