Category Archives: Friday Music

Salvation Song

One of the great joys of my job is the time it affords me to participate in group Bible studies. It is a real privilege to gather on Monday evenings with young adults from several churches across Leamington Spa and the surrounding villages to study God’s Word. It is a joy to meet with several members from both my congregations on a Friday night to worship, pray and study Scripture together.

Each week people bring different reflections and thoughts to our worship, prayer and study. It was my turn to lead worship last Monday and we were thinking about the call of Abraham later in the evening. As I was praying and reflection on the life of Abraham one question kept coming back to me: why did God call Abram?

I mean on the face of it he’s not a courageous leader or great husband, he gives his wife away… twice, he doesn’t trust God to bring about what he has promised and then he abdicates responsibility rather than dealing with the conflict between Hagar and Sarah. Yet, God still chose him. As I wondered about this I suddenly thought why does God choose any of us?

I found the answer in Ephesians: ‘and you were dead in your transgressions and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience… But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ- by grace you have been saved- and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness to us in Christ Jesus.’

That brought me to Stuart Townsend’s hymn: Loved before the dawn of time. This beautiful hymn draws us into the captivating grace of God who called us in Christ before the world began. Very few songs or hymns express the wonder of God who has chosen us before the foundation of the world to make known the glory of His grace. Yet, this is at the heart of God’s purpose in our salvation.

So I commend this hymn to you:

Loved before the dawn of time,
Chosen by my Maker,
Hidden in my Saviour,
I am His and He is mine,
Cherished for eternity.

Stars will fade and mountains fall,
Christ will shine forever,
Loves unfading splendour,
Earth and heaven will bow in awe,
Joining in salvation’s song.


God of God

This last Sunday, members of Hall Gate URC in Doncaster joined together after their morning service of worship for a meal and discussion. I’ve started a church history course with them that looks at old events to see their contemporary relevance. Sunday’s session was supposed to be on the Fourth Century as a whole touching on men like John Chrysostom and Augustine of Hippo.

wpid-DSC_0794.JPGWe didn’t get quite that far, though.

All our time was taken up with looking at the Christological and Trinitarian controversies that led to the Councils of Nicea (325AD) and Constantinople (381AD). After a short discussion on whether Constantine was good for the church or not, we began to look at the Arian controversy and the first Nicene creed. It was a great time and led to some really interesting discussion. From the events of 1600 years ago we began to discuss modern worship, tolerance, evangelism and everything else you can think of. Christology and Trinitarianism became more than just dusty words in Systematic Theology books and became living realities.

I hope that our discussion will lead people to understand the second verse of O Come All Ye Faithful a little more. The composer of the hymn, John Francis Wade and its translator Frederick Oakley were both Roman Catholics. Wade was a Jacobite who fled to France. Oakley was a Tractarian in the Church of England before following the logic of their position and joining the Roman Church. I’m sure I’d have some “pleasant theological discussions” with both men but there’s no doubting the orthodoxy of the second verse of this hymn.

With words taken from the Nicene Creed we sing:

God of God,
Light of Light,
Lo, he abhors not the Virgin’s womb;
Very God,
Begotten, not created:

The third line is an interesting translation of gestant puellæ viscera meaning “carried in a virgin’s womb”. But the rest is fabulous stuff. Jesus, who we adore, is fully God. There was no time when he wasn’t. He always was and always will be the eternal Son, the second person of the Trinity. O come, let us adore him this Christmas for who he is. God in flesh. God with us. Immanuel.

From the Squalor of a borrowed stable

As I read through the beginning of the four gospels I’m constantly thrown forward thirty years to Easter.  Matthew in his gospel reminds us that the name Jesus, means ‘Save people from their sins’ and that Jesus is Emmanuel, “God with us”.  Mark misses the whole birth thing out, but instead begins with John the Baptist who is asking people to repent of their sins.  Luke weaves together Mary and Joseph’s story with that of Elizabeth and Zechariah, which in my mind reaches its climax as Zechariah sings aloud that a time is coming when sins will be forgiven and by the tender mercy of God a new dawn will break upon us.  And John in his grand opening reminds us on several occassions that Christ is full of grace.

All of which has made me ponder over what we sing about in our churches at Christmas.  Yes we’ve held nativities, and carol services, and Christmas socials, and playing in a brass band I know my way round many a Christmas carol at this time of the year.  And yet very few of them actually take seriously the connection that all the gospel writers made between Christmas and Easter.  They focus on cattle lowing, or our Lord’s conception (if that is what is meant by lo he abhors not the virgins womb), or the shepherds in their fields, even king herod’s terrorism.  Few carols present Jesus as anything other than a baby in a manger.  If they’re bold enough you may get some mention that he is the son of God, but few talk of the fact that this baby came to earth to save people from their sins by dying on the cross as an atoning sacrifice given by the mercy and grace of God.  If the gospel writers can get that across as the opening gambit in their proclamation of the Good News of Christ Jesus, is too much to ask for in a carol?

One carol (or perhaps its just a song) that, in my mind, balances the Christ of Christmas being the Christ of Easter is Stuart Townend’s ‘From the squalor of the borrowed stable’.  He begins like many of our carols, in Bethlehem that first Christmas:

From the squalor of a borrowed stable,
By the spirit and a virgin’s faith;
To the anguish and the shame of scandal
Came the Saviour of the human race!
But the skies were filled, with the praise of heav’n,
Shepherds listen as the angels tell
Of the Gift of God, come down to man
At the dawning of Immanuel.

Even here, Townend isn’t ashamed or frightened to recognise the baby in the stable  will suffer great anguish and the shame of scandal.  Following a second verse focussing on the amazing grace that the King of heaven is now the friend of sinners, walking our road, and feeling our pain, he goes on to a third verse:

Through the kisses of a friend’s betrayal,
He was lifted on a cruel cross;
He was punished for a world’s transgressions,
He was suffering to save the lost
He fights for breath, He fights for me
Loosing sinners from the claims of hell;
And with a shout, our souls are free –
Death defeated by Immanuel!

No wonder the final verse declares that Christ, the baby in the manger, is now standing in the place of honour taking his rightful place as the glorious King over all awaiting the Bride of Christ: the Church, to run into her lover’s arms, giving glory to Emmanuel!  I’ll leave you to be blessed by this music:

Songs with a Story

Every year, one of my churches has a ‘Songs of Praise’ service at the end of November. Church members are invited to select their favourite hymns and then somehow or other I try to link them all together in some kind of order, with words of Scripture, prayer and a message for the evening interspersed between them.  Some hymns come up time and time again. Some are old, some are new. Some I’ve never heard of! However, what has struck me every year so far is how many hymns have a powerful story behind them.

One of my favourite newer songs is ‘Blessed be Your Name’ by Matt Redman. The emphasis on the sovereignty of God – to give and to take away – is not something you find in many hymns. The words reminds us that we are to worship, to bless the Name of the Lord, in the ‘land that is plentiful’ and in ‘the desert place’. This great song was written in light of the tragedy of 9/11, Matt and Beth Redman’s own life experience (including repeated miscarriage), and scriptures from the book of Job.

A traditional hymn with a powerful testimony behind it is ‘It is well with my soul.’  Horatio Spafford, a Chicago lawyer and  friend of D.L.Moody, wrote this hymn after almost unimaginable personal loss. Horatio’s son died aged 4 from scarlet fever; a year later his entire real estate portfolio was wiped out by the great Chicago fire; and two years later his remaining children died after the French steamer ‘Ville de Havre’ sank in the Atlantic, claiming the lives of 226 people. When Spafford travelled to England a few days later to meet his wife, who miraculously survived, he asked the Captain to tell him when they reached the point where the ship had sunk. After they reached that point, Horatio then returned to his cabin and penned the lyrics of his great hymn. The words which Spafford wrote that day come from 2 Kings 4:26. They echo the response of the Shunammite woman to the sudden death of her only child. Though we are told “her soul is vexed within her”, she still maintains that ‘It is well.” And Spafford’s song reveals a man whose trust in the Lord is as unwavering as hers was:

When peace, like a river, attendeth my way,
When sorrows like sea billows roll;
Whatever my lot, Thou has taught me to say,
It is well, it is well, with my soul.

These are only two examples, but there are many others: ‘Take my life and let it be’ (covered in a previous post here), ‘Amazing grace’ (reflecting Newton’s past as a slave trader), and ‘All hail the power of Jesus’ name’ (reflecting E.P. Scott’s experience as a missionary in India). For more stories behind the songs, see here (mostly new songs) and here (mostly traditional hymns). This book, The Complete Book of Hymns,  may also be of interest.

Do songs need a powerful story behind them? No, of course not. Good solid lucid Biblical theology is key. However, I do believe the stories can help us in our worship. If we recognise the faith and story behind a hymn it can challenge us or spur us on to imitate that faith. ‘Blessed be Your Name’ strikes a chord with many because we all struggle with tragedy in life, and struggle even more to see God’s hand at work in it. ‘It is well with my soul’ challenges us because, when we know the story behind it, we cannot escape from wondering how we would respond in such tragic circumstances. We can be inspired in faith and witness by the saints who have gone before. To God be the glory!

The God who keeps Israel: Psalm 121

Regular readers here will already know my penchant for singing Psalms in public worship. I hope that’s made a few of you think as to how to incorporate them into your services. My practice is to have at least one Psalm in every act of worship. This takes place in a section of the service where we listen to God’s Word read, we then sing God’s Word in a Psalm and then God’s Word is preached from the pulpit. My aim is to let the Word of God sink into the ears and hearts of God’s people. And there are very few better ways to get people to remember things than to sing them.

As I’ve gone on in my ministry a few Psalms have become firm favourites. Psalm 121 is one of those. You can find it at number 726 in Rejoice and Sing. It’s sung to the tune Dundee (French) which, in my opinion, fits the words beautifully.

I to the hills will lift mine eyes;
From whence doth come mine aid?
My safety cometh from the Lord,
who heaven and earth hath made.

Thy foot he’ll not let slide, nor will
he slumber that thee keeps.
Behold, he that keeps Israel,
he slumbers not nor sleeps.

The Lord thee keeps; the Lord thy shade
on thy right side doth stay.
The moon by night thee shall not smite
Nor yet the sun by day.

The Lord shall keep thy soul; he shall
preserve thee from all ill;
henceforth thy going out and in
God keep forever will.

We live in a time of great uncertainty for the church in this country. The old denominations (like ours) are dying. Government seems to be going out of its way to annoy people of Christian conviction for no good reason. The rock of Biblical authority has been chipped away at by those without and within the church. What might the future hold for my daughter as we seek to bring her up in the faith?

These things are nothing new. Every generation of the church will have had faithful people crying out for help and guidance from God. Thankfully, God has given us this Psalm to remind us of where our eyes should be looking and where our hope should rest.

This Psalm reminds us that God is a faithful God who has great power – he created all things! He is also a God who is always there – he’ll never be asleep on the job! When it comes to the safety and security of God’s people we can trust the covenant promises of God despite outward appearances.

I commend the singing of this Psalm to you. Try it without accompaniment like these folks:

Honesty in worship

I was struck by this quote recently by A.W. Tozer: ‘Christians’, he writes, ‘do not tell lies, they just go to church and sing them’. On one hand it made me feel uneasy, yet on the other it provoked me to think more deeply about worship. It is not that Tozer doubted the truth of the gospel, the objective reality of Jesus’ birth, death, resurrection or ascension. He believed, as I do, in Jesus’ virgin birth, sin bearing death, victory over the grave, and ascension into heaven. It wasn’t the objective reality of the gospel that he was questioning, but the subjective response.

Last week we were singing the song:

‘As the deer pants for the water,
So my soul longs after You.
You alone are my heart’s desire
And I long to worship You.’

I found myself praying that God would make this true in my life. For it is no light thing to declare that God is our only desire. Sometimes our singing betrays the truth in our hearts. Please do not misread me here. I am not saying that we should never declare our longing or desire for God nor am I criticising Martin Nystrom’s song, but I do want us to acknowledge that an exclamation of devotion is often times more aspirational than an honest reflection of our own hearts.

Though I enjoy singing, ‘As the deer pants for the water’. I often find I am singing words that I believe, but long to experience deeper, the truth of:

‘I want You more than gold or silver,
Only You can satisfy.
You alone are the real joy-giver
And the apple of my eye.’

God certainly is the only One who will truly satisfy the longing of my heart, He certainly is the real joy-giver, and I have experienced satisfaction and joy in Him, but sometimes these words of worship are sung with little appreciation of their meaning or emotional connection. I believe God is worthy of both our minds and our hearts in worship. We must be careful in the way we worship God for we do not want Him to say of us, ‘these people come near to me with their mouth and honour me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me’ (Isaiah 29:13).

It is worth remembering here that the ‘chief end of man is to worship God and enjoy Him forever’. Worship is not a means to some other end, but end in itself. It is the Spirit-led response to the revelation of God’s truth.

For this reason I agree with Paul Robinson when he writes, ‘When we choose subjective lyrics it is important that we are singing these words in response to a message, word or working of the Spirit in worship and not just by themselves’. There should be an honesty and a depth to our expression of devotion.

Surely, as Phil Baiden has said, we see this supremely in the Psalms. Where ‘As the deer pants for the water, so my soul pants for you, my God’ (Psalm 42) continues not with simple expression of love or devotion to God but with a heart felt cry:

‘My soul thirsts for God, for the living God.
When can I go and meet with God?
My tears have been my food
day and night,
while people say to me all day long:
Where is your God?’

In this we see an earthy worship that connects with believers lived experience whilst at the same time appealing to God to meet with us, to do more in our lives, to deepen our experience of His grace. So let us pray:

Lord, may our worship be a true reflection of what You are doing in our hearts and our lives at this time. Guide those who lead worship in our churches so that they might choose words and music that connect with our hearts and minds. Forgive the times when our worship pays little more than lip service to You. Help us to worship You in Spirit and in truth. In the name of Jesus and to His glory we ask it. Amen

Take my life and let it be

As a preacher, I always find it difficult to select the hymn to follow the sermon. How do you ensure that the hymn strengthens the message, rather than distracts from it? As a general rule, I believe it needs to be a hymn that leads to a response: by encouraging more faith or repentance, by leading us to proclaim the Gospel, or by challenging us to hand all that we are and all that we do over to Christ. Particular favourites of mine to follow a sermon include ‘Be Thou my vision’, ‘In Christ alone’, ‘All I once held dear’, ‘I the Lord of sea and sky’, and ‘Guide me O Thou great Jehovah’.

Recently, ‘Take my life and let it be’ has also become a favourite. Although the usual tune of ‘St. Bees’ is not the most rousing, the words are incredibly powerful. I used this hymn after a sermon on Mark 8:31-38 (“…Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it…”). The message challenged people to consider whether they were curious, convinced or committed to the cause of Christ, and we looked at some of the sins and temptations that hold us back from giving Christ our all, from picking up and carrying our crosses. I ended by saying that a committed follower of Christ could sing this hymn with boldness, but that ‘boldness’ doesn’t mean just singing the words with gusto. It means examining our hearts and trusting all to Christ. Just consider some of the statements that are made:

Take my life, and let it be consecrated, Lord, to Thee.
Take my moments and my days; let them flow in ceaseless praise.
Take my hands, and let them move at the impulse of Thy love.
Take my feet, and let them be swift and beautiful for Thee.

Take my voice, and let me sing always, only, for my King.
Take my lips, and let them be filled with messages from Thee.
Take my silver and my gold; not a mite would I withhold.
Take my intellect, and use every power as Thou shalt choose.

Take my will, and make it Thine; it shall be no longer mine.
Take my heart, it is Thine own; it shall be Thy royal throne.
Take my love, my Lord, I pour at Thy feet its treasure store.
Take myself, and I will be ever, only, all for Thee.

We have to ask ourselves: Do we really mean these words as we sing them? Are we living lives of worship, all for the glory of God? Would we really give God all of our silver and gold? Are we ready to serve humbly? Are we prepared to share the Gospel with others? Are we prepared to follow Christ’s will, and not our own? Frances Ridley Havergal’s hymn raises so many questions that challenge us.

Frances Ridley Havergal tells the story behind the hymn she wrote:

“Perhaps you will be interested to know the origin of the Consecration hymn ‘Take my life.’ I went for a little visit of five days to Areley House. There were ten persons in the house, some unconverted and long prayed for, some converted, but not rejoicing Christians.” – perhaps there is the curious and the convinced – And “He gave me the prayer ‘Lord, give me all in this house!’ And He just did! Before I left the house everyone had got a blessing. The last night of my visit after I had retired, the governess asked me to go to the two daughters. They were crying and then and there both of them trusted and rejoiced; it was nearly midnight. I was too happy to sleep, and passed most of the night in praise and renewal of my own consecration; and these little couplets formed themselves, and chimed in my heart one after another till they finished with ‘ever only, ALL FOR THEE!'”

And Frances’ prayer, “Take my silver and my gold; not a mite would I withhold,” in the same hymn was not lightly stated. In August, 1878, Miss Havergal wrote to a friend,

“The Lord has shown me another little step, and, of course, I have taken it with extreme delight. ‘Take my silver and my gold’ now means shipping off all my ornaments to the church Missionary House, including a jewel cabinet that is really fit for a countess, where all will be accepted and disposed of for me … Nearly fifty articles are being packed up. I don’t think I ever packed a box with such pleasure.”

“Take my life and let it be” is a powerful hymn that flows from a Christ-centred life. We cannot sing it lightly.

Is a tune a matter of taste?

In recent posts the writers of this Friday slot on hymns and songs have focussed on the words, in fact we started this series off by considering how having words of good theology is of utmost importance in choosing and selecting hymns for worship.  There are other, not insignificant, but more practical matters to consider though.  One of those questions to consider is which tune we use.  This post will take, for example, Isaac Watts’ great hymn, When I Survey the Wondrous Cross.

When I survey the wondrous Cross,
on which the Prince of glory died,
my richest gain I count but loss,
and pour contempt on all my pride.

Forbid it, Lord, that I should boast,
save in the death of Christ my God;
all the vain things that charm me most,
I sacrifice them to his blood.

See from his head, his hands, his feet,
sorrow and love flow mingled down;
did e’er such love and sorrow meet,
or thorns compose so rich a crown?

His dying crimson, like a robe,
spreads o’er his body on the tree;
then am I dead to all the globe,
and all the globe is dead to me.

Were the whole realm of nature mine,
that were an offering far too small;
love so amazing, so divine,
demands my soul, my life, my all.

The words to this hymn are so incredible that Charles Wesley is reported to have said that he would give up all the hymns he had written to have written this one!  With such amazing words, how significant is the tune?

Excuse an organist’s introduction….  If you look in most traditional hymnbooks you will see Watts’ hymn is set to a tune with the metre: LM (long metre, or 88 88).  This means that these wonderful words are written in verses of four lines composing of eight syllables each.  In the URC hymnbook, there are 53 LM tunes that could be used to sing Watts’ hymn.  They vary from Old Hundredth (usually the tune for “All people that on earth do dwell”) to Duke Street (usually the tune for “Christ is alive let Christians sing”).  Whilst it is often entertaining to try singing the words to a tune not so familiar, it makes you wonder why we sing the hymns to the tunes we are familiar with, and, what does a tune add to the praise of our wonderful God, beyond simply the words we use.

In most UK churches, the ‘set tune’ (i.e. the one that is usually printed alongside to the words) for When I Survey is the tune Rockingham.

It becomes apparent that actually in the case of When I Survey, the tune needs to be adaptable to the words.  So the tune needs to enhance the confidence we have in the theology of verses 1 and 2.  The same music then needs to bring us to the foot of the cross where are our emotions are hit in verses 3 and 4, when we are asked to See from his head, his hands his feet, sorrow and love flowed mingled down.  That same music then needs to lift us as we make a response in the final verse with our soul, life and all.  That’s tricky.  And is achieved to some extent in the tune Rockingham.  However it is very difficult to bring the reflection needed in verses 3 and 4 in this tune.  When leading a congregation from the piano or organ I often leave them to sing verse three unaccompanied, otherwise, I sense people make the commitment of the final verse without really having grasped the enormity of being taken to see Jesus on the cross first.  Maybe a better organist/pianist or a different arrangement would be able to achieve this!

If you’re reading this from the USA, you may well not know what on earth I’m talking about, because as I understand it, the set tune for When I Survey in America is usually ‘Hamburg’.

Another option is to use what most churches seem to call the ‘new tune’, O Waley, Waley.

Both these tunes are great for the need in verse 3 to be drawn to that point of utter dependence on Christ and his sacrifice.  However for me, it is hard to sing the words in the final verse, ‘Were the whole realm of nature mine, that were an offering far too small, love so amazing, so divine, demands my soul, my life, my all.’ to a tune that draws me back to reflection, I want to be making a bold declaration at that point to the congregation around me and before the throne of God that I will give my all.

A further option is given by the natives of the land in which I know minister, Wales.  In the proud singing tradition there is here, the traditional Welsh tune to When I Survey is Morte Christe.

For me, I must say this tune ticks all the boxes: solid foundation in verses 1 and 2, reflection for verse 3 and 4 and a rousing and bold declaration in the final verse.  But there’s a problem.  No-one uses this tune in churches.  Why? Because the vocal range needed to sing this tune is usually beyond the capabilities of the modern congregation and not many churches have a male voice choir to rely on each Sunday!

So what are we to do?

Well here in Rhyl we have used all three of the UK preferred tunes to effect in different settings.  In a congregational setting, for collective hymn singing, we use Rockingham.  Partly because it is what people are expecting, and partly because in my opinion it covers most areas.  After the sermons here we often have a time of prayer and reflection, and I have used the O Waley, Waley tune, as in placing it there, I’m asking people to reflect on the Word of God, and come to response, and so the emphasis is on reflecting.  We have heard a recording of When I Survey set to Morte Christe at the end of a Bible Study.

It is important that the tune is right, so that the words sing straight into our hearts.  As we deliberate and choose hymns and tunes each week, let us praise God for the faithful servants like Isaac Watts who wrote these amazing words but also for Edward Miller (Rockingham), Lowel Mason (Hamburg), Emrys Jones (Morte Christe), (and potentially even the pagans who wrote O Waly, Waly) who each looked to bring Watts words of truth and response alive for us in music.



PS Apologies for the length of this post and including four youtube links – I hope it has been useful for you!

Music: The Advocate

Bishop J.C. Ryle wrote that:

Good hymns are an immense blessing to the Church of Christ. I believe the last day alone will show the world the real amount of good they have done. They suit all, both rich and poor. There is an elevating, stirring, soothing, spiritualizing effect about a thoroughly good hymn, which nothing else can produce. It sticks in men’s memories when texts are forgotten. It trains men for heaven, where praise is one of the principal occupations. Preaching and praying shall one day cease for ever; but praise shall never die.

He also said that there were three elements in a good hymn – sound theology, true experience and good poetry. It is no surprise to me then to find that he included the hymn I want to explore with you now in his 1868 book ‘Spiritual Songs’. It is a hymn written by the daughter of Rev. Sidney Smith, minister of Colebrooke Church, Aghalurcher, in Ireland. Her name is Charitie Lees Bancroft (1841-1923) and she wrote this hymn in 1863, four years after the 1859 Irish revival.  She titled the  hymn ‘The Advocate’, but it is better known today as ‘Before the Throne of God Above’. Let us consider it now:

Before the throne of God above
I have a strong and perfect plea.
A great high Priest whose Name is Love
Who ever lives and pleads for me.
My name is graven on His hands,
My name is written on His heart.
I know that while in Heaven He stands
No tongue can bid me thence depart.

I love this first verse because it sings Scripture. Hebrews 4:14-16 urges us, ‘Since then we have a great High Priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession…Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need’. John, the apostle of love, tells us that ‘Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love. In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him’ (1 John 4:8-9). Isaiah, the great evangelist prophet, pictures God engraving us on the palms of his hands (Isaiah 49:16). And Paul in that tremendous section at the end of Romans 8 expresses that unshakeable foundation of our confidence writing, ‘Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised— who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us’.

In the second verse you get a real sense of the true experience that Bishop Ryle points us to as the mark of a good hymn:

When Satan tempts me to despair
And tells me of the guilt within,
Upward I look and see Him there
Who made an end of all my sin.
Because the sinless Saviour died
My sinful soul is counted free.
For God the just is satisfied
To look on Him and pardon me.

Sometimes we think of guilt and temptation as contradictory forces in our lives, but true experience teaches us that often temptation and guilt conspire against us to ensnare us. If our guilt is given the final word on who we are then we will act in a way that falls short of God’s best for us as His redeemed children. It has been the experience of Christian people down the ages that as they look up to Christ Jesus they find freedom both from guilt and sin. The second part of the verse looks to the objective grounds of  this freedom: Jesus’ death and God’s pardon.

In the final verse of the hymn Charitie Lees Bancroft urges us to do what we have just been singing about doing, ‘Upward I look and see Him there’. We look up and behold the risen Lamb:

Behold Him there the risen Lamb,
My perfect spotless righteousness,
The great unchangeable I AM,
The King of glory and of grace,
One in Himself I cannot die.
My soul is purchased by His blood,
My life is hid with Christ on high,
With Christ my Saviour and my God!

This is the most beautiful vision of spiritual union with Christ. For salvation is not a gift Christ gives, rather it is the gift Christ is. For Christ the unchangeable I AM, the King of glory and of grace, is our risen sacrificial Lamb, more than that our spotless righteousness, and united in Him we cannot die. This is the great mystery of our faith, ‘Christ in you, the hope of glory’ (Colossians 1:27).

There is so much more I could write about this hymn, but I have already gone on too long. So I think the best thing I can do now is leave you to sing along to it and pray that God confirms the words in your heart!

Music: The psalms have the answer

Last week, Paul started this series on music with an excellent article on what to look for in a hymn or song to be sung in worship. He showed us how our hymns should cover the whole gamut of worshipping God: objective (praising God for who he is), subjective (expressing our response to God) and reflective (expressing what we’re doing in our singing). Paul also showed us how all these things must be considered theologically, explaining how the most important thing about what we sing in church is the words.

But that still leaves the minister much to think about when it comes to choosing appropriate songs to sing in worship. Going through Rejoice and Sing or Mission Praise looking for just the right song to sing can be a real minefield.

If only there was a hymnbook that covered all Paul’s categories, that covered all human emotions and responses to God and is inspired by the Holy Spirit in a unique way.

Well, thank God. There is.

At the time of the Reformation much thought was given to the songs that God’s people were to sing in worship. Even that idea was revolutionary. Much of medieval worship was a spectator sport with a choir singing and the priests doing whatever it was they were doing up there. The Reformation changed all that by restoring song to the whole people of God. But that still left the question as to what was appropriate to sing in church.

For the Reformed, the most appropriate thing to sing in church was God’s own Word. And for the congregation of Geneva and elsewhere the book of Psalms became the primary hymnbook. Calvin called the book of Psalms “an anatomy of all the parts of the soul”. He found in the Psalms all that was needed to know how to worship God in the right way. Here are the objective, subjective and reflective songs that Paul asked us last week to consider, often all within the same Psalm.

Is there any better reflection on the majesty of God in creation and in adoption than Psalm 100, which we sing to a tune from Calvin’s Geneva? –

The Lord, ye know, is God indeed;
without our aid he did us make;
we are his folk, he doth us feed;
and for his sheep he doth us take.

Is there a better way of expressing our salvation from sin and death than Psalm 40? –

He took me from a fearful pit,
and from the miry clay,
and on a rock he set my feet,
establishing my way.

Or any better words to express the glory of Christ than Psalm 2? –

O wherefore do the nations rage,
and kings and rulers strive in vain,
against the Lord of earth and heav’n
to overthrow Messiah’s reign?

The singing of the Psalms is one of the blessings the Reformed can bring to the table of Christianity. In singing these songs we’re drenching ourselves in the Word of God, expressing praise that is acceptable to him and teaching ourselves who God is and what he’s done for us.

As Calvin said: “there is no other book in which we are more perfectly taught the right manner of praising God, or in which we are more powerfully stirred up to the performance of this religious exercise.” He’s right. Get singing.