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Journal of the Grace Evangelical Society, Autumn 1992—Volume 5:2

Grace in the Arts:

Toward Singing with the Understanding

A Discussion of the Gospel Hymn—Part 2

Frances A. Mosher*

VI. Doctrinal Considerations

The doctrines and theological concepts expressed in hymns should be of concern to those desirous of maintaining a high standard of scriptural soundness in public worship.

The basic beliefs of most Christians have been formulated more by the hymns they sing than by the preaching they hear… Certainly one's disposition toward, or away from, right belief is subtly but indelibly influenced by the hymns one repeatedly sings. And when talking about faith, average churchgoers can quote more stanzas of hymns than they can verses of Scripture. This fact, far from lessening the importance of preaching and Bible teaching, is simply a testimony to the importance of the hymnal as a practical textbook in doctrine. Moreover, it focuses attention on the critical requirement that the content of the hymns taught to young and old… accurately reflect theological and biblical truth.1

In an interview conducted in the spring of 1979, the late Dr. Richard Seume, at that time the Chaplain of Dallas Theological Seminary, stated, "Music is important, not incidental. It is no exaggeration to say that songs have taught more theology to new converts than textbooks."2

A thorough discussion of theological concepts as presented in gospel hymns could provide material for a complete article in itself, or even a book! The discussion here will be limited to a brief consideration of two issues: (1) Is the subjectivity which we have noted in the gospel hymn a scripturally acceptable approach to songs for public worship? and (2) What strengths and weaknesses exist in specific gospel hymns regarding the plan of salvation and the doctrine of grace?

It is currently fashionable in some Christian circles to be critical of a subjective point of view in sacred song. The idea is that such a viewpoint promotes self-centeredness rather than God-centeredness. Such criticism may be a reaction to some of the extremely subjective, self-centered, and theologically empty religious songs which have become quite popular in the last several decades. (Many of these songs are chiefly the domain of those who perform religious music before audiences. Few such songs, with the exception of a few choruses, seem to have found a place in standard hymnals and song books for congregational singing.) It is an unfortunate likelihood that the subjectivity which gained such wide acceptance in the last century by means of the gospel hymn has occasionally degenerated in this century into the "feel good" religious song which seems to say little other than that God exists mainly to encourage us to have warm, fuzzy feelings about ourselves, each other, and, as an afterthought, Him. These often leave the impression that spiritual truth should be determined solely on the basis of our personal experience. This, of course, is subjectivity in the extreme and is totally unworthy of the Creator of the universe who shed His blood for our redemption.

Does this mean, however, that songs for public worship should completely avoid subjectivity? Should there be no expression of man's concerns in spiritual matters other than to worship God objectively? Perhaps the safest way to address the issue is to consider a collection of songs for public worship of which we know the Lord approves—the Book of Psalms. We need look no further than Psalm 1:1 to find an expression of how man is affected by his relationship with God:

Blessed is the man
Who walks not in the counsel of the ungodly,
Nor stands in the path of sinners
Nor sits in the seat of the scornful.

Consider also Psalm 6 in its entirety:

O Lord, do not rebuke me in Your anger,
Nor chasten me in Your hot displeasure.
Have mercy on me, O Lord, for I am weak;
O Lord, heal me, for my bones are troubled.
My soul also is greatly troubled;
But You, O Lord—how long?

Return, O Lord, deliver me!
Oh, save me for Your mercies' sake!
For in death there is no remembrance of You;
In the grave who will give You thanks?

I am weary with my groaning;
All night I make my bed swim;
I drench my couch with my tears.
My eye wastes away because of grief;
It grows old because of all my enemies.

Depart from me, all you workers of iniquity;
For the Lord has heard the voice of my weeping.
The Lord has heard my supplication;
The Lord will receive my prayer.
Let all my enemies be ashamed and greatly troubled;
Let them turn back and be ashamed suddenly.

This Psalm is nothing if not subjective—but it also glorifies God.

The beloved Psalm 23 is highly subjective and centers on praising God by making mention of what He does for the psalmist on a personal level.

A brief scanning of the Book of Psalms reveals that, in fact, a large number of the psalms are quite subjective in approach, and that there is no reticence in mentioning what God has done personally for the psalmist. We can, therefore, conclude that subjectivity—even a high degree of it—in songs of public worship can be acceptable and pleasing to the Lord.

It should be noted, however, that many of the Psalms are quite objective in their approach. When the Psalms are considered as a whole, there is a balance between the objective and the subjective. The subjectivity in gospel hymns could become a problem if such hymns comprised almost the entire "menu" of songs used by a congregation in its worship from week to week. "A healthy subjectivism is necessary to a wholehearted involvement of one's total person in dialogue with God. But subjectivity must be disciplined lest it lead to unwholesome self-centeredness."3 (Worthy of mention is the fact that most of the gospel hymns which are doctrinally sound and "meaty," a few examples of which will be cited later, are also among the least subjective of the genre.)

It is unfortunately true that the subjective approach has produced an occasional gospel hymn which may present a misleading or downright unscriptural view of salvation. In discussing some specific examples, no ungraciousness is intended toward the authors. It is quite possible that the lyricists of at least some of these hymns may have understood and believed the scriptural doctrine of salvation. Furthermore, the average nineteenth-century congregation singing these lyrics may not have been misled by portions which seem less than crystal clear doctrinally. Possibly a body of scriptural knowledge shared by a large part of the general population compensated for an occasional lack of clarity on the part of a songwriter. Whether or not this was true in the late 1800's, it would seldom, if ever, be true today.

Anyone who would write hymn lyrics proclaiming the message of salvation faces the potential problem of including sufficient information to establish an unambiguous message while simultaneously handling meter, rhyme, and poetic imagery—a tall order for even the best of writers! If sufficient doctrinal information is not included in the lyrics, the singer or listener may be left with, at best, a question, and at worst, a misconception about salvation. Consider the lyrics of "Ye Must Be Born Again":

A ruler once came to Jesus by night
To ask Him the way of salvation and light;
The Master made answer in words true and plain,
"Ye must be born again."

Ye children of men, attend to the word
So solemnly uttered by Jesus the Lord;
And let not this message to you be in vain,
"Ye must be born again."

O ye who would enter that glorious rest,
And sing with the ransomed the song of the blest;
The life everlasting if ye would obtain,
"Ye must be born again."

Ye must be born again,
Ye must be born again,
I verily, verily say unto thee,
Ye must be born again.

There is certainly nothing unscriptural in this hymn. Unfortunately, it lacks any explanation of how one is "born again" or what that terminology means. If all members of a congregation singing this song shared a body of knowledge within which each correctly understood the meaning of being born again, or if the terminology had just been, or was just about to be, explained by a teacher or preacher, this song could be edifying. Otherwise, it could frustrate or confuse.

"Have You Any Room for Jesus" demonstrates an extended use of the idea embodied in the admonition to "ask Jesus into your heart," or to "let Jesus come into your heart," used by some in issuing an invitation to salvation.

Have you any room for Jesus,
He who bore your load of sin?
As He knocks and asks admission,
Sinner, will you let Him in?

Room for pleasure, room for business,
But for Christ the Crucified,
Not a place that He can enter,
In the heart for which He died?

Have you any room for Jesus,
As in grace He calls again?
O, today is time accepted,
Tomorrow you may call in vain.

Room and time now give to Jesus,
Soon will pass God's day of grace;
Soon thy heart left cold and silent,
And thy Saviour's pleading cease.

Room for Jesus, King of glory!
Hasten now, His word obey;
Swing the heart's door widely open,
Bid Him enter while you may.

The idea of "asking" or "letting Jesus into your heart" is never used in the Bible to explain salvation, and is certainly never made a condition of salvation. Many who use this phrase (including, perhaps, this hymn's author) assume that the hearer will understand it to mean believing and trusting completely in Christ as the only payment for sin. However, the phrase itself does not say that, and could imply a Lordship Salvation message.

A Lordship Salvation message is not merely implied, but virtually stated in "What Will You Do with Jesus?"

Jesus is standing in Pilate's hall—
Friendless, forsaken, betrayed by all:
Hearken! What meaneth the sudden call?
What will you do with Jesus?

Jesus is standing on trial still,
You can be false to Him if you will,
You can be faithful through good or ill:
What will you do with Jesus?

Will you, like Peter, your Lord deny?
Or will you scorn from His foes to fly?
Daring for Jesus to live or die?
What will you do with Jesus?

"Jesus, I give Thee my heart today! Jesus,
I'll follow Thee all the way,
Gladly obeying Thee!" will you say:
"This will I do with Jesus!"

What will you do with Jesus?
Neutral you cannot be;
Someday your heart will be asking,
"What will He do with me?"

The way of salvation as presented in this hymn includes being faithful (v 2), choosing Him (v 3), daring to live or die for Him (v 4), giving Him one's heart, following Him and obeying Him (v 5). "Choosing Him" is the closest hint one receives of believing in Christ as the condition of salvation. The hymn could be taken as a challenge to Christian discipleship on the part of those already saved, were it not for the repeating refrain, which seems definitely to refer to the initial point of salvation and the settling of one's eternal destiny.

Let us close on a positive note by considering a number of gospel hymns which are especially "meaty" scripturally, and which present a very clear salvation message.

"I Know Whom I Have Believed," by Daniel D. Whittle, uses the words of 2 Tim 1:12 as its repeating refrain.

I know not why God's wondrous grace
To me He hath made known,
Nor why, unworthy, Christ in love
Redeemed me for His own.

I know not how this saving faith
To me He did impart,
Nor how believing in His Word
Wrought peace within my heart.

I know not how the Spirit moves,
Convincing men of sin,
Revealing Jesus through the Word,
Creating faith in Him.

I know not when my Lord may come,
At night or noonday fair,
Nor if I'll walk the vale with Him,
Or "meet Him in the air."

But I know whom I have believed
And am persuaded that He is able
To keep that which I've committed
Unto Him against that day.

"It Is Finished," by James Proctor, makes a strong case for salvation's being 'not of works."

Nothing, either great or small—
Nothing, sinner, no;
Jesus did it, did it all,
Long, long ago.

When He, from His lofty throne,
Stooped to do and die,
Everything was fully done:
Hearken to His cry!

Weary, working, burdened one,
Wherefore toil you so?
Cease your doing; all was done,
Long, long ago.

Till to Jesus' work you cling
By a simple faith,
"Doing" is a deadly thing—
"Doing" ends in death.

Cast your deadly "doing" down,
Down at Jesus' feet;
Stand in Him, in Him alone
Gloriously complete.

"It is finished!" yes, indeed,
Finished every jot;
Sinner, this is all you need,
Tell me, is it not?

Were Philip P. Bliss alive today, surely he would have been a charter member of the Grace Evangelical Society, for his hymns are consistently sound doctrinally, and are outstandingly clear on the issue of Christ's work on the Cross. An example is found in "Hallelujah, What a Saviour" (a gospel hymn with a one-line repeating refrain).

"Man of Sorrows," what a name
For the Son of God who came
Ruined sinners to reclaim!
Hallelujah! what a Saviour!

Bearing shame and scoffing rude,
In my place condemned He stood;
Sealed my pardon with His blood;
Hallelujah! what a Saviour!

Guilty, vile and helpless we;
Spotless Lamb of God was He;
"Full atonement" can it be?
Hallelujah! what a Saviour!

Lifted up was He to die,
"It is finished," was His cry;
Now in heaven exalted high;
Hallelujah! what a Saviour!

When He comes, our glorious King,
All His ransomed home to bring,
Then anew this song we'll sing:
Hallelujah! what a Saviour!

VII. Conclusion

The gospel hymn decidedly deserves a place in the meetings of congregations which desire to preserve and maintain biblical truth. Because of the genre's tendency toward subjectivity, however, care and consideration should be given to choosing gospel hymns which are doctrinally sound, and to avoiding those which directly or by implication present an unscriptural theological view. Finally, churches which tend to use gospel hymns almost exclusively should, perhaps, consider adding some more objectively-oriented hymns to their repertoires.

Let us strive to glorify our Lord by singing both "with the spirit and with the understanding" in our corporate worship.


*Pianist, Christ Congregation, Dallas, Texas

1Harry Eskew and Hugh T. McElrath, Sing with Understanding (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1980), 59.

2Tracy L. Bergquist and Mark E. Wilson, Songleader's Supplement: A Doctrinal and Historical Guide to Selected Hymns (Dallas: Dallas Theological Seminary, 1980), 22.

3Eskew and McElrath, Sing, 65.

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