A few years ago, our church family (Howick Baptist Church) embarked on a project of memorising ten hymns. Why on earth would a twenty-first century church bother to commit obscure words like, “bulwark,” “Ebenezer,” and “quickening ray” to memory? Well for a start, in a world where new is better (and even what’s new becomes obsolete pretty quickly), these hymns remind us that the Christian faith wasn’t invented yesterday and that there is much to learn from those who have gone before us. Here’s a feeble attempt at drawing out, as one pastor put it, the “stubborn and illogical love of Jesus”1 which inspired men and women to write these hymns and keeps us singing them today.
When was the last time you remember singing about God’s wrath? If the modern hymn “In Christ Alone” is in your playlist, then it was probably more recently that you realised. Try listening to it here as you read this article.
“In Christ Alone” was the first hymn that writers Stuart Townsend and Keith Getty produced together, and to this day, it remains their most well known. Since its release in 2001, “In Christ Alone” has been referred to as “surely the worship song of the century so far.”2 The song has been covered by scores of artists including Owl City, David Archuleta, and Natalie Grant, and has been translated into several different languages.
The hymn takes a linear approach in unfolding the gospel narrative (the life, death, and resurrection of Christ). The first verse introduces Christ as solid ground, a cornerstone that we can find safety and refuge in. In the same way that stonemasons in biblical times relied on the precise placement of a cornerstone to set the foundation for every other stone, Christ promises to be “a cornerstone chosen and precious” (1 Peter 2:6) that we can rest every triumph and tragedy upon.
The second verse invites us to gaze at the wonder of the incarnation—the fullness of God in human form—before zooming into the life and death of Jesus. Despised and rejected by the people he came to save, the Messiah willingly poured himself out during the drama of the cross, where gruesome death and sacrificial love satisfied God’s righteous anger that our sins deserve (Romans 3:21-26, Romans 5:9).
The third verse begins with gloom of the tomb, but gives way to unabashed celebration of the risen Christ. The melody climaxes alongside triumphant news: Jesus is alive, victorious over death! We can now have the confidence to claim him as our own! The resurrection proves that sin’s death grip no longer remains: “…for as all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ” (1 Corinthians 15:22).
Powerful stories demand a response. In the final verse, we are invited to sing our reaction to the good news of Jesus. His unmatched power provides assurance that guilt need not plague us, death need not scare us, and hell can never take us: there simply is “no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:1). With King Jesus in command of our destiny, we stand with confidence, awaiting the day we finally meet him face-to-face.
Just as a diamond’s brilliance and sparkle depends on the number and placement of its many facets, God’s beauty shines most brightly in light of his many facets. In 2013, one of these aspects came under scrutiny when the American Presbyterian Committee on Congregational Song voted to exclude “In Christ Alone” from its hymnal, in light of the words in verse two, which speak about God’s wrath being satisfied. The decision attracted media interest and sparked a firestorm of controversy.3 There was much wrath about God’s wrath: some criticised the hymn writers for not allowing a change to the lyrics, while others accused the hymn committee of holding an unbiblical view of God.
Talk about God’s wrath brings unsettling images to the minds of 21st century Kiwis. We rightly reject caricatures of God having the uncontrollable anger of Jake “The Muss” from Once Were Warriors, or spewing forth hateful words at protest marches. Yet God’s wrath—revealed in the Bible—means God was willing to confront the cancer of sin hollowing out his beloved image-bearers, and Christ was willing to absorb the consequences of this cancer in our place. Without it, God’s love becomes saccharine and ill-equipped to respond to the horrors of human sin; whether anti-Semitic violence, or our own Samaritan blind spots; whether selfish exploitation of workers, or our own self-absorbed materialism.
That’s why when we sing about the wrath of God, we actually sing about ourselves: sinners in need of the rescue that Jesus willingly offers on the cross. To minimise any one of God’s attributes from our vocabulary is to rob ourselves of the full brilliance of God’s beauty, and to make Christ’s sacrifice less costly.
“In Christ Alone” depicts a God not made in our own image, but as he presents himself in the Biblical story: beyond us yet with us; holy yet gracious; angry yet loving; just yet merciful. And all of it is worth singing about.
Here are some ideas to help you reflect further, either personally or with your church family:
- What does it mean to say your hope is in Christ alone? In what ways are you tempted to place your hope in other ‘cornerstones?’
- In verse two, we sing of Jesus’ incarnation. Reflect on Hebrews 2:14-18 and list some ways that God’s placement of himself into our world can encourage us.
- Complete the following sentence: “God is ______.” See how many different attributes of God you can think of. Which ones are similar? Which might be missing?
- Have you ever seen a person you love change for the worse—either because of another person, or themselves? How did it make you feel about whatever was causing the destruction?
- In light of the debate discussed here, would you have rewritten the line about God’s wrath in verse two? Why, or why not?
Story: William Chong
William is a member of Howick Baptist Church, currently studying an MDivat Sydney Missionary Bible College.
1. Dale Campbell, “Good old church songs iii,” Assorted Music, 2012, dalecampbell.bandcamp.com/ album/good-old-church-songs-iii
2. “In Christ Alone at 15.” CCLI, churches.uk.ccli.com/2016/08/in-christ-alone-at-15/
3. “No Squishy Love.” Timothy George: First Things, firstthings.com/web-exclusives/2013/07/no-squishy-love
“In Christ Alone” words and music by Keith Getty & Stuart Townend. Copyright © 2001 Kingsway Thankyou Music
Unless otherwise specified, Scripture quotations are from New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Photo Credit: Rick Schroeppel/lightstock.com