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:
- We assume everyone understands and remembers what God accomplished through Christ’s death. While this would be wonderful, it’s untrue.
- 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).
- 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).
- 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.
- We don’t understand the significance of Christ’s death ourselves.
- We look for more creative, interesting, or “mature” themes to sing about.
- We enjoy singing and writing songs about what we do and feel more than songs about what God has done for us in Christ.
- 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).
- Songwriters haven’t studied their Bibles well.
- 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.