Good Lines and Questionable Lines in Worship Songs (Mar-Apr 2007)

By Matt Dabbs

by Greg Taylor
March – April, 2007

Many songs we sing have grace-filled theology. Songs are like a theological backpack in which we carry tunes and rhymes we can later evoke and ponder and sing and share with others. I call this the “residual effect of worship”: we carry songs with us, in our memory, in our hearts as we leave the worship place.

Preachers, brace yourselves: singing may very well have a greater impact on today’s church than preaching. That’s not to knock preaching but to speak of a reality and to both focus more on good preaching and put more effort towards good theology in our songs.

Here are four really well-written songs, theologically, and four songs that have some problem lines in them. While I understand that every line cannot be a zinger, I sometimes find myself humming those problem parts because they are hard to go along with.

I’ll alternate a good one and a not-so-good one:

Good: In Christ Alone
One of the decade’s best songs is Keith Getty’s & Stuart Townend’s In Christ Alone. The language and theology is powerful and moving. The force of the last stanza is overwhelming and gripping:

No guilt in life, no fear in death
This is the power of Christ in me
From life’s first cry to final breath
Jesus commands my destiny
No power of hell, no scheme of man
Can ever pluck me from His hand
‘Till He returns or calls me home
Here in the power of Christ I’ll stand

Questionable: One line in In Christ Alone
The same song is my first choice for a problem line, questionable in its appeasement of God language in the line, “the wrath of God, he satisfied.” God did not need his wrath satisfied. He offered Christ for the world was a freewill act and his choice to make this sacrifice for our sins.

Good: You are Holy
The litany that is woven into the worship part in this Marc Imboden song melts the proud and breaks the self-righteous and enlivens the understanding of who God is. Realize, this song is talking simultaneously about worship and also about who God is. It’s amazing.

I will sing to and worship
(You are Lord of Lords, You are King of Kings)
The King who is worthy
(You are Mighty God, Lord of everything)
I will love and adore Him
(You’re Immanuel, You’re the Great I Am)
I will bow down before Him
(You’re the Prince of Peace, who is the Lamb)
I will sing to and worship
(You’re the Living God, You’re my Saving Grace)
The King who is worthy
(You will reign forever, You are Ancient of Days)
I will love and adore Him
(You are Alpha, Omega, Beginning, and End)
I will bow down before Him
(You’re my Savior, Messiah, Redeemer and Friend)

Questionable: “Thought of me above all . . .”
Michael W. Smith’s song paints a nicely personal picture, but “thought of me above all.” I can’t read Jesus’ mind any better than Michael W. Smith, but from the story it seems Jesus was thinking of his mother, John, the thief, forgiving Gentiles and Jews for what they knew not, his disciples, his Father, so perhaps the line could be, “And thought of me, among other things” but had that un-poetic line been written, I don’t think we’d have even heard of the song. I appreciate Smith’s long run of music production, songwriting, and worship leading, and such a critique as mine is not intended to eclipse—nor could it—the widespread impact of his work.

Good: One Faith, One Hope, One Baptism
The chorus of this John Michael Talbot rendition of Paul’s Ones in Ephesians 4 gives me courage and renewed vision for a fuller and more inclusive and expansive kingdom vision each time I hear it.

There is one faith, one hope, and one baptism, one God and Father of all . . . There is one church, one body, one life in the Spirit, now given so freely to all

What makes Talbot’s rendition even stronger is that he – a Catholic monk – sings it with a protestant, Michael Card. Equal in weight of the text of Ephesians 4 is another song, “The Church’s One Foundation” by Samuel J. Stone.

The Church’s one foundation
Is Jesus Christ her Lord,
She is His new creation
By water and the Word.
From heaven He came and sought her
To be His holy bride;
With His own blood He bought her
And for her life He died.

She is from every nation,
Yet one o’er all the earth;
Her charter of salvation,
One Lord, one faith, one birth;
One holy Name she blesses,
Partakes one holy food,
And to one hope she presses,
With every grace endued.

Questionable: “Joy of my salvation . . .”
The late Keith Green’s passionate version of Psalm 51 that many churches now sing is not what I question here but our mistaken wording. A quick check of Psalm 51 shows we’re navel gazing . . . again! The text of the psalm says, “joy of your salvation.” Perhaps we get mixed up because it was originally sung, “thy” salvation and in the attempt to de-thy-and-thou the song, we also end up adding our own personal spin on this clean heart psalm of David.

Good: Had it not been the Lord
Following Psalm 124, “Had it not been the Lord” is a beautiful adaptation of the psalmist’s plea about God’s action, blessing for his goodness, and declaration of who we seek in times of need. The song swells to a dramatic ending: “Our help is in the name of the Lord! Blessed be the Lord!” The song has more than once brought me to tears as it surfaces memories of the times when God has overcome the evil one in my life but also helps me remember how God has done this through the ages, one of the great values in singing songs that we know our ancient ancestors sang: we are singing songs of faith with God’s people from long ago and God’s story and their story is our story as well.

Questionable: “Troublesome times are here!”
I grew up singing “Jesus is coming soon! Morning or night or noon . . . many will meet their doom” and it never occurred to me until later in life that we sure did sing that “many will meet their doom” line with quite some flare and frivolity! The tune is incongruous with the lyric. Perhaps a bit of emotional interpretation is called for while leading this song, particularly possible if doing a solo.


Comments from ZOE | New Wineskins associates:

Randy GillRandy Gill
Jesus Is Coming Soon is in a unique genre I call “hop-along Jesus songs”: tragic lyrics about Jesus with upbeat far-from-appropriate music. The “best” of these is He Bore It All. I can hear the ragtime band in my head playing along as we belt out “My precious Savior suffered pain and agony . . .”


Amy WestermanAmy Westerman
It is so funny that you brought up the “wrath of God” line in In Christ Alone – our teacher last Sunday brought out that this line bothered him. I had never thought of it in those terms . . . It depends on how you define “wrath” . . . Romans talks about the wrath of God . . . To me it isn’t so much a sense of anger, but rather the impossibility of His Goodness and Righteousness being able to co-exist (or to share relationship) with our sinful state apart from Christ’s sacrifice . . . With the cross, that reconciliation was met—or satisfied.

Amen to the power of music in one’s life—sometimes singing a tune or singing a chorus of a song can literally change your state of mind, heart, and spirit. And, when you think of music—a universal language—as a gift from God, it is so powerful . . . what a gift!

Much of the “debate” will be like anything else—people’s interpretations of lyrics . . . how literally and/or figuratively we take things.

Good thoughts! 🙂

[Westerman’s World]


Brandon Scott ThomasBrandon Scott Thomas
I agree with Amy . . . and again my thoughts would be that lyrics are like art . . . they are figurative at times and create different images for each person. When we regulate a lyric or try to get too analytical of what it’s saying, sometimes it feels rigid. Now, having said that, when a lyric is shallow, I don’t tend to like it. But the more complex the lyrics are, the more open for interpretation they seem to be. I have never been bothered by the “wrath” of God line. I just have always sort of interpreted that as exactly what Amy said above. I know other people see it differently though.

[ZOE Worship]New Wineskins

Greg TaylorGreg Taylor is managing editor of New Wineskins. He is also associate minister for the Garnett Church of Christ in Tulsa, Oklahoma. His newest book, co-authored with Anne-Geri Fann, How to Get Ready for Short-Term Missions, was released by Thomas Nelson in May 2006. His novel is titled High Places (Leafwood, 2004). He co-authored with John Mark Hicks, Down in the River to Pray: Revisioning Baptism as God’s Transforming Work. Greg and his wife, Jill, have three children: Ashley, Anna, and Jacob. Before moving to Tulsa in 2005, the Taylors lived in Nashville, Tennessee four years, and they lived in Uganda seven years, where they worked with a church planting team. His blog is http://gregtaylor.cc.

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Profile photo of Matt DabbsThis author published 1577 posts in this site.
Matt is the preaching minister at the Auburn Church of Christ in Auburn, Alabama. He and Missy have been married 12 years and are raising two wonderful boys, Jonah and Elijah. Matt is passionate about reaching and discipling young adults, small groups, and teaching. Matt is currently the editor and co-owner of Wineskins.org.

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