What “O Come, All You Unfaithful” Doesn’t Mean

In 2020, I shared the story behind the Sovereign Grace Music song, “O Come, All You Unfaithful.” This past month, we posted a reel of the song on Instagram which has now been shared almost 40,000 times and viewed over a million times. We’ve been surprised, encouraged, and grateful for the response, and at times, troubled.

Why troubled? Because when a song (or a portion of a song) reaches a wide audience quickly, the chances for misunderstanding and critique increase exponentially. And a few comments show that what some people are hearing isn’t what the song is saying.

Of course, as a co-writer, I think the meaning of the song in its entirety is pretty obvious. When we write songs for Sovereign Grace Music we work hard to reflect biblical integrity, faithfulness, and clarity. It’s God’s Word that matters, not ours.

But we sometimes find out later that a song or line can be understood in a way we hadn’t anticipated. So I wanted to take the opportunity to make three things a little clearer, for anyone who might be wondering.

1. “Unfaithful” is our experience, not our identity.

A few people have questioned calling Christians “unfaithful.” One commenter wrote:

The whole point of the original hymn is that we are the faithful who come and gather, joyous at the birth of our Christ. And then all of a sudden, instead of being one of the faithful, while I’m in church, while I’m listening to Christian music, surrounded by my Christian community, I’m unfaithful.

I get it. In Christ, we’re new creations (2 Cor. 5:17). Jesus doesn’t commend the unfaithful, but the faithful (Mt. 25:23). The New Testament calls Christians “saints” numerous times (Acts 9:13; Rom. 8:27; 1 Cor. 14:33; Eph. 2:19; Col. 1:2), never “sinners.”

But a wide gap often exists between who we are in Christ and the way we live or perceive ourselves, even as we’re singing with our church. We easily fall prey to the lie that we can come to Jesus because we’ve been obedient. Because we’ve been faithful to read our Bible. Keep our anger in check. Pray. Resist temptation. Evangelize. We feel out of place around others on Sunday mornings who seem so much more “fit” to be in God’s presence.

But outside of Christ, no one is ever “fit” to come to God, who justifies the ungodly, not the godly (Rom. 4:5). Jesus came to call sinners, not the righteous (Mt. 9:13). He invites those who “labor and are heavy laden” to come to him, not those who are breezing through life (Mt. 11:28).

Yes, Christians are called saints, but not by virtue of what we do (contra what I was taught growing up as a Roman Catholic ), but by virtue of what Jesus has done (Col. 1:12-14). So this song invites those who feel unworthy, unable, and unwilling to come to Jesus, to come anyway. Because that’s why he came.

Come, though you have nothing.
Come, He is the offering.
Come, see what Your God has done.

2. Coming to Jesus doesn’t rule out repentance, it proves it.

Others think the song encourages people to remain in their sin. They’re concerned someone could interpret the song to mean coming to Jesus doesn’t require change.

That’s not too surprising as people have twisted grace into licentiousness since the first century (Rom. 3:8, 6:1-2). But just as every Bible passage doesn’t say all there is to say about what coming to Jesus means (John 3:16; Mt. 11:28-30; Acts 16:31), so every song doesn’t communicate comprehensively what God says about coming to him. And if we dig a little, we find that Scripture connects “those who believe” with “those who repent” (Mk. 1:15; Acts 20:21; Acts 26:18; Heb. 6:1). Faith and repentance are two sides of the same coin. Faith describes what we turn to, while repentance describes what we turn from (1 Thess. 1:9). This song simply focuses on the misperception many Christians have that they are too bad or too hopeless to come to Christ.

But come to Christ we must. Because in the act of coming we’re repenting of looking to everything else for strength, comfort, of salvation. Those things might include our performance, achievements, or a change in our circumstances. Or they might be things we persist in doing even though that God says they will only lead to death (Prov. 14:12; 1 Cor. 6:9-10; Col. 3:5-10). And as we come – broken, lost, confused, and sinful – God opens our eyes again and again to the all surpassing beauty, worth, and authority of Jesus. His kind invitation leads us to repentance (Rom. 2:4).

We can always come to Jesus as we are, but God, because he loves us, is committed to not leaving us like we are. He intends to make us like his Son (Rom. 8:29). He wants to turn us from our shallow, sinful desires and cause us to drink from the ever flowing stream of his mercies in Christ (Ps. 34:8; John 4:13-14). He wants us to have a fresh experience of his grace which not only assures us we’re forgiven, but trains us to “renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age” (Titus 2:12). And in the simple Spirit-enabled act of coming to Christ – believing in him, putting our trust in him, having faith in him – God changes us.

3. We still love the original carol.

Every time Sovereign Grace Music reworks a traditional hymn or Christmas carol someone accuses us of trashing tradition.

What’s the matter with the original?
Why don’t you leave good enough alone?
And who do you think you are, anyway?

First, being in my late 60s, I think I’m well beyond the “young and reckless” charge. Of course, I still do foolish things, but I definitely altered well-known melodies and lyrics too quickly and thoughtlessly in my earlier years, despite my good intentions.

Second, traditional carols and hymns are valuable insofar as they enable the word of Christ to dwell in people richly (Col. 3:16) and connect people with biblical truths. “O Come, All Ye Faithful,” as it’s typically sung in most churches today, does that. It accents the joy that surrounds the birth of Jesus, “God in flesh appearing.” We actually recorded a version of it on our Prepare Him Room album. So we plan to keep on singing it, and you should too!

But God sometimes uses overly-familiar lyrics to expose our hearts. That’s happened to Lisa Clow, who wrote the first version of this song, when she realized she wasn’t the “joyful and triumphant” Christian everyone expected her to be. But by God’s grace, she saw that the good news of Christmas isn’t directed to those who are happy, successful, fulfilled, beautiful, financially secure, able, talented, and put-together. It’s for everyone who recognizes, in and of themselves, they have no right or ability to approach God.

And that’s why Jesus was born. Being fully God and fully man (John 1:1; Titus 2:13; Heb. 1:3-4; Rev. 5:13, he experienced every temptation we would ever face, but never succumbed (Heb. 4:15). For that reason, he and he alone could take the punishment we deserved for turning away from God. He did that by dying on the cross as our substitute, bearing the righteous wrath of God against our sins and paying our debt in full (Rom. 3:23-26; 2 Cor. 5:21; 1 Pet. 2:24; Col. 2:13-15). And three days later, God raised him from the dead, securing both our forgiveness and the hope of eternal life (Acts 3:15; Rom. 10:9; 1 Thess. 1:10). And those who believe in him are not only forgiven of their sins, but reconciled to God, and clothed in his perfect righteousness (Phil. 3:8-9). He now intercedes in heaven for those he redeemed until he returns to end all wickedness and reign with his bride, the church, forever (Heb. 7:25; 2 Thess. 1:7-10; Rev. 20:6).

What heart-transforming, joy-producing, hope-filled news! And no one has a better reason to believe it than anyone else. Every one of us needs a Savior. And God, in his kindness and for his glory, has provided One.

He’s the Lamb who was given, slain for our pardon
His promise is peace for those who believe

So come.

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7 Responses to What “O Come, All You Unfaithful” Doesn’t Mean

  1. Linda Arnold December 22, 2022 at 1:41 PM #

    I love this explanation of this wonderful song. Thanks for all you do, Bob, for the Church and giving us songs to praise Him.

    • Josh Mejia December 22, 2022 at 7:49 PM #

      Amen! I thank God for you, Bob! Merry Christmas!

  2. Ben Ditzel December 22, 2022 at 10:55 PM #

    Excellent exposé, brother. Thank you.

  3. Charlie Hoera December 23, 2022 at 1:25 PM #

    Excellent explanation, Bob! I love this song, and a few of our high school young ladies will be singing it tonight at our Candlelight service:)

  4. Steve Smith December 24, 2022 at 9:42 AM #

    Well said, Bob. Mindy and I remain extremely grateful for the gift of Sovereign Grace Music, and that He brought us to Sovereign Grace Church Louisville.

    • Brian Morphonios January 7, 2023 at 9:58 PM #

      Excellent biblical responses, Bob. And great to have you Steve and Mindy, at SGC of Louisville!

  5. Dave Whitcroft January 16, 2023 at 12:01 PM #

    A wonderful gift to the church, that has become part of our Advent catalogue at Orangefield Presbyterian, Belfast.

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