Are We Forgetting the Cross?

I’ve been getting some great questions by e-mail recently, and am looking forward to sharing my thoughts on them in the coming weeks. This one came from Phil:

I recently looked at the lyrics to songs on a 2006 worship song compilation CD. There were 33 songs on the CD.  Of these, only nine mentioned the cross at all, and only five mentioned what the cross actually did (i.e., achieved forgiveness of sins)…Is the trend among contemporary songs to omit the cross, or to mention it briefly, in passing (maybe only one line, a sort of a “tip-of-the-hat” to the cross) healthy?

No, that trend is not healthy. I’m actually pleasantly surprised that 9 out of 33 song mentioned the cross. I’ve reviewed CD’s that only make mention of the cross (including words like Savior or Redeemer) in one or two songs. Some have no references at all.

From what I’ve seen, songs that accurately expound Christ’s substitutionary sacrifice at the cross have always been lacking in the contemporary genre. However, the same can be said for other periods of writing that focused more on a social Gospel, the work of the Holy Spirit, or a some other doctrinal emphasis. I’m happy to say there are some notable exceptions to this pattern today. Contemporary writers that are making a significant contribution to Gospel-expounding songs include Stuart Townend, Keith Getty, Matt Redman and the folks from Indelible Grace. I should also mention Mark Atlrogge, Steve and Vikki Cook, and the other Sovereign Grace song writers I have the joy of serving with. I know there are many more.

However,  I think Phil is right to say that contemporary songs haven’t adequately articulated the meaning and effect of Christ’s atoning death. While not limiting that effect to substitutionary atonement, propitiation is the heart of what God accomplished at Calvary. (For more on that topic, I highly recommend Mark Dever’s article in a recent issue of Christianity Today). In other words, it’s not enough simply to mention the cross, merely hold it up as an example of servanthood for us to follow, or only see it as Christ’s victory over Satan.

Why would we shy away from proclaiming what is the heart of our faith? Here are ten reasons that come to mind:

  1. We assume everyone understands and remembers what God accomplished through Christ’s death. While this would be wonderful, it’s untrue.
  2. Our pride tempts us to think of worship as something we can do on our own, rather than something Christ has done for us. It’s not our efforts, our leaders, our instruments, our passion, or our sincerity that enables us to enter God’s presence and worship Him. It’s Jesus Christ, who bore God’s wrath against us and offered God a perfect sacrifice for our sins (Heb. 10:19-22).
  3. We think the Christian life begins with Christ saving us from our sins and moves on to pleasing God through our good works and service. We don’t realize that the Gospel remains our only foundation, providing hope, joy, security, peace, faith, and assurance for our life with God. The New Testament writers were consistent in their focus on the significance of the life, death, and resurrection of Christ for our lives (1 Cor. 15:3-4;  Col. 3:1-4; 1 Pet. 1:22-2:5; Heb. 10:19-23; 1 John 4:7-10).
  4. We don’t like to sing songs about God’s wrath. Keith Getty has told me that he’s received numerous requests to alter this line from In Christ Alone: “And on the cross as Jesus died the wrath of God was satisfied.” If we remove the wrath of God from Scripture, it’s hard to explain God’s requirement for sacrifice throughout the Old Testament, God’s concern for holiness, and the existence of hell. Which is why when the wrath of God goes, the rest seem to follow.
  5. We don’t understand the significance of Christ’s death ourselves.
  6. We look for more creative, interesting, or “mature” themes to sing about.
  7. We enjoy singing and writing songs about what we do and feel more than songs about what God has done for us in Christ.
  8. Pastors haven’t taught their congregations why the cross must remain central not only to our songs but to our lives (Gal. 6:14; Phil. 3:7-11).
  9. Songwriters haven’t studied their Bibles well.
  10. We forget that the throngs of heaven will worship the Lamb who was slain forever (Rev. 5:8-14).

I’m sure there are more reasons.

All of this is to say that whether you’re a writer, a leader, or simply a member of the church, we must never lose sight of our glorious Redeemer and his substitutionary sacrifice, which satisfied the holy justice of God against us, and through faith enables us to become God’s adopted children. May our song always be:

My heart is filled with a thousand songs
Proclaiming the glories of Calvary
With every breath, Lord how I long
To sing of Jesus who died for me
Lord take me deeper into the glories of Calvary.
From The Glories of Calvary by Steve and Vikki Cook. Copyright 2003 Sovereign Grace Worship.

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8 Responses to Are We Forgetting the Cross?

  1. amy September 22, 2006 at 3:49 PM #

    this lack of depth and mention of the gospel in contemporary music is why I got frustrated with modern praise and worship music…and why I have been so moved and inspired by Sovereign Grace Music. thanks for keeping the cross at the center of the music you produce–I never get tired of “Worship God Live” and “Songs for the Cross Centered Life” !

  2. Jason September 22, 2006 at 7:00 PM #

    Jim Donahue was at our church recently speaking on evangelism and he made a comment regarding 1 Corinthians 1:18, “For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” He made a great point that we try to take the “folly” or the foolishness out of the gospel so that others might “understand it better”. Since the folly IS the power of God, what happens is that we take the power out of the message.

    It seems that this may be another reason why some christian song writers don’t mention the cross very often. They want the song to be relevant to those who aren’t believers and they may not want to offend them. It is this offensive and foolish message however, that God uses as His power to save.

  3. cavman September 23, 2006 at 4:21 PM #

    Well, sadly this not a contemporary problem. There are plenty of hymns that do not mention the cross at all (or at least the edited versions in our hymnals).

    I don’t think it is necessary for every Christian song to explicitly mention the Cross, but it should be present in some of the songs, sermon etc. It would be absurd to demand each song mention it. But not abusrd to agree that each service should.

    Paul saw all of theology connected with the cross (love of God, justice, mercy, sanctification, discipleship…). Thanks for answering that e-mail.

  4. Julie September 23, 2006 at 10:14 PM #

    Just this evening we were listening again to Valley of Vision, and I was struck by the gospel that fills those songs. I was made to focus not only on the work my Savior accomplished for my salvation but also that same work that sustains and sanctifies me. Also, from the Fuse album, a song that melts me every time says:

    My Savior’s blood is all I need
    There is no other sacrifice
    That is required
    For He became my righteousness
    When in love He suffered willingly.

    On the cross
    where He bore the wrath of God
    and in my place was lifted up to die,
    and through His death He gave me life.
    My Savior’s precious blood
    My Savior’s precious blood

    One sacrifice completely paid
    For all the sin that I had done
    Against my God
    Now I’ve received what Christ has earned
    And Christ received what I deserved

    On the cross where He bore the wrath of God
    And in my place was lifted up to die
    And through His death He gave me life
    You’ve taken all my sin and shame
    Thank You for pouring out Your grace
    Thank You, Lord
    Thank You, Lord
    For pouring out Your grace on me!*

    Hearing and singing these songs aid me in focusing on the cross and bringing every thought captive as I journey to the Celestial City. Thank you, Sovereign Grace Music.

    *(My Savior’s Precious Blood by JonRyan, Sovereign Grace Music, 2004)

  5. phil September 25, 2006 at 12:46 PM #

    Thanks, Bob, for answering this question. I think your observations are spot on!

    Do you suppose that another answer to this problem, related to #4, is that comtemporary worship songs emphasize celebration and generally “happy” themes, and that, while the cross is in actuality our greatest cause for joy, yet songwriters think that the imagery of the cross (blood, wrath, violence, sin) do not translate into “feel-good” music?

    Thank you for demonstrating, through the Sovereign Grace music, that the theme of the cross can be sung, not just somberly, but joyfully!

  6. Lauren Wenger September 25, 2006 at 1:25 PM #

    I was having a conversation with my father the other evening about contemporary worship. He laments that there aren’t more songs of “admonition.” Also, he wishes that our problems and day to day struggles were more often mentioned. I have to admit, I can’t think of many “worship” songs like that–only of some old-time black gospel music. What are your thoughts? Can these elements be tied into worship music (to be used in a service), or do they only belong in the larger context of Christian music? Would that depend on where and to whom the listener’s attention is finally brought?

  7. B. Catton September 26, 2006 at 10:56 AM #

    Greetings Bob – Thank you for challenging us to remember the cross and what Christ has done in spite of our sins! Thank you for helping us to sharpen our discernment in the most subtle means of communication in this day of age, and to always help point us back to the Word and the cross.

    There’s one concern that I have (and possibly others), given the “cushiony” lyrics of modern Christian artists: outside of Sovereign Grace, which Christian artist(s) would be considered safe to listen to that sings about a crucified Savior?

    One thing that’s appreciative about Sovereign Grace music is that not only are the lyrics cross-centered and God-centered, but some of the songs have a really cool rhythm and tempo. For instance, I purchased “The Audience of One” on iTunes yesterday primarily because of the lyrics, especially the second verse:

    Let me seek one prize, one great reward
    One hope I treasure most
    To hear the Father say, “My child, well done
    Come enter into all the joy
    Found in my Son.”

    That just furthers my longing to consciously beholding my Savior! Now when I listened to the song in entirety, the music incorporated in the song just makes “The Audience of One” a favorite of mine.

    Thanks to all who participate in creating cool cross-centered songs all for the glory of God!

  8. Bobby September 27, 2006 at 11:23 PM #

    Exactly. I did my own study of the most-performed worship songs in American churches recently and found that an even smaller percentage of songs mentioned the resurrection and heaven/Second Coming.

    Paul said that if Christ is not raised from the dead then our preaching is in vain, we are of all men most miserable, and we are still in our sins. And to the Thessalonians, when he described the Lord’s return, he said, “Comfort one another with these words.”

    Many modern worship lyrics are so vague that they could be sung to an earthly lover. Many leave out substitutionary atonement. Many leave out the greatest proof that Christ was qualified to make that atonement (see Thomas, feeling the wound in his risen Lord’s side and declaring “My Lord and my God!”). And many leave out the refutation of ying-yang philosophy, the notion that good and evil are two equally opposing forces that will battle each other forever: the return of our King and the final, realized victory over Satan.

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