Singing the Truth: Theology and Hymns

Phoebe Palmer was traveling on Lake Erie when a sudden storm threatened the ship. When she and her companions broke into song, a fellow passenger called out, “There are Methodists here!”

Unhappy with his church’s singing, Henry Ward Beecher exhorted, “How I long for the good old Methodist thunder!” Methodists were famous for their singing. Methodist worship, Methodist class meetings, even Methodist funerals were marked by their singing. Methodists started singing in the early meetings of the Holy Club; true Methodists have never stopped singing! 

Church musicians are sometimes caricatured as being uninformed about theology. Sadly, this caricature is sometimes deserved. Unlike an earlier day when hymn texts were usually written by pastors, today’s texts are often written by musicians with little or no theological training.

However, thankfully, the caricature is often false. There are great hymns available from all eras of church history, including the present day, that teach sound theology. Unfortunately, these hymns are not always used to their best effect. Some pastors assume that church music serves little function beyond entertaining the congregation until the real meat arrives — in the form of a three-point outline. Others recognize the role of church music in worship, but think of the “worship experience” primarily as emotional expression with little need for serious theological content. Either approach misses an opportunity for proclaiming truth in a memorable fashion.

Mark Noll has argued that “evangelicalism at its best is the religion displayed in the classic evangelical hymns” (2000:1). In his study, he illustrates the unanimity of classic hymnody on the essential doctrines of evangelicalism. Noll’s observations suggest that hymnody can play a valuable role in the theological education of laymen. This paper will examine the theological content of some representative hymnody, recognize the role of hymns in teaching theology, and suggest means for improving our use of hymns for teaching theology. 

The Theological Content of Hymns

In his commentary on Romans, John R. Stott observes: 

… theology (our belief about God) and doxology (our worship of God) should never be separated. On the one hand, there can be no doxology without theology. It is not possible to worship an unknown God. 

… On the other hand, there should be no theology without doxology. There is something fundamentally flawed about a purely academic interest in God. … true knowledge of God will always lead us to worship…. Our place is on our faces before him in adoration (1994: 311-312). 

The best hymnody includes both heartfelt doxology and sound theology. Alister McGrath writes, “…the heartbeat of evangelicalism is Christ-centered piety – a sense of wonder and excitement that there is something here that is profoundly worth having and that relativizes and overshadows everything. This leads to worship, adoration, and the writing of hymns rather than theological textbooks” (Noll & Thiemann, 2000, 52). I would prefer, “This leads to worship, adoration, and the writing of hymns in addition to theological textbooks,” but his essential point is sound.

Our hymns and our textbooks should show both adoration and theological reflection. Hymns provide a voice for doxological praise to God; they also provide a voice for theological instruction about God.

The Hymnody of the Bible 

This combination of doxology and theology is seen in the hymns of the Bible. The book of Psalms, the hymnbook of the Old Testament, includes both praise to God and instruction about God. As Israel sang the Psalms, they learned who God was and how He acted in human history. 

Read, for example, Psalm 136. As Hebrew worshipers sang this Psalm, they learned 

who God is (136:1-3);
how God revealed Himself in creation (136:4-9);
how God revealed Himself in Israel’s history (136:10-22);
and what God is doing today for His people (136:23-26). 

Psalm 136 was both a great doxological hymn and a profound theological statement on the nature of God. 

Early Christian worship included hymns such as the kenosis hymn of Philippians 2:6-11, the hymn on the preeminence of Christ in Colossians 1:15-20, and the brief hymn of Ephesians 5:14 (Martin, 1974:47-50). These Pauline fragments reveal the theological nature of the earliest Christian music.2

Paul’s hymn on the person and work of Christ in I Tim. 3:16 provides an example:

Great indeed, we confess, is the mystery of godliness: (then the hymn) 

He was manifested in the flesh,
vindicated by the Spirit,
seen by angels,
proclaimed among the nations,
believed on in the world,
taken up in glory. 

With this hymn, worshippers proclaimed the doctrine of the incarnation. The hymn rejoices in the “mystery of godliness” while teaching worshipers the doctrine of the incarnation. 

The Hymnody of Charles Wesley 

Charles Wesley’s hymns illustrate the doctrinal content of early Methodist hymnody. Each important theological theme of early Methodism is taught in Wesley’s hymns. Three topics illustrate Wesley’s treatment of theological themes. 

A. The Doctrine of the Unlimited Atonement

Immediately following the “Anniversary” hymn (“O For a Thousand Tongues”) that opens Methodist hymnals, the 1780 Hymnbook continued with a hymn of invitation: 

Come, sinners, to the gospel feast,
Let every soul be Jesus’s guest;
Ye need not one be left behind,
For God hath bidden all mankind (WHM, no. 2).

The popular “And Can It Be” includes this proclamation of the unlimited atonement: 

He left His Father’s throne above,
So free, so infinite His grace…
‘Tis mercy all, immense and free,
For, O my God, it found out me (WHM, no. 193). 

Singing this hymn, early Methodists were reminded that the atonement reaches to all humankind. Charles Wesley believed that if God’s infinite grace “found out me,” it would find anyone. 

B. The Doctrine of Assurance 

The doctrine of assurance was central to Methodism. Two centuries later, we have forgotten how shocking this doctrine was to the Wesleys’ contemporaries. Both Calvinist dissenters and Anglicans questioned the possibility of assurance. Charles wrote an epitaph for Susanna that reflects this view: 

True daughter of affliction she,
Inured to pain and misery;
Mourned a long night of griefs and fears,
A legal night of seventy years (Fitchett, 1906:58).

Based on some of her early instruction to John, this epitaph may exaggerate Susanna’s “pain and misery” and lack of assurance. Certainly, her husband, Samuel, gave a clear testimony of assurance preceding his death (Works XXVI: 289). However, Charles was correct in his observation that it was not until she was seventy years old that Susanna testified to a definite assurance of salvation. This was common to the age.

Methodism brought a new vitality with its teaching that one could know that “I, even I” am a child of God. Wesley saw this doctrine as “one grand part of the testimony which God has given them [Methodists] to bear to all mankind” (Works I:285). Wesley scholars such as H.B. Workman and George Cell considered the doctrine of assurance to be the “fundamental contribution of Methodism.” Methodists sang: 

How can a sinner know
His sins on earth forgiven?
How can my gracious Saviour show
My name inscribed in heaven?
What we have felt and seen,
With confidence we tell;
And publish to the sons of men
The signs infallible. 

We by his Spirit prove
And know the things of God,
The things which freely of his love
He hath on us bestowed:
His Spirit to us he gave,
And dwells in us, we know:
The witness in ourselves we have,
And all its fruits we show (WHM, no. 93). 

In “And Can It Be,” the singer testifies: 

No condemnation now I dread;
Jesus, and all in Him is mine!
Alive in Him, my living Head,
And clothed in righteousness divine;
Bold I approach th’ eternal throne
And claim the crown, through Christ, my own (WHM, no. 193). 

While I have not done statistical research on this, my limited observation suggests that the strong biblical doctrine of assurance preached by the Wesleys has devolved in many instances to a “doctrine of assumption.” Assurance has become little more than, “I assume I am saved because I was raised in church, I have gone to the altar numerous times, and I live a good life.” 

This shallow view of assurance may be worse than the Anglican perpetual doubt. At least, the doubt inspired an effort – misplaced though it was – to find some basis for assurance. An assumption of salvation leads us to carelessness and apathy.

The doctrine of assurance is not the theme of this week’s conference. However, the doctrines of assurance and Christian perfection are related. A person with little or no assurance of salvation is unlikely to seek earnestly an experience of Christian perfection. Or, perhaps more likely, they will think they are seeking entire sanctification when in fact they are seeking assurance. 

A doctrine of Christian perfection demands a robust doctrine of assurance.

C. The Doctrine of Christian Perfection

Both John and Charles Wesley recognized the need for a deeper cleansing in the heart of a believer. Although they differed on the extent and the timing of Christian perfection, they agreed that such a cleansing was possible.3 

John often referred to this as Christian perfection or perfect love; Charles referred to the restoration of the imago Dei. In a hymn that combines both images, Charles prayed a beautiful Trinitarian prayer for “real holiness”: 

Father, Son, and Holy Ghost,
In council join again
To restore thine image, lost
By frail, apostate man; 

O might I thy form express,
Through faith begotten from above,
Stamped with real holiness,
And filled with perfect love! (WHM, no. 357) 

John promoted an instantaneous work; Charles emphasized gradual growth. However, after studying the Wesleys and John Fletcher, Laurence Wood concluded that for all three:

…entire sanctification could be gradual or instantaneous, and usually it was a combination of both processes…. And they all three believed that this full salvation could be attained in this life (2002: 320-321).

Charles gave one of the best descriptions of a pure heart to be found anywhere outside the Bible. In a hymn modeled on David’s prayer in Psalm 51, Charles prayed: 

O for a heart to praise my God,
A heart from sin set free!
A heart that always feels thy blood
So freely spilt for me! 

O for a lowly, contrite heart,
Believing, true, and clean,
Which neither life nor death can part
From him that dwells within. 

A heart resigned, submissive, meek,
My great Redeemer’s throne,
Where only Christ is heard to speak,
Where Jesus reigns alone. 

A heart in every thought renewed,
And full of love divine;
Perfect, and right, and pure, and good,
A copy, Lord, of thine! 

Wesley concludes the hymn with a humble prayer for perfect love: 

Thy nature, gracious Lord, impart;
Come quickly from above;
Write thy new name upon my heart,
Thy new, best name of love! (WHM, 334) 

In one of his most famous hymns, Wesley related Christian perfection to the restoration of God’s image in mankind. “Love Divine” was originally a prayer for Christian perfection. Interpreting Charles’ hymn as a prayer for entire sanctification, John put the hymn in the section of the Hymnbook “for believers groaning for full redemption.” The believer prays: 

Love divine, all loves excelling,
Joy of heaven, to earth come down,
Fix in us thy humble dwelling,
All thy faithful mercies crown!
Jesu, thou art all compassion,
Love, unbounded love, thou art;
Visit us with thy salvation!
Enter every trembling heart. (MS Thirty; Methodist Archives; John Rylands Library, Manchester) 

A second stanza in Charles’ manuscript was more problematic: 

Breathe, O breathe Thy loving spirit
Into every troubled breast;
Let us all in Thee inherit,
Let us find that second rest:
Take away the power of sinning,
Alpha and Omega be,
End of faith, as its beginning,
Set our hearts at liberty. (MS Thirty)

Charles’ phrase “take away the power of sinning” was too strong for his brother, particularly after the perfectionist controversies of the 1760s. Their colleague, John Fletcher, suggested, “Would it not be better to soften it by saying, ‘Take away the love of sinning’? Can God take away from us our power of sinning, without taking away our power of free obedience?” John Wesley omitted this stanza from the 1780 Hymnbook, and most editors have followed him. 

In his final stanza, Charles Wesley related the restoration of God’s image in us to our future glory in heaven. In a paraphrase of Paul’s words to the church at Corinth, Wesley writes of the transformation that God is accomplishing in us. “But we all, with open face beholding as in a glass the glory of the Lord, are changed into the same image from glory to glory, even as by the Spirit of the Lord” (2 Cor. 3:18, KJV).

Finish, then, thy new creation;
Pure and spotless let us be.
Let us see thy great salvation
Perfectly restored in thee
Changed from glory into glory,
Till in heaven we take our place,
Sing and cast our crowns before
Thee, Lost in wonder, love, and praise.

Other themes could be traced through Wesley’s hymns, but these examples demonstrate the importance of theology in his song. Stating that “hymns communicate theology” may seem so obvious as to go unstated. However, too often the theological impact of our hymns is ignored. This creates two problems:

  1. We miss opportunities for using our hymns to teach doctrine.
  2. We sing hymns that teach doctrines we do not believe. 

Mark Noll (2000) and Richard Mouw (2004) have both demonstrated the impact of Wesleyan hymns on American popular theology. The laity in churches that preached Reformed theology were often Arminian in their practiced theology. Mouw attributes this to the influence of the Wesley hymns. When a sermon on the limited atonement was followed by the hymn “Come, sinners to the gospel feast, let every soul be Jesu’s guest,” the hymn impacted people long after the sermon was forgotten. Theology of the hymn became the practiced theology of the people.

If this is true, we should ask, “Whose theology are we singing in Wesleyan and Wesleyan-Holiness churches today?” We preach the possibility of a life of victory over willful sin and a heart that is perfected in love. If we surround those sermons with songs about a propensity for wandering from God, an ongoing failure to obey God’s commands, and a persistent spiritual coldness and lack of love, we can expect our people to practice the theology they sing rather than the theology we preach.

Intentionally or unintentionally, effectively or poorly, our hymns communicate theology. We should take care, then, to ensure that the theology we sing is the theology we believe.

The Role of Hymns in Teaching Theology

Do worshipers learn doctrine through the hymns they sing? Composer John Bell answers, “… what we sing informs and indeed shapes what we believe. Singing is not a neutral exercise. It should carry a government health warning that it can affect minds” (2000: 56). Throughout church, hymn-writers have recognized the value of hymns as a tool for teaching theology to laymen.

Perhaps the best-known example of the use of hymns for theological instruction was Ambrose’s battle against the Arian heresy. The Trinitarian hymns of Ambrose defended orthodox Christology against the teaching of Arius, who had written hymns proclaiming his doctrine (Wainwright, 1980:201). Ambrose seems to have been the better hymn-writer; his hymns had more impact than those of Arius. Ambrose responded to critics who complained that he had “beguiled” the people with his hymns:

They declare also that the people have been beguiled by the strains of my hymns. I certainly do not deny it…. All eagerly vie one with the other in confessing the faith, and know how to praise in verse the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. So they all have become teachers, who scarcely could be disciples (Ambrose, 1997:436).

Ambrose rejoiced that through his hymns, he had turned ordinary laymen into theological “teachers.” Ambrose’s success in composing hymns for theological instruction inspired later hymnists to teach doctrine through their hymns.

Martin Luther followed Ambrose’s example, returning corporate hymn-singing to a place of prominence in the service. He created a body of hymn literature that instructed worshipers in Christian doctrine. How effective was he? Effective enough that one of his opponents complained that Luther did more damage with his songs than his sermons.

Like Ambrose and Luther, the Wesleys used hymns to teach theology. Hymns

…carried the characteristic message of the evangelical revival into scores of communities which never heard any of the outstanding preachers. And they carried that message in such a form that it could be easily remembered. Perhaps it would be nearer to the facts to say in such a form that it could not be easily forgotten (Luccock and Hutchinson, 1949:106). 

The early Methodists learned theology from the sermons they heard and from the hymns they sang. Franz Hildebrandt wrote that “it is highly doubtful whether without the Hymns there could have been a Methodist revival” (Hildebrandt and Beckerlegge, Introduction to WHM:1). While this may be an exaggeration, there is little doubt that the hymns of Charles Wesley paralleled the sermons of John Wesley in their impact on early Methodist belief.

Albert Outler noted, “…the Methodist people learned at least as much doctrine from Charles’ hymns as they did from John’s preaching. What is crucial is that it was the same basic doctrine!” (quoted in Whaling, 1981:xiv-xv). Charles’ hymns were “works of popular theology” (Wren, 2000:191) or “grassroots theology” (Eskew and McElrath, 1980:59) that reinforced Methodist preaching. The Wesleys intended the hymns “to teach biblical theology and to do it more effectively because the people sang in joy what they were being taught” (Smith, 1983:1012).

These examples are drawn from the past. What about today? Do hymns communicate effectively in the non-verbal society of the 21st century? Or, as many have argued, do today’s audiences hear only the music, not the words? In an age when images trump propositions, can hymns effectively teach theology?

There are encouraging signs that hymns still teach theology. Hymn-writers such as Timothy Dudley-Smith, Keith and Krysten Getty, and Stuart Townend show the possibility of teaching theological truth in contemporary language. The popularity of their hymns suggests that today’s audiences have an appreciation for profound truth expressed poetically. A few texts will illustrate the theological content of contemporary hymns.

A beautiful Christmas hymn by Timothy Dudley-Smith summarizes the mission of Christ in three short stanzas.

Within a crib my Savior lay,
A wooden manger filled with hay,
Come down for love on Christmas Day:
All glory be to Jesus! 

Upon a cross my Savior died,
To ransom sinners, crucified,
His loving arms still open wide:
All glory be to Jesus! 

A victor’s crown my Savior won,
His work of love and mercy done,
The Father’s high-ascended Son:
All glory be to Jesus! (Trinity Hymnal, no. 212) 

Keith and Krysten Getty may be the best known of these writers. Keith Getty and Stuart Townend collaborated on one of the best-known contemporary hymns:4

In Christ alone my hope is found;
He is my light, my strength, my song;
This cornerstone, this solid ground,
Firm through the fiercest drought and storm.
What heights of love, what depths of peace,
When fears are stilled, when strivings cease!
My comforter, my all in all—
Here in the love of Christ I stand. 

In Christ alone, Who took on flesh,
Fullness of God in helpless babe!
This gift of love and righteousness,
Scorned by the ones He came to save.
Till on that cross as Jesus died,
The wrath of God was satisfied;
For ev’ry sin on Him was laid—
Here in the death of Christ I live. 

There in the ground His body lay,
Light of the world by darkness slain;
Then bursting forth in glorious day,
Up from the grave He rose again!
And as He stands in victory,
Sin’s curse has lost its grip on me;
For I am His and He is mine—
Bought with the precious blood of Christ. 

No guilt in life, no fear in death—
This is the pow’r of Christ in me;
From life’s first cry to final breath,
Jesus commands my destiny.
No pow’r of hell, no scheme of man,
Can ever pluck me from His hand;
Till He returns or calls me home—
Here in the pow’r of Christ I’ll stand.

The final stanza expresses a powerful truth. Yes, it comes from a Reformed writer, but for Wesleyan and Wesleyan-Holiness people who are sometimes plagued by “eternal insecurity,” this hymn reminds us of the great truth that “Jesus commands my destiny.” Yes, we can reject Him, but if we will trust God’s grace, “No power of hell, no scheme of man, can ever pluck me from His hand.” Surely this expresses in song the wonderful promise from Paul: “I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom 8:38-39).

This is profound theology expressed in language that today’s worshiper can understand. These hymns and many others provide effective tools for teaching theology to laymen.

Hymnologists Eskew and McElrath wrote, “The basic beliefs of most Christians have been formulated more by the hymns they sing than by the preaching they hear or the Bible study they pursue” (1980:59). In light of this, it is vital that churches take care that the theology taught in our hymns is biblical and that we use these hymns well.

Improving Our Use of Hymns for Teaching Theology

Since hymns teach theology, the church has a responsibility to use this resource effectively. Just as Ambrose used hymns to teach orthodox Christology in his day, church leaders can use hymns to instruct converts in today’s post-Christian society.

Quoting again from Mark Noll, “The classic evangelical hymns… contain the clearest, most memorable, the most cohesive, and the most widely repeated expressions of what it meant to be an evangelical” (2000:9). Theology can, and should, be sung. Chosen well, our hymns can teach laymen what we believe. However, the effective use of hymns for teaching theology requires that pastors and worship leaders work together to lead congregations in meaningful hymn-singing. How can we accomplish this?

The effective use of hymns for theological instruction requires attention to sound theology

Just as hymns can teach sound theology, they can express poor theology. In The Barber of Seville, Figaro sings, “If a thing is too silly to be said, it can always be sung.” This has sometimes been the case with hymns. 

Churches have sometimes come to accept “old favorites” for their pleasant melodies and soothing harmonies without realizing that the texts are empty of meaning or even theologically erroneous.

Forgetting Jesus’ rebuke of James and John, a song repeats their self-serving request, “Build my mansion next door to Jesus.” The generic Supreme Being of “Lead, Kindly Light,” (a hymn used in the Hindu funeral of India’s Prime Minister Nehru) falls below the theological threshold we would set for a sermon, so it falls below the theological threshold we should set for a hymn. If we intend to teach theology through hymns, we must ensure that the hymns were sing are good theology.

The effective use of hymns for theological instruction requires clear communication 

The hymns we use must teach sound theology; they must also be clear in their statement of this theology. Some hymns are not wrong; they are simply theologically inarticulate.

Here I am much less dogmatic than some of my more theologically astute friends. Poetry communicates differently than prose. If you read the psalms in the same way you read Paul’s epistles, you will miss something very important from the psalms. If you read Psalms, Song of Songs, or Job with no appreciation for poetry, you may be able to write a good theological analysis, but you will miss not only the poetic beauty but even much of the heart of these books.

You must read poetry as poetry. You must read hymns as hymns. Hymns include propositional statements, but they are more than just propositional statements. This does not mean that hymns are not expected to communicate clearly, but hymns communicate differently than prose, and we must make the effort to understand their message.

If we want our hymnody to teach theology, we must use hymns that speak clearly. Ted Campbell, Professor of Church History at Perkins School of Theology has blogged about “fudge divinity, the fine art of framing inoffensive theological statements.” Among his examples:

“Christmas means that God shows love to us in Jesus.”

Professor Campbell responds: Could anyone (except an atheist) differ with this claim? Muslims, Jews, and even some Hindus would have few problems with the claim that “God shows love to us in Jesus” since, of course, God may show love to us through every person. But ask yourself: Can you assert anything more about Jesus Christ than you would assert about a flower? Surely God displays divine love in the lilies of the field.

“Easter means that we have hope for the world.”

Campbell responds: Again, no one (with the possible exception of Søren Kierkegaard) could be offended by this claim. Does “Easter” mean

(a) the time in the spring when all (Christian and non-Christian alike) celebrate the rebirth of nature? 

(b) eggs and bunnies, etc.? 

(c) a celebration of the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead? 

(d) a celebration of the resurrection as a faith-event in the life of the community? or 

(e) all of the above?

The nice thing, of course, is that the sentence doesn’t make any of this clear, so give yourself credit if you responded “e”.

If sermons can be plagued by such “fudge divinity,” so can hymns. Some carols may evoke pleasant memories of childhood Christmas celebrations without saying anything meaningful about the Incarnation. Even such a reassuringly stately hymn as “Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee” contains the promise that “All who live in love are God’s,” a claim that, while perhaps defensible, requires quite a bit of commentary to avoid the suggestion of universalism.

Again, this is not to suggest that hymns must give up their poetic beauty and become nothing more than rhymed prose. At times, we conservatives appear to be as rigorous in our attempts to eradicate all sense of mystery from worship as our liberal brethren are to eradicate all hints of orthodoxy. Clear communication does not require us to abandon poetic beauty.

Poetry can and does communicate theology. The theology of Job is no less profound for being communicated in a poetic form. Similarly, Charles Wesley’s poetic presentation of the doctrine of assurance is no less theological than John Wesley’s sermon on the doctrine.

In suggesting that our hymns must communicate clearly, I am not arguing for a bland unpoetic hymnody. I am arguing for hymns that are both theologically accurate and textually meaningful. The contemporary hymns cited in section 2 of this paper combine poetic beauty, theological accuracy, and linguistic clarity. It is possible to communicate sound theology in poetic and memorable language.

Previously I mentioned the hymns of Ambrose. Based on their popularity in the streets of Milan, it appears that they were easy to sing. The doctrinal content was simple enough for uneducated laymen to understand; the poetry was powerful enough to move the emotions; and the text was memorable enough to be learned quickly.

The effective use of hymns for theological instruction requires us to relate theology to the personal experience of the worshiper

This is one area in which hymns are a wonderful vehicle for Wesleyan theology.5 A reading of the Wesley Hymnbook shows that his hymns are both objective and subjective. The words “I,” “me,” or “my” appear over 1100 times in the 1780 Hymnbook.

One reason that Wesley knew “all men can be saved,” was that he had been saved. Four days before his Pentecost Sunday testimony, Charles wrote in his Journal, “I labored, waited and prayed to feel ‘who loved me, and gave himself for me.’” The “for me” motif is vital to Wesleyan doctrine and experience. Not only is the atonement provided “for all,” but the individual believer can know that the atonement is provide “for me.” Later, Wesley sang:

Died he for me, who caused His pain?
For me who Him to death pursued?
Amazing love! How can it be
that Thou, my God, shouldst die for me? 

For Methodists, there was no artificial distinction between objective theology and personal experience of that theology. The entire 1780 Hymnbook is structured not by the categories of systematic theology but as a “Methodist Pilgrim’s Progress”:

  1. Part One: Introductory Hymns (songs of testimony and witness) 
  2. Part Two: Convincing Hymns (songs for those under conviction) 
  3. Part Three: For Mourners and Backsliders (For those seeking salvation or restoration) 
  4. Part Four: For Believers “Groaning for full salvation” (For believers seeking to go on to perfection) 
  5. Part Five: For the Society (For the body gathered in worship and fellowship)

This Wesleyan approach is consistent with the example of biblical hymnody. If we use the definition of gospel song as subjective, the book of Psalms includes many “gospel songs.”

  • Psalm 3 – O LORD, how many are my foes! Many are rising against me… 
  • Psalm 4 – Answer me when I call, O God of my righteousness… Be gracious to me and hear my prayer. 
  • Psalm 5 – Give hear to my words, O LORD, consider my groaning…

The effective use of hymns for theological instruction requires pastoral leadership 

Pastors of previous generations often composed hymns. Even if they did not write hymns, they carefully chose appropriate hymns that supported their sermon. Many pastors today assume, “It is my job to preach the sermon; it is the music director’s job to sing the songs.” However, if hymns are to play a role in theological instruction, the pastor has a responsibility to ensure that the hymns teach the theology he preaches.

Unfortunately, in many seminaries, music is taught on one side of the campus while theology is taught on the other. As a result, pastors may enter ministry with little knowledge of hymn repertoire and little understanding of the language of hymnody. To use hymns effectively, pastors must understand the manner in which hymns communicate theology. This will require an appreciation for metaphor and the language of poetry.

Roberta King, a professor of ethnomusicology at Fuller Theological Seminary, wrote, “Music and songs are not merely fillers or entertainment. Neither are they only a prelude to the sermon…. Rather, Christian songs function as sermons in their own right…. It is crucial, therefore, for theological students to recognize the influence of music in shaping a people’s theological understanding and to learn to employ it effectively for the Kingdom” (1990: 38). 

Just as Bible college music majors should study Bible and theology, ministerial majors should study hymnology. Graduates should enter pastoral ministry equipped to support theologically sound sermons with theologically sound hymns. Many Wesleyan and Wesleyan-Holiness pastors may recognize the importance of hymns but feel ill-equipped to contribute to the church’s music. However, even if you are unable to write a 21st century “And Can It Be” or “A Mighty Fortress,” you can ensure that your church is singing theologically sound hymns.

Supported by memorable hymns, worshipers may be more likely to internalize the theology preached in the sermons. Few worshipers recite phrases from Sunday’s sermon on Monday morning. However, many sing hymns from Sunday’s service throughout the week. We owe it to those worshipers to ensure that those hymns are as biblically and theologically sound as the sermon.


Though this paper has merely scratched the surface of the relationship between hymnody and theology, I hope that I have accomplished two goals:

1) To challenge you to take seriously the theology you sing in your churches. As a pastor, you are responsible for the theology that is sung. You are failing part of your responsibility as a pastor if you say, “I don’t choose the hymns, so it isn’t my problem.” If you are surrounding the “the sincere milk of the word” (1 Peter 2:2) with the junk food of pop hymnody, you are partly responsible for the theological malnutrition of your members.

2) To encourage your use of one of the most important books in your library, the hymnal. As you prepare Sunday’s sermon, I hope that you will choose hymns that support the message you are preaching. As you prepare Monday’s theology lecture, I hope that you will search for hymns that teach the truths you express in your lecture. As you do so, you will find that hymns provide a powerful opportunity to “Sing the Truth.”



This essay is revised from a paper presented at the Aldersgate Forum.


Ambrose. 1997. “Sermon Against Auxentius, 34,” in Phillip Schaff and Henry Wace, ed., Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 10, St. Ambrose: Select Works and Letters. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1997.

Bell, John L. 2000. The Singing Thing: A Case for Congregational Song. Chicago, IL: GIA Publications. Eskew, Harry and McElrath, Hugh T. 1980. Sing with Understanding. USA: Broadman Press. 

Fitchett, W.H. 1906. Wesley and His Century: A Study in Spiritual Forces. London: Smith, Elder, and Co. King, Roberta. 1990. “The Role of Music in Theological Education.” Africa Journal of Evangelical Theology 9 (1): 37-40. 

Martin, Ralph P. 1974. Worship in the Early Church. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans. 

Mouw, Richard. 2004. Wonderful Words of Life: Hymns in American Protestant History and Theology. MI: Wm B. Eerdmans. 

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Wesley, John (ed.). 1983. A Collection of Hymns, for the Use of the People Called Methodists. (Ed. Franz Hildebrandt and Oliver A. Beckerlegge with James Dale). Oxford: Oxford University Press. (Abbreviated WHM in the text.) 

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  1. This paper is adapted from a paper presented at the Evangelical Theological Society.
  2. For the purposes of this paper, it is not necessary to enter into the debate regarding the origin of these hymns. Ralph Martin has argued that Paul adapted hymns that were already familiar to his readers (see Ralph P. Martin, “Some Reflections on New Testament Hymns,” Harold H. Rowdon, ed., Christ the Lord. Studies in Christology Presented to Donald Guthrie. Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press, 1982, 37-49). Other scholars argue that the text is original with Paul and only later became part of the hymn literature of the early church. Either option can be consistent with an evangelical understanding of the inspiration of Scripture.
  3. Based on a reading of their letters, Charles’ Journal, and the two collections of hymns that Charles published without John’s approval, I believe the differences rest largely on two factors:

1. Different definitions of perfection. Charles defined Christian perfection as “utter dominion over sin; constant peace, love and joy in the Holy Ghost; the full assurance of faith, righteousness, and true holiness” (Journal, Sept 26, 1740, emphasis mine). Constant peace and assurance was a higher standard than Charles could claim. John accepted a simpler definition of Christian perfection and, as a result, could point to more witnesses.

2. Different temperaments. Charles’ ear was finely attuned to deception. His Journal abounds with examples of his distrust of glib testimonies. In one case, he wrote of a lady who “told my brother she had a constant sense of forgiveness, and he let her pass. I could not help proving [testing] her further; and then the justified sinner appeared full of the gall of bitterness…. I assured her, if an angel from heaven told me she was justified, I would not believe him…. As such we prayed for her and she was convinced of unbelief. I fear we have many such believers among us” (Feb 5, 1743). The Maxwell and Bell scandals in the 1760s exacerbated Charles’ skepticism regarding testimonies to instantaneous perfection. 

John was much quicker to accept testimonies to perfection. In 1753, he wrote to Charles defending his view – and implying some criticism of Charles’ skepticism; “I could suspect every man that speaks to me to be either a blunderer or a liar. But I will not; I dare not, till I have proof” (emphasis in original). Charles may not have suspected every man of being a blunderer or a liar, but he was closer to the dictum of Ronald Reagan: “Trust, but verify.” 

I think it is fair to say that Charles believed in the possibility of Christian perfection in this life, although he doubted the testimony of many who claimed it. His view is summarized in a hymn he published in the 1760s: 

Set the false witnesses aside;
Yet hold the truth forever fast.

  1. In a rare instance of a songwriter sacrificing royalty fees for the sake of theological integrity, Keith Getty refused a request by the PC(USA) to replace “the wrath of God was satisfied” with “the love of God was magnified.” Because of this, the PC(USA) rejected the hymn for their new hymnal.
  2. I have used the term ‘hymn’ throughout this paper to refer to any sacred poetic text that is intended to be sung. I have deliberately avoided the common distinction between “gospel song” and “hymn.” Although there are technical differences in the musical style, the perceived textual differences are largely the result of a Reformed dichotomy between subjective texts (gospel songs) and objective texts (hymns).