Your Honor, The Prosecution Rests

Open Quote 5 linesWe are His portion and He is our prize
Drawn to redemption by the grace in his eyes
If grace is an ocean, we’re all sinking
So heaven meets earth like a sloppy wet kiss
And my heart turns violently inside of my chest
I don’t have time to maintain these regrets
when I think about the way….*

Since about 1995 my “go-to” example of contemporary worship music has been Graham Kendrick’s “Shine, Jesus Shine.” My students have begun making fun of me for using such an archaic example of “contemporary” worship music. They have a point. The song is 28 years old. It’s not certain how far back one may go and still be “contemporary” but perhaps 28 years is beyond the limit. “Shine, Jesus Shine” is an enormously popular contemporary worship song. According to the redoubtable source  Wikipedia, in 2005 it was the tenth most popular hymn in the UK.

So, yesterday, I asked them for a more recent example and they gave me “How He Loves”:

Apparently, however, there is a textual-critical question about the lyrics. If you watched the video you might have noticed that the lead singer whom I assume to be David Crowder, sang “unforeseen kiss.” Some lyric sites the apparently sanitized version “unforeseen kiss” and others have the well, remarkable, “sloppy wet kiss” variant. The rule in textual criticism is lectio difficilior, i.e., on the theory that copyists are more likely to try to smooth out a reading, the more difficult reading is more likely the most ancient and most authentic.

Either way, “How He Loves” is problematic in several ways:

  1. It is not divinely inspired. If Scripture is sufficient for anything, it is sufficient for God’s people to sing in public worship. Why, when we have the enormous riches of God’s inspired, inerrant, infallible Word, would worship leaders and pastors turn to uninspired, non-canonical songs? This continues to puzzle me.
  2. This song, like many contemporary worship music, follows pop and rock musical patterns by using bridges, passages of instrumental music between lyrical portions. What are we to do in public worship during the bridge? Judging from experience we are meant to sway and raise our hands—and they say contemporary evangelical worship has no liturgy.
  3. The subjective, affective, romantic quality of these lyrics takes us back to Bernard of Clairvaux’s sermon’s on the Song of Songs. The great problem with this approach to Scripture is that it is wildly subjective. On the pretense of being about God the song becomes all about me and my experience of God. It is true that the Psalms reflect on the subjective and affective experience of the psalmist but nowhere does Scripture make this sort of subjective-romantic turn.

Remarkably, the song nowhere mentions Christ. This is ironic because one of the justifications for non-canonical songs is that the psalms do not mention the name of Jesus. It is true that, insofar as they were given to the church under the typology as she was looking forward to the incarnation of God the Son, as she was anticipating the fulfillment of all of God’s promises in Christ (2 Cor 1:20), they do not. Nevertheless, the New Testament does teach us how to read all of the Scriptures from that period:

“These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.” (Luke 24:44; ESV)

Understood properly, all of God’s Word and especially the Psalms speak of Christ everywhere. Can the same be said of “How He Loves”?

This song illustrates one of the virtues of the original Reformed understanding and application of the regulative principle of worship (RPW), which, as expressed in the Belgic Confession (art 7, 32):

We believe that those Holy Scriptures fully contain the will of God, and whatsoever man ought to believe unto salvation is sufficiently taught therein. For since the whole manner of worship which God requires of us is written in them at large, it is unlawful for any one, though an apostle, to teach otherwise than we are now taught in the Holy Scriptures

Therefore we reject all human innovations and all laws imposed on us, in our worship of God, which bind and force our consciences in any way.

and in the Westminster Confession of Faith:

But the acceptable way of worshiping the true God is instituted by himself, and so limited by his own revealed will, that he may not be worshiped according to the imaginations and devices of men, or the suggestions of Satan, under any visible representation, or any other way not prescribed in the Holy Scripture.

When these confessions were framed these words and the principle they articulated were understood to teach that, in public worship, to which Christians must attend upon pain of discipline (i.e., attendance to public worship is mandatory), the church may not require anything other than that which God has explicitly or implicitly required in his Word. The question by which Reformed congregations ordered their public worship services was: “Is it commanded?” By contrast, the Lutherans and Anglicans asked the question, “Is it forbidden?” Their principle is that we may do in public worship whatever is not forbidden. As you can see, these are distinctly different principles and organizing questions and historically have led to different outcomes.

In practice the Reformed principle meant that originally Reformed congregations sang God’s Word in response to God’s Word read, preached, and made visible in the holy sacraments. Over time, however, we lost hold of that principle so that today those congregations where the Reformed principle is still practiced as it was originally understood are few and far between. Please do not assume, however, that what you see virtually everywhere is how it has always been.

Without the Reformed principle on what ground may one reject “How He Loves” from use in public worship? Whatever basis one uses, beside the RPW, will necessarily be subjective. We might say that the song is tasteless but tastes change. “Shine, Jesus Shine” is now regarded by young people as a traditional or classic hymn. Things routinely appear in mass media today that would have been regarded as scandalous or even a violation of FCC regulations or decency laws. Does anyone think that a “wardrobe malfunction” today would generate the same outrage as in 2004? That was only 11 years ago. Tastes change and who can argue about them? (de gustibus non est disputandum). Most of the other objections apart from the RPW will be of the same variety (e.g., not fitting, not appropriate). They’re all subjective.

“How He Loves” may say “unforeseen kiss” or “sloppy wet kiss” but without the bulwark of the RPW it’s coming to a Reformed worship service near you so pucker up.


*Thanks to Tim Graham for supplying the lyrics.

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  1. This song would make the Lutheran Praise Song Cruncher (Table Talk) go off in wailing and flashes. Kind of like my girlfriend woulda wrote for me in H.S. or something. But the video makes me think crack and weed are what we’re singing about. Smooth smooth, jitter, jitter…

    I’m not convinced on the Psalms only, sans instrumentation, but it doesn’t take Crowder crooning to convince me of the need for Psalmnody and some less enthusiastic components of music in worship.

  2. Maybe it’s one of those “crossover songs” – like the excuse given at first for Amy Grant stopping singing “Christian music” and going over to pop. If she released Heart in Motion (1991) these days, the song Every Heartbeat – I had to go look it up, thankfully not being the 16 year old who bought that album back then – would probably be a favorite “worship song” in “churches” run by what Lutheran pastor Chris Rosebrough calls the Evangelical Industrial Complex.

    When I was a child, I thought as a child…and I don’t get why so many church sessions still think worse than children when it comes to proper worship music. I know of churches that (I suspect, but haven’t verified) seem to base their song list on what the music leader heard on K-Love that week. But beyond that, even, being more objective to view it through RPW, the hymns written by Fanny Crosby and John Newton are not inspired, any more than ones performed by Mr. Crowder. Even if they have MORE sound theology to them (and they do), ARE they appropriate to sing in gathered worship?

    Are they appropriate to sing around a campfire on a youth retreat (assuming that’s appropriate), is another question, IMO. I am curious about that: if it is not a called corporate worship service with word and sacrament, under RPW can we rightly sing Amazing Grace, Be Thou My Vision, or even Shine, Jesus Shine?

    • Hi Mark,

      For me the issue is what is required of us in public worship. The RPW governs that in a way that it does not govern private exercises. No one is compelled to attend private meetings or exercises of piety. What one does in such private settings is a matter of liberty&mdash.

  3. Scott, that’s what can cause some hesitation. Is a line of reasoning that shrugs at indulging romanticism simply because it’s private reliable? Shouldn’t romanticism be resisted no matter the setting? And what’s the problem with having to deliberate critically when determining what is fit for public worship (or what you’re calling “subjectivism”)? You seem to be suggesting that unless it’s exclusively Scripture that’s sung in public worship, there is nothing at all to keep unfit song from entering in. Really? Elders can’t be trusted use their own judgment to discern good from bad? Lutherans and Anglicans may work from “whatever is not forbidden,” but I’m sure there are plenty who’ve never employed the likes of Kendrick because, despite the inferior principle, they still have half a brain.

    I get human weakness and the potential to fall down on the question, and I get how hedging ourselves in with only Psalms guarantees never falling down (I even agree that Psalms are superior to even the best of hymnody), but it’s also why EP (or any variation thereof) always seems in the end like a form of fundamentalism, i.e. it’s black and white and there is never any need to employ wisdom and discernment on the question, just push the play button on EP and we’re all that much more insulated from sinning.

    • Zrim,

      The difference between private and public is important because no one’s conscience is in danger of being bound by private exercises. If you want to sing a non-canonical hymn at home or with friends somewhere or even at church Mon-Sat (or even Sun between services) no one is obligated to be there.

      That’s not true of Lord’s Day/Sabbath services. Christians are obligated, on pain of discipline, to be present. Thus, it becomes a matter of conscience where the regulative authority of Scripture (sola scriptura) is of the essence. A consistory ought to ask themselves, “must we do this?” “Is it commanded?” Most times when I ask for a defense of non-canonical songs the reply I get is “it’s not forbidden.”

      This is no mere hedge. This is a question of principle. “Sloppy wet” kiss is just an absurd example of what happens when there’s no RPW.

  4. Dr. Clark,

    Rhea and I worshipped at the PCA church where I had my membership prior to matriculating to Ole Miss and then to WSCAL a couple of years ago. The faces were mostly still the same except that a few of the ruling elders had moved away. The pastor had chosen, for the hymn of response to the gospel proclamation, “Shine, Jesus, Shine.” Rhea started singing because she knew it from earlier in her life, most likely from listening to K-Love. I turned to her and said, “Stop singing.” Her expression was priceless…”Oops!”

  5. Surely with the RPW the question is what is meant by “spiritual”? My sermons, such as I have preached, and, dare I say it, Dr Clark, your sermons as well, are not inspired. I would hope, however, that they are spiritual. And I freely confess that most of the hymns of John Newton, Richard Keen, Joseph Hart, etc. are more spiritual than my sermons. So aren’t they singable under the RPW (though if we see an erroneous line – I haven’t seen any such in Newton or Keen – we must change it)? They’re certainly sounder than “The brook that runneth in the way with drink shall him supply” – Psalm 110:7a is about His humiliation, not about His day-to-day supply; “He shall drink of the lowly brook that in the way doth lie” would be better; although from the point of view of inspiration, I’m not that keen on “lowly”; and somehow “rivulet” instead of “brook” doesn’t seem to be that suitable either.

    • John,

      You want to substitute “inspiring” for inspired. That misses the point of the RPW. The question is not the affect created by the song but whether what the congregation is asked to sing is authorized by God. Can the case be made that non-canonical songs are authorized by God as the response to his Word? The Reformed churches in the 16th and 17th (and for a time in the 18th and in some places as late as the 1920s) said no.

    • Dr Clark, you have asked “Can the case be made that non-canonical songs are authorized by God as the response to his Word?” and my answer is a resounding “yes” if the entire content of these non-canonical songs is of necessary consequence from canonical writings, which, in my view, makes them spiritual, never mind about whether they’re inspiring or not.
      Every reformed believer is obligated to attend services in which uninspired, but spiritual sermons are preached. Why, then, should they not be obligated to attend services in which uninspired, but spiritual songs are sung?

      • John,

        1. More precisely this is the proper question: Is it commanded?

        2. Ministers are explicitly commanded to “preach the Word” (2 Tim 4:2; see also Col 1:25). The Thessalonians (1 Thess 2:13) are commended for receiving the preached Word as God’s Word.

        3. God’s people are not commanded to sing non-canonical songs in response to the reading, preaching, or administration of God’s Word in the sacraments.

  6. “Without the Reformed principle on what ground may one reject “How He Loves” from use in public worship? Whatever basis one uses, beside the RPW, will necessarily be subjective. We might say that the song is tasteless but tastes change.” All is hopeless subjective-ism as to what songs are appropriate for worship. You’d think we’d have learned that by now after decades and decades of back and forth on this issue. Thank you (as usual) Dr. Clark.

    • I meant, of course, that “all is hopeless subjective-ism as to what uninspired songs are appropriate for worship.”

  7. It’s also uninteresting, generic music. They’re just aping culture and their Jesus-is-my-boyfriend songs are unbearably inane. They also rip off U2 as they believe U2 to be a Christian band (they’re not).

    • Ooh, this brings up an interesting point: Is there any reason not to sing “40” in a public worship service? Let’s assume a capella singing, so as not to confuse issues.

  8. Ah yes, “40” by U2. A good short song (when U2 was great) and surely a heart-felt paraphrase by Bono.

    Don, your question has me tied up in knots. Thanks.

    For myself, while lovingly urging others, I would not sing U2’s 40 in the liturgy but I’ll play bass if
    you wanna sing it outside of the Lord’s day worship context.

    I shudder in near horror when I think back to being a member of a church and the praise band played “When Love Comes to Town” by U2 and BB King.

    100% convinced of the RPW and 99% convinced of ES.

    “The difference between private and public is important because no one’s conscience is in danger of being bound by private exercises. If you want to sing a non-canonical hymn at home or with friends somewhere or even at church Mon-Sat (or even Sun between services) no one is obligated to be there.”

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