Theology and Hymnology: PC(USA) and Singing About the Atonement

Greg Strand – August 2, 2013 11 Comments

The PC(USA)’s Presbyterian Committee on Congregational Song has been working on the publication of a new  hymnal for their denomination, Glory to God. The Committee decided not to include “In Christ Alone,” a contemporary hymn written by Keith Getty and Stuart Townend, because of its view of the atonement. Mary Louise Bringle, one of the Committee members, rehearses how the Committee made the decision in “Debating Hymns.”

Even more sustained theological debate occurred after the conclusion of the committee’s three-and-a-half years of quarterly meetings in January 2012. We had voted for a song from the contemporary Christian canon, Keith Getty and Stuart Townend’s “In Christ Alone.” The text agreed upon was one we had found by studying materials in other recently published hymnals. Its second stanza contained the lines, “Till on that cross as Jesus died / the love of God was magnified.” In the process of clearing copyrights for the hymnal we discovered that this version of the text would not be approved by the authors, as it was considered too great a departure from their original words: “as Jesus died / the wrath of God was satisfied.” We were faced, then, with a choice: to include the hymn with the authors’ original language or to remove it from our list.

Because we were no longer meeting as a committee, our discussions had to occur through e-mail; this may explain why the “In Christ Alone” example stands out in my mind—the final arguments for and against its inclusion are preserved in writing. People making a case to retain the text with the authors’ original lines spoke of the fact that the words expressed one view of God’s saving work in Christ that has been prevalent in Christian history: the view of Anselm and Calvin, among others, that God’s honor was violated by human sin and that God’s justice could only be satisfied by the atoning death of a sinless victim. While this might not be our personal view, it was argued, it is nonetheless a view held by some members of our family of faith; the hymnal is not a vehicle for one group’s perspective but rather a collection for use by a diverse body.

Arguments on the other side pointed out that a hymnal does not simply collect diverse views, but also selects to emphasize some over others as part of its mission to form the faith of coming generations; it would do a disservice to this educational mission, the argument ran, to perpetuate by way of a new (second) text the view that the cross is primarily about God’s need to assuage God’s anger. The final vote was six in favor of inclusion and nine against, giving the requisite two-thirds majority (which we required of all our decisions) to the no votes. The song has been removed from our contents list, with deep regret over losing its otherwise poignant and powerful witness.

As noted, the original hymn affirmed the penal substitutionary view of the atonement: “as Jesus died, the wrath of God was satisfied.” The Committee wanted to use the hymn but changed the words to read “till on that cross as Jesus died, the love of God was magnified.” The authors of the hymn, Getty and Townend, would not deny that the cross reveals the love of God. But that was not the focus of this hymn, and to change the lyrics in this manner would be to depart from the intent of the hymn. According to the hymwriters, this song was intended to tell “the whole gospel.” Furthermore, the Committee was not interested in affirming various views/truths of the atonement and by this edit emphasize the love of God rather than the wrath of God. By their final decision not to include the hymn as is, the Committee (six to include; nine to exclude) denied a penal substitutionary view of the atonement.

This denial is sad given the Presbyterian denomination’s subscription to the Westminster Confession of Faith. In fact, it is a tragic move away from biblical truth confessed in the Confession regarding Christ’s death on the cross. And yet, in light of where this denomination has moved theologically, it is not surprising.

Though the decision only has to do with one song, it speaks volumes about biblical truth, and about the task of doing theology in a contemporary context that faithfully serves the people of God.

Timothy George commented on this as well, “No Squishy Love,” and concluded with this biblically faithful statement about God:

God’s love is not sentimental; it is holy. It is tender, but not squishy.  It involves not only compassion, kindness, and mercy beyond measure (what the New Testament calls grace) but also indignation against injustice and unremitting opposition to all that is evil.

In the EFCA, we affirm the following about God, sin and Christ’s work on the cross, noted in these excerpts from our Statement of Faith:

Article 1, God: “We believe in one God, Creator of all things, holy, infinitely perfect, and eternally existing in a loving unity of three equally divine Persons: the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.”

Note, God is holy, infinitely perfect in His person and works, and loving.

Article 3, The Human Condition: “In union with Adam, human beings are sinners by nature and by choice, alienated from  God, and under His wrath. Only through God’s saving work in Jesus Christ can we be rescued, reconciled and renewed.”

Note, because of our sin, we are alienated from God and under His wrath. Jesus is the one alone by and through whom we can be rescued from God’s wrath, reconciled to the Father from our alienation and renewed into the likeness of the Son.

Article 5, The Work of Christ: “We believe that Jesus Christ, as our representative and substitute, shed His blood on the cross as the perfect, all-sufficient sacrifice for our sins. His atoning death and victorious resurrection constitute the only ground for salvation.”

Note, Jesus is our representative and substitute, and his death on the cross is the perfect, all-sufficient sacrifice for our sins. Moreover, it is Jesus Christ’s atoning death (Christus Vicarious) and victorious resurrection (Christus Victor) that are the only grounds for our salvation.

In the EFCA, because this is our theology, this is our hymnology! And we will joyfully live by and sing about these truths, all of these truths!, about God and the Lamb both now and into eternity (Rev. 22:3).

Greg Strand


Affectionately called “Walking Bible” by his youngest daughter, Greg Strand has a ministry history that goes back to 1982. Since that time, he has served in local church ministry in a variety of ministry capacities: youth pastor, associate pastor of adult ministries and senior pastor. He is currently the EFCA's Executive Director of Theology and Credentialing. Greg reads voraciously and never stops learning — a passion reflected in the overflowing bookshelves that spill from his library to multiple offices. And he could tell you about each of those books! His hunger for learning pales in contrast to his great love for God and for teaching the Word of God.

11 responses to Theology and Hymnology: PC(USA) and Singing About the Atonement

  1. Bruce Van Sickle August 2, 2013 at 4:10 pm

    Great writing and a great read, Greg! Outstanding. I hope to post this on my facebook wall.
    Bruce Van Sickle

    • Great to hear from you, Bruce. I appreciate your kind and affirming words. Even more so, I am grateful this has encouraged/edified you, which is something you can, in turn, share with others.

  2. Good analysis of this particular round of syncretizing in the PCUSA. In general, it seems symptomatic of fear of man where we ought to be guided by a fear of God.

    Of course, if we’re looking to nuke denials of scriptural principles (and it’s very loving to do so, especially in the straightforward way you’ve done here), the PCUSA qualifies as a “target-rich environment.” PCUSA seems to be in a race with a number of other denominations to accommodate our present post-modern culture as fast as possible.

    Note, the PCA (Presbyterian Church in America) is not at all like the PCUSA in this regard. The capitulation you describe is specific to PCUSA.

  3. I found this wonderfully written piece on Facebook. My late husband grew up in a Presbyterian (USA) church. As a teen, he sat under preachers who were part of transitioning the church into their “new era” of post modernism. Many main line denominations have gradually moved farther away from the central truths of the Word, and have chosen popular cultural perspective instead of God’s truth. Personally, having been raised Methodist, but coming to saving faith in an Evangelical Free Church, I must say that over the last 15 years I have moved closer to embracing reformed theology, and the beautiful truths of the Westminster Confession. To hear that the Presbyterian Church (USA) has made this choice does not surprise me, but it makes me ever more grateful for Presbyterian pastors like Timothy Keller, who still faithfully proclaim those eternal truths, found in the Westminster Shorter Confession. Evangelicals have much to learn of a careful choice of worship music and hymnology. It is through the lyrics of oft sung songs and choruses, that some vital theological perspectives are being absorbed into the souls of the next generation. The music committee in question had it right on that. We should take heed!

  4. Tom and Cheryl, thank you for reading and engaging in this important discussion. May we, by God’s grace, be faithful to the Lord and His Word!

  5. Great article about a very tragic time in the history of the PCUSA Greg. Unsurprising as you said but sad nonetheless. Thanks for speaking into this and writing with a conviction for the truth. Let’s be praying for reformation and revival across all of our churches.

    • Amen . . . reformation and revival are needed. And as most who pray for this, they acknowledge it must begin with me! May it be so, dear Lord!

  6. The response to this change by the PCUSA – those pointing out the sad state of the PCUSA’s decision – has been encouraging.

    Am I the only one concerned by Mary Louise Bringle’s comments not only theologically, but mathematically, as well? 9:6 does not grant a two-thirds majority to anyone.

    • I agree that it has been encouraging. I would also suggest that we not only respond to this negative move in the PCUSA, but that we do all we can to affirm the Scriptures and biblical truth and that we do so by constructively grounding all of our music – psalms, hymns and spiritual songs (Eph. 5:18-21; Col. 3:16-17) – in theology. Theology, be it good or bad, is communicated and reinforced through song.

      Regarding the mathematical problem, the editor of The Christian Century noted the problem with how this percentage was stated: “Some readers were understandably confused in Mary Louise Bringle’s article by the account of the hymnal committee’s vote on whether to include “In Christ Alone” in the Presbyterian hymnal. Bringle noted that there were six votes in favor of inclusion, nine votes against. It was the yes votes, supporting inclusion of the hymn, that needed to be a two-thirds majority; hence the hymn was rejected.”

  7. I am a little disappointed with the coverage and exposition of this article. I think it does more to poke at a fellow denomination than to outline the underlying issue. It paints the PC(USA) with a wide brush stroke, when in fact,the church group is definitely split into this characterization, and a significant much more conservative group that will abhor this action. As an Elder and sitting session member in a former PC(USA) church, I am saddened to hear the news, but also saddened that the summation here did not include NOR discuss the fact that the PC (USA) has a LARGE exiting group of conservative,, Bible centered churches, numbering in the hundreds that have formed the Evangelical Covenant Order of Presbyerians. And many more wanting to leave, but because of the trust property clause, are unable to do so, but have formed a adjoining group within the PC(USA) called the Fellowship of Presbyterians, which is calling the General Assembly back toward Scripture and Missions. Churches of ECO and PC(USA) form this group and share common goals and beliefs and stand in stark contrast to the General Assembly’s liberal actions.

    • Thank you for filling in some of the back story, Mark.

      In a brief blog post one cannot say everything. The post focused on the new hymnal that the PC(USA) is publishing and addressed a decision of the Committee to exclude a song. Though the PC(USA) is mostly liberal (that does not mean every person within the PC(USA) is liberal, there are many other good Presbyterian churches, some even within the PC(USA), and denominations, e.g. Evangelical Presbyterian Church (EPC), Presbyterian Church of America (PCA), Orthodox Presbyterian Church (OPC), in addition to the one you list.

      It reminds us of the importance of remaining vigilant to affirm the ultimate authority of the Bible and its exposition in doctrine/theology. One could take out the name of this denomination and replace it with another and it would fit the history of the church/denominations. It is absolutely necessary to affirm the faith, the body of truth, by faith, which is living. As I often express Romans 1:17, those who have been made righteous by faith live by faith.

      It is essential that one remain humbly dependent on the Holy Spirit and fully submissive to the Word of God as the ultimate authority for doctrine and life. That is the means God uses to ensure faithfulness today, tomorrow, until the end. And this cannot be passed on to the next generation. It needs to be living and active for each and every generation. This is why someone quipped that God has no grandchildren!

      As Paul wrote, “Watch your life and doctrine closely. Persevere in them, because if you do, you will save both yourself and your hearers” (1 Tim. 4:16).

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