Summary: Apostasy is an ongoing threat to the faithful. It is a process rather than an event.

“Now the Spirit expressly says that in later times some will depart from the faith by devoting themselves to deceitful spirits and teachings of demons, through the insincerity of liars whose consciences are seared, who forbid marriage and require abstinence from foods that God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and know the truth. For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, for it is made holy by the word of God and prayer.” [1]

In his 1934 book, The Kingdom of God in America, H. Richard Niebuhr depicted the creed of liberal Protestant theology, which was called “modernism” in those days, in these famous words: “A God without wrath brought man without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross.” Niebuhr was no fundamentalist, but he did know what he was talking about. Similarly, Dietrich Bonhoeffer realised the transformation that was taking place within the mainline religion he encountered in America in the 1930s; he named that aberration, Protestantismus ohne Reformation, “Protestantism without the Reformation.”

Sin, judgement, the cross and even Christ have all proven to be problematic terms in much of contemporary theology. However, it seems that nothing so irritates the progressive mindset as the idea of divine wrath. Perhaps you are aware, if only in a passing manner, of the controversy that flared this past summer over the decision of the Presbyterian Committee on Congregational Song to exclude from its new hymnal the greatly loved song, “In Christ Alone.” The Committee wanted to include this song because it was being sung in many churches. However, they could not accept a line from the third stanza of the song:

“Till on that cross as Jesus died/the wrath of God was satisfied.”

The Committee wanted to change the wording to say:

“Till on that cross as Jesus died/the love of God was magnified.”

The authors of the hymn, Keith Getty and Stuart Townsend, were unwilling to agree to the change proposed by the Presbyterian committee; they insisted on the original wording. Consequently, the Committee voted nine to six that “In Christ Alone” would not be among the eight hundred or so items in their new hymnal. Perhaps the fact that Stuart Townsend had written a song in 1995 that exalted the Father’s love [2] figured in this decision; but divine love was already addressed in “In Christ Alone.”

“In Christ alone, who took on flesh/fullness of God in helpless babe!

This gift of love and righteousness/scorned by the ones He came to save.”

Obviously, the song writers did clearly state that Christ is God’s gift of love to the world. However, it was apparent that the Committee’s objection to the hymn grew out of opposition to the biblical doctrine of divine wrath rather than any desire to exalt the love of God. Theirs was what has become the standard liberal emphasis on the love of God at the expense of wrath. Nevertheless, without God’s wrath, His love is meaningless!

According to Timothy George, modifying hymns to suit popular taste is nothing new; he provides numerous examples such the following instances of such modification. [3] Nestorians in the early days of the churches altered their Marian liturgy to suit their own preference. More recently, the Universalist leader, Kenneth L. Patton, kept the tune of “Ein Feste Burg” by Martin Luther, even though he replaced “A Mighty Fortress is Our God” with “Man is the earth Upright and Proud.” The Mormon Tabernacle Choir sings the Reginald Heber hymn “Holy, Holy, Holy” to the tune of “Nicaea,” but rather than singing in the first and last stanza, “God in three persons, blessed Trinity,” they sing “God in thy glory through eternity.”

Those who consign the wrath of God to the realm of the verboten, whether in sermons or hymns, stand in a long lineage extending back to the earliest days of the Faith. According to Tertullian, an unnamed revisionist in the second century, a follower of the heretic Marcion, wrote, “A better god has been discovered, who never takes offence, is never angry, never inflicts punishment, who has prepared no fire in hell, no gnashing of teeth in the outer darkness! He is purely and simply good.” [4] The lure of such a gospel is exhilarating, explaining the reason that neo-Marcionism (exalting God’s wrath in the Old Testament and exalting his love in the New) is still flourishing today not only in popular piety but also among many religious scholars.

Doctor George cites R.P.C. Hanson as writing that “many preachers today deal with God's wrath the way the Victorians handled sex, treating it as something a bit shameful, embarrassing and best left in the closet.” [5] The result of contemporary disdain for teaching the wrath of God is a less than fully biblical construal of who God is and what he has done, especially in the redemptive mission of Jesus Christ. Clearly the work of Christ on the cross means that “in Christ God was reconciling the world to Himself” [see 2 CORINTHIANS 5:19]. His work reminds us that God “gave Him up for us all” [see ROMANS 8:32]; it means that Jesus was “delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God” [see ACTS 2:23]. Undoubtedly, on the cross, the Son of God provided both expiation and propitiation, averting divine judgement. Indeed, the wrath of God was poured out on the Son of God so that we need not stand in fear of that wrath.

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