Hymnology: Away in a manger

I’m going to level with you right of the bat: I’m not a fan of Away in a manger. It’s too romanticised, too cute for me. I think I did like it as a child, but as an adult – not so much. However, I have an issue with the carol itself which is beyond merely a matter of style – I think it flirts with heresy. The offending lines are these:

The cattle are lowing
The baby awakes
But little Lord Jesus
No crying He makes

What’s the problem with that? I know a little about babies, and I know that babies do cry. Quite a lot. There’s nothing wrong with crying – in fact, if a baby didn’t cry you’d be more worried. What I don’t like about this verses is that it suggests that Jesus was somehow not a ‘real’ human baby – he wasn’t a proper baby, he was some kind of ‘super-spiritual’ baby. Maybe I’m reading too much into it, but I do remember wondering as a child whether this implied that Jesus was different to other children.

The idea that Jesus was not a real human being is an ancient one, and it is a heresy known as doceticism (from the ancient Greek dokeo, which means to seem or appear – Jesus only appeared to be human). This is a very early heresy – in fact the apostle John writes about it in 1 John 4:2-3 – “This is how you can recognise the Spirit of God: every spirit that acknowledges that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, but every spirit that does not acknowledge Jesus is not from God.” Evidently some in the church John was writing to were teaching that Jesus had not come ‘in the flesh’.

So I’d like to use the opportunity to outline why it’s important that Jesus Christ came as a real human baby and not some heavenly apparition who just happened to look human. Irenaeus, a Bishop of the early church, wrote against doceticism. Here’s an except from one of his writings – Demonstration of the Apostolic Preaching:

The Son of God became Son of David and Son of Abraham; perfecting and summing up this in Himself, that He might make us to possess life. The Word of God was made flesh by the dispensation of the Virgin, to abolish death and make man live. For we were imprisoned by sin, being born in sinfulness and living under death. […]

Now, if He was not born, neither did He die; and, if He died not, neither did He rise from the dead; and, if He rose not from the dead, neither did He vanquish death and bring its reign to nought; and if death be not vanquished, how can we ascend to life, who from the beginning have fallen under death? So then those who take away redemption from man, and believe not God that He will raise them from the dead, these also despise the birth of our Lord, which He underwent on our behalf, that the Word of God should be made flesh in order that He might manifest the resurrection of the flesh, and might have pre-eminence over all things in the heavens, as the first-born and eldest offspring of the thought of the Father, the Word, fulfilling all things, and Himself guiding and ruling upon earth. For He was the Virgin’s first-born, a just and holy man, god fearing, good, well-pleasing to God, perfect in all ways, and delivering from hell all who follow after Him: for He Himself was the first-begotten of the dead, the Prince and Author of life unto God

I appreciate this is not a simple passage and takes a little getting your head around. But I think the argument is quite straightforward.

The reason Jesus came was to save mankind from sin and death and to give life. Now, if Jesus wasn’t born – a genuine human birth – then he did not die a genuine human death. If he didn’t die, then he didn’t rise again, and if he didn’t rise again then he has not destroyed death. If death is not destroyed – then how can we gain eternal life?

Jesus had to become like us in order to save us. That’s the whole point. Jesus had to take upon himself human flesh to bring human flesh to God. Athanasius makes a similar point in On the Incarnation – only a man could identify with mankind and be united with them; only God could bring people to God. In Jesus, the God-man, fully man and fully God, we have the only one who is able to bring mankind to God.

So, this Christmas – and, indeed, all year round – it’s good to rejoice that Jesus was really and truly God, and really and truly human. One carol which does do a lot better in this regard is Once in Royal David’s City (apart from having a quibble with the line ‘Christian children all must be / mild, obedient, good as He’…):

For he is our childhood’s pattern;
Day by day, like us He grew;
He was little, weak and helpless,
Tears and smiles like us He knew;
And He feeleth for our sadness,
And He shareth in our gladness.

Jesus Christ was really human, like us. He knew tears and smiles, he can sympathise with us. This is the message which this beautiful video picks up on:


Hymnology: Dear Lord and Father of mankind

The hymn “Dear Lord and Father of mankind” is one of the UK’s most popular hymns. It is usually (in the UK at least) sung to a brilliant tune (REPTON) and its poetic lyrics capture many people’s imagination. It is a well loved traditional hymn and an established part of our repertoire. But there is one small question I’ve always wrestled with: what do the words actually mean? It’s more than a little puzzling! Is it truthful and helpful for congregations to sing?

One of the interesting things about the hymn is its history. The stanzas of the hymn are taken from a poem by an American Quaker, John Greenleaf Whittier:

Entitled The Brewing of Soma, the poem dealt with various kinds of intoxication – by alcohol, drugs or fanaticism. Soma (a word later used by Aldous Huxley for the feel-good drug in Brave New World) was a sacred drink mentioned in ancient Sanskritic books of Indian religion. Whittier’s poem is prefaced by a quotation from Max Müller, the first professor of philology at Oxford, who had misty racial theories based on these immemorial rites.

Eleven of Whittier’s stanzas preceded the six retained for the hymn. They range over the Vedic hallucinogens, the dance of the Islamic Dervish and the trance of the medieval Christian flagellant.

(You can read the full poem online here – it’s not very long).

It seems that the poem itself is in the context of people inducing ecstatic religious experience by drugs or dancing and so on. In contrast, Whittier – a Quaker – believed that God was to be found in the stillness and quiet. This is fairly common Quaker belief, from the few Quakers I’ve actually talked to! The message seems to be – stop trying to find God in these strange ways, just be still and let God speak to you.

When you see it in that light, the lyrics are understandable. The whole thing is shot through with references to stillness or quiet: “without a word”, “the silence of eternity”, “deep hush”, “tender whisper”, “noiseless”, etc. It’s all about being still and letting God speak in the silence.

The problem is, I’m not sure this is really a very Christian idea. The song mentions Jesus once, where apparently he shared “the silence of eternity” with the Father. Jesus certainly withdrew to pray, although there’s no indication that he withdrew simply to enjoy ‘silence’ with God! The poem also has the line “speak through the earthquake, wind and fire” – a reference to 1 Kings 19, where God was in the small whisper rather than in the more dramatic events. But – God still spoke. You know, words.

The more I think about this hymn the more I dislike it: I disagree with the main idea – that in order to hear God speak you just need to be still. Yes, we don’t need frenzied dancing or drugs to communicate with God. But that doesn’t mean we can dispense with words altogether. (This is the same issue I have with contemplative prayer, although that’s a story for another time).

Sadly, I think – like Love Divine – this hymn should relegated to the history books.

Hymnology: Love Divine and perfectionism

Charles Wesley
Charles Wesley

This morning I read an interesting post on the Church Society blog: Should we stop singing ‘Love Divine’? Charles Wesley is a great hymn writer and Love Divine has always been one of my favourites, but this post did make me reconsider. The goal of this little ‘hymnology’ series is to think about hymns and the theology behind them – and sometimes that might mean taking down a sacred cow. If a hymn expresses theology which is unclear or unhelpful, then it’s probably not a good idea to sing it! We need to be concerned with truth and clarity in our songs as much as we are in preaching.

The post I mentioned above has done a pretty good job of outlining the problem with Love Divine, and I would suggest you read it before carrying on with this one; I just wanted to expand a little on the underlying theology of Charles Wesley. The teaching mentioned in that post is perfectionism – that is, the belief that moral perfection is attainable in this life. In other words, there can be a point in this life when someone is no longer under the power of sin.

John Wesley – Charles’ brother – seemed to teach perfectionism, although it should be noted that he was a man who is quite hard to nail down when it comes to this issue: he would say apparently contradictory things – sometimes he claimed that perfection was attainable, other times he didn’t. And, of course, Charles and John did have their disagreements on various aspects of theology. However, the perfectionism theology evident in Love Divine – in its original form at least – fits quite well with the general holiness movement of the 18th and 19th centuries. The movement believed that moral perfection was attainable when one surrendered all to God. There would be a second blessing of the Holy Spirit, and all of a sudden sin would disappear from your life. Most of this theology was based on a misreading of Romans 6.

What’s interesting about this teaching is that it was for many years mainstream evangelical teaching with the Keswick Convention. Keswick was started by a man named Thomas Dundas Harford-Battersby (brilliant name), who was himself influenced by the teaching of Hannah Pearsall-Smith and others from the holiness movement. The structure of the week, the ‘God-given sequence’, was designed to bring you to a point of surrender to the Holy Spirit and receiving his fullness.

However, it is exactly what happened to Harford-Battersby and others in the holiness movement which should give us serious pause for thought when it comes to perfectionism: many of them struggled with depression because of their sin. If you genuinely think that sin can be completely conquered in this lifetime, then if in your life you find that sin is not conquered – chances are you’re going to be devastated. Having too high an expectation of sanctification will inevitably lead to disappointment.

On the other hand, as the apostle John says, “If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us” (1 John 1:8). The Bible makes it clear that at no point in this life can we claim to be without sin! Sin will be with us for as long as we live on this earth – there will come a day when it is gone, but not yet. We should hope and expect change to happen, of course – otherwise there would be no point in the Christian life at all! – but no-one will ever achieve perfection in this life.

Of course, most people (if not all) don’t have perfectionism in mind when singing Love Divine. I certainly don’t! And, of course, the words that we actually sing are a little different now to the words which Charles Wesley actually wrote. I think when I’ve sung it in church I’ve tended to think about it being looking to the future in a ‘new creation’ sense. But now I look at the words and actually analyse it – I can see how it fits with a ‘second blessing’ / perfectionism theology. Sadly I think the hymn has survived simply because it has some beautiful phrases and is usually sung to a rousing tune – rather than because it is clear and sound theologically. But I think the blog post I mentioned above may be right: perhaps it is time to quietly shelve Love Divine – it’s not as if there are a shortage of decent hymns out there, perhaps it’s time for some others to take the limelight.

Suggestions for good modern or traditional hymns about God’s love welcome!

Just for fun…

Charles Spurgeon was brilliant on perfectionism. Here are a couple of quotes, the first from the man himself and one from a book by David Watson recounting a story about Spurgeon:

One man, who said he was perfect, called upon me once, and asked me to go and see him, for I should receive valuable instruction from him if I did. I said, ‘I have no doubt it would be so; but I should not like to go to your house, I think I should hardly be able to get into one of your rooms.’ ‘How is that?’ he inquired. ‘Well,’ I replied, ‘I suppose that your house would be so full of angels that there would be no room for me.’ He did not like that remark; and when I made one or two other playful observations, he went into a towering rage. ‘Well, friend,’ I said to him, ‘I think, after all, I am as perfect as you are; but do perfect men ever get angry?’ He denied that he was angry, although there was a peculiar redness about his cheeks, and a fiery flash in his eyes, that is very common to persons when they are in a passion.

In the past, when men and women had been blessed by the Spirit (whatever they called it), they sometimes claimed that they were so dead to sin and so full of love that it was no longer possible for them to sin. When the great Baptist preacher Charles Spurgeon heard a man teaching such nonsense at a conference one evening, he poured a jug of milk over the man’s head at breakfast the next morning. By the man’s unholy reaction, the doctrine of sinless perfection was speedily disproved!

Hymnology: Trinitarian Worship

Last year, Andrew Wilson wrote A Songwriting Rant about modern worship songs. He brought a number of charges against contemporary worship songs, but the one which really made me think was the third one:

3. Lack of Trinitarianism. I was at a funeral recently singing “Eternal Father, strong to save” … The entire hymn, Victorian and English though it is, is structured around the Trinity … That sort of thoughtful Trinitarianism, even in hymns which we might dismiss as rather quaint and overly reminiscent of the scene in Titanic, was standard fare for songwriting and liturgy for hundreds of years … Yet the vast majority of modern songs are functionally binitarian or unitarian, and only use generic forms of address (you, God, Lord) as opposed to specific ones (Father, Christ, Jesus, Spirit, etc). If you’ve ever heard people start their prayers with “Yes, Father Lord Jesus, we …”, you’ll know that this phenomenon has got into the evangelical water cycle, and its main way in, I suspect, has been through our songs.

This really struck me at the time, because it was something I think I’d only realised subconsciously before. How many contemporary worship songs glorify God for being triune? I’m not a betting man, but I’d bet that if you went through the latest edition of Songs of Fellowship you wouldn’t find many of those 500 songs talking about the Father, Son and Spirit.

People are confused about the Trinity. This is not surprising: it’s a difficult subject and often one which is avoided for that reason. But those difficulties have not changed over the centuries and yet many of our forebears managed to write hymns and songs which glorified the Trinity.

I was reminded of this recently with the hymn Christ is made the sure foundation. It’s a wonderful ancient hymn (translated from Latin written in the seventh century).The second verse ends with the lines: “God the One-in-Three adoring / in glad hymns eternally.” And the fifth and final verse says:

Praise and honour to the Father,
praise and honour to the Son,
praise and honour to the Spirit,
ever Three and ever One:
one in power and one in glory
while eternal ages run.

Those are wonderful words, which will be familiar to you if you’re used to traditional forms of Anglican worship: Psalms, for example, end with the doxology: “Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit: as it was in the beginning, is now, and shall be forever. Amen.”

Why does all this matter? Why is it so important that we get the Trinity right? Most Christians – and this would have included me until not so long ago – see the Trinity as something intellectual, abstract, removed from the daily Christian life. It’s something which we need to believe to be Christian, but we don’t really think much about it day-to-day. It doesn’t affect how we love God, love other people, etc.

But this is completely the wrong way to look at it. God is good news precisely because God is Trinity. In John 17:3 Jesus says: “Now this is eternal life: that they know you [the Father], the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent.” So eternal life means knowing God. The Christian life is about knowing God – and knowing God is about knowing God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. There is no other way to know God.

Right at the start of Mike Reeves’ book The Good God, he says this:

For it is only when you grasp what it means for God to be a Trinity that you really sense the beauty, the overflowing kindness, the heart-grabbing loveliness of God. If the Trinity were something we could shave off God, we would not be relieving him of some irksome weight; we would be shearing him of precisely what is so delightful about him. For God is triune, and it is as triune that he is so good and desirable.

The Trinity is not some dusty, philosophical doctrine which we grudgingly need to hold on to but is remote from our everyday experience as Christians. It is the beating heart of the Christian faith, the gospel, our everyday experience. Jesus the Son brings us to God the Father, we have access to him in one Spirit.

The Trinity is something which should be celebrated, which should be sung about, which should be better known in our churches! We don’t worship ‘God’ in a generic sense, we worship this God – the one-in-three and three-in-one, the Father, Son and Holy Spirit who has revealed himself to us. What is distinctive about Christian worship is that this is the God we worship – and so our worship music should reflect that.

So my plea and my hope is that more songs will be written which reflect the triune nature of the glorious God we serve – and to that end I’d be pleased to hear from anyone who can recommend modern songs which are good on that front. Please do drop me a line if there are any you can recommend!

Hymnology: The greatest day in history

At Easter time, one of the things I often wonder is why we (and, I should say, I’m very much preaching to myself here) spend so much of the year more or less ignoring the resurrection. We talk about the cross an awful lot of the time, but often we don’t talk so much about the resurrection. I was struck by this over the last few weeks: I’m so used to thinking of Paul resolving to know nothing except Jesus Christ and him crucified (1 Corinthians 2:2) that it’s a bit of a surprise when he talks in a very up-front way about the resurrection.

For example, in Paul’s sermon at the Areopagus in Athens, he says:

‘Therefore since we are God’s offspring, we should not think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone – an image made by human design and skill. In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent. For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to everyone by raising him from the dead.’

I was trying to think how many evangelistic talks I’ve heard which actually talk about the resurrection as proof that God will judge the world with justice through Jesus. Not many, if truth be told. I think we so often focus on the cross that we gloss over the resurrection – but, as Paul says, “if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins” (1 Corinthians 15:17). The resurrection is a vindication of Christ, it is a proof that Christ was who he says he was. The resurrection is the lynchpin of the Christian faith. And it is the proof that he is alive and one day all of us are going to meet him as judge.

“Won’t you please get to the song?”

Sorry! But I just wanted to introduce why I really like this song. I’ve been thinking about it a bit over the past few days, and what Tim Hughes does in the song is combine our sins being washed away with a song focussing on Jesus’ resurrection. In other words, I think it draws together Good Friday and Easter Sunday pretty well.

The lyrics themselves are fairly straightforward, I don’t want to analyse them – but I think I have been thinking this Easter about the profound nature of the resurrection, how it changes everything: if Jesus really did rise from the dead, everything about how we live our lives changes. This life is not all there is – there is a resurrection, hardship today is bearable because of that. Our sins really have been forgiven, our faith is not futile. And the resurrection is a challenge: all of us will one day stand before the risen Lord Jesus as judge. He is the only one who is risen from the dead, no-one else has ever defeated death.

This is what I’ve been thinking about as we’ve sung the lines, “I’ll never be the same / forever I am changed” – the resurrection means that our lives are forever changed.

Alright, this has been less about the song than about a particular thought I’ve had over Easter, but still. I haven’t done one for a while so you’ve got to take what you can get…

This is part of my ‘hymnology’ blog series.

Hymnology: By Faith we see the hand of God

February here at St Mark’s is ‘all-request’ month. People have the opportunity to request a favourite hymn or a song, and we’ll sing them  at services throughout the month.

My request for the month was “By Faith” by Townend and Getty. This is a song which is particularly inspired by the famous chapter 11 of Hebrews, about the ‘heroes of faith’. I chose it because I’ve been thinking a lot about the future recently, and what it means to step out by faith: so often it seems that God leads us down a road where we can’t see everything – we can maybe only see the first step or two. But we are called to take a step out in faith, and trust God that he will lead and guide us.

I thought it would be worthwhile thinking a little bit about “walking by faith and not by sight” in the book of Hebrews. Hebrews was a book which, as far as we can tell, was written to a group of Jewish believers who were in danger of giving up their faith in Christ and going back to the Jewish religion. The reason? They didn’t want to walk by faith – the Jewish religion had the temple and sacrifices and so on – things you could physically see, touch, smell etc.

What the writer to the Hebrews does is demonstrate that what Christians have ‘by faith’ is not only the true heir to what we call the Old Testament – the Hebrew Scriptures – but is actually more real than what we can see currently with our eyes.

In particular, he demonstrates that Christ and what has been accomplished through him is the reality, in a way which the Temple, sacrificial system and the Law could never be:

For Christ did not enter a sanctuary made with human hands that was only a copy of the true one; he entered heaven itself, now to appear for us in God’s presence. Nor did he enter heaven to offer himself again and again, the way the high priest enters the Most Holy Place every year with blood that is not his own. (9:24-25)

The law is only a shadow of the good things that are coming – not the realities themselves. For this reason it can never, by the same sacrifices repeated endlessly year after year, make perfect those who draw near to worship. (10:1)

The earthly tabernacle and temple were not the reality: they were only “a copy” or a “shadow” of what was to come – i.e. Christ. They were only physical reminders to the people of the redemption that God was going to fully accomplish in Christ.

But Christ has come, the reality has come – and obtained “eternal redemption” with his own blood, rather than the blood of bulls and goats. He has not entered into a copy of the true sanctuary, but he has entered into heaven itself and appears for us in God’s presence. That’s an amazing thought!

So we come to chapter 11, where we see this ‘hall of fame’ of those characters from the Old Testament who the writer mentions. He demonstrates that all these characters, far from living lives oriented around what they could see, actually lived lives of faith – trusting patiently in what they could not yet see. Here’s what the writer says about them:

All these people were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance, admitting that they were foreigners and strangers on earth. People who say such things show that they are looking for a country of their own. If they had been thinking of the country they had left, they would have had opportunity to return. Instead, they were longing for a better country – a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them.

All of these characters the writer mentions were looking for something beyond what they could see with their eyes. They were “longing for a better country – a heavenly one”. Their hope for the unseen future controlled what they did in the seen present. They were able to endure hardship and do mighty deeds because they knew that there was more to the world than simply what their eyes could see.

This is really significant for us today: I think it’s so tempting – for me at least – to simply look round at a place and see nothing but the physical. To see nothing but bricks and mortar, and people going about their days with no concern for the eternal. But God calls us to look beyond, to look to the future, to look to the heavenly city which he has prepared for all those who love him. This must control our days, not simply our immediate concerns but God’s concerns. We walk by faith and not by sight.

This is part of my “Hymnology” blog series

Hymnology: And can it be – “My chains fell off…”

Last weekend I travelled down to High Leigh for a residential weekend with my fellow curates in the Chelmsford Diocese. On Friday evening we sang ‘And can it be’, one of my favourite hymns and one of Charles Wesley’s finest (in my opinion). The hymn tells the story of salvation from a first person perspective – it’s written in a very personal style. Like In Christ alone you could spend hours dissecting every verse of the song, but let’s focus on one for now:

Long my imprisoned spirit lay,
Fast bound in sin and nature’s night;
Thine eye diffused a quickening ray—
I woke, the dungeon flamed with light;
My chains fell off, my heart was free,
I rose, went forth, and followed Thee.

Long my imprisoned spirit lay

What do those first two lines mean – “Long my imprisoned spirit lay / Fast bound in sin and nature’s night”? The answer that the Bible gives us that we are held captive by sin. This is what Paul is at pains to demonstrate in his letter to the Romans, throughout the first part of the letter. As he says in Romans 3:23, “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God”. But it’s even more than that: some people say that sin is simply a bad example – we sin because we see other people sin. In other words, there is nothing intrinsically sinful about us – we can choose to do good or evil, and sometimes we choose what is wrong, but basically human beings start out from a neutral perspective.

But the Bible goes further in describing our fallen condition: we don’t start out from a neutral place. There is something inherently sinful about our very nature. This is what Paul says a bit further on in the letter, Romans 6:16-18:

Don’t you know that when you offer yourselves to someone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one you obey – whether you are slaves to sin, which leads to death, or to obedience, which leads to righteousness? But thanks be to God that, though you used to be slaves to sin, you have come to obey from your heart the pattern of teaching that has now claimed your allegiance. You have been set free from sin and have become slaves to righteousness.

We don’t start out from neutral: we are either slaves to sin, or slaves to righteousness. There is no middle ground. Paul is not the only one to use this language – Jesus says in John 8:34, “Very truly I tell you, everyone who sins is a slave to sin.” John says, “If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us” (1 John 1:8). The point is, we are all held captive by sin: there is no way out by ourselves. All of us are, by nature, “fast bound” in sin.

Thine eye diffused a quick’ning ray

And that’s why we need God to step in, as the next line of the hymn goes: “Thine eye diffused a quick’ning ray”. Quickening is a word we don’t use very much these days, but in this sense it means “to give or restore life to”. Although we couldn’t escape slavery to sin by ourselves, nonetheless God stepped in to our situation and made us alive. Paul puts it like this:

As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins, in which you used to live when you followed the ways of this world and of the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient. All of us also lived among them at one time, gratifying the cravings of our flesh and following its desires and thoughts. Like the rest, we were by nature deserving of wrath. But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions – it is by grace you have been saved. Ephesians 2:1-5

Paul describes the state of slavery to sin here as being ‘dead’. Those who are without Christ are “dead in transgressions and sins”. I’m not a doctor, but I do know that one thing dead bodies do not do is come back to life again by themselves! A dead body cannot raise itself. As with our physical bodies, so we who are spiritually dead cannot raise ourselves: but God “who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions“. Salvation is not of our own doing, but from God. He is the one who looks upon our helpless state, and makes us alive – even when we were still dead.

We didn’t make the first move towards God. Because of our sin, we would never make the first move to God – we are so sinful that we would never have chosen Him. Paul is clear that the one who makes the first move is not us, but God: “For he chose us in [Christ] before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight. In love he predestined us for adoption to sonship through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will.” John puts it like this: “This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins” (1 John 4:10).

Without God making the first move towards us, without him sending that “quick’ning ray”, we are dead in our transgressions and sins. But God, who is rich in mercy, makes the first move towards us, he brings us from death to life by his sovereign choice and power.

As I am an Anglican, I think it’s always helpful to look to the 39 Articles to see how Cranmer and our reformation forebears put it. This is what Article X “Of free-will” says:

THE condition of Man after the fall of Adam is such, that he cannot turn and prepare himself, by his own natural strength and good works, to faith, and calling upon God: Wherefore we have no power to do good works pleasant and acceptable to God, without the grace of God by Christ preventing us, that we may have a good will, and working with us, when we have that good will.

This is standard reformation theology, following Augustine. It is impossible to please God without faith (Hebrews 11:6).

breaking_chains_by_midori_vanityMy chains fell off

And so we come to the end of the verse: “My chains fell off, my heart was free / I rose, went forth, and followed Thee”. This describes the response to God, once He has made that first move and stepped in. To continue the quote from Jesus I mentioned earlier, “if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed” (John 8:36). Once God has set us free, we take up our cross and follow Christ – putting to death our flesh with its passions and desires, and seeking to love God and love our neighbour as we walk in step with the Spirit.

Christians have been set free from slavery to sin. That does not mean that Christians do not sin, of course – but that the curse has been lifted. It is no longer our master. Jesus is our master, and his righteousness. And one day we know that the work which God has begun in us will be completed – we will be completely free from sin! This is a great promise for those who are struggling.

May God himself, the God of peace, sanctify you through and through. May your whole spirit, soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. The one who calls you is faithful, and he will do it. 1 Thessalonians 5:23-24

A brief note on free will and predestination…

I appreciate that I haven’t really touched on the thorny subject of predestination in this post. My aim is to return to it in a future post, as it’s a huge topic of which this is only a small part.

However, I think it’s worth reflecting on the words of the 39 Articles here, and with this I will close. Article XVII, Of predestination and election:

As the godly consideration of Predestination, and our Election in Christ, is full of sweet, pleasant, and unspeakable comfort to godly persons, and such as feel in themselves the working of the Spirit of Christ, mortifying the works of the flesh, and their earthly members, and drawing up their mind to high and heavenly things, as well because it doth greatly establish and confirm their faith of eternal Salvation to be enjoyed through Christ, as because it doth fervently kindle their love towards God … we must receive God’s promises in such wise, as they be generally set forth to us in holy Scripture: and, in our doings, that Will of God is to be followed, which we have expressly declared unto us in the Word of God.


This is part of my “Hymnology” blog series.