Tag Archives: worship

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.


Declare your faith for those who are faithless


Earlier today I was listening to a sermon on Psalm 150 this afternoon. About halfway through, Daniel Montgomery made a good point regarding what we’re to do in our gathered worship:

And here’s the deal – what you notice in the “what” of praise [referring to who Psalm 150 is directed to], is that it’s not just about you. When we gather we respond to the Lord in singing, but we also according to Colossians 3:16, are called to “sing to one another.” See, there’s a corporate element that so many of us are missing.

So when we’re called to declare our faith, we’re called to declare our faith for those who are faithless when we gather. So when we have that opportunity to step into the reading of Scriptures and declare our faith — some of you are like, “Well I believe that” — well why don’t you state it for people that don’t?

When we gather and we lament, and some of you are like, “I’m not feeling down, I’m pretty good right now, I don’t need to pray that prayer”. But some are really hurting. Some are in hard relationships, or physically in despair. And they need you to lament with them. That’s simply obeying the command to rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep (Romans 12:15).

Firstly it reminded me to consider whether the choices of songs, prayers and readings at our church cover the spectrum of emotion that God’s people expressed in the Scriptures (especially the Psalter): rejoicing, celebration, but also lament, grief, repentance, even anger at God’s enemies.

And then the other thing was that I’ve recently had conversations with people who found it hard to sing songs of lament or about trials, when they were feeling fine. The speaker made a good point – we could instead adopt the biblical mindset of singing laments for those that need it, read statements of faith and creeds for those that don’t believe it. To declare our faith for those who are faithless.

Practices, James KA Smith and Christmas cards

I’m whetting by appetite for my next big read on worship – James KA Smith’s “Desiring the Kingdom” – by listening to his 2010 lecture at Calvin College in the US where he summarised the ideas from his book. His main idea is that humans aren’t primarily shaped by head knowledge but by their desires and longings for what they believe is “the good life”; therefore cultural forms in our world (such as malls, stadiums, and universities) are actually liturgical structures, strongly formative and able to shape our thoughts, affections and worship. It’s pretty heady stuff.

Early in Jamie’s talk he made this observation:

“Practices are not just things that you do. They do something to you. Practices are not things that you go through the motions; when you’re going through the motions, they’re also doing something to you.”

So how does all that relate to me right now?

Well, Cheryl and I have been in the midst of writing Christmas cards. In between work, family, church, sleep, sickness and so forth, we probably get 1-2 cards written per day. Some days none. And there’s been plenty of days I could certainly relate to Peter and say that card-writing “really was the last thing I felt like doing.”

But as I listened to Jamie Smith explain his book, it dawned on me why, despite the cost, time and effort, I’m excited about finishing the 50+ cards still left to write.

It’s because as we go through this Christmas-time liturgy – looking up a family, praying for them, crafting and writing a message, addressing it and sealing the envelope – these practices are (just like Jamie observed) doing something to me.

The cards I write gradually shape my desires, and draws me to love the people I’m writing to. It stokes in my heart a greater concern for them. It spurs me to pray for Christ to transform them. All things I wouldn’t have done had I given up on the Christmas cards.

Likewise, habitually praying to God moulds and shapes my understanding of, and desire to pray. Each time I take the Lord’s supper during communion, this gospel parable etches a deeper love for Jesus and His sacrifice. And it was only once I started cycling regularly that I began to “want” to cycle regularly.

So although it takes time and effort, I’m starting to see writing Christmas cards as not just a chore, but an opportunity to kindle my affections for friends and family near and far, and to prompt me to pray for those I love more.

Off to WorshipGod 11 Conference in the USA


Tomorrow, both of us will be flying off to the States for the very first time in our lives! We will be attending WorshipGod 11, a worship music conference hosted by Sovereign Grace Ministries in Gaithersburg, Maryland.

Hope to share more about our travels soon!


Update: here’s the full series of our time in the USA.
Part 1: Fly, land, drive
Part 2: train, jam, steak
Part 3: sing, meet, glory
Part 4: rehearse, seminars, NZ connection, Thabiti
Part 5: edify, songwrite, organise, gather live
Part 6: mission-focused meetings, instrument shopping
Part 7: Covenant Life, tears, crepes and goodbyes, Giant groceries

– Cheryl and William

Psalms, hymns and spiritual songs – STAND 2011 set list

(Here’s a recap of the service and the songs we chose over the past weekends at Howick Baptist Church. You can find links to the set lists of this church and many other churches each week at theworshipcommunity.com. You can also read through previous HBC service recaps here.)

I’ve spent the past weekend being involved in leading the music for the 2011 Stand for the Gospel conference hosted at our home church.

I wrote up a set list last year and shared my reflections back then. So for a start I’ll put up the list of songs we sang this year.

It was a joy to lead the attendees in worshipping our Lord for His unsurpassed work of redemption, and standing firm in the gospel of our glorious God. Folks came from a variety of denominations and churches across New Zealand, Australia, Fiji, Wales, and we had Geoff Thomas from Aberyswyth, Wales as the keynote speaker.

We hosted people from various church backgrounds and musical preferences – so our range of music was chosen to reflect that diversity. The music teams over the weekend ranged from a full praise band — complete with a brass section — to an a cappella mens groupleading in four-part harmony. Some criteria for the songs were: is it God-exalting? is it singable? is it congregational? is it edifying?

Many of the hymns we sang were public domain. We also used songs from/by Emu Music Australia, Chris Tomlin, Sovereign Grace Music, and the Getty/Townend songwriting duo.

The list of songs (with lyrics and audio/video examples where applicable) and messages are below. The opening message from Geoff in particular will give you an insight into Jesus that could only have come from a man who’s known Him all his life!


A Mighty Fortress (Covenant Life version) – lyrics, video
Come People of the Risen King – video
Jesus Messiah – lyrics, video (note: we did this in G instead of B)
1. Geoff Thomas – The Altogether Lovely One
Soli Deo Gloria (Sovereign Grace Music) – lyrics

How Great Thou Art – lyrics
Guide Me O Thou Great Jehovah – lyrics
Peace (Sovereign Grace Music; children’s choir item conducted by Mandy Fleener) – lyrics
Grace Greater Than Our Sin – lyrics
2. Geoff Thomas – The One Full of Joy
O Great God (Sovereign Grace Music) – lyrics

Glories of Calvary – video
By Faith – lyrics, video
Consider Christ (Emu Music; item sung by Janine Rye) – video
Jesus, Thank You (Sovereign Grace Music) – video
3. Geoff Thomas – The One Who Accomplished Redemption
Let Your Kingdom Come – lyrics

Everlasting (Brian Doerkson) – video
See What a Morning – lyrics
O Great God (item)
Glorious and Mighty – lyrics
All I Have Is Christ – lyricsvideo
Perfect But Painful (Emu Music; item sung by William Chong) – video
4. Peter Somervell – He is Able
In Christ Alone – lyrics

Here is Love (trad.) – lyrics
When Peace Like A River (It Is Well) – lyrics
I Hear the Saviour Say (Jesus Paid It All) – video
5. Geoff Thomas – The One Who Conquered Death
O Church Arise – lyrics