Julian Freeman

Freed to live through the death of another.

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?

20 Comments

  1. Wow thanks for the props. I think that you may be one of two people in the world who would rather sing me than Cowper. Thanks!

  2. Aside from recoiling from the horror of your title (tongue in cheek here as well), I wonder, then, what Cowper means by "Mercy" in v. 11 or "Grace" in v. 14. Or what "unbelief" looks like if the cross isn't assumed by this hymn. The purpose of "Light Shining Out of Darkness" isn't the salvation-historical unveiling of the mystery of Jesus. Rather, as I know you know, it is trusting in God's sovereign, mysterious providence during trials (of which Cowper suffered many). Your comparison with "Glorious Mystery" is off as that's not the right theme. Also, doesn't SGM do this as well? What about "Every Day," a song about trials (and better compared with the Cowper hymn)? No explicit mention of the cross there!
    I'm also quite hesitant to divorce the medium from the message. While I have no problem with simple or repetitious choruses, I do think that words like Cowper's match the transcendent value of the gospel in an unmatchable way (aside from inspired writings!). Cowper's hymns are brilliant in the respect for the English language, sublime in their descriptions of God, deeply theological, and come from a store-house of experience. While I love SGM ("Glorious Mystery" was the first I ever sung, at GFC, and it blew me away) they don't hold a candle to the greats like Cowper, Watts, Newton, Steele, etc in terms of lyrics, metre, sublimity, etc.
    So, that said, I conclude with a choral "raspberry" from both Jack and myself: "PPFFFFFFFTTTTTTTT!!!!!!!!"

    • Julian

      14 March, 2011 at 12:57 pm

      Ian,

      Obviously the title is meant to grab your attention. No one here thinks we should sing exclusively one over the other. What I'm hoping to get across is that simply singing using biblical themes veiled in poetic images isn't enough. We need to focus our hearts on the cross. What biblical theme doesn't find it's fulfillment there? Where do the New Testament authors focus our hearts when we need assurance of God's wrath, justice, love, mercy, providence, etc.?

      What I'm hoping to communicate is that what makes a song good for Christians to sing isn't beautiful poetry alone, but faithfulness to major on the majors. Does every song need to talk about the cross? No, obviously not. But they're better if they do. 🙂

      Ian, you're a theologian and a historian. You know Cowper's life and theology. You know what he means by 'grace' and 'mercy' and various other terms. This hymn is glorious, then, for your private meditations and devotions. But what Joe Christian needs as he worships is to be pointed again and again with relentless force back to the cross. That's what the Bible does, and so that's what our worship music should do at its best.

      • Oh come on, I've heard you expressly say that all songs pre-2004 shouldn't be sung (including SGM ones), and it came down through the grapevine to me that you believe that all forms of poetry is satanic (except for the ones you deem okay). I've even heard the rumour that you were planning to make the services at GFCE hip-hop oriented but you haven't found a live drummer yet. It's enough to make me go exclusive psalmody.

  3. Good post, Julian. I have profited much from the Cross-centeredness of the folks over at SovGrace Music. Wasn't aware they had a new album coming out.

  4. For many years, we've said at our Church that we have two non-negotiable standards in our music: Singing Biblically faithful lyrics led by faithful followers of Christ. I recently posted about the big change of focus regarding worship in the almost 30 years I've been in pastoral ministry. While it had much to do with hymns vs. contemporary, the word worship became the buzz word and lost the fullness of its Biblical meaning. If interested:
    http://thinkpoint.wordpress.com/2011/02/20/worshi

    • "Singing Biblically faithful lyrics led by faithful followers of Christ." Amen. Beautiful. The thing I love about this standard is that it has nothing to do with style or "class" of song. Doesn't matter if the preferred format is hymns, choruses, modern songs, whatever – any style can fit in to this description.

  5. David Urbinati

    18 March, 2011 at 1:38 pm

    I would agree that Sovereign Grace Music puts out great Christ centered and Christ honoring lyrics but would not agree that the music of Sovereign Grace is better. An issue I have with the musical style of Sovereign Grace is that the music tries to be much to contemporary with the time in which it was written resulting in the music not have a timeless nature. This can even be seen and admitted by Bob Kauflin himself in hosting the recent King of Grace competition to rewrite the songs on the album recorded only ten years ago because the arrangements had become out dated. As soon as a certain sound or style becomes "cool" Sovereign Grace will use it and then drop it when it's no longer so. The goal of any song swriter should first be to honor Christ but then not serve the needs of a contemporary society by writing musical arrangements that sound like every other secular song on the radio. Rather, I believe that the musical arrangement should fit the lyrics and be written with them in mind. Keys, chord progressions, modulations, melodies, etc. following the message of the song. Admittedly, there are several hymns whose musical melodies and chord progressions are not very good, but there are several that we sing today which are timeless hundreds of years later. In order to make lasting contributions to the Christian music library, a music writer's focus should be on writing good music that will long out last the era in which it was written. Let me say now though that I strongly appreciate what Sovereign Grace has done in and for the Christian music community. No other group really does what SG does. We sing several SG songs at my church that I love and some I will always love, but writting timeless music does not seem to be the norm for SG.

    Humbly,
    David

  6. I agree with you Julian– in many, many cases, a Sovereign Grace or Getty or other new song or hymn is a superior choice to an older hymn. Cowper was, of course, a poet, and a poem, even one written by a Christian, can have a different intent than a hymn. There are, of course, older hymns that meet the criteria of a good hymn very well: A Mighty Fortress, On Christ the Solid Rock, etc. Which brings up another point, which is that some of the older hymns have less impact than the lyrics deserve because of their dated melodies or arrangements… which brings us back to the value of the newer hymns and songs. Looking forward to the second article Tim linked to with which I plan to vociferously agree.

  7. I attend a Sovereign Grace church, and, while I appreciate their music, I must humbly disagree. It is true that the lyrics are often wonderful, but I find that hymns are just as rich, if not richer, in their focus on the Cross, and also just SOUND better. Sovereign Grace songs all start to sound similar after awhile.

    • Julian

      18 March, 2011 at 4:45 pm

      Hi Carly,

      One of the things I love about Sovereign Grace is that they're devoted to singing hymns and other music besides their own as well. The first Sovereign Grace CD I ever bought was 'Upward: The Bob Kauflin Hymn Project'. And then I really loved the recent (free!) release of hymns re-recorded for the church by Covenant Life Church (https://noisetrade.com/covlife).

      They are cross-centred enough to know that there is a need for great worship music which points us to the cross, but humble enough to realize that they're not the only ones who have done this (and are doing this).

  8. I am thankful to God for SGM – the lyrics are up to date and understandable. Unfortunately – some classics have been ruined melodically and rhythmically. This tends to confuse things up for people who grew up with the original. When SGM's new melody isn't memorable, there is a lack of remembrance of the song altogether. I think there's good reason and warrant to let the classics who have stood the test of time to be left with their original melodies. Re-shaping those which have been forgotten but have rich lyrics should definitely be redone. But let the classic hymns live-on.
    e.g.> Hallelujah What a Saviour (Man of Sorrows); When I Survey (the Wondrous Cross); Rock of Ages (""); Alas, And Did My Saviour Bleed ("")

  9. just sing the Psalms and end the argument. Its for very reasons like these that bring the uninspired songs into dispute and doubt while at corporate worship that our forefathers in Calvin and the Puritans instituted Exclusive Psalmody. I see Christ in the Psalms much better and brighter than a hundred thousand contemporary songs with the stamp "Jesus" on them that truly sink my soul.

    • Well given almost half the Psalms are songs of lament, I think we ought to be a little broader than that. It would be interesting to sing an imprecatory Psalm – not sure it's been done.

  10. Not every hymn must refer to the cross, but if you want an added stanza to "God moves in a mysterious way," try this one:
    The Father's ways will all unfold
    And merge at last in one:
    His ransomed church will shine as gold
    And glorify the Son.

    That stanza's from me, not from Cowper, but if his or mine are worthwhile, they're really from the Lord.

  11. I went to a Sovereign Grace church for a year. My family has been pretty connected with them. I do like a lot of their music. But…. does every single song have to talk explicitly about the Cross for it to be a wonderful song? No! Yes, we should be pointed to the Cross, yes, it is central to the Christian life… but mentioning it in detail in every song can be overkill. Gasp. It is even sometimes, gasp, annoying. There are so many wonderful aspects of God's character and behavior and grace to explore. The cross undergirds all of them, and Christians know this. It isn't an insult to Christ's sacrifice to come at it subtly from different angles. Sovereign Grace music has to lot to recommend it, but it doesn't have the lyrical power of many of the old hymn writers. And that's my two cents. =)

  12. I’ve learned to enjoy Hymns (which were in fact, new at one time) – as well as more recent compositions (which some call merely ‘contemporary’ – I guess time will tell?). What I have enjoyed so much about this discussion – having just discovered it, 9 months after it was written – was how much I agree with you all.

    Both in that, there are Alzheimer’s patients that remember Gospel music of their youth – but also – that “New Every Morning, Great is Your Faithfulness” – NEW music is in fact created all the time, to describe the Wonder, Glory, and Awesomeness of The Creator of All Things. “When we’ve been there 10,000 years” – I love Amazing Grace – but after 10,000 years, we’ve no less days to Sing NEW SONGS about God’s Grace…

    Heaven is going to be Fun, Awesome, more Amazing than any of us can Imagine – each of us individually will be able to Sing New Songs – Our Creator God (who created new and wonderful things) – has unlimited Creativity, as will we.

    I’m thrilled to know, and am brought to tears about the Amazing Love that God has for us, when I hear it expressed in New ways. I’m almost suggesting that “old hymns” can become a “well-worn rut” – where we mindlessly chant the words to a tune that we’ve sung hundreds of times since our youth. I do still enjoy some of the old hymns (particularly when we’re given the opportunity to actually sing ALL that the author originally wrote). But, when I hear something unusual, something different, I’m required to pay attention, to actually read the words – and to decide on the spot whether or not I agree with them.

    With SG’s Music, I’m frequently blown away with the same truth that I’ve always known, expressed in a new way – which in our own tiny way, mimics our Creator’s Creativity.

    I sometimes like the new car; explore the glovebox, the buttons on the ceiling, the handling, the smell. But, I also like the trusted and well-known handling and performance of my 15-year old car, which after 200K miles, faithfully and reliably carries me to work each day. I like them both, and I revel in God’s creativity, as I do in his giving us a little creativity in worshiping Him.

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