I cannot remember when hymns were not deeply embedded in my mental framework. How soon I began to go to “big-church” I do not recall, but the singing always made a deep impression on me, and the language upon which I first began to meditate consisted of phrases in the musical repertoire:
“Holy, holy, holy Lord God Almighty . . . All the saints adore thee, . . . all Thy works shall praise thy Name, . . . though the darkness hide thee” [what an intriguing line, when juxtaposed with a beautiful line in another hymn, “’Tis only the splendor of light hideth thee”] . . . “Who wert, and art, and evermore shalt be.”;
“Come to this fountain so rich and sweet; cast thy poor soul at the Savior’s feet;”
“O’er all this wide extended plain shines one eternal day;”
“All the vain things that charm me most;”
“Bring forth the royal diadem;”
“Pavilioned in splendor and girded with praise;”
“His sovereign majesty, may we in glory see, and to eternity love and adore;”
“His blood can make the foulest clean, his blood availed for me;”
“Or fades my earthly bliss, my comfort still is this: May Jesus Christ be praised!”
“Thou hast bought us, thine we are; . . . With thy love our bosoms fill;”
“Waft it on the rolling tide; Jesus saves, Jesus saves;”
“I love Thee, because Thou hast first loved me, and purchased my pardon on Calvary’s tree;”
“Sweetest note in seraph song, sweetest name on mortal tongue; sweetest carol every sung, Jesus, blessed Jesus.”
Such words often would course through my mind virtually involuntarily.
Though I remained unconverted until I was twenty-three, this constant experience of singing with the church, and hearing the robustness of conviction from many whose zeal for praise overmatched the aesthetic pleasure of such energetic production, and having riveted into my mind many quaint phrases, the meaning of which I was unsure (but convinced that they must be important or they would not have been so written), often brought to me reflections that have since been sealed to my soul as brilliant droplets of truth distilled from the flood of truth given to us in the Bible.
One, the truth of Scripture and the experience of the grace of Christ set in motion an endless evocation of disciplined but exuberant attempts, generation upon generation, to express praise and gratitude for the infinite excellence of redeeming love only to be summarized with the admission, “No voice can sing, no heart can frame, nor can the memory find, a sweeter sound than Jesus’ name, O savior of mankind.” Not a single year for two thousand years has been without the sanctifying effort to express the whole soul in musical praise.
Two, the events that led to the gospel have called forth the greatest of human talent in producing the most exquisite music to give powerful emotional and creative conduits within which to express these transcendent truths.
Nothing more challenges the attempt at excellence than producing an appropriate vehicle for setting forth the glory of the triune God in his merciful stance toward sinners. The gospel is not unworthy to capture the genius of every genre of music, while its worthiness will transform the genre by elevating its possibilities of truthful communication to their highest. Some are higher than others and more consistent with the beauty, transcendence, elegance, coherence, and holy righteousness of the gospel, but none is absolutely unproductive of any of those qualities. Irish traditional melodies, English pub songs, American folk tunes, classical symphonic themes, chorale and anthem music, intricately composed cantatas—all sorts of settings in styles from baroque to rap have been subdued to the gospel’s undeniable call for “my soul, my life, my all.”
Three, the gospel-ravished heart has entered on an endless quest for the most honest, expressive, beautiful, intriguing, inescapable language to excavate all the wondrous ways in which the startling truth of the condescension of the triune God to save sinners can be illumined. Many languages have been taxed deeply and expanded discreetly in order to say all the things that the human heart senses by the power of word and Spirit in their joint witness to the worthiness of Christ and the glory of God in the gospel.
A fourth effect concerns the theology of the hymns. Recently I read the lament of early-twentieth century Baptist liberals that traditional hymns focused too much on the “traditional” concept of substitution and propitiation in the atonement. The church, however, would soon outgrow the need for such assertions, so they opined. Although every generation seeks to apply its own pressure on that doctrine with intent to liberate the church from such grotesque, violent, abusive images, so far the idea remains one of the central themes of the worshiping community through song. It is seen as neither violent, abusive, or grotesque, but as merciful, loving, necessary, and transcendently gripping. On a recent Sunday I sang these phrases in the time of worship through music:
“Upward I look and see him there who made an end to all my sin.
Because the sinless Savior died, my sinful soul is counted free,
for God the just is satisfied to look on him and pardon me. . . .
My soul is purchased with his blood;”
“I’m forgiven because you were forsaken.
I’m accepted, you were condemned . . .
Amazing love, how can it be
that you, my King, would die for me?”
“One day they nailed him to die on a tree;
suffering anguish, despised and rejected:
Bearing our sins, my redeemer is he!”
“The myst’ryof the cross I cannot comprehend,
the agonies of Calvary.
You, the perfect Holy One, crushed Your Son,
[He] drank the bitter cup reserved for me.
Your blood has washed away my sin. Jesus, Thank you..”
As long as God saves people by his gospel, the need for such expressions will never cease.
The witness of these doctrinally loaded lines will always bear witness to the redeemed soul and ever new ways of seeking to reflect the innumerable facets of such a redemption will find expression in the redeemed community. The sixteenth-century Jesuit Francis Xavier wrote lyrics that have inspired one of the greatest choral arrangements of the twentieth century, “My Eternal King,” arranged by Jane Marshall.
But, O, my Jesus, you did me
Upon the cross embrace;
For me you bore the nails and spear,
and manifold disgrace.
The eighteenth century Anglican hymn-writer Augustus Toplady wrote,
Complete atonement thou hast made,
And to the utmost farthing paid
Whate’er they people owed;
How then can wrath on me take place,
If sheltered in thy righteousness,
And sprinkled with thy blood?
The eighteenth-century Pietist Nicholas von Zinzendorf wrote
Bold shall I stand in that great day,
For who aught to my charge shall lay,
While through thy blood absolved I am,
From sin’s tremendous curse and shame?
The late twentieth-century Welsh Pastor hymn-writer W. Vernon Higham wrote,
O Son of God, the crucified,
The choice of heaven above,
Descended to our depths and died,
In that great act of love.
What gratitude can ever tell
Of such a debt to pay;
That death of death that conquered hell
And saved us for that day?
The twenty-first century will bring forth many more such outcries of doctrinal devotion and the saints will sing them gladly.
Dr. Tom Nettles is Senior Professor Emeritus at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, KY.