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Hymns and Poor Theology: Holy God “Became Perfect Man”? (Modalism)

June 8, 2015 7 comments

It’s time again for a topic I occasionally write about (see previous posts):  Hymns and wrong/bad theology.

At least some churches now frequently sings a simple, one paragraph song called “The Gospel Song,” with the following lyrics:

Holy God, in love became Perfect Man to bear my blame
On the cross He took my sin. By His Death I live again.

No doubt the people singing it understand the real doctrine of the trinity, and just don’t think about what song lyrics actually say – and might claim I am being too picky. If so, I am in good company, following the example of the late S. Lewis Johnson, who often pointed out the wrong theology in hymns, as for example with one of the phrases in the chorus of “One Day” (“living He loved me, dying He saved me, buried He carried my sins far away, Rising He Justified, Freely forever”):  I don’t sing that, “Rising, He justified,” because it seems to me that what the apostle teaches here is that the resurrection of Christ is the evidence that the justification has been completed.  We’re not justified by the resurrection.  We’re justified by His death.

The simple “gospel song” above has a much more obvious problem, in that by its simple lyric, leaving so much of Christian truth out, it actually teaches modalismHoly God … became Perfect Man(?)

The early church, responding to the many errors and heresies regarding the nature of God and Christ, would have found such a song quite unwelcome. Modalism — one God who becomes different members of the Trinity at different times — appeared by the early 3rd century and was strongly denounced by early leaders including Tertullian. The Church, in its creeds and confessions, carefully worked out its statements about the Triune nature of one God in three persons, and Christ having two natures in one person.

Of course local churches like to introduce new songs, especially ones that have a simple tune and simple words. But why not, instead, provide a song with lyrics of actual confessions or creeds from the historic church, such as the Apostles’ Creed (itself a fairly brief statement, yet far more correct and comprehensive than the above “gospel song”). Indeed, two of my favorite Christian rock groups from years past, Petra and Rich Mullins, have tunes with the lyrics from the Apostles’ Creed, as noted in this interesting article.  The Rich Mullins song stays close to the original wording of the Apostles’ creed; and put to song, this creed is easily learned — and a much better alternative to a four-line “gospel song” which omits too much, to the point that its statement about God denies the Trinity for the teaching of modalism.

Creed, by Rich Mullins

I believe in God the Father, Almighty Maker of Heaven and Maker of Earth,
And in Jesus Christ His only begotten Son, our Lord.
He was conceived by the Holy Spirit, Born of the virgin Mary,
Suffered under Pontius Pilate, He was crucified and dead and buried.

CHORUS:
And I believe, what I believe is what makes me what I am.
I did not make it, no it is making me.
It is the very truth of God and not the invention of any man

I believe that He who suffered, was crucified, buried, and dead
He descended into hell and on the third day, rose again.
He ascended into Heaven, where He sits at God’s mighty right hand.
I believe that He’s returning to judge the quick and the dead of the sons of men.

CHORUS

I believe in God the Father almighty Maker of Heaven and Maker of Earth
and in Jesus Christ His only begotten Son, Our Lord.
I believe in the Holy Spirit, one Holy Church, the communion of Saints,
The forgiveness of sin, I believe in the resurrection.
I believe in a life that never ends.

Bad Theology in Hymns: “The Earth Shall Soon Dissolve Like Snow”?

January 23, 2014 18 comments

S. Lewis Johnson often pointed out the bad theology in the hymns we sing in church, observing  that hymn writers would “get to heaven as by fire.”  Expanding on this point, he would mention specific hymns and the wrong theology, including one song he especially disliked, “One Day,” which includes in the chorus, after the words “Living He loved me, dying He saved me, buried He carried my sins far away,” the phrase “rising He justified.”  As Dr. Johnson pointed out (as in this message from the Romans series), we were not justified at His resurrection:  I don’t sing that, “Rising, He justified,” because it seems to me that what the apostle teaches here is that the resurrection of Christ is the evidence that the justification has been completed.  We’re not justified by the resurrection.  We’re justified by His death. 

I was reminded of the bad theology in hymns again this last week when the local church sang Chris Tomlin’s version of “Amazing Grace” (“My Chains are Gone.”)  The last verse is from John Newton’s poem (the origin of the bad theology here), but not in the traditional “Amazing Grace” hymn:

The earth shall soon dissolve like snow;
the sun forbear to shine.
But God who called me here below,
will be forever mine.

That lyric has bothered me for the same reason SLJ mentioned concerning other hymns: it’s not biblical. The earth will be renewed and continue forever: a renovation of the earth, but the earth itself will not be destroyed or dissolve into nothingness.  Reference also this post here from a few months ago, Robert D. Culver’s exposition of 2 Peter 3.

Thinking about this lyric in “Amazing Grace,” I found this blog article, from someone else who sees the doctrinal error here.  Here is his suggested re-wording of that verse, a true expression of biblical teaching:

The earth shall be redeemed by God;
the sun will forever shine.
And God who called me here below,
will be forever mine.

Christ Born, But Also Sent Into the World

December 18, 2012 2 comments

At this time of year we especially celebrate Christ’s birth, the incarnation. Great Christmas hymns often mention “glory to the newborn king,” “Christ is born”  and “the babe, the son of Mary.”  We remember too the infant narratives that indeed describe the human birth of the Christ child, as for instance:

  • Matthew 1:16:  of whom Jesus was born, who is called Christ.
  • Matthew 2:1-4, “Jesus was born in Bethlehem”…”where is he who has been born king of the Jews?” and “where the Christ was to be born.”
  • Luke 1:35– therefore the child to be born
  • Luke 2:7–  she gave birth to her firstborn son
  • Luke 2:11–  For unto you is born this day

Yet beyond these references, it is interesting to note how elsewhere Christ is described, by Himself and others, in terms so very different from all other people.  For instance, we usually refer to a “mother and her child.” Matthew 2, in sharp contrast, several times mentions “the child and his mother.”

Another interesting thing, that I had never thought about before listening to S. Lewis Johnson (something he often mentioned):  only once did Christ refer to Himself as having been born.  It’s part of our everyday conversation for all of us to say “I was born in “ such and such a year, or “I was born in “ (fill-in-the-blank) city or state location.  Christ repeatedly referred to Himself as being sent, as having come into the world.  Only once did He say that He was born – in John 18:37, to a Gentile king, Pilate, who would not have understood Christ’s normal language.  Even then, immediately after saying He was born, Jesus quickly added “and for this purpose I have come into the world.”

Excerpts from S. Lewis Johnson on this interesting point:

This verse is very interesting …  This is the only instance in which the Lord Jesus says that he was born.  His characteristic expression is that he was sent into the world or simply that he came into the world.  And this is the only time that he said that he was born.  And strikingly, of course, he said it to a heathen man.  And then quickly modified it by saying, “To this end was I born, and for this cause came I into the world.”  In other words, it was characteristic of him to say words that suggested his preexistence.  He was sent.  And he came.  This one time he was born.  And of course the reference is to his human nature.

and

Only once does the Lord Jesus ever say that he was born.  Did you know that?  Well it’s alright to say that, but only once does he ever say that he was born, and do you know, do you remember to whom he said, he was born?  He said it to a man who had no theological understanding at all.  He said it to Pontius Pilate.  He said, “For this cause was I born,” and then in order to not confuse people like me and like you who were such great theologians, he said, I have a word for you, for this cause was I born and for this purpose came I into the world.  That’s the only time he ever said he was born, and it was said to the Roman Curator, Pontius Pilate.

All the Fitness He Requires? Spurgeon the Evangelist

July 12, 2012 5 comments

Steve Lawson well described Spurgeon the Evangelist, as in this message from the 2012 Shepherd’s Conference.  Through the last few years of reading Spurgeon sermons that has been the biggest impression of Spurgeon: sermons that show true Calvinism with its great evangelistic zeal, as in the well-known sermon, Compel Them to Come In.

Spurgeon Sermon #336, “Struggles of Conscience” from September, 1860, is another interesting one that shows Spurgeon’s great zeal in tearing down any obstacle in the way of a person coming to Christ, including the thought that a person doesn’t “feel” the greatness of their sins, doesn’t feel a particular type of repentance as was characteristically defined in the Puritan age.

In our day the evil has taken another, and that a most extraordinary shape. Men have aimed at being self-righteous after quite an amazing fashion; they think they must feel worse, and have a deeper conviction of sin before they may trust in Christ. Many hundreds do I meet with who say they dare not come to Christ, and trust Him with their souls, because they do not feel their need of Him enough; they have not sufficient contrition for their sins; they have not repented as fully as they have rebelled! Brothers and Sisters, it is the same evil, from the same old germ of self-righteousness, but it has taken another and I think a more crafty shape. Satan has wormed himself into many hearts under the garb of an angel of light, and he has whispered to the sinner, “Repentance is a necessary virtue. Stop until you have repented, and when you have sufficiently mortified yourself on account of sin, then you will be fit to come to Christ, and qualified to trust and rely on Him.”

While reading along I thought of the well-known hymn “Come, Ye Sinners, Poor and Needy”, sung often at the local church.  One verse ends with the line “all the fitness He requires, is to feel your need of Him.” The teaching at the local church, in the standard Reformed Baptist tradition, occasionally points out that part of that hymn, and how this is the only fitness necessary to come to Christ.  Spurgeon at this point was clearly going further, arguing against any “standard” of what we must feel when we come to Christ.

In the very next paragraph Spurgeon answered my question about that hymn, with the full story even there:  that particular hymn only includes the first part of the line.

Let me counsel you, then, to never quote part of a hymn, or part of a text—quote it all!—
“All the fitness He requires
Is to feel your need of him—
This He GIVES YOU,
It is His Spirit’s rising beam!”

So that particular misunderstanding has been with the church for some time (that particular version of the hymn dates to 1759). The modern-day gospel-lite evangelical view is probably in the opposite direction from Spurgeon’s day, but (at least some) Reformed churches today continue the Puritan tradition of reacting in the opposite extreme.

Spurgeon’s point here is well-taken, a clear distinction in understanding the “feeling” someone has upon coming to Christ:

And I think I know the reason of its great commonness. In the Puritan age, which was noted certainly for its purity of Doctrine, there was also a great deal of experimental preaching, and much of it was sound and healthy. But some of it was unscriptural, because it took for its standard what the Christian felt, and not what the Savior said—the inference from a Believer’s experience, rather than the message which goes before any belief. Those excellent men, Mr. Rogers, of Dedham, who has written some useful works, and Mr. Sheppard, who wrote The Sound Believer, and Mr. Flavel and many others give descriptions of what a sinner must be before he may come to Christ, which actually represent what a saint is, after he has come to Christ! These good Brothers have taken their own experience—what they felt before they came into the Light of God—as the standard of what every other person ought to feel before he may put his trust in Christ and hope for mercy.

There were some in Puritan times who protested against that theology, and insisted that sinners were to be bid to come to Christ just as they were—with no preparation either of feeling or of doing. At the present time there are large numbers of Calvinistic ministers who are afraid to give a free invitation to sinners. They always garble Christ’s invitation thus—“If you are a sensible sinner you may come.” Just as if stupid sinners might not come! They say, “If you feel your need of Christ, you may come.” And then they describe what that feeling or need is, and give such a high description of it that their hearers say, “Well, I never felt like that,” and they are afraid to venture for lack of the qualification.

Mark you, the Brothers speak truly in some respect; they describe what a sinner does feel before he comes, but they make a mistake in putting what a sinner feels, as if that were what a sinner ought to feel! What the sinner feels, and what the sinner does, until he is renewed by Grace, are just the very opposite of what he ought to feel or do! We are always wrong when we say one Christian’s experience is to be estimated by what another Christian has felt.  No, Sir, my experience is to be measured by the Word of God! And what the sinner should feel is to be measured by what Christ commands him to feel, and not by what another sinner has felt!