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Entries in his be the victor's name (5)


Retuning a Fabulous Forgotten Hymn

Over at LIBERATE, I talk about the 19th century hymn, "His Be the Victor's Name," and the process that led to its retuning. Go check it out! I hope it inspires others to join in this movement of now countless musicians re-gifting old hymns to new generations. Go read the post!


Helpful Grids for Writing Great Gospel-Centered Songs

If there is one biblical idea that should be the source of fresh and endless songwriting inspiration, it is the gospel. But if you’re a songwriter who operates like I do, when you’re writing songs about the gospel, you tend to gravitate to the same phrases, clichés, metaphors and realms of thought.

When you have a passion for gospel-centrality, and when your pastorally-oriented heart desires for the ancient gospel to be preached and sung in fresh, inspiring ways, you long for imagery, words, phrases, and music which give new voice to the old Story. You want a song that embodies “mercies new every morning.”

I was recently reading Tim Keller’s magnificent book, Center Church, and he offers some helpful “grammars”* for thinking through the gospel of Christ’s atonement. I’d like to take two of his ideas and add a third to perhaps give a roughly comprehensive snapshot of salvation in its full-orbed sense, narrowing in on the gospel in its most specific sense. The purpose of this isn’t for us to open up yet another debate. Rather, I want to provide a toolbox for songwriters’ imaginations to think about (and give song to) the atonement from different angles.

Five Atonement “Grammars”

This comes from Keller’s way of summarizing what theologians call different “theories” of the atonement. I prefer Keller’s language of “grammar,” because there’s something in every “theory” that rings true for how we talk about the atonement.

1. The language of the battlefield. Christ fought against the powers of sin and death for us. He defeated the powers of evil for us. This is sometimes called Christus Victor. (Colossians 2:15)

  • Metaphors: Jesus as King, General, Warrior, Hero, Champion, Victor, Strong, Courageous, Mighty, Unstoppable, Unparalleled; struggle, warfare

2. The language of the marketplace.  Christ paid the ransom price, the purchase price, to buy us out of our indebtedness. He frees us from enslavement. (Colossians 1:14)

  • Metaphors: redemption, purchasing, buying back, debt, moving from "object sold" to person, new identity

3. The language of exile. Christ was exiled and cast out of the community so we who deserve to be banished could be brought in. He brings us home.

  • Metaphors: Jesus' 40-day wandering for us; Jesus being crucified "outside the camp; Jesus as New Moses, Leader, Fire and Cloud; from slavery, prison, jail, wandering, casting out, chains, shackles, bonds, addiction, desert, alien, sojourner, exodus, rootlessness, homelessness, freedom, unshackling, home, restoration, rest, promised land, anchor, permanence, welcoming, feasting, abundance

4. The language of the temple. Christ is the sacrifice that purifies us and makes us acceptable to draw near to the holy God. He makes us clean and beautiful. (Hebrews 9:14)

  • Metaphors: Jesus as High Priest, Sacrifice / Lamb of God / Lamb who was slain before the foundations of the world, Servant / Minister; sacrifice, purification, substitution, atonement, death for life, blood, offering, washing, cleansing, renewal 

5. The language of the law court. Christ stands before the judge and takes the punishment we deserve. He removes our guilt and makes us righteous. (1 Peter 3:18) 

  • Metaphors: Jesus as Judge, Prosecutor, Defendant, Advocate; ruling, declaration, pardon, guilt, innocence, justified, acquittal, pleading, advocating, defense, clean record, absolution, law, binding verdict, case against, case for, Luther's "simul justus et peccator" (simultaneously just and sinner)

The Ordo Salutis

Keller does not mention this (it’s beyond the scope of his chapter), but what has classically been called the ordo salutis, the much-debated “order of salvation,” I think often serves to help excite the imagination of what the start-to-finish journey of God’s salvation of us through Jesus looks like. Researching and learning more about any one of these themes in the “golden chain” of salvation (Romans 8:30). I offer here the Reformed ordo, well, because I believe in it. In my understanding, the elements of the below ordo step out of the realm of the gospel proper (the gospel is not all of these things), but this is the journey of salvation that may offer songwriting fodder for gospel-oriented songs.

  • Election – God’s free, unmerited, predestined choice (Eph 1:3-10)
  • Effectual Calling – a summons so powerful that it gives the very response it calls for (Acts 16:14)
  • Regeneration – new birth, moving from a heart of stone to a heart of flesh, being born again (Eph 2:4-7)
  • Faith/Repentance – God’s gift to us of our trust in Christ; changing our minds about ourselves and about Jesus (Eph 2:8-9)
  • Justification – God’s declaration that we, sinners, are righteous by virtue of the Sinless One, Jesus Christ (Rom 3:21-26)
  • Adoption – We are named and brought in as sons and daughters of God, co-heirs with Christ (Gal 4:5; Rom 8:15)
  • Sanctification – God’s work of conforming us to the image and likeness of His Son (1 Thess 5:23)
  • Perseverance – God’s work of keeping us from falling away unto the end (Phil 1:6)
  • Glorification – the completion of God’s salvation where we, in body and soul, are transformed into the fullness of Christ-likeness (1 Cor 15:42-59)

The Center of the Gospel

As Keller says of the above atonement grammars, there is “one, irreducible theme that runs through every single one of these models—the idea of substitution” (p. 131). Think about it with me. Whenever you’re singing a song about the gospel, what’s the point at which the truth overflows from head to heart? When is the moment when you’re gushing with emotion, thanksgiving, adoration? At what point does the gospel overwhelm us? At the point of substitution. It’s at the point where we recognize that Christ was crucified in our place—the Just for the unjust. It’s at the point where we sing of the great exchange—His righteousness for our unrighteousness. For instance, doesn’t your heart completely melt when you sing, “Before the Throne of God Above” and you get to the lines:

Because the sinless Savior died
My sinful soul is counted free
For God the just is satisfied
To look on Him and pardon me

So to tie all this up, I’d like to remind us of the words of Martin Luther, when he said that justification by faith alone is “the doctrine by which the church stands or falls.” If we bore down to the most basic, fundamental need of every human being, it is the need to be justified. All our pursuits, longings, dreams, hopes, and ambitions really do stem from the question, “How can I be justified?” The more we understand this, the more we realize why substitution is such a powerful summary of the center of the Gospel. Substitution answers the most fundamental question of every human being, and it shows God to be a God who justifies solely by gracious, unmerited love.

Therefore, in all the above metaphors and grammars, the way we construct a truly gospel-saturated song out of them is to somehow eventually drive home justification and substitution. Those words might not be used (they are somewhat sterile), but their concepts should be exposited. In songwriting, justification and substitution are the “sweet spot” on the gospel-bat that ensures the ball will get over the fence.

I often find that, when I’m writing songs about the gospel, it makes sense to place justification and substitution in to the chorus or bridge of a song. For instance, our song “His Be the Victor’s Name” is a hymn loaded with wonderful, paradoxical battlefield imagery:

By weakness and defeat,
He won the glorious crown.
Trod all His foes beneath His feet
By being trodden down.

But my question is, when does the emotional home run occur in the song?  It occurs in the chorus, and maybe even more so in the bridge.  Notice what is being sung there: 

What though the vile accuser roar
Of sins that I have done
I know them well and thousands more
My God, He knoweth none

My sin is cast into the sea
Of God’s forgotten memory
No more to haunt accusingly
For Christ has lived and died for me

There you have it. Justification by substitution. Forgiveness because of the merit of Another. These are the emotional climaxes of the song precisely because they bore down to the center of where the gospel meets the most fundamental human need. 

Hopefully this gives a decent picture of how writing a gospel-centered song can happen.  

*Timothy Keller, Center Church: Doing Balanced, Gospel-Centered Ministry in Your City (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2012), 130-131.

Two Popular Worship Song Words That Need to Be Taken Back by the Gospel

Yes, I used one of these pictures.Whenever I download a new mainstream worship record, I feel like I have to brace myself for two very well-worn words whose meaning and potency have been largely neutered by a deadly combination of overuse and de-contextualization. In recent years, as the gospel of Christ's finished work on my behalf has come to mean more and more to me, my jealousy has intensified in desire to take back these two words that I feel have been largely coopted to a different camp of meaning.

The words I am talking about are "victory" and "freedom." I don't need to quote any particular worship album, artist, or song, because the terms are simply everywhere. They are gospel-words. They reside in the Pauline wheelhouse of soteriological phraseology.

I'm purposefully not quoting and not being specific, but when I hear the words "victory" and "freedom" in worship songs, both their lyrical and musical contexts make me feel as though the songwriters have in mind quite individuated ideas of personal triumph and unfettered self-expression. (If you've read my blog, you've heard me address this idea of "triumphalism.") Certainly the writers are aware that such victory and freedom are grounded in Christ, and that grounding does sometimes make it into the songs. But even then, the impression is still given that the type of freedom we're singing about pertains more to our demonstration of worship in the moment (we're free to individually emote and self-express) than to our standing with Christ in eternity (we're forever free from the slavery of sin, death, and the enemy).  And the impression is still given that the type of victory we're singing about pertains more to our being "armored up" to go out and conquer the world for Jesus than Christ's being violently stripped of all power and conquering through defeat. Hymn-writer Samuel Gandy wrote:

By weakness and defeat
He won the glorious crown
Trod all His foes beneath His feet
By being trodden down 

And Gandy was only making poetry out of Paul's profundity when he told the Colossians: "God made [us] alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross. He disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him" (2:13-15, ESV).

You see, the only victory we have to stand in is Christ's, not ours. The only triumph we own is Christ's, not ours. Jesus is not just our victory. He is our ONLY victory. That's a very important distinction that distinguishes Gospel from lie.

And the freedom we have is both a freedom from and a freedom to. We are free from the crushing demands of the law, not because the law is abrogated but because it has been fulfilled by the Righteous Law-Keeper (Rom 3). We are free from the deadly power of sin. We are free from a fettered will that can't do anything but return to its own vomit.  

And we are free to live guiltlessly. We are free to live with purpose, identity, and meaning. We are free to give without needing to take. We are free to serve without needing reciprocity. We are free for mission, and we are free to love the world without needing to extract its resources to replenish our stores...because our cup overflows.

So, at the risk of sounding a bit grandiose, I commission worship songwriters anywhere and everywhere, to help us all redefine victory and freedom, to sharpen their dulled edges and wipe away their smears and smudges, that we may look clearly through them, past ourselves, to see Christ in all his crucified and resurrected splendor.

Don't get me wrong. I think we should all be full-throated, physically expressive worshipers. Emoting is important. It's a sign of the impact of the gospel. We just need to be very conscious not to emote about freedom and victory, but about Christ, who IS our freedom and victory. 



His Be the Victor's Name EP - Releases Today!

Coral Ridge Music and I are proud to announce the release of His Be the Victor's Name, a small collection of worship songs dedicated to the themes God’s two words of Law and Gospel. It consists of four re-tuned hymns, a confession song based on the Book of Common Prayer, and one full original. With the exception of “From the Depths of Woe” (Indelible Grace / Christopher Miner), all the tunes and additional texts were written by me in collaboration with Coral Ridge Music artist, Julie Anne Osterhus.

The album is a studio pop-rock record, incorporating our organ (and organist Chelsea Chen) in the first track and a stripped down feel in the last. Four of the six songs are staple “favorites” at Coral Ridge, and they go hand-in-hand with our church’s mission to declare and demonstrate the liberating power of the Gospel.  The title track, “His Be the Victor’s Name,” is a favorite whenever I hit the road with Tullian Tchividjian. 

You COULD buy it through iTunes here, but your best price is the unbeatable $4.99 over at Coral Ridge Music's bandcamp site, or in the widget below. If you want the Physical CD, you can also order it through bandcamp.

Take a Listen...then Buy It

Free Songbook!

In addition to this, we've got the entire songbook available for free download. It provides you every song in two formats:

  • words & chords
  • lead sheets (melody line on a staff, w/chords above)

We want your churches singing this stuff!

Tell Everyone About It

We'd appreciate a shout out anywhere and everywhere.

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If you paste this link in Facebook, it can play directly from there, which is a bonus for folks wanting to check it out but not do a lot of clicking:

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If you're on Twitter, here's an autotweet for you, or paste this:

Great new #worship album by @zachicks and @CoralRidgeMusic is out! I'm loving it!



I'm Giving Away My Albums for Two Weeks!

My humble contribution to the worship song world, thus far, has been two LP’s and a bunch of singles, pretty much all of which have been retuned hymns. I’m giving them away for free on NoiseTrade for two weeks. I’d encourage you to share the love and spread the news far and wide. The reason for this is to pre-celebrate the release of my newest project, an EP of 6 songs that have all been a part of my amazing first-year journey at Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church (this month marks exactly one year!). The album is called His Be the Victor’s Name. I think it’s my strongest work yet.

But in the meantime, enjoy the two full-length albums that have my blood and tear stains all over them. 

The Glad Sound (2009) was my first attempt at a hymns record. It was a studio recording done in a mainstream pop-rock style. I learned how to make a record through the process. I love the songs on this record, and I learned a ton about recording, songwriting, and production in the process. This album contains the first hymn I ever re-tuned and one that is probably my most sung in the world (according to CCLI)—a communion hymn called “Bread of the World in Mercy Broken.”

Without Our Aid (2011) was my attempt to meld the live “arena worship” sound that was (and still is) popular (think of Hillsong and Passion) with great theology, drenched in the gospel and hymnody. It was my experiment in seeing how old hymns could interface with new waves of worship music. Without Our Aid has a big rock sound, with hints of ambient indie rock and disco. I wouldn’t describe it as “artsy,” but I stand behind its artistry.  I know what went into it, and I know what its influences are.

So, GO GET THEM.  And go tell everyone, please!