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Worship and Hymn Writing Series

July 4, 2007

I have recently finished a six part series on worship and hymn writing. I had much more to say but I think I have said enough. I lumped them all here in one post and I have indexed the series:

  1. Part 1 – A Call for Humility
  2. Part 2 – Rouse Up Affections for the Triune God
  3. Part 3 – Teach in Your Music
  4. Part 4 – Write on Redemptive Themes
  5. Part 5 – Write on Coming Glory
  6. Part 6 – Write on the Massive Contrast Between Our Sin and the Perfection of Christ

Worship and Hymn Writing Part I– A Call for Humility

I wanted to spend a few posts on music written for the Church. It is interesting to see how worship music trends have moved in so many different directions in the last 15 years or so. Worship movements have been in varied forms and for many age groups. These changes in style, format, and themes have not been primarily found in younger age groups, but all ages. We have seen movements from Hillsong, Passion, Kingsway, WorshipTogether, and even the Gaithers. This has sparked a large interest in song writing for congregational worship and it has certainly had its positive and negative effects, but I wanted to comment on a few characteristics of songs and song writers that, at the very least, should be present throughout. The first characteristic is humility.

We cannot write music for congregational worship if we are not humble. This may seem like an obvious point, but I wanted to display some dangers of proud song writers in order to understand the severity of this problem. The problem is severe because of what worship is to the Church. Worship is a primary means in which our love, devotion, and affections are stirred towards the Triune God. Among other means – such as preaching, prayer, devotion, meditation, the Lord’s Supper, Bible reading – God has ordained to use worship as a means of grace to help us remember his glory and majesty beyond Sunday morning. I don’t want to minimize the chief reason of worship – to glorify God – but I don’t want to exclude it from being a means of grace towards us as well. If song and hymn writers are proud individuals, the glory and majesty of God, the beauty and wonder of Jesus, and the mystery and sensation of the Spirit will not be appropriately displayed, hindering the congregation in their experience.

Yes, I did use the word experience. The experience of change, wonder, mystery, awe, and glory should all be included in worship. When we experience these things we see the ugliness of our sin and the beauty of Jesus, the inability of humanity and workmanship of God, and limitedness of me and the sovereignty of God. These thoughts are the beginnings of changed lives and the defeat of sin. When we continually view Christ as glorious and beautiful, sin will begin to be less and less enticing and more and more of a lie. Without humility, worship will be a vain promotion of self and a spark for sin. We must take seriously our worship and we need humble song writers, looking forward to the glory of Jesus and the promotion of his name.

Worship and Hymn Writing Part II – Rouse up Affections for the Triune God

 

We should be saying in our songs of praise big things about our God. I don’t remember who said this, but someone said that ‘the praise songs today that are trendy are the ones that you could replace God with the name of your girlfriend and it works perfectly.’ In some ways, I think this is true. Our worship today does not say much more than what we say everyday to the ones we care about. This should not be so – our songs to God should be distinct, filled with things that could only be said to him. Our songs should be able to rouse affections for the Triune God that are much higher than any other being.

Luke 14 gives the parable of the Great Banquet. A man wanted to give a banquet and invited many people. But those who were invited gave excuses: their fields, new oxen to tend to, a new wife to be with. These people who were invited cared more for their own concerns and had higher affections for their fields, oxen, and wives than the great banquet – this was a tragedy. The songs we sing should aid our congregations in growing their love for God greater than anything else – even spouses and families. The songs and hymns that we write for our congregations should not be on equal footing with all the other subjects we sing about. Our songs should make hearts swell and joy rise. We should strive hard for language that compels a believer to groan for Jesus because he is becoming more and more his highest love and treasure. We should struggle to entice their redeemed taste-buds and their renewed, holy sensory system they have been given through the New Covenant (Ez. 36:26; 1Cor. 2:10-16) to see God the Father, his Son Jesus, and his Holy Spirit as irresistibly lovely. We must endeavor to break through the power of sin in the lives of each individual with joy in Christ – who is our hope of great glory and great enjoyment. The songs we sing should so distinctly be directed towards God that it would be obvious blasphemy if we replace God with the name of our girlfriend.

Worship and Hymn Writing Part III – Teach In Your Music

Historically, since the beginning of the Reformation, hymns were used to teach doctrine and spiritual truths in the Church. When transferring from Roman Catholicism to Protestantism the congregation had much learn and much to re-learn. Many pastors and clergy wrote hymns to integrate solid doctrine. Martin Luther was of course one who wrote many hymns for congregations throughout Europe. One, for example, was “Savior of the Heathen, Known.” Luther teaches doctrine pertaining specifically to the Person of Christ:

Saviour of the heathen, known
As the promised virgin’s Son;
Come thou wonder of the earth,
God ordained thee such a birth.

Not of flesh and blood the son,
Offspring of the Holy One,
Born of Mary ever-blest,
God in flesh is manifest.

Lo! he comes! the Lord of all
Leaves his bright and royal hall;
God and man, with giant force,
Hastening to run his course.

In this hymn, Luther successfully teaches the humanity and deity of Christ, the incarnation, the virgin birth, the humiliation of Christ, and the sovereignty of God in all of it.

The hymn “Rock of Ages” sings this:

Not the labor of my hands
Can fulfill Thy law’s demands;
Could my zeal no respite know,
Could my tears forever flow,
All for sin could not atone;
Thou must save, and Thou alone.

Here Augustus Toplady, the hymn writer, teaches the uselessness of our good works and our complete need for the work of Christ to atone for our sins, who puts peace to our contention in appeasing God’s wrath. This characteristic must still be in our songs that we write today. We must teach in our music. That does, however, stress that the song writer must have something to teach and have a growing knowledge in Christ.

Implementing songs that actually teach in the lyrics helps the congregation do two things: (1) it helps the congregation to worship in spirit and in truth and (2) aid the worshiper to grow and develop a love for these truths. We must be able to worship Christ for the incarnation. The incarnation was a gracious, loving act of God towards humanity. But we cannot worship God for something we do not know of or understand.

There are many examples of modern song and hymn writers who are striving to teach great things about God through their songs. Keith and Kristyn Getty are modern hymn writer who have wonderful lyrics and teach many truths – especially pertaining to redemptive themes. I could use their most famous hymn “In Christ Along” to show their depth of teaching in their hymns. Specifically, look at this stanza:

No guilt in life, no fear in death—
This is the pow’r of Christ in me;
From life’s first cry to final breath,
Jesus commands my destiny.
No pow’r of hell, no scheme of man,
Can ever pluck me from His hand;
Till He returns or calls me home—
Here in the pow’r of Christ I’ll stand.

Not only do they use themes taken straight from Scripture (Romans 8), they are teaching truths that give Christians courage, hope, and trust in their mighty Savior. Another modern writer is Bob Kauflin who takes many themes in Puritan writings to use in his worship music. We should learn from these writers who are striving to get music out there that puts depth into our words that we sing. Let us teach great and powerful truths to encourage and grow our congregation to worship and spirit and truth.

Worship and Hymn Writing Part IV – Write on Redemptive Themes

 

I have been spending a few posts interacting with what I believe should fill the lyrics and themes of our worship music that is being written today for our congregations. In part I, I mainly dealt with the writer of the songs. The author of our songs we sing should be humble. If you want to create music for the Church today, you should strive to humble yourself in order that you may rightly portray God gloriously high and lifted up. It is awfully difficult to do that with a lofty heart. In part 2, my main intention was to encourage song writers to write in order to “rouse up affections for the Triune God.” Our songs we sing should encourage our hearts to swell in joy over our Savior. Song writers should struggle for words that accomplish these things in the hearts of believers. And in part 3, finally, we should teach in our songs. I argued that, historically, hymns have been used to teach sound and biblical doctrine to the congregation. This not only encourages our people to worship in spirit and in truth, but also fall in love with these truths.

In this post, part 4, I wanted to encourage writers to focus their themes on redemptive themes. I am not saying that all worship songs should be about the cross and our redemption in Christ. There are other reasons to praise God about and we should sing about those reasons. But Christ is glorified in cross, so we should sing of it. The Gospel of John displays throughout his book that Jesus is exalted and glorified in his “hour to come”, namely the cross. In John 12:23, Jesus sees that the Gentiles are now desiring to see him and this signifies to him that the cross is near. He says to his disciples, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.” In John 17:1, hours before Jesus is to be crucified, he prays to the Father, “Father, the hour has come, glorify your Son that the Son may glorify the Father.” There are other passages in John that speak of the cross being a glorification of Christ – 7:39, 13:31. In Revelation 5, where the Apostle John is mourning the fact that there is none worthy to open the scrolls, his tears are quickly ceased when the Lamb of God appears to open the scrolls and heaven’s company begins to sing, “Worthy are you to take the scroll and to open its seals, for you were slain and by your blood you ransomed the people for God (Rev. 5:9). Then they sang, “Worthy is the Lamb who was slain, to receive power and wealth, and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing” (Rev. 5:12).

The reason in these specific passages for the worthiness of Christ was his suffering for the redeemed people of God. The cross was the reason for glory. Now, from eternity past, Christ has been worthy of all honor and praise, but here we see that the cross was (1) the way in which the Father glorified his Son (this also included the resurrection and exaltation) and (2) the way in which believers see the glory of God. We can spend pages and pages on these two points alone, but I think the witness of Scripture is clear that the Father has glorified his Son through the cross and we have seen and will continually see in greater and greater measure the glory of God in Christ through his cross – the work of the New Covenant.

We, the redeemed, should fill our songs with the cross. If you write music for your church or the Greater Church, then meditate on the place in which Christ, the Son of God was most glorified towards his redeemed – the cross.

 

Worship and Hymn Writing Part V – Write of Coming Glory

 

If you write music for your church or for the Greater Church, please write on our coming glory. Write on the promises that we have after this life and after the grave. Songs and hymns that we sing should be filled with the ultimate hope and stock we put into a greater world beyond this one. Mark Dever said this once:

In my own denomination’s hymnals, hymns about the afterlife drop in number from over 100 in the late 19th century to about 15 in the latest Baptist Hymnal (1991). Remaining hymns are neutered. The Baptist hymnal (1975 & 1991) both omit the wonderful 5th stanza from Cowper’s great hymn “There is a Fountain”. If you have the 1956 Baptist Hymnal you can still find it. “When this poor lisping stammering tongue Lies silent in the grave, Then in a nobler, sweeter song I’ll sing Thy power to Save.” Our reluctance to sing about the grave in church on Sunday only reveals how much our hopes have been entrusted to this life–and we do not wish to conceive of them being lost. Our treasures have been put too much in this world.

Sadly, I believe Dever is right. Our lack of rejoicing in what will come shows our contentment with what we already have. This should not be the case for Christians because what will come is immeasurably greater that what we have now.

As song and hymn writers, our endeavor should be to encourage joy and hope in the afterlife. Why is this important? One reason, as we have already mentioned, it encourages congregations to put a greater stock in the coming day of Christ. Another reason, it glorifies the person and work of Jesus Christ. We did nothing to inherit this hope of eternal joy. We did not work our whole lives in order to retire easy for eternity. We didn’t make a risky investment that will pay out big time in the end. We were beneficiaries of grace. A third reason is this, rejoicing in our coming inheritance is rejoicing in Christ – for our greatest and ultimate inheritance will be Christ. We will be met with the face of Jesus, the source and object of everlasting delight. Let us praise and glory in the grace and hope that is ours through the person and work of Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior. Please, write of coming glory.

 

Worship and Hymn Writing Part VI – Write On the Massive Contrast Between Our Sin and the Perfection of Christ

John Calvin’s Institutes of The Christian Religion opens with the statement, “Nearly all the wisdom we possess, that is to say, true and sound wisdom, consists of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves.” This statement is the foundation of Calvin’s theology. Without the knowledge of self there is no proper knowledge of God and without the knowledge of God there is no proper knowledge of self. We always seem righteous and holy to ourselves until we “first look upon God’s face” and are able to scrutinize ourselves, “convinced of our unrighteousness, foulness, folly, and impurity” and then our complete ruin and miserable poverty “compels us to look upward.”

To see the holiness of God we can look at his greatest self-revelation – his Son, Jesus Christ. “He has made [the Father] known” (John 1:18) to us. He says to Philip, his disciple in John 14:9, “Whoever, has seen me has seen the Father.” And Paul, most emphatically, says in 2 Corinthians 4:6, “For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.” We see all of the rich perfection of God, more clearly, in Christ, his Son. Our poverty of sin and the rich perfection of Jesus Christ should be trumpeted in our songs.

There seems to me to be three main reasons why this is important to write music in order to sing about this massive contrast. First, it glorifies the perfection of Christ. It shows the elevation of his deity over our humanness. It shows his complete power over the power of sin and our helplessness under it. Second, it shows our complete need of him. Since he has complete power over sin and we are helpless under it, he is our only hope to escape the wrath of God. Only Jesus can satisfy the Father with his perfection and holiness. Only he is worthy to save us from our misery. Third, focusing on the massive contrast between our sin and the perfection of Christ, glorifies the righteousness that is imputed or transferred to us through faith in Jesus Christ. Not only does Jesus have the power to save us, but it is his actual obedience that becomes ours before the judgment seat of God. “For as by the one man’s disobedience (Adam’s) the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience (Christ’s) the many will be made righteous” (Rom. 5:19). The disobedience of Adam was transferred to all men, making them sinners, but through faith, the obedience of Jesus was transferred to the many, making them righteous. We should celebrate the perfect obedience of Jesus Christ that is ours in faith. Writing of this massive contrast glorifies perfection of Christ, it glorifies Christ as Savior, and it glorifies Christ as our righteousness.

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