Some Examples of How the Words We Sing Really Do Matter

Okay, so I promised last week that I'd give some examples of song lines that really do matter. I almost hesitate to give any examples, as I really don't want to upset anyone. Yet, if I can't even point out a few concerning song lines in writing, how could I explain the problem to someone face to face? So, please don't be upset if I critique your favourite song, but here goes.

I'll start with an easy one. And it's an old one too (just to prove that I'm an equal opportunities critic). I think I'm already known in certain circles (especially in my church and in my family) as the pastor who doesn't like Away In A Manger! (In my defense, I'd just like to point out that I am not the only pastor in the world who doesn't like it.) How could I possibly object to such a lovely Christmas carol? Because of one line. One line which gives a very false impression of who Jesus is. Which line is this? 'The little Lord Jesus no crying He makes.' But the little Lord Jesus did cry. God the Son didn't just come into this world with the appearance of a baby. No! He took to Himself true and full humanity. He was a real baby in Bethlehem. And real babies cry. So the little Lord Jesus didn't just gaze silently around the stable. No. He cried. He relied on His mother to feed Him and change His nappy (or whatever the ancient equivalent was). He took on true humanity and lived as a true human baby.

And that's very important for us and for our salvation. For, as Gregory of Nazianzus helpfully pointed out back in the 4th Century, 'the unassumed is the unhealed' (Letter 101.5). In other words, if Jesus hadn't taken on every aspect of our humanity, then He couldn't have saved every aspect of us. Jesus hasn't just saved our souls - He's saved us a whole people. So the crying baby in the manger is very good news indeed.

But let me move right up to date for another two examples. They both come from Hillsong, from musically interesting, quite catchy songs. The first song is Oceans, which I've heard everywhere lately — from evangelical Anglican churches to Pentecostal ones. And I have to admit, as a song I really like it. There's something about it that makes you not mind at all that it's over 8 minutes long and still want to listen to it again. But, as theology I find it concerning.

Why? It's particularly the first verse that worries me:

You call me out upon the waters
The great unknown where feet may fail
And there I find You in the mystery
In oceans deep
My faith will stand

This simply sounds a lot more like mysticism than gospel. The God of the Gospel is the God who has revealed Himself, and so we don't have to step out into a great unknown to find Him in the mystery. No. He has revealed Himself in Jesus. He has given us His Word. And He wants us, not to experience Him in dark mystery, but to receive Him in His Word. 'For it is the God who commanded light to shine out of darkness, who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ' (2 Cor. 4:6). Our call is not to embrace God in the mystery, but to know Jesus.

Again, you might be tempted to say 'But it's just one verse!'. Yep it is. But it feeds into such prevalent ideas floating around today which point us not to what God has revealed about Himself in His Word, but instead to how we feel about God. And that's the danger.

The other Hillsong song - Stay and Wait - is actually one which has lots of great gospel truth in it. Again, it's musically interesting - so much so that I just want to put it on repeat. Unfortunately even after having done that in the car (not my own car, you understand) I still couldn't really make out a lot of the words, so had to go and look them up. The third verse makes the fantastic declaration:
Who lifts the poor and heals the blind
Who trampled death for all mankind
Who stands for all with arms stretched wide
My King forever Jesus Christ
But yet, there's a line in the first verse that undermines the good gospel truth in the rest of the song. The first verse speaks of our creation, but ends on the curious note that we were each made 'with the will to trust or run and hide.' I say curious note, because, although it might not sound that awful, this is actually a condemned heresy (by which I mean, it's not me as an individual using emotive language to call something I don't like heresy - something which should never be done, but which, alas, is all to frequent in the age of the internet - but rather something which the Christian church has long condemned as an official heresy). This is semi-Pelagianism (to read it charitably based on the words of the rest of the song, if not almost sounding like Pelagianism).

Now, to be fair, Pelagianism and Semi-Pelagianism are not your everyday words that we immediately understand. So let me explain them. These are two very dangerous, but, alas, common heresies, named after Pelagius (after whom these heresies were named) a British (alas! - although Jerome said he was Irish, so we can always blame them!) theologian in the late 4th and early 5th century who was very concerned about the moral laxity he found in Rome. And for Pelagius there could only be one explanation for this - too much talk about grace! So, these two heresies named after him both downplay the grace of God in salvation in some way.

Although Pelagius lived at the turn of the 5th century, this all became a major issue again a thousand years later during the Reformation. So let me quote from the Book of Concord (the Lutheran confessions of faith) which gives a very clear explanation of both Pelagianism and Semi-Pelagianism:

We also reject the error of the Pelagians. They taught that a person by his own powers, without the Holy Spirit's grace, can turn himself to God, believe the Gospel, be obedient from the heart to God's Law, and so merit the forgiveness of sins and eternal life. 
We also reject the error of the Semi-Pelagians. They teach that a person by his own powers can begin his conversion, but cannot complete it without the Holy Spirit's grace. (Epitome of the Formula of Concord, ii.8.2-3)
There you can see that both of these heresies had at their heart the notion that man could just choose to be saved - that he had 'the will to trust or run and hide.' And the Lutherans weren't alone in rejecting Pelagianism and Semi-Pelagianism. All the Protestant Reformers rejected them as dangerous errors. And even before that, a thousand years before that, church councils had condemned both as official heresies.

Why are Pelagianism and Semi-Pelagianism such dangerous heresies? Because they point us away from Christ to something in ourselves for salvation. If I have 'the will to trust or run and hide', then my salvation depends, not on Jesus, but on what I do with my will. My confidence then would be in my good choice, rather than Jesus' blood and righteousness alone.

But the Bible insists that we aren't born neutral - we're born in sin (Ps. 51:5; Job 14:4; Rom. 5:12), slaves to sin (John 8:34; Rom. 6:20; 2 Peter 2:19). And that means we're not able simply to make a choice between trusting or running. We need the grace of God. As Fulgentius of Ruspe put it (midst of the Semi-Pelagian controversy), 'If it is true (according to their way of thinking) that we have the capacity to will to believe before God’s grace begins to help us, then it is wrong to call it grace, because it is not freely given to man, but it is the reward for a good will.’ (Fulgentius of Ruspe, First Letter to the Scythian Monks, para. 36). Our wills aren't neutral - they, like every aspect of us, are in slavery to sin, until God saves us.
By this grace, human choice is not removed, but healed; it is not taken away, but corrected; it is not set aside, but illumined; it is not done away with, but supported and preserved. This happens so that where man had weakness in his capacity to choose, he may begin to have strength; where he was going astray, he may return to the path; where he was blind, he may receive light; and where he was wicked, serving impurity and iniquity, there – preceded and helped by grace – he may serve righteousness leading to sanctification. (Fulgentius, First Letter, para. 41)
Or as he puts it a bit later on, 'God changes the wills of men so that their wills begin to be good.' (Fulgentius, First Letter, para. 57). From first to last, salvation is of the Lord!

So we're not born 'with the will to trust or run and hide'. We're born with our wills enslaved by sin. But God intervenes by His grace and sets our will free to trust. And so that means I can't rely on the good choice I've made with my will, instead I rely on Jesus who saves and sets me free to trust in Him. That's why this one line matters so much - because it suggests that I put my confidence in the wrong place.

(By the way, the complete disconnect of 'me' from Adam in the song is also a symptom of the influence, albeit indirect, of Pelagius. Pelagius insisted that we merely follow Adam's bad example, denying that we fell in him. The first verse of Stay and Wait plays on Adam as example - the language evokes the creation of Adam, but it's applied to us as individuals instead. Perhaps it stems from a desire to make worship more 'personal', but what it ends up doing is individualising the Fall!)

In fact, I think the mysticism of Oceans plays into this Semi-Pelagianism seen in Stay and Wait. In Oceans it's up to me to step out on the waters and only then to meet Him in the mystery. God calls - tells me what to do - but that's all. The initiative in stepping out is down to me. I step towards God and then He takes the step the rest of the way towards me. That's what's going on in the first verse of Oceans, and that is the classical way to explain Semi-Pelagianism.

But our God just isn't like that. Our God doesn't wait for us to take a step, even a tiny step towards Him. For He has already come down the full way to us in Jesus - through His Incarnate life and death. And through Jesus' death and resurrection, our God catches us up into His loving embrace. 'But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.' (Romans 5:8). 'In this is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins.' (1 John 4:10).

The Gospel isn't take a step toward Jesus and He'll come and meet you. The Gospel is that Jesus has already done it all for you, before you even knew or cared in any way. Before you loved Him. While you were His enemy. The Gospel doesn't rest on our stepping out in faith or on the good or bad choices of our wills. The Gospel rests on the death and resurrection Jesus Christ, the Incarnate Son of God. And we're invited to rest in Him.

Okay, that was a bit long, and, if you haven't read last week's post it probably won't fully make sense (so go back and read "But it's just one line!": The Words We Sing Really Do Matter from last week, as this really is very much a follow-on from that.) Anyway, I hope I haven't upset you by critiquing your favourite song - that's really not my intent at all. All I want to do is help us see how the words we sing really do matter, and to encourage us to sing words that will keep our gaze fixed on Jesus, 'the Author and Finisher of our faith' (Heb. 12:2).