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, October 24, 2016


Last week I was irritated by a post, on a Christian internet site, from a guy who was arrogant and boastful in his sin.  I don’t have time to read it all but here are a few brief excerpts:

“I am a very unconventional, yet very classical and traditional, Christian. What I don't understand is how the Church can be so legalistic.  …The gospel is free grace, extended to sinners.  (Our) righteousness comes from Jesus… with (His) invitation to ‘Come as you are!’

“I do not live by a strict set of rules…and you may find me cussing, smoking cigarettes, and laughing at cruel (or dirty) jokes.  I live with my pregnant girlfriend, unmarried, and I stumble in how I walk with the Lord.  I also live by faith in Jesus Christ and trust that His promises will be fulfilled in my life.

“The Father loves us unconditionally; because Christ fulfilled all the requirements to be satisfied on my behalf.  His free grace covers and cleanses me from all unrighteousness.”

That young man is confused as to the nature of the gospel.  He holds to a common and dangerous heresy called Free Grace.  He claims to have received the free, gift of God’s grace, yet he shows no remorse for his sin, nor a need to repent.  He acts like, just because he once “accepted Jesus,” God is okay with it. 

Well, guess what?   God is NOT okay with it.  In his letter to the Romans, Paul asked a rhetorical question, “Should we keep on sinning so that God can show us more and more of his WONDERFUL GRACE?  

And then he answers with the obvious- OF COURSE NOT!  Since we have died to sin, how can we continue to live in it?”
And later he leaves them with a command, “Do NOT let sin control the way you live; do NOT give in to sinful desires.”    (Rom. 6:1,2,12)

It is true that God’s grace is freely bestowed on all those He saves but grace isn’t something trivial.  In fact, in most of our hymns about God’s grace, it is almost always described with superlative adjectives like Amazing, Marvelous, Infinite, Matchless, Magnificent, and Wonderful.  That kind of grace is not cheap; it comes at a great cost.  If we’ve never been grieved or tormented by the magnitude and consequences of our sin against God, then we can’t understand just how great His grace really is.

The Song, WONDERFUL GRACE OF JESUS, might seem like a fun, frolicking little praise song but the author, Haldor Lillenas, captured the awesome greatness of God’s grace with phrases like "broader than the scope of my transgressions,” and "greater far than all my sin and shame."

That’s the kind of Grace we need; not just some flippant sort of favor from a warm and fluffy god who, with a wink and a nod, accepts us the way we are.  God’s grace is effective; when He saves us, He begins to clean us up.

That kind of grace is inexhaustible; it reaches to “all the lost.”  And it’s “all-sufficient;” it’s enough for all our needs.  By His grace, all who believe are “saved to the uttermost.”  It is even sufficient for “the most defiled,” and, in the words of the songwriter, it is sufficient for even me, and believe me, I am especially thankful for that because my sin was so great that the Son of God suffered and died on the cross so that I could be pardoned.   He took the burden and the penalty of my sin on Himself and He covered me in His righteousness.  That is the WONDERFUL GRACE OF JESUS.         

Monday, October 17, 2016


A long time ago, there was a man in the city of Philippi who asked: “What must I do to be saved?” (Acts 16:30). That question has been answered in many different ways throughout the centuries – most of them are not helpful.

I have a new friend who has recently become fearful of his eternal destination and it’s all my fault.  Several months ago he developed some serious health concerns so he is trying to make things right with God.  Okay, that’s good, but then he began telling me how good he is.  
Well, I could see where he was going with that; he thought his goodness would have some merit in God’s eyes.  I looked at him and asked, “You do know you’re a sinner, don’t you?”

That startled him.  He had never heard anyone tell him that before and it was a hard pill to swallow.  His religious background is a mixture of various, aberrant Christian sects and cults.  He believes so much that just isn’t true.  So now he seems to be sincerely interested; he comes around frequently to talk about God and he says he wants to know Him better but he is still confused and in the dark.  He keeps holding on to religious works.

He has another friend who also has his ear; a man who teaches a different, false gospel of salvation by works that will lead him to certain destruction.   That man has him convinced that salvation comes by joining the church and being baptized and then he should look for signs, and feel the power, and experience miracles from the Spirit of God as the evidence of saving faith.

But salvation is not obtained by joining a church, repeating a prayer, being baptized, experiencing miracles, or doing good works.
The ONLY effective and truly powerful resource we have, to offer someone who is lost, is the Gospel, and we have the promise from God that He will accomplish His work of saving sinners through His Word.
The straight, simple answer from Paul and Silas, to that Philippian jail guard, was the ONLY thing he needed to do: “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and you will be saved.”

And THEN, the text says, “…they spoke unto him the Word of the Lord,” (Acts 16:31).

So I simply and consistently urge my friend to just trust in Christ alone and then I always go back to God’s Word and rehearse the Gospel.

That biblical formula is set to music here in this, three-stanza, hymn, ONLY TRUST HIM.  It is usually sung as a general invitation hymn.  But that invitation, “Come, every soul,” is offered to those who are oppressed by sin.  That’s called conviction.  Those who are being saved by God are grieved by their sin and they can do nothing but call out to Him for mercy.

Verse two abbreviates the Gospel -- Jesus shed His blood which cleanses us from all unrighteousness.

And then verse three alludes to the work of God in our lives through the Word of God.  Jesus is the Truth and His Word is the Truth.  When Jesus saves us, we can rest in Him.  His Word gives us full assurance that we are truly saved to the uttermost.

ONLY TRUST HIM.  He is the Only way to salvation.

Come every soul by sin oppressed,
There’s mercy with the Lord,
And He will surely give you rest,
By trusting in His Word.

For Jesus shed His precious blood,
Rich blessings to bestow;
Plunge now into the crimson flood’
That washes white as snow.

Yes, Jesus is the Truth, the Way,
That leads you into rest,
Believe in Him without delay,
And you are fully blest.


Only trust Him; only trust Him.
Only trust Him now.
He will save you; He will save you.
He will save you now.

Monday, October 10, 2016


Mary Lathbury often visited Lake Chautauqua (shuh-TAW-kwuh) in New York during the summers.  In 1877, she was asked to write a hymn to be sung at Chautauqua Bible studies.   
 BREAK THOU THE BREAD OF LIFE is often used as a communion hymn but the “bread of life” in the song should not be equated to the symbol we use at the Lord’s table.

The expression, "the bread of life" is from Jesus' teaching, in John 6, where He calls Himself the "bread of life" and the "living bread".  You may recall that just prior to that event, He had fed thousands of people with just five loaves and two fish.  So, in that context, just like God had provided bread in the wilderness for Israel, Jesus had miraculously provided food for the hungry crowd.

Jesus was teaching His disciples that He, "the living bread," was superior to the manna because the manna only satisfied their physical hunger; He, “the Bread of Life,” provided for the spiritual and eternal needs of their souls. 

Apparently, not all His listeners understood because Jesus got even more emphatic: "Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you have no life in you." (John 6:53)

Jesus may have intentionally alluded to the communion ordinance that He would later institute in the upper room because He used the same figurative language at the Last Supper when He said, "Take, eat; this is My body... Drink of it, all of you, for this is My blood..."  (Matthew 26:26-28).   

There is confusion about what Mary Lathbury intended when, in verse one, she wrote of seeking Christ "beyond the sacred page."  There are some doubts that she literally intended to suggest that we can have revelation beyond the written Scriptures.  Our knowledge of Christ is revealed in His Word.    But just for the sake of clarification and doctrinal accuracy, Ellis Crum, the editor of Sacred Selections, changed one word; he changed this line from “beyond the sacred page” to "within the sacred page."   

Probably a clearer explanation of Mary’s intended meaning is that our souls have a hunger for God.  The psalmist equates it to a spiritual thirst.  Psalm 42:1 says, "As a deer pants for water, so my soul pants for You, O God."  We need to know Christ intimately, on a personal level, beyond just knowing the stories and the facts about Him.  As we drink from the Water of His Word, the Words of Scripture will change us.   

The song then moves from the importance of knowing the Bread of Life to the importance of the Truth of the Word of God.   Real freedom and peace with God comes only through obedience to the Truth of His Word.  Jesus said, "If you abide in My Word, you are truly My disciples, and you will know the Truth, and the Truth will set you free." (John 8:31-32)

In 1913, Alexander Groves added a final verse.  This last one moves the subject to the importance of the ministry of the Holy Spirit of God in our lives.  It is He who gives us spiritual understanding.  He opens our spiritual eyes and ears, and He applies the Words of Scripture to our hearts. 

I really like the last line – “And, in Thy Book revealed, I see the Lord.”

Are you looking for God?  Do you really want to see Him?  Stop looking for miracles, signs, and wonders.  Open His Book!  That's where you'll find Him.

Monday, October 3, 2016


Thomas Obadiah Chisholm was a poor, simple man of who experienced God’s faithfulness throughout his whole life.  He was born in a log cabin in Franklin, Kentucky in 1866.  He was educated in a little, one-room country schoolhouse, and at the age of 16, he began teaching there.  Later, he worked as an associate editor of the Franklin Advocate, his hometown weekly newspaper.

After God saved him at the age of 27, Thomas learned to find comfort and strength in the faithfulness of God to provide for all his needs in difficult times of illness.

With no formal college education or seminary training, he was ordained to the Methodist ministry at age 36.  He served as a pastor for only one year because of his fragile health.  There were many periods of time when he was confined to his bed and unable to work.

Between his bouts of illnesses, he would push himself to work extra, long hours at various, odd jobs just to make ends meet.

Thomas loved to write and during his lifetime, he wrote hundreds of poems.  One of them was Great Is Thy Faithfulness, which was inspired by Lamentations 3:22-23, “It is of the LORD’S mercies that we are not consumed, because His compassions fail not.  They are new every morning: great is Thy faithfulness.”

This hymn has three verses that demonstrate God’s great faithfulness.  

Verse 1 declares His faithfulness as He has revealed Himself in His Word.  It is adapted from James 1:17, Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, and comes down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow of turning.”  God is faithful because of His unchanging nature.  He is always the same, yesterday, today, and forever.

In verse 2, the writer points to the witness of nature as evidence of God’s faithfulness.  The courses of the Sun, the moon, and the stars; the seasons, and even the ebbs and flows of the tides are all ordered and regulated by Him.  If you are fearful about global warming and rising seas, you can rest assured that God has it all under control.  It is He who, said, “For I have placed the sand as a boundary for the sea, an eternal decree, so it cannot cross over it. Though the waves toss, yet they cannot prevail; Though they roar, yet they cannot cross over it.” (Jer. 5:22)

He has orchestrated all of creation and He holds it all together according to His purposes and for His glory.

Verse 3 then assures us of God’s faithfulness in our lives.  He saves us, forgives us of all our sins, gives us His peace, empowers us for His service, and assures us of our eternal hope. And so we can trust Him for all His benefits, not because of anything we have done, but because of what Jesus Christ has done.  “The Lord is faithful, who will establish you and guard you from the evil one.”  (2 Thess. 3:3)

He is faithful to deliver us.

About his simple, ordinary life, Thomas Chisholm said, “God has given me many wonderful displays of His providing care which have filled me with astonishing gratefulness.”

Whatever difficulties or trials we might face in our lives, this hymn reminds us that God’s promises are true, that He never changes, and that His compassions never fail.

Monday, September 26, 2016


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


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.