Tag Archives: hymns

Reflections on the modern hymn In Christ Alone

(This article was first published in the NZ Baptist Magazine website: http://www.baptistmag.org.nz/discipleship/in-christ-alone/).

When was the last time you remember singing about God’s wrath? If the modern hymn “In Christ Alone” is in your playlist, then it was probably more recently that you realised.

“In Christ Alone” was the first hymn that writers Stuart Townsend and Keith Getty produced together, and to this day, it remains their most well known. Since its release in 2001, “In Christ Alone” has been referred to as “surely the worship song of the century so far.” The song has been covered by scores of artists including Owl City, David Archuleta, and Natalie Grant, and has been translated into several different languages.


The hymn takes a linear approach in unfolding the gospel narrative (the life, death, and resurrection of Christ). The first verse introduces Christ as solid ground, a cornerstone that we can find safety and refuge in. In the same way that stonemasons in biblical times relied on the precise placement of a cornerstone to set the foundation for every other stone, Christ promises to be “a cornerstone chosen and precious” (1 Peter 2:6) that we can rest every triumph and tragedy upon.

The second verse invites us to gaze at the wonder of the incarnation—the fullness of God in human form—before zooming into the life and death of Jesus. Despised and rejected by the people he came to save, the Messiah willingly poured himself out during the drama of the cross, where gruesome death and sacrificial love satisfied God’s righteous anger that our sins deserve (Romans 3:21-26, Romans 5:9).

The third verse begins with gloom of the tomb, but gives way to unabashed celebration of the risen Christ. The melody climaxes alongside triumphant news: Jesus is alive, victorious over death! We can now have the confidence to claim him as our own! The resurrection proves that sin’s death grip no longer remains: “…for as all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ” (1 Corinthians 15:22).

Powerful stories demand a response. In the final verse, we are invited to sing our reaction to the good news of Jesus. His unmatched power provides assurance that guilt need not plague us, death need not scare us, and hell can never take us: there simply is “no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:1). With King Jesus in command of our destiny, we stand with confidence, awaiting the day we finally meet him face-to-face.

Just as a diamond’s brilliance and sparkle depends on the number and placement of its many facets, God’s beauty shines most brightly in light of his many facets. In 2013, one of these aspects came under scrutiny when the American Presbyterian Committee on Congregational Song voted to exclude “In Christ Alone” from its hymnal, in light of the words in verse two, which speak about God’s wrath being satisfied. The decision attracted media interest and sparked a firestorm of controversy. There was much wrath about God’s wrath: some criticised the hymn writers for not allowing a change to the lyrics, while others accused the hymn committee of holding an unbiblical view of God.

Talk about God’s wrath brings unsettling images to the minds of 21st century Kiwis. We rightly reject caricatures of God having the uncontrollable anger of Jake “The Muss” from Once Were Warriors, or spewing forth hateful words at protest marches. Yet God’s wrath—revealed in the Bible—means God was willing to confront the cancer of sin hollowing out his beloved image-bearers, and Christ was willing to absorb the consequences of this cancer in our place. Without it, God’s love becomes saccharine and ill-equipped to respond to the horrors of human sin; whether anti-Semitic violence, or our own Samaritan blind spots; whether selfish exploitation of workers, or our own self-absorbed materialism.

That’s why when we sing about the wrath of God, we actually sing about ourselves: sinners in need of the rescue that Jesus willingly offers on the cross. To minimise any one of God’s attributes from our vocabulary is to rob ourselves of the full brilliance of God’s beauty, and to make Christ’s sacrifice less costly.

“In Christ Alone” depicts a God not made in our own image, but as he presents himself in the Biblical story: beyond us yet with us; holy yet gracious; angry yet loving; just yet merciful. And all of it is worth singing about.


A Lament to the Lord – Two Poems

Some might have heard of this poem that does the rounds, particularly among our senior brothers and sisters in Christ. It’s a call for singing the old hymns and laments the use of new songs, modernised words and the ongoing changes in our worship gatherings.

– Mavis Clark, “This England”, Spring 1990, Vol.23 No.1

They’ve brought you up to date Lord, down at Saint Cecilia’s.
They’ve pensioned off the organ, and they’re praising with guitars.
They’ve done it for the young ones; we want to draw them in,
But I do wish they could worship without making such a din.
For I’m growing rather deaf Lord, and when there’s all that noise,
It gets so very hard Lord, to hear your loving voice.

They’ve written brand new hymns Lord, with tunes that I don’t know,
So I hardly ever sing now, though I did love singing so.
They’re very go-ahead Lord, they’re doing ‘series three’,
But the words are not so beautiful as the others used to be

They’ve modernised the Bible and the Lord’s Prayer and the Creed
When the old ones were so perfect that they filled my every need.
My mind’s not quite so agile, as it was some years ago
And I miss the age-old beauty of the words I used to know.

It’s very clear to me Lord, I’ve overstayed my time;
I don’t take to change so kindly as I did when in my prime.
But it can’t be very long now before I’m called above,
And I know I’ll find you there Lord, and glory in your love.

So ’til then I’ll stick it out here, though it’s not the same for me,
But while others call you ‘You’, Lord, do you mind if I say ‘Thee’?

After some sleuthing on the Internet through historical archives (and a bit of cheeky wordsmithing), I think I’ve “discovered” the second poem in this series.

This poem is a call for singing the old metric psalms and laments the use of new hymns, modernised words and the ongoing changes in our worship gatherings (there’s nothing new under the sun…)

– circa 18th century, in the spirit of William Romaine1

They’ve brought you up to date, Lord, in the Chapel at Mark Lane2,
They’ve done it for the young ones; we want to draw them in
They’ve put aside the Psalms and now they worship God with hymns,
But I do wish they could sing without resorting to “Watts’ whims”.

They say he’s modernised the psalms to point to Jesus Christ3
But why change what was perfect? The Psalter has sufficed!
These hymns aren’t as divinely blessed as metric psalms, you see
If psalms were good enough for Christ, they’re good enough for me!4

These hymns are new and needless, they’re Quakerish and Popish,5
I’m scared that next they’ll start to bring in instrumental music
These hymns are just a money-making scheme for Watts to gain from,
Why use them? All our fathers got to heaven fine without them!

I miss the age-old beauty of the words I used to know
My mind’s not quite so agile as it was some years ago
And with these brand new hymns, Lord, they use tunes I do not know
So I hardly ever sing now, though I did love singing so

It’s very clear to me, Lord – I’ve overstayed my time
I don’t take to change so kindly I did when in my prime
But it won’t be very long before I’m called above
And once I’m there I’ll sing the Psalms and glory in your love

Till then I’ll stick it out here, though it’s not the same for me
Though others think these hymns are great, I firmly disagree!

Note: I wrote this light-hearted parody to try and illustrate that what’s old was once new, and that by God’s grace Christians young and old can delight in the best old hymns of the faith, while also embracing the best songs that the coming generations have to offer, all so that Jesus might be more beautiful and believable to us.


  1. Who once said: “Christian congregations have shut out divinely inspired psalms and taken in Watts’s flights of fancy…” and “Why should Dr Watts, or any other hymn maker, not only take precedence over the Holy Ghost, but also thrust him utterly out of the church?” 
  2. Mark Lane Independent Chapel, Stoke Newington, where Isaac Watts began as assistant pastor 
  3. “But since I believe that any Divine Sentence or Christian Verse agreeable to Scripture may be sung, though it be composed by Men uninspired, I have not been so curious and exact in striving every where to express the ancient Sense and Meaning of David, but have rather exprest myself as I may suppose David would have done, had he lived in the Days of Christianity. And by this means perhaps I have sometimes hit upon the true Intent of the Spirit of God in those Verses, farther and clearer than David himself could ever discover, as St. Peter encourages me to hope. (1 Peter 1:11-12)” – Isaac Watts, Preface to The Psalms of David Imitated in the Language of the New Testament, And Applied To The Christian State and Worship  
  4. Nahum Tate recounts the story of a servant-maid who disapproved of singing a revised version of the Psalms: “If you must needs know the plain truth of the matter, as long as you sung Jesus Christ’s Psalms, I sung along with ye; but now you sing Psalms of your own invention, you may sing by yourselves.” 
  5. Said Thomas Symmes in a newspaper editorial in 1723, about Isaac Watt’s hymns:
    1. It is a new way, an unknown tongue.
    2. It is not so melodious as the usual way.
    3. There are so many new tunes, we shall never have done learning them.
    4. The practice creates disturbances and causes people to behave indecently and disorderly. 5. It is Quakerish and Popish and introductive of instrumental music.
    6. The names given to the notes are bawdy, even blasphemous.
    7. It is a needless way, since our fathers got to heaven without it.
    8. It is a contrivance to get money.
    9. People spend too much time learning it, they tarry out nights’ disorderly.
    10. They are a company of young upstarts that fall in with this way, and some of them are lewd and loose persons. 

Can I change the lyrics to a worship song?


A common question in music ministry is whether we can change the line to a worship song. Sometimes it’s a line that you have no idea what it means (e.g. “Here I raise my Ebenezer”). Or it could be that theologically vague lyric that you want to rescue because it’s set to a really catchy melody.

Here’s some answers and principles to consider if you’ve ever asked this question, or are about to take a scalpel to a song your church is currently singing.

If the text is in the public domain…


Yes – with discernment.

Currently all works published in the US prior to 1923 are officially in the public domain, which means the works belong to everyone equally and can be used, adapted, modified etc.

For example, this means that the original Amazing Grace is in public domain, but How Great Thou Art (republished 1954 under copyright) is not.

Other exceptions to the pre-1923 rule are texts that have been edited substantially to be a new edition, and translations of those texts made after 1923.

You can look up Project Gutenberg to help navigate the minefield of clauses and sub-clauses under US copyright rules.


Hymn writer Isaac Watts expressed in the Preface to his Hymns and Spiritual Songs,

“What is provided for public worship should give to sincere consciences as little vexation and disturbance as possible. . . . Where any unpleasing word is found, he that leads the worship may substitute a better; for (Blessed be God) we are not confined to the words of any Man in our public solemnities.”

As a result, there’s lots of examples of hymn lines that have been improved over time. Hymn lecturer Scott Aniol lists 13 reasons that people have historically changed hymn lines:

  1. Masculine reference to God (“Him,” “Father,” etc.).
  2. Masculine reference to people (“he,” “mankind,” etc.).
  3. Changing singular pronouns to plural (“I Sing the Mighty Power of God” etc.).
  4. Removing demeaning terms (such as “worm” in “Alas, and Did My Saviour Bleed”).
  5. Doctrinal heterodoxy.
  6. Doctrinal idiosyncrasy.
  7. Unclear biblical allusions (such as “Ebenezer” in “Come, Thou Fount”).
  8. Difficult theological terms (“reconciliation,” “imputed,” “justified,” etc.).
  9. Archaic pronouns (“thee,” “thou,” etc.).
  10. Archaic terms (“welkin”, in “Hark the Herald Angels” (see below), etc.).
  11. Words with changed meaning (“bowels,” “awful,” “peculiar,” etc.).
  12. Awkward euphony (“Our God, our Help,” etc.).
  13. Syllabic stress (“Jesus, the name” in “O for A Thousand Tongues,” etc.).

I personally think you shouldn’t change lyrics for all the above reasons (for instance, I’d leave God as how He describes Himself thank you very much, and also a difficult theological term could be explained instead of removed). But as an example of sensitive revision, if your church teaches particular redemption (or limited atonement), the line from Charles Wesley’s “Arise My Soul Arise” that reads:

His blood atoned for all the race

Could be changed to

His blood atoned for every race

…With discernment

If you do start tinkering with lyrics to a public domain text, keep in mind…

  • If your church members are accustomed with certain words or phrases, it’s helpful to explain why you made the change (or face a grilling from someone who’s memorised the lyric one way all their life!)
  • Unlike modernising Bible texts, older songs typically follow a specific meter and rhyme. If you break it, your revised hymn may be harder to remember, sing, or enjoy.

Brian Wren has some helpful advice in his book Praying Twice:

  • “Don’t alter rhymes unless you have replacement rhymes of like quality, and that smoothly fit the stress pattern.”
  • “Respect stress patterns as well as the syllable count.”
  • “Speak and hear each proposed revision aloud. What looks OK on the printed page may sound ugly when spoken or sung.”

And Bobby Gilles points out the example of a couplet that uses “Thine” and “mine?” to end the line. You can’t update that without breaking the rhyme or changing the meaning of the couplet.

If the text is copyrighted…


No, with a few exceptions.

The short answer is any copyrighted lyrics can’t be changed, except:

  • when changing a song from 3rd person to 2nd person (His to Your)
  • when changing singular pronouns to plural (I to we)
  • when you have permission from the copyright owner to change it

While there are some frustrating things about copyright rules, God by his grace has put them in place and we’re called to submit to the earthly authorities provided (Romans 13). Some of us have a genuine desire to change lyrics for the better, I’m sure. But what one person believes is improving the lyric could be totally opposite to what another believes. And it’s not as if you have an automatic right to enter a songwriting relationship with the person, no matter how genuine your intentions.

Hear some recent case studies to help you see this question from a few angles:

“In Christ Alone”

Recently it was reported that the Presbyterian Committee on Congregational Song, operating under the authority of the Presbyterian Church, U. S. A. (PCUSA) rejected the modern hymn “In Christ Alone” from their new song collection, Glory to God. Why? Because Keith Getty and Stuart Townend refused to approve the change of “Till on that cross as Jesus died, the wrath of God was satisfied” to “the love of God was magnified“.

I recently heard in a lecture series that this songwriting duo have passed up the opportunity for their hymn to appear in many other hymnals for this reason (though the song still remains #1 on the UK CCLI charts).

“Above All”

Paul Baloche and Lenny Leblanc wrote a fantastic song, which traces the story of Jesus humbling himself to the point of death on the cross (Phil. 2:5-11). But plenty of people (myself included) have tried to ask permission to change the last phrase in their chorus, which ends, “He took the fall and thought of me above all” – while Jesus did think of his redeemed, to say he thought of me above all seems to be an overemphasis that the Bible doesn’t teach. The standard reply you’ll get when you ask is that the publishers won’t give permission for the lyrics to be changed.

When asked about why he wrote that line by Bob Kauflin:

“Paul [Baloche] had no idea people would take the last line to mean that Jesus thought of us more than his Father’s glory.”

“How He Loves”

John Mark McMillan wrote this song about God’s love in 2002, following the death of his best friend in a car accident, out of a need “to have some sort of conversation with God” and pour out his heart to Him.

The song was covered by David Crowder Band on “Church Music” and released as their lead single in 2009, where the lyric “heaven meets earth like a sloppy wet kiss” was changed to “an unforeseen kiss“, ostensibly to serve his people and not isolate them.

In this case, John McMillan gave permission for the change, but explained what he meant with his original on his blog, saying:

“I applaud David for changing the line to serve his people, and at the same time I boo the machinery that would cause him to have to do so.”

So what if I can’t change it?

I’m sure you can think of other songs that you’ve itched to change the words to, such as Hillsong’s “Worthy is the Lamb” (“darling of heaven crucified”). So what can you do if you have to settle with a line you don’t like? Here’s a few options:

  • Explain the line to the congregation. For example, it’s possible you may think that “Sing like never before” from Matt Redman’s 10,000 Reasons is a bit vague. You could explain why a heart that truly knows the blessing of being a child of God can sing today of God’s grace and mercy that wasn’t possible yesterday.
  • Place the song alongside others that help clarify meaning. If the line “Nothing compares to the promise I have in you” is too vague for you, perhaps tag the song along with “How Firm A Foundation” or another song that details some of God’s promises to his children.
  • Choose a different song. This is probably the easiest option! There’s only hundreds of thousands out there to choose from after all. I like the humble way that Australian songwriter Mike Morrow (“We Belong to the Day”, “Nothing But the Blood”) put it to me in an email about one of his songs:

“When it passes its usefulness we can rejoice to turn to other, greater songwriters!”

Anyways, enough from me. What do you do when you’re faced with song lyrics you don’t like?


Further reading:


History of Hymnody – free lecture series

Screencap of History of Hymnody page

I’ve recently been tuning in to this fantastic lecture series taught by Kevin Twit, held at by Covenant Theological Seminary in St. Louis, MO.

Kevin Twit is the founder of Indelible Grace (a group that re-tune hymns; we’ve sung a few of them before in our worship services). He presents a 9 lectures covering the rich heritage of hymns and its use in Christian worship. Here’s what he covers:

  1. Introduction, Definitions
  2. Why Hymns in a Postmodern World
  3. Musical Style and Hymns, Early Church Hymns (Augustine, Jerome, St. Hilary of Gaul)
  4. German Hymns (Martin Luther)
  5. German Hymns continued (Martin Rinkart, Nikolaus von Zinzendorf)
  6. Hymns in Geneva (John Calvin), English Hymnody (Isaac Watts)
  7. Christian Experience in the Hymns of Anne Steele
  8. More of Anne Steele, Hymns in the Great Awakening and Victorian Eras (John and Charles Wesley, William Williams, Augustus Toplady, Joseph Hart, John Newton, William Cowper)
  9. Hymns in the 19th century onwards: Oxford Movement, Victorian Hymns, Better Music Movement, Sacred Harp, Gospel Songs, African-American Hymns, Hymns Today.

Listening to these lectures fuel in me a greater appreciation about hymns in Christian worship (elsewhere Kevin Twit calls them “theology on fire!”). I had no idea that there could be universities where you can take classes like this! I definitely don’t know anything of the sort here in New Zealand. It’s also intellectually refreshing in a different sort of way to my school and uni days, where sometimes the things we were taught in class felt more like studying music for music’s sake (e.g. avant garde trends, Schenkerian analysis).

I do wish there were study guides/handouts available, as I’m finding lots of helpful quotes and book references I’m keen to explore further.

You can listen to the first two lectures straight away, and it only takes a free sign-up to listen to the rest.


Also, some of the many interesting resources cited:

I’d encourage you to check it out!

(HT: Matt Heerema)

Hymn lines that haven’t stood the test of time

Old books

God’s blessed the church with hundreds of memorable hymns of the faith. Christians and non-Christians alike recognise lines such as “Amazing Grace! How sweet the sound…”, “How Great Thou Art”, “Great is Thy Faithfulness”, and “Abide with me, fast falls the eventide…” (I’m sure you can think of many of your own examples).

For a bit of a laugh, here are a couple of examples of old hymn lyrics that, although theologically sound, have thankfully fallen out of use:

Stanza 6 in “How Firm A Foundation”:

Even down to old age all My people shall prove
My sovereign, eternal, unchangeable love;
And when hoary hairs shall their temples adorn,
Like lambs they shall still in My bosom be borne.

(Hoary means ancient, aged.)

Stanza 9 of Charles Wesley’s “Come Thou O Traveller Unknown”:

’Tis Love! ’tis Love! Thou diedst for me!
I hear Thy whisper in my heart;
The morning breaks, the shadows flee,
Pure, universal love Thou art;
To me, to all, Thy bowels move;
Thy nature and Thy Name is Love.

The term “bowels” used to mean the seat of one’s emotion (what we refer today as our heart).

The first line of Isaac Watt’s “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” was originally:

Hark! How all the welkin rings, ‘Glory to the King of Kings.”

(Welkin refers to the highest heavens.)

And from verse 3 of Joseph Hart’s hymn, “Salvation to the Lamb”:

When we incurred the wrath of God, Alas! what could we worse?
He came, and with his own heart’s blood Redeem’d us from the curse.
This paschal Lambour heav’nly meat, was roasted in the flame.
Repeat, ye ransomed souls, repeat, “Salvation to the Lamb!”

While I like Joseph Hart’s sincere attempt to link Jesus to the Passover lamb in Exodus, this particular imagery is um… hard to stomach (thankfully other people have tried rewriting it).

To fit the language

So why did these hymnwriters use those words? To fit the language of the people at that time, who would have understood the phrases and meanings without any hint of snickering.

Brian Wren in his book Praying Twice adds some helpful insight (p.297-8):

“… The need for change sometimes overrides the need for familiarity… In the Preface to his Hymns and Spiritual Songs, [Isaac Watts] says that “what is provided for public worship should give to sincere consciences as little vexation and disturbance as possible” However, “where any unpleasing word is found, he that leads the worship may substitute a better; for (Blessed be God) we are not confined to the words of any Man in our public solemnities.”

“However much we value our past, our present interest in congregational song is not antiquarian, but immediate. We sing to God from today, in lyrics which — whether ancient or recent — express today’s faith. When a lyric from the past gets too archaic to be understood, or too out of sync with today’s hope, faith, and issues to speak for us, it will eventually cease to be sung, or amended to keep it singable.

I was reflecting awhile back on whether Christians had to hang on to obscure hymn lyrics. Ultimately, I think Brian Wren is right – if a line is worth understanding and remembering, it will stay in use. And if it makes you think about your bowels, it’s probably not worth keeping!


Further reading:

Bobby Gilles – How to revise hymn lyrics without destroying the hymn