“Nice People Don’t Sing About Damnation.” – Part I

Imagine this:
It’s Sunday evening, the church is full of cheerful, carefree 20-somethings just settling down for some good spiritual nourishment, the preacher is wearing his best pair of chinos and a warm summer sun is streaming through the stained-glass windows. The leader of the service calls everyone to order, a happy, expectant hush descends on the congregation, and all eyes swivel in your direction as you strike up the band for the opening hymn:

Sinner, art thou still secure?
Wilt thou still refuse to pray?
Can thy heart or hands endure
In the Lord’s avenging day!

See, his mighty arm is bared!
Awful terrors clothe his brow!
For his judgment stand prepared,
Thou must either break or bow.

At his presence nature shakes,
Earth affrighted hastes to flee;
Solid mountains melt like wax,
What will then become of thee?

Who his advent may abide?
You that glory in your shame,
Will you find a place to hide
When the world is wrapped in flame?

And so on, for another four verses…

What would be the scene after the service? Perhaps you’d escape with no more than a few raised eyebrows and polite murmurs of “Interesting song choice…” Or perhaps you’d be lynched by an enraged horde of congregants waving pitchforks and baying for your resignation. Have you planned your escape route? Would you hide behind the drumkit, or lock yourself inside the organ until the maelstrom abates?

Maybe your church wouldn’t bat an eyelid, but I doubt that most of us could even imagine suggesting this hymn as an option, let alone actually singing it.

In which case, how about this suggestion – same author, published the same year:

Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound
That saved a wretch like me.
I once was lost, but now am found,
Was blind, but now I see.

I’m guessing that’s a slightly safer choice. No need to pitchfork-proof the organ loft for that one. After all, “Amazing Grace” is now possibly the most well-known and popular hymn of all time, whereas “Sinner, art thou still secure?” hasn’t made it into a hymn book since 1928.

But it made it into plenty of hymn books before then. In fact, for the first 30 years, “Sinner, art thou” and “Amazing Grace” were equally popular with hymnal compilers. So what’s changed? If you were to ask your average pitchfork-wielder, they would probably point out that 1779 was a long time ago… and in these enlightened times, Nice People Don’t Sing About Damnation.

Now, I’m not saying we should necessarily bring ‘Sinner art thou’ back into the repertoire, but I’d like to suggest that this attitude – that it’s just not nice to sing about certain things – is very dangerous, and something which needs to be addressed. In fact, I’d go so far as to suggest that if we are not regularly singing about God’s righteous judgement of the wicked then we are not being fully obedient to the Lord who saved us from it.

Of course, we need to do it carefully, and we’ll consider the “how” in the next post. In this post I’d like to concentrate solely on the “why”, because I suspect we all – me included – need a fair bit of persuasion on this.

So, without further ado:

Why should we sing about judgement?

This, of course, depends entirely on why we think we should sing at all.
So let’s ignore the musical aspect for now, take a step further back, and ask: why we should even talk about judgement?

The simplest answer has to be: because God does – and we’re not at liberty to censor his words.
1: God commands us to speak the whole truth.

It is clear throughout the Bible that God expects his words to be relayed in full. There is never any suggestion that his chosen spokespeople were entitled to leave out the tricky bits:

● Moses was repeatedly instructed to “speak all that I command you” (eg Exodus 7:2).
● The Levitical priesthood was commanded to “teach the people of Israel all the statutes that the LORD has spoken to them by Moses.” (Leviticus 10:11)
● Jeremiah is told to “Stand in the court of the LORD’s house, and speak to all the cities of Judah that come to worship in the house of the LORD all the words that I command you to speak to them; do not hold back a word.” (Jeremiah 26:2).
● When God promises to send another priest like Moses, we learn that he will have God’s words in his mouth, “and he shall speak to them all that I command him.” (Deuteronomy 18:18)
● Christ fulfils this prophecy: “The father who sent me has himself given me a commandment – what to say and what to speak.” (John 12:49).
● The Spirit is similarly described: “When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all truth, for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak.” (John 16:13)
● It’s still there right at the end of the Bible: “If anyone takes away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God will take away his share in the tree of life and in the holy city.” (Revelation 22:19)
● Teaching the whole truth is intrinsic to being a Christian: Jesus commands us all – every Christian – to make disciples of all nations, “teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.” (Matthew 28:20)

This last point, in particular, leaves us utterly unable to justify remaining silent on the difficult issues like judgement and hell. Jesus repeatedly taught about hell. If he had remained silent, he would have been disobeying the Father. If we remain silent, we will be disobeying Jesus.

Unlike this blog post, which has been through about twenty redrafts, when God speaks, his words are not to be edited.

2: Speaking the whole truth means singing the whole truth.

That’s why we should talk about judgement. But why sing about it?
As I mentioned, that depends on our understanding of why we sing at all, and if any issue is going to drag our theology of music out into the open, it’s this one. If we have any lurking notions, even subconsciously, that fuzzy warm feelings are a crucial ingredient of “worship”, then songs like “Sinner, art thou still secure?” will never make it onto our radar. Nothing kills the mood quite so effectively as contemplating the fate of the non-Christian on Judgement Day.

On the other hand, if we share the Apostle Paul’s understanding of music – that it is a tool, to enable the word of Christ to dwell in us richly (Colossians 3:16) – then we should be willing to sing anything that Jesus taught as truth, however uncomfortable and upsetting those truths may be.

Why sing about judgement?
Because God commanded Christ to teach his disciples about it; Christ commanded his disciples to teach the whole world about it; and Paul commanded us to bed that teaching down by singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs.

Hopefully we can now start to see the problem with the “I don’t want to sing about that” attitude: it’s indicative of a trajectory that finds its ultimate expression in the outright suppression of the truth:

“I don’t want to sing about that” basically means “I don’t want to dwell on that”.
“I don’t want to dwell on that” is not far from saying “I don’t want to be taught about that”.
“I don’t want to be taught about that” certainly implies “I will never teach about that.”

Truth suppressed.

When whole doctrines start to go missing from our singing, we need to sit up and worry, because there is a tight symbiosis between what we sing and what we believe.

What happens if we don’t sing about judgement?

Hopefully we can see that erasing judgement from our musical repertoire constitutes a dereliction of our Christian duty. Before we finish, let’s consider some of the implications of this dereliction. What happens if we don’t sing about judgement?

1: We invite wolves to devour the flock.

Paul’s final speech to the elders of Ephesus, recorded for us in Acts 20, shows how seriously he took the command to teach the whole truth: “I testify to you today that I am innocent of the blood of all of you, for I did not shrink from declaring to you the whole counsel of God.” (Acts 20:26-27). Knowing that he’ll never see them again, he reminds them of this, and entrusts them to God’s words, and commands them to keep a close watch on themselves and the Christians in their care. Why? Because of this: “I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them.” (Acts 20:29-30)

Cling to the truth, says Paul, because the false teachers are coming.

Clinging to truth, as we’ve said, means singing the truth. Paul makes this link explicit when he writes to the very same Ephesian church a few years later, instructing them to “address one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs” (Ephesians 5:19). The context for that command? “Let no one deceive you with empty words…” (Ephesians 5:6)… “Look carefully then how you walk…” (5:15)… “because the days are evil” (5:16)…
The days are evil, the wolves are out there, they will trip you if they can, so sing the truth to each other.

Perhaps all this crying of “wolf” is a little hard to take seriously, but we need to remember that Christianity is not a happy bubble of goodness floating in a sea of neutrality; there are no neutral waters – people are either for, or against, Christ. The church is constantly under siege. The truth is our defensive wall, and singing is one of the crucial ways we reinforce it. When we declare a certain truth to be too unpalatable for song, we’re surrendering guardianship of that truth to the deceitful elements of the world, in effect putting up a giant neon “Entrance” sign to the enemy. The wolves are out there, looking for the chink in our defences, and where we won’t listen to the music of Christ’s words, our itching ears provide a soft, warm welcome for them. Going silent on a doctrine is just the first step – inevitably, the silence will be filled by their lies.

In recent years, for example, we’ve seen the doctrine of penal substitution and the doctrine of hell come under such attack that it has become possible for preachers to gain large popular followings by openly ridiculing them. People listened to their words because they were spoken into a silence that was once filled with songs like this:

The ungodly, filled with guilty fears,
behold his wrath prevailing;
for they shall rise and find their tears
and sighs are unavailing:
the day of grace is past and gone;
trembling they stand before his throne,
all unprepared to meet him.

(William Bengo Collyer, 1812)

Evangelical Christianity’s faithfulness to these doctrines is under attack both from within and without, and where we are under attack, of course, is where we need the most reinforcement.

What this means is that the truths which we find the hardest to accept are precisely those truths which we should be singing the loudest about.

This somewhat counter-intuitive fact reveals one of the great dangers of the charismatic “singing for the buzz” culture – if we’re singing for our own enjoyment, we’ll steer well clear of the points of attack. The instant the wall starts crumbling, we will withdraw all support from it. We turn our backs to the enemy the moment he gets a foothold, and pretty soon the wolves are devouring the flock.

We sing to keep the wolves at bay.

2: We drive a wedge between the piano and the pulpit.

In some conversations I’ve had with lovely, well meaning Christians, I’ve heard the view that it’s okay to preach on judgement, it’s just not okay to sing about it. But if we pursue the idea that certain parts of the Bible are out of bounds to the singing, we end up asserting that there are two categories of truth – teachable truths and singable truths. Which instantly poses the problem: how, exactly, do we decide where to draw the line? The Bible can’t help us with this, since it makes no such distinction itself, so the only answer I can see is that we let our culture determine what makes for singable truths. We naturally want to sing the songs that jar the least with our worldview.

The trouble with this, as we’ve said, is that our culture is not neutral – and yet we’ve just set it up as a rival authority to the Bible. We’ve created a situation whereby it is possible for the congregation to be listening to two contrasting voices – the voice of the preacher, and the voice of the songs. Hopefully both voices will be teaching truth; but while the preacher will be teaching those aspects of truth prescribed by the Bible passage, the songs will be teaching those aspects of truth prescribed by our culture. And what is the congregation most likely to be humming in the shower the following morning?

The Bible is shockingly countercultural, and the preacher’s difficult task is to encourage his hearers to keep clambering out of the deep groove that culture has established. If we muffle his message by cushioning it in the soothingly familiar subset of truth that culture currently approves of, then we risk lulling our flock back into the groove just when we should be lighting the fires underneath them. The preacher tries to wake them up; we send them back to sleep.

3: We give the enemy the keys to our armoury.

Note that the songs could still be good, sound, Biblical, true. We’ve not let culture write the songs – but we have let it choose them. We’ve given the enemy a significant advantage: we’ve let him dictate the weapons we use in our fight against him. There may be nothing wrong with the weapons themselves, but imagine a game of Rock Paper Scissors in which you allow your opponent to choose your move for you. A five year old playing for marbles wouldn’t fall for that – so why would we, with eternal destinies on the line?

We need to let the Bible dictate what we sing about each week, even if that means singing the hard truths. Especially if that means singing the hard truths. It’s the only safe way to keep the anti-Christian culture in which we live from taking control of our meetings.

Final thoughts for songwriters

Each culture has its own points of dispute with Christian doctrine. None of the arguments I’ve raised have been specific to the issue of singing about judgement. It happens that, in our culture, we currently find it deeply distasteful to sing about God’s wrath; other cultures may have other no-go areas.

What I hope we’ve seen is that we need a repertoire of songs which is diverse enough to allow us to sing the full counsel of God. In particular we need sound, singable, unflinching songs that proclaim and meditate on exactly those truths which are most reviled and disputed by the culture we find ourselves in. With this aim in mind, I think it’s fair to say that the hymnals of the 18th Century hit a lot closer to the mark than the songbooks of the 21st. But why should we have to return to the hymn books whenever the difficult truths come up? No wonder people find hymns depressing these days! Where are modern equivalents?

We’re perhaps not being overly realistic if we are waiting for our top popular Christian songwriters to produce them. Praise the Lord for faithful, talented lyrists like Stuart Townend, who has dug in his heels and refused to change the infamous “wrath of God” line from “In Christ Alone”, despite repeated pressure to do so. But given the amount of controversy he faces over just one couplet in one verse, is it fair to expect him to commit career suicide by penning the 21st Century equivalent of “Sinner, art thou still secure?” for us? Perhaps it is, and perhaps he will, but in the meantime maybe those of us with less to lose are better placed to start filling the gaps.

So, songwriters, here’s your challenge – here’s how John Newton expressed it in another hymn in 1803:

Stop, poor sinners! Stop and think
before you farther go!
Will you sport upon the brink
of everlasting woe?
Once again I charge you stop!
For unless you warning take,
ere you are aware, you drop
into the burning lake!

How would you express it now?

In the next post we’ll look (much more briefly!) at some more practical concerns – when and how should we sing about judgement?

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This Post Has One Comment

  1. Margaret Elward

    Yes we should sing about the whole council of God.
    Might make people stop and think about judgement to come.
    There are too many new hymns with no Christian doctrine

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