Category Archives: Hymns

Reflections on the modern hymn In Christ Alone

(This article was first published in the NZ Baptist Magazine website: http://www.baptistmag.org.nz/discipleship/in-christ-alone/).


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.

“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.” 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. 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.

 

It Is Well With My Soul

(This article was first published in the Baptist Magazine website: http://baptistmag.org.nz/discipleship/it-is-well-with-my-soul/).


“Saved alone”

These were the first two words that Anna Spafford telegrammed her husband, Horatio, after the ship that she and her four daughters were on sank in a shipwreck that claimed 232 lives – including their four daughters. In the small hours of November 22nd 1873, the transatlantic steamer Ville du Havre collided with another iron sailing vessel. Passengers tumbled and fell. There was darkness and confusion. Within two hours, the entire ship had perished beneath the waves.

As a grief-stricken Horatio sailed across the Atlantic to reunite with his wife in Europe, the ship’s captain called him aside and informed him that they were now passing over the place where the Ville du Havre went down. Overcome with grief, Horatio retired to his cabin and poured out the words which have become one of the church’s most beloved hymns, “It is Well with my Soul.”

The story behind this hymn is retold over and over again by preachers and hymn enthusiasts as an example of firm faith in God during difficult times.

Let’s take a closer look at the hymn…


 

Edify Conference – building the church in word and song – set list

It was a joy over the weekend to serve at the first Edify Conference, hosted at our home church (Howick Baptist). We had a great time opening the Word and considering the importance of what we do when we sing together as the gathered church.

Cheryl and I were in Sydney for Emu Music’s Word in Song Conference last year, and in 2011 got to attend the WorshipGod conference hosted by Bob Kauflin. And after talking about the idea of a music / gathered worship conference on and off for years, it was great to finally have a go at hosting one in NZ ourselves in partnership with Rowan Hilsden and the team at Auckland EV.

It was also neat to meet and get to know Greg Cooper, a songwriter and musician from Sydney who served on the Edify band on Friday night and led several workshops on Saturday. I personally learned a lot from observing and considering how skillfully he played the guitar – in a way that served the band and supported the church singing. I also loved his servant-hearted attitude and easy-going nature.

I enjoyed playing guitar and sing in the Edify bands – once on Friday with a full band, and again on Saturday morning with a stripped-back, acoustic team. It was good to have a go at modelling congregational church music for different contexts.

A few people asked for the songs we sang over the weekend, so here is the set list below:

SPOTIFY PLAYLIST:

 

FRIDAY: CONCERT / EVENING OF WORD AND SONG

SATURDAY: MAIN SESSION 2

 


Haste thee on from grace to glory

Haste Thee On to Grace and Glory - artwork by Cheryl Chong

Artwork by Cheryl Chong. Lyrics from the hymn Jesus I My Cross Have Taken (the Indelible Grace version is our favourite).

We gave a print of this to the Fleener family as a goodbye present. I (William) think it’s a hymn lyric that captures the hope of eternity that helps us to press on in sacrifice – whether it’s moving to the ends of the earth to preach the gospel, or staying in your neighbourhood to do the same.

Go, then, earthly fame and treasure,
Come disaster, scorn and pain
In Thy service, pain is pleasure,
With Thy favor, loss is gain
I have called Thee Abba Father,
I have stayed my heart on Thee
Storms may howl, and clouds may gather;
All must work for good to me.

Soul, then know thy full salvation
Rise o’er sin and fear and care
Joy to find in every station,
Something still to do or bear.
Think what Spirit dwells within thee,
Think what Father’s smiles are thine,
Think that Jesus died to win thee,
Child of heaven, canst thou repine.

Haste thee on from grace to glory,
Armed by faith, and winged by prayer.
Heaven’s eternal days before thee,
God’s own hand shall guide us there.
Soon shall close thy earthly mission,
Soon shall pass thy pilgrim days,
Hope shall change to glad fruition,
Faith to sight, and prayer to praise!

What does sin have to do with my four dead girls?

Tim Keller shares a practical example of gazing at Jesus Christ for the peace of God that surpasses all understanding:

“Horatio Spafford was an American lawyer who lost everything he had in the Chicago fire of 1871. Only two years later, he sent his wife, Anna, and their four daughters on a ship across the Atlantic Ocean to England. The ship hit another ship and began to sink. As it was sinking, Anna got the four little girls together and prayed. The ship went under the water, and they all were scattered into the waves, and all four little girls drowned. Anna was found floating unconscious in the water by a rescue ship. They took her to England, and she cabled Horatio Spafford just two words: “saved alone.”

When Spafford was on the ship on his way to England to bring his wife home, he began to write a hymn – “It is well with my soul… When peace, like a river…” Those are the words he wrote.

Here is what I want you to think about: why would a man dealing with his grief, seeking the peace of God – the peace like a river – spend the entire hymn on Jesus and His work of salvation? And why would he bring up the subject of his own sin at such a time? He wrote:

My sin, oh, though the bliss of this glorious thought!
My sin, not in part but the whole,
Is nailed to the cross, and I bear it no more.
Praise the Lord, praise the Lord, O my soul.

What has that got to do with his four little girls who are dead? Everything!
Do you know why? When things go wrong, one of the ways you lose your peace is that you think maybe you are being punished. But look at the cross! All the punishment fell on Jesus. Another thing you may think is that maybe God doesn’t care. But look at the cross! The Bible gives you a God that says, “I have lost a child too; but not involuntarily – voluntarily, on the cross, for your sake. So that I could bring you into my family.”

In that hymn you can watch a man thinking, thanking and loving himself into the peace of God. It worked for him under those circumstances. It worked for Paul under his circumstances (Phil 4:6-13). It will work for you.

– Timothy Keller, “Walking With God Through Pain and Suffering”, p.311-2