I once wrote a song called “Merciful God”, which was a simple confessional song based on the prayer of confession in the Anglican prayer book.
Here are the words;
Merciful and loving God
Humbly now we ask for your help.
We confess we've wandered far,
Doing wrong, omitting what's right.
Father, forgive and cleanse us
For Jesus’ sake cause us to be
Humble, obedient, changed
This we ask in Jesus’ name.
When I took it to a group for feedback, someone said to me, “How can you have a song about forgiveness without mentioning the cross?” It’s hard to argue with that, so I made an attempt at a second verse. Someone also suggested adding an extra line to the end of the chorus, “Thank you for the blood that saves.”
But after many attempts, somehow I felt that in adding the second verse or extra line, the song was robbed of its power. But then it felt wrong to take it out again, as if I was rejecting the gospel!
Which led me to ponder whether every song needs to contain the gospel.
It’s an important question. I wonder if maybe the answer lies with Scripture itself. Not every bible passage talks about the cross, or atonement, or the shedding of blood. Look at the passage about God’s covenant with Abram in Genesis 15. Would you say that passage contains the gospel? On the surface, it’s just an old guy believing in an unlikely promise…And yet, in Galatians 3:6-9, Paul describes this story as the gospel preached in advance!
The truth is, the gospel is a multi-faceted diamond. There is just so much to it! While summaries of the doctrine of the atonement are really helpful, we cannot think that the gospel can be contained within a series of dot points. It is part of the richness and beauty of Scripture - and the story of redemption itself - that the same message is preached over and over again in so many different ways.
The Bible is God’s redemption story, from beginning to end. Sometimes it hones in on a crystal clear description of how he achieved this, when it speaks of God’s ultimate act of redemption in Jesus’s death on the cross. It’s what the whole bible looks forward and back to. We must sing songs about the cross. Often.
But it is not true to say that when we are not singing about the cross, we are not singing about the gospel. (That would be like saying that the bible itself only contains snippets of the gospel!)
• When we sing of the way the ancients trusted God’s grace by faith, even when they couldn’t see how it would work out, we are singing the gospel.
• When we sing about Jesus as King over all creation, we are singing the gospel.
• When we sing about Jesus’ triumph over death in the resurrection, we are singing the gospel.
• When we sing about the forgiveness we show each other as people who have been forgiven a greater debt, we are singing the gospel.
• And when we sing a song that confesses our utter helplessness in sin, and that is all it does, even before we have sung about the cross we have already expressed our trust in the gospel.
I ended up removing the second verse from the song Merciful God and went back to the original. I wanted to give time for people to feel the weight of their sin and helplessness before immediately jumping to forgiveness. A bit like the tax collector in Luke 18, who could not even lift his eyes to heaven. A picture of complete dependence for mercy.
The Israelites waited more than their lifetime to hear of their ultimate forgiveness, so we can probably wait until at least the next song! And I do often follow “Merciful God” with the wonderful hymn “Rock of Ages”, which contains some of the most blessed words ever to be expressed. “Let the water and the blood/ From thy wounded side which flowed/ Be for sin the double cure/ Cleanse me from its guilt and power.” Amen!