Scripture in song: In Christ Alone

    1. In Christ alone my hope is found
    2. He is my light, my strength, my song;
    3. This Cornerstone, this solid Ground,
    4. Firm through the fiercest drought and storm.
    5. What heights of love, what depths of peace,
    6. When fears are stilled, when strivings cease!
    7. My Comforter, my All in All,
    8. Here in the love of Christ I stand.

 

2.1       In Christ alone! – who took on flesh,

2.2       Fullness of God in helpless babe.

2.3       This gift of love and righteousness,
2.4       Scorned by the ones He came to save:
2.5       Till on that cross as Jesus died,
2.6       The wrath of God was satisfied –
2.7       For every sin on Him was laid;
2.8       Here in the death of Christ I live.

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

4.1       No guilt in life, no fear in death,
4.2       This is the power of Christ in me;
4.3       From life’s first cry to final breath,
4.4       Jesus commands my destiny.
4.5       No power of hell, no scheme of man,
4.6       Can ever pluck me from His hand:
4.7       Till He returns or calls me home,
4.8       Here in the power of Christ I’ll stand.

 

We are continuing our series looking at well-known Christian hymns and what they can teach us. It’s a real privilege this morning to be asked to speak on this one. A real favourite here at Hambledon of many of us. Other preachers during this series have spoken on the Bible passage from which the hymn was inspired or particular themes. I’m not. This hymn was written as a creed. So I intend to go through it as to what we do believe. A wonderful affirmation of our faith. A tremendous chance to give praise, to wonder at all that God has done for us. To learn more of what it means to be saved and in a new relationship with him. A chance to rejoice. A chance to worship.

 

Of course as a church we believe it’s only the word of God which is divinely inspired. But we also know that the same inspiration takes hold of Christians through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. In poems, paintings and other creativity we are able to show this wonderful work of salvation.

 

And because I will be going through it line by line, I have put it on the sheet for you, with numbering to help my references!

 

Introduction

 

It was written by Keith Getty and Stuart Townend. The former wrote the original music, based on a strong Irish melody. The latter wrote the lyrics. And when did they do so?

 

We have hymns in this church by wonderful hymn writers such as Charles Wesley, Isaac Watts and others. Centuries ago. Copyright long expired. St Francis of Assisi was particularly careless with protecting copyright in his hymn writing. Look at the bottom of your page. 2001. Less than 20 years ago. But what incredible acclamation and admiration in that time. It has already been translated into many languages.

 

It was originally popular in Ireland, then the UK and then broke into the USA market and went worldwide. By 2005, only four years, it was named by BBC Songs of Praise as the ninth best loved hymn. By 2006, it was number 1 in the charts of the Christian Copyright Licensing International. By 2007 it was in the Christian charts in Canada, Australia and New Zealand. I was in Sydney between 2003 and 2005 and I remember my church singing it often.

 

But even greater acclaim was to follow. Or at least if you think in these terms. In 2013 Justin Welby had it in his enthronement ceremony.

 

It is a credal song with its theme being the life, death and resurrection of Christ and that he is the God whom even death cannot hold.

 

But what of the songwriter himself. Stuart Townend was born in 1963. His other songs sung here at our church include “How deep the father’s love for us” and “Beautiful Saviour”. The son of a Church of England vicar from West Yorkshire. He started playing the piano at seven. He made a Christian commitment at the age of 13 and began song writing at 22, the same year his father died in a road traffic accident. He studied literature at Sussex University. He is married with three children. He has led worship and performed at events across the world. One Christian magazine described Townend as “one of the most significant songwriters in the whole international Christian music field“. A Christian website commented that, “the uniqueness of Townend’s writing lies partly in its lyrical content. There is both a theological depth and poetic expression that some say is rare in today’s worship writing

 

What of the songwriter himself? What was the Lord’s work in his life? He said as follows:

 

In Christ alone was actually the first song Keith Getty and I wrote together. We had been introduced by a mutual friend at a worship conference, where we had a coffee together and talked about our backgrounds, musical influences, and motivations to write. Keith promised he would send me a CD with a bunch of melodies he’d been working on, and to be honest I thought no more about it.

 

Then a few days later the CD arrived. And the first melody on it really hit me – it was tuneful and memorable, and yet had gravitas and real emotion. And I began to feel the pressure to write lyrics that were of a comparable standard!

 

The only thing I could think was to base it on the eternal theme of the life, death and resurrection of Christ. The verses came in a fairly linear way, but as the third verse developed, I was getting pretty excited as I thought about the amazing implications of Christ’s finished work on the cross. I wanted to write a fourth verse that was about us – but not just as an emotional response, but as an undeniable statement of the power of Christ to sustain us in this life.

 

Keith and I are overwhelmed with the response this song has had, and we are just grateful to God that He should use it to build up His church in this way.

 

So let us now turn to the hymn itself

 

Verse one

 

Before it goes through the chronological developments which make up the creed, verses two, and three, we have personal testimony. This is very much a song for our times. The experiential, developing beliefs from what I feel and know and have been through. Whatever some of us of a particular generation may think, this is now the pattern of belief and life. I am Charlie, identifying in the attack on the political satirists. I am a survivor and therefore will support anyone else surviving, whatever that may be from. Me too because I have also experienced some form of misuse of power. Personal experience and identification.

 

But it’s not new. Look at Paul in 2 Corinthians 11. Boasting about his sufferings. He makes clear several times he didn’t want to write in those terms but he would if that would help the Corinthian church accept his message of where he was coming from and what he had endured. We should not be so troubled in speaking far more from our personal experience. The salvation of Christ through his death and resurrection is factually objective. But it finds its home in our personal subjectivity. And we should feel able to express that. And I know I myself over the years haven’t done so enough.

 

So what is Christ to us? 1.1. Our hope. Not optimism; I hope that sooner or later Parliament sorts things out. But an expectation and confidence based on past experience. Hebrews 11.1, now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see.

 

1.2. He is my light, my strength, my song. The God who enlightens my life and gives me meaning and context and understanding. The God who enables me to keep going. The God who meets my emotions and my emotional needs. The God who reaches the place of songs and our inner creativity.

 

1.3. My Cornerstone, my solid ground. Wikipedia describes the cornerstone as the foundation stone or the setting stone. The first stone set in the construction of any building. Before digital CAD drawings, all other stones were set in reference to this stone thus determining the position and the future direction of the entire structure. Christ is the cornerstone of my life. It continues: This solid ground. The foundation, to continue the analogy, upon which the building of my life occurs. We know the story of the person who built their house upon the sand and the one who built it upon the solid rock foundation, Matthew 7: 24-27. He is the foundation and direction of our lives.

 

Then 1.4-1.6. Firm through the fiercest drought and storm, what heights of love, what depths of peace when fears are stilled and strivings cease. Each of us here this morning, each of us here at the service this afternoon, will have been through droughts and storms. Outwardly some may have been through far more than others. The outward doesn’t matter. This is not a comparison or a race. This is our own personal struggles and difficulties.

 

Because what matters is not the challenges in life but how we respond to those challenges. And in the very worst depths of those challenges we discover the incredible love and peace of God. The peace which the world cannot take away, John 14:27. The love of God. And we have that peace and love in the middle of the storm in our lives. It’s not that we have no fears. Christianity is not some sort of celestial painkiller. The fears exist, are real, but they are stilled by God through our knowing his love and receiving his peace. And many of us here this morning and this afternoon are able to praise the Lord through that experience. We are not removed from the storms. But he is with us in them

 

No wonder the hymn writer concludes the opening verse by referring to Christ as his all in all. 1.8. Embraced, comforted by the love of Christ we stand. Without it we would have keeled over ages ago. Been crippled by the storms in our lives. With Christ we stand, upright, proud, giving entire acknowledgement and gratitude to Christ. In Christ alone we can have hope and confidence that this will be our experience.

 

But what has happened to bring about this staggering opportunity and possibility? That is the next two verses.

 

Second verse

 

Unlike other religions, Christianity is based on a human who was God but didn’t protect himself by using deity powers. Not a human who had a revelation during his life. But a human who was part of the very God of all creation, a mystery we can’t understand in this life, being born just as each of us were born. Helpless babies. Needing nine-month pregnancy. Needing parental help during upbringing. Needing food and sustenance. As each of us. Yet, 2.2, within him was absolutely everything of what is God, the fullness of God.

 

We have in Christianity a wonderful story of rescue and relationship. But it is all about Christ. He is the love gift, 2.3, to us unworthy people here on planet Earth. He would make us right in the eyes of God.

 

But we didn’t give him a loving reception, the open welcome, the grateful thanks for coming to live amongst us. We scorned him, rejected him, refused him and his good works and good words and we killed him. Dead. No longer walking the earth. No longer amongst us. 2.5

 

But God expected this would happen. And perhaps none of us are too surprised anyway in retrospect. But as CS Lewis described in the Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, when Aslan is killed, there was a deeper magic at work, something which satisfied God and enabled the broken relationship to be restored. So in 2.8 we have death and life in the same sentence. In the death of Christ I live. I am in relationship with God and in the new life he has given to us. But I can only do so because Christ died, shorthand for the death and resurrection but that is the next verse.

 

But before we get there, we have to look at 2.5 and particularly 2.6. “Till on that cross as Jesus died, the wrath of God was satisfied,” which adheres to the so-called satisfaction theory of atonement. Christ atoned, satisfied, gave a payment on our behalf, for our sins. The scapegoat. The one who paid the ransom. But this line has made the song a subject of massive criticism and division in the US. In 2013, a 15-member committee of the US Presbyterian Church voted to exclude the song from a new church hymn book. They had wanted to change the line to: “the love of God was magnified”, but the songwriters refused, on doctrinal reasons. The church’s concern was not about the word wrath but satisfied. The Presbyterian Church of the USA is a mainstream Protestant church with about 1.5 million baptised members. They are regarded as liberal progressive, whatever that means, on matters of doctrine and practice.

 

So they excluded the song, now possibly the most popular modern song in the Christian Protestant church, from their services. One leading minister said that while many in his congregation liked the hymn, he agreed with the decision because “that lyric comes close to saying that God killed Jesus. The cross is not an instrument of God’s wrath.”

 

Others disagreed. One commentator said: “When wrath goes, so does the central meaning of the atonement of God: penal substitution. At the end of the day, the cross itself is the stumbling block, and that is why the Presbyterian Church cannot abide by this hymn.” Which probably says more about the divisions in the American church. Meanwhile somebody from the Alabama Baptist church wrote that he agreed with satisfaction theory, but “if the meaning of ‘wrath’ is that God is vindictive and took joy in punishing His Son then that is not how I find God described in the Bible. As I understand the Bible, it was because ‘God so loved the world’ that He was willing ‘to crush Him and cause Him to suffer.’

 

For myself and having considered the matter carefully, I am perfectly happy to have these words remain in the hymn. Using the language of the criminal courts, we have been convicted of failing to live the way God wants and reasonably expects, a way of describing sin. We have been sentenced to the most horrible prospect; life without all of the benefits of relationship with the grace giving creator. We cannot even grasp how dreadful that will be. And yet not only the sentence but the very conviction has been removed by Christ’s death. We have no criminal record. We are completely clear with our God. Only because God’s son took the conviction on himself on that dark Saturday between the crucifixion and resurrection. His wrath, his judgement, has been satisfied. God is now perfectly satisfied with us. And now in the death of Christ we have perfect life.

 

I bring you the background to this church dividing issue

 

Third verse

 

On that Friday evening, Good Friday, the dead body was lying in the tomb. Completely dead. Not a coma. Not a deceit. No life left in the physical body. The very light of the world killed by darkness, 3.2. But that dead body was not the full stop. It was a mere semi colon, a pause. Because on that Easter Sunday the most incredible event occurred since the creation of our universe. Up from the grave he arose, 3.4. He burst forth into glorious daylight, 3.3. Remember the stone was rolled away from the tomb not so that Christ could leave but so that we could see the body was gone.

 

And this could only happen because he had overcome the conviction on us of sin. He was victorious, 3.5. The curse, the conviction, the penalty of sin was no longer upon us. So much about our life, indeed all life on this planet, derives from the Fall. Suffering and pain. Frustration and emptiness. Toil and turmoil. But its grip has now has gone. Not fully ended in this life. We still have pain and suffering. But its power, it’s grip, its capacity to destroy our relationship with God has gone. Cancer takes lives. It cannot take our life in Christ.

 

And then these magnificent words, 3.7. Dare we even say them as humble created creatures of our Deity creator? For I am his and he is mine. Why? Because we have been bought with the precious blood of Christ, 3.8. And what does this now mean?

 

Fourth verse

 

And here is the deep magic of which CS Lewis writes. A mystery we will only fully comprehend in heaven. But we can understand something of it. Indeed we deepen our faith, we become mature as Christians, as we understand more about our faith. And in understanding we will appreciate more of what God has done. And in appreciating, we will love more.

 

In our life now there is no more guilt. Our conviction has been wiped clear. Not just the sentence has been reduced or we have a conditional discharge. We have no criminal record. No conviction. We have no reason to fear the penalty of exclusion from Christ after we die. From beginning to end, our first baby cry until our final breath, 4.3, the power of Christ is in me. He commands, he is the commander and master of our lives, of our destiny which is now found in him, 4.4

 

And so we are completely safe and secure. No spiritual power can pluck us from his hand. Not the evil one, not supernatural forces in any way, not fears or psychological damage as a consequence of believing our unworthiness or inadequacies; we are his and in him and he is ours. But it goes even further. No scheme of man can take us from God. Christians have known throughout history of people scheming against them. Explicit persecution, terrors, tortures and deaths. It is continuing and certainly not reducing in our present time as the recent report, commissioned by Jeremy Hunt, on worldwide Christian persecution showed. Despite this, Christians are safe in his hands. But it’s not just explicit persecution. For many of us in our country, the schemes of man are found in our inability to speak and write as forthrightly as we would want for fear of losing our jobs, perhaps our professional status and more. These words speak to us in England in 2019. Certainly we need to be cautious and wise but remember: No scheme of man can ever pluck me from his hand.

 

And then the very final words, 4.7. And this will continue until the return of Christ or, if sooner, our death when he calls us home. Our home in heaven. Our home with a far closer relationship with Christ our Lord and saviour. The home of love everlasting.

 

So what do we say if there is no more guilt in our life, no more fear about death, no more concern about spiritual forces and no more ultimate power on our lives from the hands of others? Surely it is 4.8. Here in the power of Christ I will stand. Because this is where we stand this morning. It is why, 2000 years after the death of Jesus Christ, we will be standing this afternoon as a new chapter in the life of the Christians in this community begins. We stand in the power of Christ and only in that power.

 

In Christ alone my hope is found. He is my light, my strength, my song

 

Wow. I wrote this sermon last Saturday morning. When the boss goes clothes shopping at Mad Jacks in Shere, my treat is a decent pint at the William Bray where I checked over the first draft. I’m not someone given to expressions of emotion. But I can say my heart veritably glowed within, that Saturday lunchtime Surrey pub, as I reflected on these glorious words and even more glorious truths.

 

The incredible inspiration by the Holy Spirit to this incredibly gifted songwriter has brought us this incredible hymn of praise, setting out what we believe and why we believe and then fundamentally the consequences of that belief for us. In spiritual terms, the fourth verse. In our life here and now, the first verse.

 

Praise the Lord for this song. Praise the Lord for all that it shows us about him. Praise the Lord for his opportunity of salvation and for Christ. For I am his and he is mine, bought with the precious blood of Christ. Here in the love of God I stand

 

Amen

David Hodson

dh@davidhodson.com

07973 890648

September 2019

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