A Reformation Meditation on Solus Christus: Inadvertent Attacks by the Church? (4/4)

A Reformation Meditation on Solus Christus: Inadvertent Attacks by the Church? (4/4)

(This is the final installment of a four-part Reformation meditation series on Solus Christus. The first part can be read  here , the second part  here , and the third part  here .)

(This is the final installment of a four-part Reformation meditation series on Solus Christus. The first part can be read here, the second part here, and the third part here.)

Does The Church Inadvertently Deny Solus Christus in Corporate Worship?

In The Divine Embrace:  Recovering The Passionate Spiritual Life, Robert Webber makes a deeply insightful point that our worship in the modern era has changed from viewing God as the “subject” of worship who takes the initiative and creates a response within us, to viewing God as the “object” of worship who merely receives our adulation:   

“If God is the object of worship, then worship must proceed from me, the subject, to God, who is the object.  God is the being out there who needs to be loved, worshiped, adored by me.  Therefore, the true worship of God is located in me, the subject.  I worship God to magnify his name, to enthrone God, to exalt him in the heavens.  God is then pleased with me because I have done my duty.”[1]

But our God is no mere object to be worshipped, He is a subject, a someone, The Someone, the Hero, the protagonist of the greatest story ever told.  He is active, not passive, close not far away.  He moves and we are moved.  He pours out His grace, and we receive and return it back with praise. Theologian Marva Dawn captures the picture well, “The gifts of worship flow from God the subject and return to God as the object of our reverence.”[2] 

Thus, worship is not our initiative as many of the modern “I” songs might seem to imply (i.e. I will worship, I will bow down, I will…), it is in fact our response to God’s divine mystery of love first which he poured out through His Son Jesus The King of Glory.  Applying Solus Christus to the worship of the gathered saints in broad terms means making sure Christ and what God has done in Christ remain central. 

Corporate praise songs, at least, biblical praise songs (e.g. Ps. 95; 98; 150; 103; 145; 117), ought to make God the subject and the object of our worship by especially highlighting His attributes (holiness, justice, righteousness, omnipotence, etc.), His nature (1 Chron. 29:10-13), and what He has done in Redemptive history through Christ Jesus to bring himself glory (i.e. his actions; Phil. 2:9-11).[3]  These songs often have a noticeable absence of the first-person pronoun “I” and instead tend to put the emphasis on God (i.e. “You” or “He”) and include titles/names/ metaphors for God (e.g. How Great Is Our God; Name Above All Names; O Worship The King; All Creatures Of Our God And King). This ensures that God’s praise is not limited merely to my own subjective experience of what God has done for me in particular (as good as that may be), but that He is praised for all His works in creation, in heaven above and the earth below, past, present, and future. 

When God is praised for what He has done for His people the emphasis is less on the individual and far more on the community which Christ alone has saved and is building (Matt. 16:18; 1 Pet. 2:9), therefore collective terms like “our” and “us” are often employed.  Martin Luther’s hymn is titled, A Mighty Fortress Is Our God, not “my” God for example. The majority of old hymns took this perspective in understanding that rightful worship is the church’s response to a righteous King.[4]  This is being revived through the modern hymn movement such as Keith and Kristyn Getty and Stuart Townsend’s work, “How Deep The Father’s Love for Us, “O, Church Arise,” Beautiful Savior,” “The Power of the Cross,” “In Christ Alone,” and others produced by Sovereign Grace, Indelible Grace, etc.  All of this highlights the pinnacle of our Father’s praise, when “Every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Phil. 2:11).

Regaining Balance in Corporate Worship – A Brief Excursus & Suggested Way Forward

Can modern worship songs at times lean towards devaluing and dethroning Christ in favor of exalting self or sentimentality?[5]  Can we sometimes sing vague and abstract songs that do not even identify any of the Godhead; songs which could be sung without change in any other religion or as Chuck Colson has said, in any nightclub in America (e.g. the stereotypical “I love you, I need you, I want you, I desire your presence” songs, but with no subject actually identified)?[6]  We all know this is demonstrably true, but how do we keep our focus on God and the centrality of solus Christus within the corporate worship of Christ?

Different church traditions answer this in wildly different ways.  Some restrict themselves to only or primarily singing the Psalter, others use the regulative principle as their guide, some churches are hymns only, others contemporary praise only, others blended, but even within these traditions many have no plan whatsoever to discern good from better from best as it relates to congregational songs.  In response, many worship leaders and churches unfortunately make superficial “rules” for their congregation.  For example, “Every song should be about Christ,” or “Every song should be a theological masterpiece,” or “No songs should ever use the pronoun “I” since it is too selfish.” 

Few consult the Psalms, which themselves were Israel’s song book, to ask if there is a particular pattern laid down by which the modern church might learn from.  Interestingly, a number of Psalms do use the first-person pronoun “I”, but not in the same way that we often do.  Psalm 86 is a great example.  “I”, “me”, “my” are used thirty-one times in seventeen verses yet it does not feel “I” centered, why not?  Precisely because the Psalmist is intertwining his personal petitions with the nature and attributes of God to which he is responding.  Such an order suggests that we need not eliminate all “I” songs but we do need to keep them in their rightful place.    

In addition, not all “I” songs or Psalms are personal, many are meant to represent a “communal I” as the body sings in one voice raised to their Savior.  Commenting on Psalm 121 St. Augustine cautioned against converting the “I” to a “we” too hastily: 

“…but let him sing from the heart each one of you like a single person.  Indeed, let each one of you be this one person.  Each one prays the psalm individually, but because you are all one in Christ, it is the voice of a single person that is heard in the psalm.  This is why you do not say, “To you, Lord, have we lifted up our yes, but To you, Lord, have I lifted up my eyes (emphasis mine; Expositions Of the Psalms p. 30). 

The use of “communal I” songs along with “we” and “our” songs may offer a variety of ways to approach God modeled on the Psalms.[7] 

Some “I” songs get a bad wrap, like “I have decided to follow Jesus,” because we are ignorant of their origin and context.  When correctly understood this does not concern the debate over free will, but is rather a solemn declaration of personal sacrifice and praise to Jesus (read the history here).  It is a sad thing that such a song gets surgically removed from corporate praise times often by theologically Reformed leaning churches (even if it were soteriological such a concept can still fit within both Arminianism and Calvinism).[8] 

Following the basic model of the Psalms which are broken down into different categories, we may want to look at modern worship songs in similar and helpful categories so we can maintain perspective and be more aware of maintaining balance in our corporate worship.[9]  So, we may want to distinguish between mostly praise songs (for who God is, for what God has done in Christ; e.g. How Great Thou Art; How Great Is Our God; Blessed Be Your Name) from say, mostly petition songs (songs of supplication; e.g. Give us Clean Hands; Take My Life), from pain songs (songs of lament (which make up 40% of the Psalms!)[10]; e.g. Hallelujah!  What A Savior, Awake My Soul, Dry Bones, Rescue Me, more personally, The Silence of God), from proclamation songs (songs that declare truth often aimed at edifying the community, e.g. Days of Elijah, In The Garden, What A Friend We Have In Jesus, Leaning on the Everlasting Arms), from more personal songs that emphasize “I,” “me,” “my” (e.g. It is Well With my Soul, Lord I Need You, I Want to Know You, One Thing Remains, Revelation Song, Thank You Lord).[11] 

In all of this the order is important because for the Christian the head ought to overflow into the heart (Rm 12:2), knowing ought to inform feeling, praise ought to precede personal response (e.g. Lord’s Prayer).  As Christians we are so used to either/or statements we struggle to put things into an order of priority.  A discerning praise leader, however, will give the people content that moves their mind and opportunities to pour out their heart all while keeping Christ central.   

This involves more than a gazing at each individual song with the eye of Sauron!  It means taking a wider perspective of the entire gathered time together.  Did we gather only to petition Christ, but forget to praise Him? Did we gather mostly to proclaim His truth, but forget to respond personally to His Spirit? Are we so focused on being positive that we forget to wring out our pain before Christ, our man of Sorrows? (after all, how many churches actually sing 40% lament songs?!) Was God mostly the object of worship (i.e. lots of “I” songs) or was He both the subject and object of our corporate time together?  This at least, points us in the right direction.                

Corporate prayer time.  To whom should we pray?  Do we pray to God the Father?  God the Son?  God the Holy Spirit?  If we pray to God the Father are we dislodging Christ from His seat of power?  If we pray to Jesus are we ignoring God as Father?  And why don’t we ever pray to the Spirit?  The simple formulation that helps make sense of NT teaching on the matter and follows the New Testament pattern is to pray to God the Father through the Spirit in the name of Jesus Christ.[12]  This not only honors the Triune nature of God, it reminds Christians that all prayers are heard and answered because of the work of the Son and delivered to them by the mediatorial intercession of the Son then applied by the Spirit of Christ to the believer’s life (Jn. 16:23 in context vv. 4-15 esp. 13).  This then grounds all prayers in Solus Christus, Christ alone. 

Of course, to pray, “in the name of Jesus” does not mean to simply say the words as though they are some magical incantation.  It means to pray according to the will of Jesus (Jn. 14:13-14; 1 Jn. 5:14).  This assumes one has a special inviolable relationship to Jesus in the first place. The more one grows in reliance and submission to Christ the more she might expect (a hopeful expectation!) to see more “Yes” answers to prayer since through that process she aligns her wants with God’s will and begins to desire His priorities over her own (Matt. 6:33; Lk. 22:42; Ps. 37:4).[13]      

Preaching to the congregation.  It is easy for preaching to devolve into the 70’s hit by the Five Man Electrical Band, “Sign, sign, everywhere a sign…Do this, don’t do that.  Can’t you read the sign?”  That is, hanging up moralistic signs everyone must follow, but forgetting that what saves us as believers, what encourages us, propels us, sustains us, and revives us, is not a long list of rules, but in hearing about how the victorious Christ stepped out of the grave, stepped onto Satan, and stepped into our lives! 

Another danger is of preaching the Scriptures so myopically that we lose the forest for the trees and lose Christ in the process; this was Jesus’ very condemnation of the Pharisees (Jn. 5:39-40).[14]  This can often happen when the value of the preached Word is weighed against the value of the gold standard of today, namely, practical principles of life application.  The idea that everything can be broken down into “5 Easy Steps To Improve Your Marriage,” or “7 Steps to the No Worry Life,” instead of encountering the radiance of Christ from whom all things flow only serves to turn the throne of Christ into a stepping stool for our own conveniences.[15]  It is only after one has walked in the presence of the holiness of Jesus Christ that their worry can melt away like snow before fiery rain.  It is only after spending time beholding Christ (2 Cor. 3:18) that one is so fundamentally changed that they will even want to improve their marriage with Spirit tearing zeal at all.  The key, as always, and in all things is Christ.   

This is why C.H. Spurgeon, the prince of preachers, demanded, “Preach Christ!  That is the magnet!  He will draw His own to Himself!...Christ must be in every sermon, and He must be top and bottom too of all theology that is preached. – “Jesus Christ and Him crucified” – and nothing else!”[16]    

Teaching the congregation.  When pastors, Sunday school teachers, parents, pass on the popular notion that “Jesus is in your heart,” they do not often take the time to reason out the implications of what this means for New Testament theology. But if Jesus is in your heart then He has not ascended and is not bodily in heaven and is not about the business of being the mediator and fulfilling His High Priestly calling.  What people mean of course, is that the indwelling of the Holy Spirit is in us connecting us to the work of Christ, empowering us for the Christian life, counseling us, comforting us, challenging us.  But let us keep Christ in heaven and the Spirit in us until both unite in the kingdom of God.  Do not let popular jargon take away from the work of Christ as Prophet, Priest and King![17]

Solus Christus Conclusion: 

We give Martin Luther the final word here on Jesus Christ, God’s gift to the church:  

“We are [God’s] children, and yet sinners; we are acceptable, and do not do enough—all this is the work of faith firmly grounded in God’s grace. But if you ask where faith and confidence may be found or whence they come, it is certainly the most necessary thing to know. First, without any doubt it does not come from your works or from your merits, but only from Jesus Christ, freely promised and freely given.”[18]










[1] Emphasis mine.  The Divine Embrace:  Recovering The Passionate Spiritual Life, 232.

[2] Reaching Out Without Dumbing Down, 80.

[3] See Interpreting The Psalms:  An Exegetical Handbook by Mark David Futato  His category of “Hymn” fits what we discuss here as “praise.”  As he explains, “Praise is the acknowledge or confession of God’s attributes and actions…To praise is to tell others just how great the Lord is in terms of who he is and what he had done” (148; 146f).  Even songs like Matt Redman’s 10,000 Reasons, a fantastic song, can tend to emphasize our actions without us even being aware that we are doing so, see Trevin Wax’ helpful walk through at the gospelcoalition.org.

[4] E.g. Ryan Klein compares 10 pre-modern and post-modern worship songs in order to evaluate their focus towards God.  While not exhaustive by any means it is representative of the point we are trying to make here.    

[5] Mentioning songs by name is dangerous since it can sidetrack this entire discussion, but representative examples are necessary even if we like the songs!  Here the last line in the song made popular by Michael W. Smith, “Above All,” certainly comes to mind!  But also, say, Hillsongs’ What A Beautiful Name when they sing, You didn’t want heaven without us So Jesus You brought heaven down.” 

[6] Here we might think of Tomlin’s “Lay Me Down,” and “In The Secret Place,” or Michael W. Smith’s Draw Me Close.  To be fair, I explain that there is an order to “I” worship songs and that means even these songs could have a place in corporate worship in the right order and context.  

[7] The debate over “I” vs “We” worship songs misses the fact that the Psalms often use both and that both are necessary and have their proper place.  The order and context (corporate intent vs. individual use) matter greatly as well.  There is a philosophical case to be made for the “communal I.”  The authors of Worship Words:  Discipling Language for Faithful Ministry point out, “So when I sing from Psalm 51 in worship…I am joining my voice not only with the others singing that day, but with thousands upon thousands of worshippers from ancient times to the present who have prayed these words.  My “I” joins their “I” and becomes “we” (p. 53). 

Even Reformed worship which often stresses the “we” in corporate worship (sometimes to the near exclusion or animosity towards any “I” emphasis) also recognizes that creedal statements for corporate worship (think Apostles Creed or Nicene Creed) begin with “I” and thus ought to be sung with personal pronouns too.  In the modern contemporary scene we might think of Petra’s Creed, Third Day’s Creed, Hillsong’s This I Believe, but also their corrections such as the Newsboys have done by pluralizing it with We Believe.  

[8] Calvinists do not believe that God chooses for us, but that God works faith in us so that we can respond to His gracious efficacious work, therefore the “I” of who I am must still chose.  We might say, from a Calvinistic viewpoint, God gives faith to His elect as a free gift, and gives them the ability to use it, but they still have to open it and they still have to exercise it.  The deeper difference is that Arminians believe that when given the opportunity for salvation “I” might, or at least could, choose otherwise, whereas Calvinists believe once the jail cell is open and the shackles fallen off it is inevitable that “I” will always and only ever choose freedom.  Hence, in either case it is true theologically that “I have decided to follow Jesus.”        

[9] See Interpreting The Psalms:  An Exegetical Handbook by Mark David Futato who helpfully delineates the Psalms into six categories:  hymns, laments, Psalms of thanksgiving, Psalms of confidence, divine kingship Psalms, and wisdom Psalms.  Our categories represent typical delineations not absolute categories of course.  Some like to divide between songs that are objective (about God and His deeds), subjective (what God has done for me/the community of saints) and reflexive (how now shall I respond?  Bowing down, hands lifted high, giving my heart, etc.).  What’s important is NOT to assume that all songs are worthy or valuable in all contexts just because they have a catchy tune!

[10] For more see Hurting With God:  Learning to lament with the Psalms by Glenn Pemberton.  In chapter 2 the authors compare the biblical Psalter to modern hymnbooks (three in particular).  While 40% of the Psalms can be classified as lament, they make up only 15-20% of modern hymn books.  See also Cry Out To God In Our Need:  Psalms of Lament by John C. Endres (pdf).       

[11] These are not hard and fast, many songs will fall into multiple categories, but for practical purposes we ought to know where the emphasis is on a Sunday morning in order to maintain biblical balance.

[12] This is not legalistic but represents the typical pattern and highlights that the Father is the one seeking glory through Christ (Jn. 14:13).  This does not exclude that NT Christians prayed to Jesus as well (Acts 1:24; 7:59; 9:13; 2 Cor. 12:8; Rev. 22:20, the term “Maranatha” that concludes 1 Cor. 16:22 is a prayerful supplication meaning, “O Lord, Come!”), since He is equally God.  The same holds true for the Spirit who is an equal member of the Trinity (though this is a theological argument, no one actually does this in the NT).  The role of the Spirit is to magnify the Son and so prayers to Him ought to bear that in mind and not simply exalt His work without this connection (this is sometimes the case in various Charismatic circles who over emphasize the Spirit and underemphasize Jesus).      

[13] As we are fond of saying at the Chapel, God answers all prayers all the time and immediately.  “No,” is a direct answer to prayer (just one which we prefer not to get).  “Wait,” is also another answer.  And of course, “Yes.”  

[14] See theologian Michael Horton’s article Preaching Christ Alone in which he attacks moralism as well as the dangers of verse-by-verse exposition.

[15] See also The Danger of Practical Preaching by Lee Eclo for a simple devotional mediation.

[16] Charles H. Spurgeon, The Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit, Vol. XX Sermon #1157 (Pasadena, Texas: Pilgrim Publications, 1981), 94.

[17] See J.D. Greear’s cultural correction of this teaching, Stop Asking Jesus Into Your Heart:  How To Know You Are Saved, be sure to reference his follow up books, Jesus, Continued…:  Why The Spirit Inside You is Better Than Jesus Beside You, and the small group 7 session study, Ready To Launch:  Jesus-Centered Parenting in a Child-Centered World.  

[18] A Treatise On Good Works, The Importance Of The Work, paragraph XVII.  

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