Julian Freeman

Freed to live through the death of another.

Tag: Hymnody (page 1 of 2)

Modern Hymns for the Church: From Age to Age by Sovereign Grace Music

Sovereign Grace Music has truly blessed the church. Here is an album of modern hymns that I am happy to wholeheartedly recommend. It is called From Age to Age.

Musically speaking, the album is more eclectic than we’re used to from Sovereign Grace. These songs sound distinct from each other and different than previous SGM releases. At first I wasn’t sure what that would mean, since I’ve enjoyed many of Sovereign Grace’s recent albums. But this one stands apart.

Lyrically, this album is rich. The songs glory in the dynamic interplay of God’s transcendence and immanence and the majesty of the eternal God who revealed himself in the suffering servant.

Spiritually and emotionally, this album is gripping and engaging without being cheesy. I am amazed at how well the individual songwriters did at matching the musical elements to the lyrics so that the climactic points of the music serve to make the words even more worship-compelling.

I want you to hear this album so badly I’m embedding it below so you don’t even have to leave the page to hear it.

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Why Does Grace Amaze Christians?

One amazing thing about Christians is that we don’t sing because we like to sing, but because the grace that we have received from God makes us sing. It’s not that we’re commanded to sing, but that we’re compelled to sing.

Grace, rightly beheld, always moves the heart to thankfulness and worship that must be shared. And so we sing.

But what is it that is so amazing to us about grace? Why does it make us sing? Consider these lines from some of the songs we sing:

Amazing grace, how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me!

Alas! And did my Saviour bleed, and did my Sovereign die?
Would he devote that sacred head for such a worm as I?
Was it for sins that I had done he groaned upon the tree?
Amazing pity, grace unknown, and love beyond degree!

He left His Father’s throne above—So free, so infinite His grace—
Emptied Himself of all but love, and bled for Adam’s helpless race:
’Tis mercy all, immense and free, for O my God, it found out me!

Wayne Grudem, in his Systematic Theology defines grace as God’s ‘goodness toward those who deserve only punishment.’ That’s why it’s amazing to us. Before a holy God, with our sinful hearts and deeds exposed we are wretched and helpless — as lowly as a worm. And yet, God has been infinitely good to us.

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Want Some Great Worship Music for Free?

Download ‘The Patika Sessions’ for Free

Joshua Robinson, Lead Worshiper at GFC (Rexdale)

Over Christmas time the Band of Brothers from Grace Fellowship Church (Rexdale), together with some of the members of our worship team recorded, mixed, and produced a CD of worship tunes that we sing in our churches. This a collection of songs and hymns either written or re-written by members of our churches.

We are thrilled to offer the music to you to download for free! Simply click below to download the zip file and enjoy.

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Who Dieth Thus Dies Well

Last night as I was singing to the girls before bed, I decided to sing some older hymns we haven’t done in a while. I sang More Love to Thee and My Jesus I Love Thee and O Sacred Head Now Wounded. As always, it’s a time of worship and contemplation for me as I pray for my girls and hope that the songs will help communicate the gospel to them in meaningful ways as they grow older. It’s just one way I try to speak the gospel to my kids in all of life.

Anyway, as I sang those three hymns, something stuck out to me. All three hymns seamlessly move from the reality of Christ’s finished work to the hope that we have in the face of our own death. These songs sing freely of the unavoidable nature of death, but glory in the hope that we have in the Saviour who has already overcome death.

This is why I love singing hymns: they speak with the freedom of past generations. Our generation doesn’t like to think about death. The church has largely handed over death to doctors and funeral directors and cemeteries. There once was a time when death was an integral part of church life and worship, hence the cemeteries on church property. (Just imagine for a second what it would be like to come to church every week and walk past the grave of family members and church members who had died through the years. That’s a totally different experience than walking into a trendy café type lounge after having your car valet parked. But I digress.)

In any case, death being a part of the cycle of church life and something that people had to face and talk about brought greater freedom and natural impulse to sing about death. It also calls on the worshipper to cling to Christ, feeling the desperation of this life which will inevitably slip away. This is a far cry from singing ‘Yes Lord, yes Lord, yes, yes, Lord…’. I’m so thankful to God for preserving these hymns for our generation. These hymns and those like them provide us with guidance on how to ‘die well’ — a concept almost entirely lost in our day.

More Love to Thee, Elizabeth Prentiss, 1856

Let sorrow do its work, come grief or pain;
Sweet are Thy messengers, sweet their refrain,
When they can sing with me: More love, O Christ, to Thee;
More love to Thee, more love to Thee!

Then shall my latest breath whisper Thy praise;
This be the parting cry my heart shall raise;
This still its prayer shall be: More love, O Christ to Thee;
More love to Thee, more love to Thee!

(Two of four verses. Prentiss wrote this when she was ill and suffering as part of her private devotions. It wasn’t until 13 years later her husband encouraged her to have these words published. Thank God!)

My Jesus, I Love Thee, William Featherston, 1864

I’ll love Thee in life, I will love Thee in death,
And praise Thee as long as Thou lendest me breath;
And say when the death dew lies cold on my brow,
If ever I loved Thee, my Jesus, ’tis now.

(One of four verses. Amazingly, Featherston was 16 at the time he wrote this.)

O Sacred Head Now Wounded, Bernard de Clairvaux, 1153

What language shall I borrow to thank Thee, dearest friend,
For this Thy dying sorrow, Thy pity without end?
O make me Thine forever, and should I fainting be,
Lord, let me never, never outlive my love to Thee.

My Savior, be Thou near me when death is at my door;
Then let Thy presence cheer me, forsake me nevermore!
When soul and body languish, oh, leave me not alone,
But take away mine anguish by virtue of Thine own!

Be Thou my consolation, my shield when I must die;
Remind me of Thy passion when my last hour draws nigh.
Mine eyes shall then behold Thee, upon Thy cross shall dwell,
My heart by faith enfolds Thee. Who dieth thus dies well.

(These are just three of the original 11 verses. Click here to hear Fernando Ortega’s rendition of the hymn.)

Why Singing Hymns is Better than Singing Contemporary Worship Music

Okay, it is time to re-establish some equilibrium in the universe. Sovereign Grace Music is not the only good form of worship, and hymns are most definitely not bad. Anyone who has worshipped with us at GFC knows that we do sing both contemporary worship music and hymns. And yes, that’s a deliberate choice. In my previous post, I tried to emphasize that hymns are not better merely because they are hymns nor because they are older. The best of Christian songs are the best of Christian songs because they focus our hearts and minds most clearly on what God has accomplished for his glory and for our joy in Christ–regardless of when they were written.

That being said, we must immediately recognize that as wonderful as Sovereign Grace Music (and many other contemporary worship composers / leaders) are, they are not the first Christians to be cross-centred, are there are many ways in which singing hymns can be beneficial. Here are just a few reasons why we need to sing older hymns. Feel free to add your own reasons in the comments.

1. Because We Need the Clean Sea Breeze

Here I want to listen to CS Lewis. Below is something he wrote with regard to the value of reading old books. I would argue that the same principle holds true in the songs we sing as Christians, since the songs that we sing are intended to be educational and edifying (Col 3.16).

Naturally, since I myself am I writer, I do not wish the ordinary reader to read no modern books. But if he must read only the new or only the old, I would advise him to read the old…. It is a good rule, after reading a new book, never to allow yourself another new one till you have read an old one in between. If that is too much for you, you should at least read one old one to every three new ones…. We all … need the books that will correct the characteristic mistakes of our own period. And that means the old books…. We may be sure that the characteristic blindness of the twentieth [and to be certain, the twenty-first] century … lies where we have never suspected it…. None of us can fully escape this blindness…. The only palliative is to keep the clean sea breeze of the centuries blowing through our minds, and this can be done only by reading old books.[1]

So while we may glory in some of the advances of reformed evangelicalism in the 21st century, which is producing wonderful new worship songs, we must also be cautious. The ‘characteristic blindness’ of our own age is invisible to us and we will be doomed to be held captive by it unless we’re able to let the centuries of Christians who have gone before us inform us.

Singing old hymns reminds us of the way that our brothers and sisters who have gone before us faithfully testified to and gloried in Jesus in their own day. Singing their hymns helps us see things a little more from their perspective, which helps open our eyes to the subtleties of the 21st century worldview that we would not otherwise be aware of.

2. Because of the Richness of Our History

As Christians, we simply cannot afford to ignore our glorious heritage. Too often we have been told that the history of the church is nothing but shameful. The average Christian can be made to be afraid of church history because ‘we were so bad in the crusades’ and we somehow view the whole realm of church history as belonging to the Roman Catholics (at least until the Reformation). But when we look back, we begin to uncover the treasures of our history that will help us to glory in our God who is Lord of generation after generation throughout all ages.

Take, for example, the ‘Odes of Solomon’ which were written and compiled in the first three centuries AD (either in Greek or Syriac). These worshipful meditations reflect gloriously (though with all the imperfections of non-inspired poetry) on the story of the Christian faith and the love that has been shown to us in Christ.

Look at this brief meditation from Ode 27:

  1. I extended my hands and hallowed my Lord,
  2. For the expansion of my hands is His sign.
  3. And my extension is the upright cross.
    Hallelujah.

So as early as the third century (at the latest) Christians were raising their hands in worship. But it was deliberate: They were making the sign of the cross. The cross wasn’t just the thing they were singing about, they were glorying in it with their bodies as well! We need to glory in the richness of our history, never run away from it in ignorance.

3. Because the Best of Hymns Are Cross-Centred Too

21st century evangelicalism may have invented the cool terminology for being ‘cross-centred’ or ‘gospel-centred’ but the concept is thousands of years old. And that is indeed reflected in the best of hymns from all ages. Take this hymn from Bernard of Clairvaux, written in 1153, for example.

O sacred Head, now wounded, with grief and shame weighed down,
Now scornfully surrounded with thorns, Thine only crown;
How pale Thou art with anguish, with sore abuse and scorn!
How does that visage languish, which once was bright as morn!

What Thou, my Lord, hast suffered, was all for sinners’ gain;
Mine, mine was the transgression, but Thine the deadly pain.
Lo, here I fall, my Saviour! ’Tis I deserve Thy place;
Look on me with Thy favour, vouchsafe to me Thy grace.

My burden in Thy Passion, Lord, Thou hast borne for me,
For it was my transgression which brought this woe on Thee.
I cast me down before Thee, wrath were my rightful lot;
Have mercy, I implore Thee; Redeemer, spurn me not!

What language shall I borrow to thank Thee, dearest friend,
For this Thy dying sorrow, Thy pity without end?
O make me Thine forever, and should I fainting be,
Lord, let me never, never outlive my love to Thee.

My Saviour, be Thou near me when death is at my door;
Then let Thy presence cheer me, forsake me nevermore!
When soul and body languish, oh, leave me not alone,
But take away mine anguish by virtue of Thine own!

Or how about this one, from Isaac Watts, written in 1707:

When I survey the wondrous cross
On which the Prince of glory died,
My richest gain I count but loss,
And pour contempt on all my pride.

Forbid it, Lord, that I should boast,
Save in the death of Christ my God:
All the vain things that charm me most,
I sacrifice them to his blood.

See, from his head, his hands, his feet,
Sorrow and love flow mingled down:
Did e’er such love and sorrow meet,
Or thorns compose so rich a crown?

His dying crimson, like a robe,
Spreads o’er His body on the tree;
Then I am dead to all the globe,
And all the globe is dead to me.

Were the whole realm of nature mine,
That were a present far too small;
Love so amazing, so divine,
Demands my soul, my life, my all.

Singing these hymns and hundreds of others like them not only points us to Christ, but unites us with brothers and sisters from past centuries, with whom we will one day worship forever.

4. Because Words Matter

There are many exceptions to this, so I say it with all the necessary qualifications in place, but I still think it’s worth point out. The form of hymns often tends to better use of English. The form, metre, and length of hymnstend to increase the demand for highly-skilled writing by those with a high level of poetic ability. For that reason, hymns are often better able to encapsulate more truth through more words in better and more memorable images. Not always, but often.

Speaking personally, when I sing to my children each night when I put them to bed, it is generally hymns that I sing, and it is generally for this last reason. I want them to hear more truth in poetic images and rhymes that they will remember into adulthood–truth that I pray God will cause to sink into their hearts and cause them to love the God of the gospel that we’re singing about.

——–

[1] C.S. Lewis, from God in the Dock. As quoted in John Piper’s Brother’s, We Are Not Professionals, 69-70.

Why Singing Music from Sovereign Grace is Better Than Singing Hymns

I also thought about titling this post: Why Stephen Altrogge is better than William Cowper. I decided against that one, though.

In case you haven’t noticed yet, both the title and that first sentence are said with tongue firmly planted in cheek. But I will say, however, that I do agree with those statements, in a qualified sense. Let me try to defend that by way of example and comparison.

First, here is a classic hymn by Cowper–some have even suggested this is the greatest hymn of all-time!

God moves in a mysterious way
His wonders to perform;
He plants His footsteps in the sea
And rides upon the storm.

Deep in unfathomable mines
Of never failing skill
He treasures up His bright designs
And works His sovereign will.

Ye fearful saints, fresh courage take;
The clouds ye so much dread
Are big with mercy and shall break
In blessings on your head.

Judge not the Lord by feeble sense,
But trust Him for His grace;
Behind a frowning providence
He hides a smiling face.

His purposes will ripen fast,
Unfolding every hour;
The bud may have a bitter taste,
But sweet will be the flower.

Blind unbelief is sure to err
And scan His work in vain;
God is His own interpreter,
And He will make it plain.

I love this hymn. Especially in the context of Cowper’s life. It’s ministered to me huge at a number of points in my life.

That being said, I think the song could be improved. The reality is that the Bible tells us over and over (in narrative, in poetry, in apocalypse, everywhere!) that God moves in mysterious ways. But in Scripture, this always points us to the greatest mystery: the cross & resurrection of Jesus. The hymn never takes us there.

The ‘vindication’ of God’s wisdom and trustworthiness in the midst of what appears to be defeat is the cross. There should be another verse drawing us to the reality of God’s mysterious workings, as shown in the cross, the climax of all God’s revelation.

Now compare Cowper’s classic to a modern song by Sovereign Grace Music on the same theme, by Stephen Altrogge: (© 2002 Sovereign Grace Praise [BMI])

Who can comprehend
Your holy ways O Lord?
Your glorious power without end
From which the stars were born
How could we ever understand
The moving of Your hand?
How could we ever come to grasp
The One who never began?

Oh, what a glorious mystery You are
Oh, what a glorious mystery You are
Though we only see in part
You’ve completely won our hearts
Oh, what a glorious mystery You are

Who can comprehend
Your gracious mercy Lord
Great loving kindness that would send
A Saviour to be born?
Why would you, Jesus, die for us
Who cursed Your perfect name?
Why would You come to reconcile
Those who caused Your shame?

There are many similarities: both songs focus on the mysterious nature of God’s character and God’s works. Both songs glory in God’s sovereignty over all things.

But there are differences too. Frankly, I don’t think Altrogge could match Cowper’s poetic ability. Cowper’s turns of phrase and gripping metaphors are breath-taking and illuminating. But here’s why I’d rather sing Stephen’s song: He glories in the climax of Scripture and points us to the ultimate reason why we can trust a God who seems mysterious; he points us to the cross.

And which is more important? Where will a Christian find true comfort and solace in the midst of suffering or guilt or distraction or despair? In poetic imagery or in simply being reminded of God’s love for him displayed in the death of Jesus?

The reason why I continue to love Bob Kauflin, the Altrogges, and all the folks at Sovereign Grace Music is not because they are the best lyricists or musicians of all time. It is because they faithfully, time-after-time, give us song-after-song that points us to the revelation of God in the cross. And that’s what God loves! And that’s what Christians need.

All that to say, I am super-fantastically excited for the release of Risen coming up in a few days. If I’m certain of anything, it is this: Every song will make much of what God has done for us in Jesus.

And what could possibly be better to sing about?

Why we don’t see answers to prayer

Tim Challies recently posted some reasons why God will not answer our prayers. About the same time I was wondering about unanswered prayer and got to thinking that perhaps much of what we call unanswered prayer is really prayer that we simply don’t see answered. The reasons for this could be legion, but here’s one that stuck out to me: Many times we don’t know what we’re praying for, or what the answer will look like.

Our church recently held a ‘week of prayer.’ In one of the meetings we focused on prayers of contrition as a theme, emphasizing our absolute dependence on God for all things. In our last meeting we prayed prayers of dedication to God, committing our future plans and ministry hopes to him to do with as he sees fit. In both of these cases many prayers were offered to God, begging him to keep us humble and to demolish pride in all its subtle forms in our hearts.

That got me to thinking.

Those are wonderful and biblical things to pray! But how do we know when those prayers have been answered? Sometimes I think we expect God to answer those prayers by simply changing our hearts overnight so that we never are tempted to pride again. But that’s not a biblical expectation.

What is a more likely answer to that prayer? It’s more likely that God will bring hardships or persecution. He may allow me to fall into some sort of sin, or else have some secret sin in my heart exposed before others. It is in these types of ways that God strips us of our self-reliance and our sinful, blind desire for and pride in autonomy. Pride is too deeply ingrained in our personalities, thought processes, and decision-making capacities for us to deal with it any other way.

How can we put pride to death when we don’t know where it is?

Looking back over my life I can see that many times God has answered my prayers in ways that I have not expected. More often than not when I sincerely pray for humility and for the Lord to destroy sin in my life, that prayer is answered with suffering or the exposure of sin in my heart. The trouble is that since I wasn’t expecting this as an answer to prayer, I don’t see it as one at the time, and then I get upset and cry out, ‘Why would you let this happen to me, God?’

But it’s all grace. He gives grace in the trial, he gives grace for increased faith, he gives grace as he humbles us so that we might increasingly depend on him in love.

This is just one example, but I think it illustrates the point well. From our end prayers often seem to go unanswered. I wonder if often we are just looking for the wrong type of answer.

Just for fun, here’s an awesome hymn by John Newton that illustrates the same point:

I asked the LORD that I might grow
In faith, and love, and every grace;
Might more of his salvation know,
And seek, more earnestly, his face.

‘Twas he who taught me thus to pray,
And he, I trust, has answered prayer!
But it has been in such a way,
As almost drove me to despair.

I hoped that in some favoured hour,
At once he’d answer my request;
And by his love’s constraining pow’r,
Subdue my sins, and give me rest.

Instead of this, he made me feel
The hidden evils of my heart;
And let the angry pow’rs of hell
Assault my soul in every part.

Yea more, with his own hand he seemed
Intent to aggravate my woe;
Crossed all the fair designs I schemed,
Blasted my gourds, and laid me low.

LORD, why is this, I trembling cried,
Wilt thou pursue thy worm to death?
“‘Tis in this way, the LORD replied,
I answer prayer for grace and faith.

These inward trials I employ,
From self, and pride, to set thee free;
And break thy schemes of earthly joy,
That thou may’st find thy all in me.”

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