We Believe Our God is Jesus?

1What do you do when one word introduces theological imprecision to an otherwise good song? This is the dilemma in which we find ourselves with a song titled “Once and For All” featured on the new Passion album “Let the Future Begin”, written by Chris Tomlin, Ed Cash, Jason Ingram and Matt Maher. It’s a great song written by great worship leaders, but I want to highlight how one word can present a problem.

The first verse, second verse, and bridge have solid lyrics and a memorable melody. They say:

Verse 1:
Once and for all, the Father’s love
He is the light in the darkness
He took on flesh and took our place
The weight of the world on his shoulders

Verse 2:
Once and for all, our debt is paid
There on the cross it is finished
The Lamb of God for us was slain
Up from the grave he is risen

Bridge:
Jesus, Jesus, God from God, Light from Light
You are our salvation
Jesus, Jesus, God from God, Light from Light
Your Kingdom is forever

Nothing is the matter so far. The verses and bridge all point to the person and work of Jesus, him being the demonstration of the Father’s love, the one who secured our salvation once and for all, and the one who is very God and the light of the world. Great stuff.

But then we have the chorus. And in the chorus is one word that presents a dilemma.

Chorus:
We believe our God is Jesus
We believe that he is Lord
We believe that he has saved us
From sin and death once and for all

Did you catch it? It’s in the very first line of the chorus. The other lines are good and strong, but the first line, “we believe our God is Jesus” is the issue. You might think I’m being incredibly picky. Maybe I am. OK, I probably am. But let me try to explain:

To be clear: we do certainly believe that Jesus is God. There were early Church fathers who spent their lives defending this doctrine. Jesus is fully man, and he is fully God, and this is a clear and foundational doctrine of our faith. 

But to be just as clear: we believe that God is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. We worship a God who is one in being yet distinct in three persons. Neither the Father, nor the Son, nor the Holy Spirit is any more or less “God” than the other “person”. It’s a mind-boggling truth, but it’s one we embrace, and it’s one that this good song, in one little line, makes unnecessarily fuzzy. And the fact that it’s the first line of the chorus makes it a prominent fuzziness.

To say “we believe our God is Jesus” should feel just as odd to sing as it would be to sing “we believe our God is Spirit”. Your reaction should be “well, yes he is, but he’s also Father and Son”. To say that “our God” is only one person of the Trinity is a bit of shame, particularly in a song that will be downloaded and purchased hundreds of thousands of times, be incorporated into thousands of churches’ repertoire, and inwardly digested by the people singing the words on Sunday mornings all over the world.

When I heard this song for the first time, I wondered whether anyone else thought it was odd to say “our God is Jesus”. As I looked at reviews of the album online (which, I have to say, is a really great CD and has some wonderful songs on it and I recommend it) no one raised any concerns.

I did read one review that mentioned this song and said, interestingly, that it “…is a remediation of the Nicene Creed, and… proclaims the attributes, character, and mission of Christ”.

Not quite to the first part of that statement. The Nicene Creed is a robustly Trinitarian statement of faith which begins: “We believe in one God, the Father, the Almighty…” continuing with: “We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father, God from God, Light from Light…” and concluding by saying that: “We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life…”

So while this song does feature the phrase “We believe…” and “God from God, Light from Light”, it could hardly be called a “remediation of the Nicene Creed”.  But I agree that it proclaims Jesus’ “attributes, character, and mission”.

I really do like the song! Just not the first line of the chorus and I wish they had changed the one word to avoid all of this confusion. If the line said “we believe our King is Jesus”, I think that would be an improvement.

I asked Dr. Lester Ruth, Research Professor of Christian Worship at Duke Divinity School, whether he thought I was being unreasonable in my criticism of this line in the song. He kindly responded and said:

Great question. You hit the nail right on the head. If our God is Jesus, then one has to wonder who the Father is in “The Father’s love” and who the God is of “Lamb of God”. Does this just mean “Jesus of Jesus”? Of course not…

I don’t think that single line (“…our God is Jesus…”) should disqualify the song, particularly if you can couple it with other liturgical items that bring out a more Trinitarian, New Testament way of speaking. Put the song in a good, strong, more balanced context. The line is not wrong per se but it is not the best way to express things.

I thought that was very helpful feedback.

I also asked Simon Ponsonby, the Pastor of Theology at St. Aldates Church in Oxford, for his thoughts. He said:

In an age when so many worship songs are little more than self-centered emoting, void of theology and a vision of God’s glory, I am grateful for song writers who are attempting to write in a modern idiom, biblical, theologically robust songs, that exalt God. This song is just such an attempt by a gifted song writer.  The question for me is not so much about the phrase “we believe our God is Jesus”  – though the sentence does sound unusual to my ears –  rather, in a song that echoes the Nicean Creed, I personally would have liked to see a similar Trinitarian completeness.  The statement “we believe our God is Jesus” without reference to Christian belief also in God as Father and Spirit, might appear to some observers to reduce God to Jesus per se.  And that is not what I believe.

So from all of this, there seem to be 5 takeaways:

  1. To say/sing “We believe our God is Jesus” is not technically wrong, but misleadingly incomplete.
  2. This line doesn’t disqualify this otherwise good song, but raises the stakes of completing its theology with the other songs/liturgy surrounding it.
  3. If the song really were a remediation of the Nicene Creed, it would have been more careful.
  4. One word can make a huge difference in a song.
  5. I need to use the phrase “per se” more often in my writing.

I’m grateful to God for worship songwriters like Chris Tomlin, Ed Cash, Jason Ingram, Matt Maher, and so many others who seek to serve the church by providing it with fresh, congregational songs of praise to the glory of God. It’s harder than it looks to write good worship songs, and these guys consistently do a good job and I am one of millions who have been blessed and edified by their work.

In this instance, I think this line slipped past some theological editing that would have made the song a lot better. My hope is that this post will convey my thankfulness to these songwriters for their work, and encourage all of us to be careful in what words we put on our congregations’ lips.

12 thoughts on “We Believe Our God is Jesus?

  1. anotherjames April 4, 2013 / 10:54 am

    What a helpfully balanced article. It’s really helpful to see that songs with slightly ‘loose’ theological statements don’t necessarily need to be ‘disqualified’ (though some will) if they are ‘completed’ by being accompanied by other things in a time of worship that round out the theology.

    Thank you, per se!

  2. abramkj April 7, 2013 / 9:20 pm

    Thanks for this, Jamie–I really appreciated this post. I have a similar issue with a couple of songs where there seems to be a bit of theological imprecision… but that folks love and want to sing regularly. I’m still mulling that over.

    Not to also be too picky myself about that first line, but a couple questions occur to me, since I (like you) think it is well worth it to think this deeply about songs:

    1. I’m not so sure “We believe our God is Spirit” would be that off-base… your point about Trinitarian completeness is well taken (and fully agreed with), but I’m thinking of John 4:24’s “God is Spirit.” Now whether that is “Spirit” or “spirit” is hard to say, especially since the Greek wouldn’t have clarified, but maybe that factors in somehow?

    2. I wonder how many worshipers (who are thinking theologically) would raise the same issue here with “… God is Jesus” but not with “…God is Father,” which seems to be a much more commonly made statement about who God is.

    3. I hate to get all geeky-mathy, but with “is” as an equative verb, could we also read that first line as “…Jesus is our God”? Maybe it’s just some word order variation for the sake of the poetry? (as in, “We believe blue is the sky”?) But I admit that’s a stretch and probably not the most natural way to read it.

    Some day I want to hear your thoughts on “sloppy, wet kiss”/”unforeseen kiss” in that Crowder song… 🙂

  3. Sam April 8, 2013 / 8:04 am

    I think a safe attitude towards song content is ‘could a heretic happily sing this?’ We don’t sing the second verse of ‘Mighty to Save’ because we don’t like the fact that ‘So take me as you find me’ could quite happily be sung by an arrogant person unwilling to change.

    So with that in mind ‘Our God is Jesus’ is something that’s definitely clumsy, but probably a betrayal more of our poor understanding of the Trinity than there being anything actually wrong with it…maybe a recognition that our God is multiple Persons not multiple personalities will help (per se)…

    Thanks for the article, I’ll be sharing it with our other worship leaders to start a more detailed discussion.

  4. Bruce April 8, 2013 / 10:24 am

    Good stuff Jamie! Love that you asked Lester Ruth!

  5. Jen Frey April 9, 2013 / 2:41 pm

    I echo abramkj’s thoughts on the Crowder song. 🙂

  6. Robin Downe April 29, 2013 / 2:19 pm

    I heard this song for the first time yesterday in a chruch service I was visiting and that very phrase hit me and immediately caused a strange feeling in my spirit as I heard proclamation “My God is Jesus”. It was in looking to see who wrote the song that I stumbled on this article (thank you, Google). This helped me put my feeling in perspective. And I’m here to say that My god is GOD, Father, Son & Spirit.

  7. restorationmusic May 9, 2013 / 11:58 am

    I have heard and found true that developing trust in the congregation is essential for helping people past their cynicism into worshipping/surrendering to a Holy God. Because music by its nature incorporates both the physical and emotional parts of us we as leaders and song-pickers need to be the first to intellectually scrutinize, so I really value the concern you raise, Jamie.

    From a logic perspective (because I kind of love being all geeky-mathy) the statement is definitely incomplete. (Well said Lester Ruth) I am reading Peter Kreeft’s book “The God Who Loves You,” and he gives a quick primer on logic concerning the word “is” specifically in regards to the phrase “God is love.” “‘That house is wood’ does not mean ‘Wood is that house’…In other words, ‘God is love’ is the most profound thing we have ever heard. But ‘Love is God’ is idolatry and deadly nonsense.” There is plenty of good poetry that is logically sound.

    So while the statement “God is Jesus” is one third true, that leaves it two thirds incomplete. I think I will probably not put it in our ‘canon’ specifically because it requires everything else to be weighed in terms of the Father and the Spirit which can start to become a juggling act. I have been impressed recently with the number of congregational songs that are implicitly or explicitly trinitarian (of which I don’t believe this song is either – loosely binarian at most).

    Sam, I think I’d have to question not singing the second verse of Mighty to Save. “So take me as you find me, all my fears and failures,”…if the lyrics stopped there I’d agree with you, but Jesus loved us while we were yet sinners. Coming as we are is part of the gospel, and the song continues “fill my life again. I give my life to follow everything I believe in. Lord I surrender.” While I can see the hesitation with “everything I believe in” if what you believe in is a lie, the second verse is essentially saying, “I want to come to you now, Jesus. Fill me, change me, I surrender.” That said, you are probably in tune with the needs of your congregation, and there are songs that are very popular that I don’t lead my congregation in because it may not be the healthiest thing for us specifically to sing. Keep on loving your congregation, man. It’s awesome.

    All, a general question that I have is when, how, and if to implement challenging/edgy concepts of our faith making our musical worship a tool to wrestle with the cerebral thereby affecting the way we physically and emotionally approach the Lord. Maybe we need to experience the God who lavishly and intimately loves his children with “sloppy wet kisses.” It wasn’t appropriate for the wealthy father to run to his prodigal son, but Jesus gave us that challenging/edgy image to help us understand the character of God. I don’t know.

    Thanks for this, Jamie. Any time we as song leaders can all get out of our boxes, it’s challenging, encouraging, and I hope it helps us all get better at our part in God’s work. It is a pleasure serving with you all. My apologies for the length of this. I’m hungry for dialogue.

  8. Yvonne Levick March 15, 2015 / 1:12 am

    Thanks for the above article. I also thought it a bit strange, but the rest of the song was ok, so I made a note to check it out which is now, a few weeks after hearing it sung at a bible college event. I almost missed this page, as I had typed it in google looking for the song, and all the other songs I knew came up, re THE CREED by Hillsong, etc. Maybe I am picky, but I think we should try to write/sing songs that agree fully with God’s word, so as to not be a sumbling block. We won’t be perfect, but as this is the chorus and gets repeated, it makes it a little more strange to be so doing.
    Thanks again, it means people are using their spiritual antennae. I suppose as we don’t throw out baby with bathwater with some of our prachers, etc, we need to be careful here too.

  9. Nathan March 28, 2016 / 3:40 pm

    Great thoughts – I’ve had the same reservations about the line since I first heard the song. After thinking about it for awhile, the writers could have rearranged the first two lines:
    “We believe our Lord is Jesus
    We believe that He is God”

    I don’t think that compromises the song itself, and it keeps things clearer.

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