What do hymn choices tell us about a denomination? A lot, it turns out.
First, forgive me for a bit of a personal reflection. When I was in Iraq — especially as casualties mounted, and the IED menace seemed overwhelming — I took great comfort in a contemporary hymn written by Keith Getty and Stuart Townend. Called “In Christ Alone,” it bucks the contemporary worship trend of shallow, emotional lyrics in favor of a theologically rich presentation of the Gospel. While the entire hymn is outstanding, the last verse was particularly meaningful:
This is the power of Christ in me;
From life’s first cry to final breath.
Jesus commands my destiny.
No power of hell, no scheme of man,
Can ever pluck me from His hand;
Till He returns or calls me home,
Here in the power of Christ I’ll stand.
It avoids shallow promises of earthly comfort in favor of the ultimate comfort — no matter our earthly destiny — found in Christ. And it’s a beautiful song, covered by countless Christian artists.
So it was with some sorrow that I read yesterday in First Things that the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) voted to exclude the song from the church hymnal. The reason? The PCUSA Committee on Congregational Song objected to the lyric that proclaims “Till on that cross as Jesus died/The wrath of God was satisfied.” The Committee proposed an alternative: “Till on that cross as Jesus died/the love of God was magnified.” Getty and Townend refused the change, and the Committee voted to exclude the song.
The core of the dispute is the mainline break with orthodoxy on the very nature of God and mission of Jesus. In orthodox Christianity, sin demands sacrifice. God’s wrath against sin — our sin — was atoned through Christ’s sacrifice. Or, as the Prophet Isaiah prophesied: “But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds we are healed.”
This is the essence of the doctrine of substitutionary atonment, and mainline protestantism is increasingly rejecting it in favor of a doctrine that places Jesus not as Savior in the orthodox sense but more as an example of love and nonviolent resistance, Gandhi on divine steroids.
The importance of rejecting substitutionary atonement is tough to overstate, with ramifications across the full spectrum of spiritual, social, and cultural engagement. In fact, it’s likely one of the key reasons for the steep decline in mainline churches. After all, when the purpose of Christ’s presence on earth is ripped from its eternal context and placed firmly within (and relegated to) the world of “social justice” and earthly systems of oppression, there’s little that church offers that, say, the Sierra Club, Greenpeace, Occupy Wall Street, or a subscription to Mother Jones can’t also supply.
If, on the other hand, Christ represents the sole source of our eternal hope, then church offers something that no political movement can replicate or replace. No amount of “social justice” or political liberation can save your soul.
As a postscript, I had the chance recently to meet Keith Getty and his wife Kristyn at a conference in Texas. They were lovely people, and I thanked them for providing me (and others) with hope in a dark and difficult time. Now, if I see them again, I can thank them for refusing to compromise.
For those who’ve never heard the hymn that’s too mean for the PCUSA, I’ve attached it below: