What 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:
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
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
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.
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:
- To say/sing “We believe our God is Jesus” is not technically wrong, but misleadingly incomplete.
- This line doesn’t disqualify this otherwise good song, but raises the stakes of completing its theology with the other songs/liturgy surrounding it.
- If the song really were a remediation of the Nicene Creed, it would have been more careful.
- One word can make a huge difference in a song.
- 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.