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

Please follow this blog to keep notified of new entries.

Monday, April 11, 2016


Is our sin nature something to sing about?

Thirty-some years ago when my friend, Phil, got saved, he began reading through his Bible starting with Genesis.  One day while we were discussing his thoughts about his reading, he observed that – “all those guys (meaning the patriarchs) were dirty rotten lowlifes just like me.”

I thought that was pretty insightful.  It was revelatory for him; if God could save those guys, He certainly could save Phil.

People, then, were no different than we are today.  We all have the same problem.  It is our sin nature. It is universal.  We are all dirty. We are all disgusting. The reformers called it Depravity.

So for our song service in church one Sunday, I was looking for hymns that addressed that problem.  In the past, there were plenty of hymn writers who were explicit about our sinfulness and its consequences.  But songs on those themes are rare today.

Our contemporary culture, with its fixation on positive self-esteem, likes to obscure the reality of sin in more palatable terms like “missing the mark,” “shortcomings,” “failures,” or “errors.”   But sin is not an error.  An error is like when you forget to carry a digit while adding a column of numbers.

Do we really want to sing about the darkness of our sinfulness?   I know that it seems strange but, when contrasted with the sinless perfection of our Savior, our redemption, then, shines even brighter and those songs become much more meaningful.  We can never fully appreciate all that God has done to save us until we get a clear picture of what we really are without Christ.

Alas! And Did My Savior Bleed? was written by Isaac Watts.  In spite of the fact that many modern editors have changed the last line of the first verse of This hymn to “For sinners such as I” (or even worse, “for such a one as I”) Isaac Watts was purposefully deliberate in crafting the phrase, “for such a worm as I.”

And he was certainly biblical in that description.  In the book of Job, Bildad raised the question: “How then can man be righteous before God?”  “Man…is a maggot, and…a worm.” 

And in Psalm 22, David (speaking prophetically, the words of Christ) cried out to God saying, “I am a worm, and no man; a reproach of men, and despised by the people.” 
In Isa. is a strange Word of encouragement from God to Israel, “Fear not, you worm Jacob, you men of Israel! I will help you,’ says the LORD and your Redeemer, the Holy One of Israel”

Isaac Watts drew his inspiration from Psalm 51 when he wrote these words in another hymn:
“Lord, I am vile, conceived in sin,
                  And born unholy and unclean;
         Sprung from the man whose guilty fall
                  Corrupts the race, and taints us all.”

That is sound, biblical theology.  Apart from the intervention of God’s sovereign grace, we are utterly helpless and hopeless.  And it’s in that context that we should sing with great joy and thanksgiving, words like these from the hymn, “It Is Well” by Horatio Spafford:
“My sin—oh, the bliss of this glorious thought!
            My sin, not in part but the whole,
    Is nailed to the cross, and I bear it no more,
            Praise the Lord, praise the Lord, O my soul!”

But it’s also in that context of God’s grace in our salvation, that we can sing, reverently and soberly:
 “Was it for crimes that I had done
                  He groaned upon the tree?
         Amazing pity! Grace unknown!
                  And love beyond degree!”


Alas! and did my Savior bleed?
And did my Sov'reign die?
Would He devote that sacred head
For such a worm as I?

Was it for sins that I had done
He groaned upon the tree?
Amazing pity! grace unknown!
And love beyond degree!

Well might the sun in darkness hide
And shut his glories in,
When Christ, the mighty Maker, died
For man the creature's sin.

Thus, might I hide my blushing face
While His dear cross appears,
Dissolve my heart in thankfulness,
And melt my eyes to tears.

But drops of grief can ne'er repay
The debt of love I owe:
Here, Lord, I give my-self away
Tis all that I can do.


  1. It is interesting the variations of Alas... "At The Cross" and "He Loves Me" and I have seen a couple more in some old hymnals I have. Choruses seem to be the fashion in the 1800's.
    By the way, Alas and Did My Saviour Bleed can be sung to the same tunes as Amazing Grace, O God Our Help, and O For A Thousand Tongues. It really makes you think more on the words when you sing it to different tunes.

  2. And I forgot to mention, It Is Well With My Soul has six verses, not only four like you see in hymnals today.