THE PURPOSE OF THIS BLOG

I am the song leader in my church. I am not very proficient as a musician or a choral director. I pray that, someday soon, God will send someone more capable, to take this ministry from me. But for the time being it is my responsibility to select the music and lead the congregation in the singing every week.

I take that responsibility seriously. The hymns and songs that I select must be doctrinally sound, they must be appropriate for worship with a God-centered worldview, and, withing those parameters, I try to select music that will reinforce and, support the text and subject of my pastor’s messages.

Some of us have been singing the hymns for years; the words roll off our lips but the messages often don't engage our minds or penetrate our hearts. With the apostle Paul, I want the congregation to "sing with understanding."

So for the past couple years, it has been my practice to select one hymn each week, research it, and then highlight it with a short introductory commentary so that the congregation will be more informed regarding the origin, the author's testimony, or the doctrinal significance of the hymns we sing.

It is my intention here with this blog, to archive these hymn commentaries for my reference and to make them freely available to other church song leaders. For ease of reference, all the hymn commentaries in this blog will be titled IN ALL CAPITAL LETTERS. Other posts (which will be music ministry related opinion pieces) will be printed in lower case letters.

I know that some of the comments contain traces of my unique style, but please feel free to adapt them and use the content any way you can for the edification of your congregation and to the glory of God.

All I ask is that you leave a little comment should you find something helpful.


Ralph M. Petersen

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Monday, September 26, 2016

GRACE GREATER THAN OUR SIN

About three years ago, I listened to a disturbing Huffington Post interview with one of America’s most popular, false teachers.   In the context of his heretical drivel about how God loves and accepts those who practice homosexuality because that’s the way He made them, he made this shocking statement:
“It doesn’t matter who likes you or doesn’t like you; all that matters is that God likes you.  He accepts you; He approves of you.”  Joel Osteen
  
Well, I’m pretty certain that God does NOT like me, period.   I know a few people whom I think might like me but if they really knew me like I know me, they probably wouldn't like me at all.  I think I know myself well enough to know that there is nothing about me that God could like.  In fact, if I thought for a moment, that God really likes me, accepts me, and approves of me unconditionally, I would think that He either doesn’t know me at all or maybe He is easily deceived and not a very wise discerner of character.  

But God is wise and He does know all about me.  Therefore, I would have to say, He does NOT like me.

It is true that God loves me; that has been demonstrated, by His mercy and grace, in the fact that He sent His Son to suffer, and bleed, and die for the penalty of ALL my sin against Him, thereby satisfying His righteous justice. 

Sure, it is true that the Scripture says I am accepted.  But that acceptance is followed by the prepositional phrase, “in the Beloved.”  The basis for His acceptance of me is that I am in Christ and He is in me.  That is the only way The Holy and Righteous God of creation can even stand the sight of me.  Jesus Christ is my righteousness; He is my covering.  Without my covering, I am a just another dirty, depraved sinner capable of thievery, homosexuality, murder or any other kind of evil or perversion, and deserving of His terrible and righteous wrath.

When God saves a repentant sinner, He doesn’t just let him continue in his sin; He cleans him up, turns him around, changes his behavior, and He begins the process of making the sinner a creature fit to live with Him forever.  Furthermore, should any of us, who are saved, ever think too highly of ourselves, we have the constant, eternal reminder that our sin nailed the Son of God to the cross.  Jesus Christ redeemed us with His own blood.     What we need is grace that is greater than all our sin.

This is one of the several hymns, about God’s grace, that I really love.  Julia Johnston, a writer of Sunday school curriculum and about 500 hymn texts, is best known for this hymn which is all about God’s great grace and its amazing work in the salvation of the believer.


In four stanzas, this song builds the story of the Gospel of grace:  It is because of God’s grace that He sent Son to atone for our sins; It is God’s grace that points us to the Cross of Calvary; by God’s grace, we can be washed white as snow; and by God’s amazing grace, we will someday see Him face to face.

Monday, September 19, 2016

JUST AS I AM

Charlotte Elliott was born, the daughter of a pastor, in England in 1789.  She was a talented woman with a lot of zeal for service in Christian work. 

It’s not certain when but, as a very young woman, she became invalid with severe sicknesses.  Not only was she physically ill, her unrelenting diseases caused a great deal of emotional anguish and spiritual conflict.  She felt useless and uncertain of her ability to please God in any kind of service.  Feeling increasingly unworthy of God's grace and incapable of facing a perfect and righteous God, she started church-hopping and visited many churches.  And she sought the counsel of many different pastors, all of whom instructed her to simply pray more, to study the Bible more, to perform more good deeds, and to resolve to do better.

Most of that advice was worthless because it encouraged her to do more of what she was already trying to do.   It is impossible to merit God’s grace and gain salvation by our own efforts or good works.

For several more years, Charlotte continued to struggle against her sin and self-condemnation.  She was discouraged by her condition that she found described in Romans 7:18: “I know that in me…nothing good dwells; for the will to do good is present with me, but to work out the good is not.”

After some time, she met a preacher named Dr. Caesar Malan.  She asked him, just as she had asked many others, how she might be saved.  Malan responded, “Go to God just as you are.”

Charlotte still didn’t understand the unmerited favor of God’s grace.  She asked him, “Do I not have to do better, make more progress, and improve more before I believe in the Lord Jesus?”

Malan simply repeated: “You must come to Him just as you are.”

Those words would later change her life and inspire the composition of her best-known hymn.

One big event was especially troubling for her.  When she was forty-five, her brother (also a pastor) had planned to build a school of higher education for the daughters of clergymen.   A fund-raising bazaar had been planned to help finance the project and most everyone, in her large church community, worked day and night in preparation for the event -- with the one exception -  no matter how willing and eager she was, Charlotte could do nothing.

The night before the bazaar she was unable to sleep.  The distressing thoughts of her uselessness turned to spiritual conflict.  She doubted the reality of her whole spiritual life.

The next day, during the bazaar, her fears turned to depression and the anguish of that night troubled her all day until she remembered the instruction of Dr. Malan to go to God just as she was and she would find His grace.   That’s when she began to recall all the great certainties and assurances of salvation that she had been taught all throughout her lifetime.
 
Charlotte had already been a skilled and accomplished writer so she took a pen and paper and began to make notes of the power and the promises of the Lord.   And then, for her own comfort, she began to write out ‘the formula of her faith’ as she reconsidered the Gospel of Peace, the promise of pardon, and the hope of Heaven.

From those notes, she formed the verses of a poem that became the hymn, JUST AS I AM WITHOUT ONE PLEA.  Within a matter of just a few years, Charlotte Elliott had her hymn published, first, in The Invalid’s Hymn Book.


The song is a testimony to God’s grace in and through all kinds of suffering.

Monday, September 12, 2016

HE LIVES

The popular song, HE LIVES, may not be listed among the greatest hymns ever written but it probably qualifies to be among the most loved, especially in American congregations during the mid 20th century.  And I understand the sentimental popularity; it is a lively and joyful declaration of the resurrection of Jesus and it is fun to sing with its antiphonal response phrases in the chorus.
 
Nevertheless, I have been reluctant to use it because of one glaring weakness that permeates the text.  I am not implying that there is any false doctrine in it; there isn’t

So what is the problem?  I am troubled by the weak subjectivity of the dominant theme that moves us, three times, to the question in the chorus, “You ask me how I know He lives?” and the subsequent response, “He lives within my heart.”

I understand that each of us has unique experiences where we have felt or sensed God’s nearness, protection, and love in our lives.  For those who are redeemed, we see His hand everywhere and in everything just as the writer has said, “In all the world around me, I see His loving care.”  

Our subjective testimonies may be true, but they’re not compelling proofs. They are secondary to objective truth.   Our confidence (and especially our testimonies to unbelievers) must rest on solid evidence and we have plenty of it.  

So when the song asks the question, “You ask me how I know He lives?”  I think the objective response should be something like, “I’M GLAD YOU ASKED.  THERE IS EVIDENCE BEYOND A REASONABLE DOUBT.”  But, unfortunately, that doesn’t fit in the musical meter.

So what evidence is there for the resurrection of Jesus from the dead?  

We have the eye-witness testimonies of the apostles and others who met the risen Christ; those who physically “walked and talked with Him” in the flesh. 

We have the account of a doctor, Luke, who recorded the words the angel spoke to the women who were looking for Christ’s body at the tomb; “Why do you seek the living among the dead? He is not here, but is risen.”  And later, he recorded that Jesus “presented Himself alive after His suffering by many infallible proofs.”

We have the testimony of Peter who declared, “This Jesus, God has raised up, of which we are all witnesses.”

Even though he often gets a bad rap, I am really glad that Jesus used Thomas to validate His resurrection.  Thomas heard the testimonies of others but he demanded more than just hearsay; he wanted real, tangible evidence; “Unless I see, in His hands, the print of the nails, and put my finger into the print of the nails, and put my hand into His side, I will not believe.” And after eight days His disciples were again inside, and Thomas with them.  Jesus came, the doors being shut, and stood in the midst, and said, “Peace to you!”  Then He said to Thomas, “Reach your finger here, and look at My hands; and reach your hand here, and put it into My side.  Do not be unbelieving, but believing.”  And Thomas answered and said to Him, “My Lord and my God!”

Jesus was seen by over five hundred people, during the forty days between His resurrection and His ascension, many of whom were still alive at the time these accounts were recorded in scripture.

We have the accounts from Paul who, as a skeptical unbeliever and a violent persecutor of Christians, met the risen, glorified Christ on the road to Damascus.

And we have the inspired Word of the living God.  In the words of R. C. Sproul, “We have to determine our theology from the Word of God, not from what we feel.”

This song is most often used in Resurrection Day celebrations but I picked it for today because of its exuberant assurance of great things to come. Jesus said, “I Am the Living One; I was dead and behold I Am alive for ever and ever!”   

We really do serve a risen Savior so we can joyfully and confidently sing,

Rejoice! Rejoice, O Christian, lift up your voice and sing eternal
hallelujahs to Jesus Christ, the King!
The Hope of all who seek Him, the Help of all who find,
None other is so loving, so good and kind.

Monday, September 5, 2016

I NEED THEE EVERY HOUR

Max Lucado once told this story of an encounter he had with his 3-year-old nephew: “He asked me to play some basketball. A towheaded, spark plug of a boy, he delights in anything round and bouncy. When he spotted the basketball and goal in my driveway, he couldn’t resist. The ball, however, was as big as his midsection. The basket was three times his height. His best heaves fell way short. So I set out to help him. I lowered the goal from ten feet to eight feet. I led him closer to the target. I showed him how to “granny toss” the ball. Nothing helped. The ball never threatened the net. So I gave him a lift. With one hand on his back and my other beneath his little bottom, I lifted him higher and higher until he was eye level with the rim. 

“Make a basket!” I urged. And he did. He rolled the ball over the iron hoop, and down it dropped. Swoosh! And how did he respond? Still cradled in my hands, he punched both fists into the air and declared, “All by myself! All by myself!” 

I think we are all like that sometimes? We don’t want to be dependent on others; we are slow to ask for help, and we are proud of our “can do” confidence. 

I had a very simple mechanical equipment problem a few weeks ago that took me nearly two days to fix. Because I didn’t know anything about the equipment, I made several mistakes and had to do some research and repeat some of my work at extra expense. The day after I finished, I was telling my friends about it and one of them asked, “Why didn’t you ask me? I could have fixed that for you in a few minutes.” 

That kind of independent spirit is innate in all of us but in our American culture, the qualities of independence and self-reliance are valued as virtues (especially for men). They have been ingrained in us through our national history and in our family upbringings. We tend to think of dependence as a weakness. But the truth is - we are all needy. We all need help from God every day. We need Him more than most of us realize. 

In fact, Jesus told us just how much we need Him: “Abide in Me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in Me. “I am the vine; you are the branches. He who abides in Me, and I in him, bears much fruit; for WITHOUT ME, YOU CAN DO NOTHING. If anyone does not abide in Me, he is cast out as a branch and is withered; and they gather them and throw them into the fire, and they are burned.” 

That passage from John 15 may have been the inspiration for the lyrics to the old hymn, “I Need Thee Every Hour.” It was written in 1872 by Annie Hawks, a prolific writer who wrote dozens of articles for magazines and newspapers and she wrote almost 400 hymns during her lifetime. 

When she was asked about this hymn, she wrote: “One day as a young wife and mother, I was busy with my regular household tasks. Suddenly, I became so filled with the sense of nearness to the Master that, wondering how one could live without Him, either in joy or pain, these words, I Need Thee Every Hour, were ushered into my mind, the thought at once taking full possession of me. Seating myself by the open window in the balmy air of the bright June day, I caught up my pencil and the words were soon committed to paper.” 

God’s power and help in our lives are continuous and practical functions of His grace. We don’t just need God for our lives; we need Him in our lives. It is impossible to live a clean, obedient, God-honoring and glorifying life without Him. None of us can rightfully boast that we did anything good without Him!

Monday, August 29, 2016

CROWN HIM WITH MANY CROWNS

Probably one of the biggest issues that divide Christians, churches, and denominations is commonly called “Worship Wars.”   It has to do with how and what music is used in congregational worship.

This is a touchy subject.  There is so much contemporary Christian music available today and much of it is doctrinally weak or unsound.  But that’s not new; it just seems more prevalent because of the instant access we have to information through the internet.  Throughout the history of the Christian church, most of the songs that were written did not stand musical or doctrinal scrutiny.  We know that to be true because, in spite of the fact that many of history’s most prolific hymn writers wrote thousands of songs, only a few are preserved in our hymnbooks today.
 
There are lots of arguments in the worship wars.  Should we sing Psalms only?  Should we not use any instrumental or digital accompaniment?  Should we avoid all special music?

Those are all questions of methodology.  But that is not what I want to address here.   There are disagreements about whether or not we should use songs that are written or performed by people who have no authentic Christian faith or who hold to errant or heretical beliefs.
 
Today there is a very popular praise and worship publishing and performance arm of a major, worldwide evangelical church that is considered, by most fundamental Christians, to be errant. Furthermore, many of the leaders and performers are involved in unrepentant sin. So I understand when some church leaders avoid their music.  Immature or undiscerning Christians might be misled into doctrinal error by looking to the personal lives or beliefs of the artists or the false doctrines of the church.

About thirty years ago, one of my favorite Christian singers was B. J. Thomas.  I listened to his music and I sang some of his songs.  But then, one day, I read an interview in a Christian magazine.  When asked about his Christian faith, he remarked, “Well, if you are asking me if I am a ‘born again’ Christian, the answer is no.”

Another recent example is that of a popular trio who perform excellent and God-honoring, Christian music but they are members of a Christian cult that reject the doctrine of the Trinity.

So how does that affect worship music here at our church?  The simple answer is, I try to avoid using any music that is currently associated with any controversial musicians who are tainted by openly sinful lifestyles or are overtly errant in fundamental biblical doctrines.

But celebrities fade and people quickly forget, and in a few generations, there remains no more negative context for the music. 

The good news is that God’s truth is unchanging.  And it is always true no matter who utters it.

And that has been the case on numerous occasions here in our own worship services.  We have sung some great hymns of faith and truth that have been written by authors whose faith or practices have been questionable or shameful, yet the songs have survived beyond their reputations and have been used by God’s people for His glory.
 
Which brings me to today’s opening hymn.   This was one of those songs.

It was originally written in 1851 by Matthew Bridges who once wrote a book condemning the errors of Roman Catholic theology.  But then later he converted to and embraced Roman Catholicism. Bridges wrote six stanzas, based upon Revelation 19:12, “His eyes are like blazing fire, and on His head are many crowns.”  But his testimony was conflicted and his doctrine was compromised.

Godfrey Thring was a devout clergyman who was concerned that this popular new hymn was being sung by protestant congregations.  That was a problem because it contained some subtle, aberrant Catholic doctrines (specifically about the virgin, Mary).   So he wrote six new verses.


Apparently, some of his weren’t all that great either because, through the years, the twelve stanzas have been combined, culled, and edited. 

What remains is one of the great classic hymns of the faith (usually containing six stanzas).  Crown Him With Many Crowns has become an important praise and worship staple of the Christian church.  

Monday, August 15, 2016

LOVE DIVINE (He, The Pearly Gates, Will Open)


Fred Blom was an immigrant from Sweden early in the 1890s and he served as an officer in the Salvation Army in the city of Chicago. Later, he went on to pastor a church.

But his life took a radical downward turn around 1915.  Through circumstances that are not quite clear, he had fallen into sin and a life of crime and was eventually sentenced to prison. It was there, sick in soul and body, that he turned to Christ.  That’s when he wrote the words of this song.  It was his expression of joy in the fact that God had “healed his backsliding” and forgiven all his sin.

LOVE DIVINE (HE THE PEARLY GATES WILL OPEN)
         
         Love divine, so great and wondrous,   
                 Deep and mighty, pure, sublime,
         Coming from the heart of Jesus.   
                 Just the same through tests of time!

         Like a dove when hunted, frightened.    
                As a wounded fawn was I;
         Brokenhearted, yet He healed me.    
                He will heed the sinner's cry.

         Love divine, so great and wondrous,    
                All my sins He then forgave;
         I will sing His praise forever,    
                For His blood, His power to save.  

         In life's eventide at twilight,    
               At His door, I'll knock and wait;
         By the precious love of Jesus,   
               I shall enter heaven's gate.

         {Chorus:}
         He the pearly gates will open,    
               So that I may enter in;
         For He purchased my redemption  
               And forgave me all my sin.

The message of this song is simple. It is about God’s saving GRACE in the life of one who has gone astray.  Because of the love of God expressed in Christ, our sins are forgiven, our lives are changed and we look forward to the day we make a joyful entrance into heaven.

It is said that Fred Blom was never released from prison; he died in the custody of the law.  While the gates of prison did not open for him, he knew that Heaven's pearly gates would be swung wide for him by his Redeemer.

Was Fred Blom really saved before his fall or did God save him while he was in prison?  I don’t know.  But I do know one thing; I am no better than Fred Blom.

I am thankful that God is strong enough to destroy my will, my desires, and even my miserable life because left to myself, I would never have chosen Him. 

When I was running away, He sought me.  He bought me; He owns me; He keeps me, and He cleanses me.   He does whatever is necessary or  to bring me to repentance and make me fit for heaven. 

It was all His doing.  I had nothing to do with the transaction.  I am saved by grace alone through faith alone in the finished work of Jesus Christ alone and not by any effort or merit of my own.