Thursday, March 5, 2009

Am I a Soldier of the Cross?

Praise for the Lord #33

Words: Isaac Watts, 1723
Music: Rigdon McIntosh, 1876

In addition to his large collections Hymns and Spiritual Songs (1707) and Psalms of David Imitated (1719), Isaac Watts (1674-1748) published books of his sermons, often with accompanying hymns. "Am I a soldier of the cross?" was one such text, written to illustrate Watts's sermon on 1 Corinthians 16:13, "Be watchful, stand firm in the faith, act like men, be strong."(Watts)

This hymn and others that use a warfare metaphor have been criticized in the last few generations by the religious and political left, who find the idea incompatible with the character of Christ. ("Political correctness" in hymns would be a good blog post all on its own--it raises some worthwhile issues.) If you are wondering "What about the 'armor of God' in Ephesians 6? Or the 'good fight' of 2 Timothy 4:7?", then remember this is coming from the same part of the theological spectrum that generally denies plenary inspiration, and thus can edit out such statements as being Paul's cultural bias, or even just Paul's mistaken opinions.

But yes, of course there are plenty of examples of the "Christian warfare" metaphor in the New Testament. In the first century those references were not yet colored by the uncomfortable church-state alliance of the Middle Ages, nor sullied by the sometimes dastardly acts of the Crusaders, putatively done in the name of Christ. The first-century Christians were the victims, not the perpetrators, of military oppression, and they would have understood implicitly that any such martial symbolism should be interpreted in light of the teaching of Ephesians 6:12, which precedes the "armor of God" passage:

For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.

Read in light of Watts's accompanying sermon, this hymn is not nearly so much about combating others as it is about conquering self--it is titled "Holy fortitude, or Remedies against fear."

Stanza 1:
Am I a soldier of the cross,
A follower of the Lamb,
And shall I fear to own His cause,
Or blush to speak His Name?

Watts comments in his sermon,

It is an unfashionable thing now-a-days to introduce a word of practical godliness into company; the polite world will tell us, It spoils conversation; mark what a silence is spread over the room, when any person dares to begin so disagreeable a subject; there is none to second him, he may preach alone, and it is well if he escapes a profane scoff.(Watts,173)

Sound familiar? Our children in the schools, and if we are honest, we in our workplaces, often falter under this same silent persecution. But Watts is quick to point out the words of Paul in 2 Timothy--the inspired words of a man who had owned his faith before hostile political and religious authorities, and who knew even then that every day might be his last.(Watts,168) "Indeed, all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted," Paul said in 2 Timothy 3:12, in a tone of humble understatement. The answer is not retreat, but a determined commitment to "share in suffering as a good soldier of Christ Jesus."(2 Timothy 2:3)

Speaking God's word in a godless age is easier for some than it is for others, because of our differing natures, but everyone can do something. If a simple "God bless you" to a friend or neighbor is where we have to start, let us start! "For necessity is laid upon me. Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel!"(1 Corinthians 9:16)

Stanza 2:
Must I be carried to the skies
On flowery beds of ease,
While others fought to win the prize,
And sailed through bloody seas?

I wish Watts had found a different rhyme for the fourth line, but he didn't. No doubt for Britons of his era, seafaring people by nature and having fought hard for their national survival, "bloody seas" was an acceptable enough image. But enough on that, his point is well taken. Why should we expect that all of the hard fighting was accomplished long ago? Why should we get a pass on suffering and sacrifice?

I risk over-simplifying here, but I believe that one of the tragedies in the Churches of Christ in the U.S. has been our desire to become comfortable in this world. As more of us moved from the rural poor into the suburban middle classes during the past half-century, we found advantages, to be sure, such as greater financial prosperity and more access to higher education. But we also met with the temptation to embrace the materialism and the conformism of our new surroundings, as well as the constant human desire not to appear different or awkward when moving up socially. I am afraid that too many of us gave in to the desire to "keep up with the Joneses", whether materially, politically, or doctrinally, and "lost our first love."(Revelation 2:4)

I am not trying to say that everything was better in some mythical "good old days", but was there not a time when Christians felt a sense of obligation to do their part, instead of shopping for a congregation that suits their needs? "But recall the former days when, after you were enlightened, you endured a hard struggle with sufferings, sometimes being publicly exposed to reproach and affliction, and sometimes being partners with those so treated."(Hebrews 10:32-33)

Stanza 3:
Are there no foes for me to face?
Must I not stem the flood?
Is this vile world a friend to grace,
To help me on to God?

The last two lines of this stanza are a powerful reality check to the Christian living in our mass media-dominated popular culture. It is past time, especially for those of us who are parents, to realize that the United States is a post-Christian, secularist culture. The values that are respected and reinforced in our social institutions and in common discourse are not what they used to be. What we see on television and in the movies, or hear on the radio, is not leading us closer to God. (It never really was, perhaps, but it was not always so actively detrimental to the Christian walk.)

We are called to be the "light of the world"(Matthew 5:14) but too often are "warming our hands by the devil's fire", as someone once said of Peter's behavior at the trial of Jesus. "The cares of the world and the deceitfulness of riches and the desires for other things enter in and choke the word, and it proves unfruitful."(Mark 4:19) We love the people of the world, as God did,(John 3:16) but Jesus made perfectly clear the relationship that would exist between the Christian and the mentality of this fallen planet: "If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you."(John 15:19) This is no persecution complex; it is a stark reality of clashing worldviews.

Romans 12:2 commands us then, "Do not be conformed to this world." Over the centuries, some religious groups have adopted distinctive dress and customs to separate themselves from the rest of society. We are not commanded to do this; but as our society slides further into the gutter, it will be effectively the same result. Modest attire, pure language, and clean living are rapidly becoming as distinctive as the Amish horse-drawn carriage.

Stanza 4:
Sure I must fight if I would reign;
Increase my courage, Lord.
I’ll bear the toil, endure the pain,
Supported by Thy Word.

Watts's sermon gives a laundry list of situations calling for this courage:

1. When we are called to profess and practice strict piety even under the special view and notice of profane sinners...

2. When we happen into the company of infidels and apostates from Christianity who throw their impious jests on the gospel of Christ we may find a plain call of providence to stand up for his name and honour...

3. When we are called to practice an unfashionable virtue or to refuse compliance with any fashionable vice...

4. Another instance of necessary courage is when we are called to undertake the cause of the oppressed to plead for the poor against the mighty or to vindicate the innocent against the men of slander or violence...

5. It is a work which calls for courage to admonish our brethren when they depart from the ways of righteousness and to reprove sin among those with whom we converse...

6. Reformation of all kinds whether in families or churches in cities or nations demands a good degree of resolution and courage...

7. There are some other and very common occasions for the exercise of sacred courage which attend persons especially in the lower ranks of life; as for instance when a servant is called by Providence to speak the truth and yet he dare not do it without offending his master; when a poor man is required to bear witness in some important concern and his rich neighbour frowns and looks sour upon him; when a person of an inferior character is tempted to join with the mighty in some unjust and dishonourable practice, and while his superiors invite him to it, his conscience forbids his compliance.(Watts,170-180)

Can anyone deny that these points are still applicable today? And can anyone deny that we have more than enough to do? "You know the time, that the hour has come for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we first believed. The night is far gone; the day is at hand. So then let us cast off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light."(Romans 13:11-12)

We need an "increase of courage", as Watts said. His second sermon on 1 Corinthians 16:13 gives an excellent analysis of and prescription for the lack of spiritual courage that too often characterizes us. Among his suggestions are the following:

1. See to it that ye are Christians indeed, that you have the power of religion wrought in your hearts; otherwise you will never be able boldly to maintain the form and the profession of it in an hour of danger...

2. Get a large and general acquaintance with the promises of the gospel that in every special time of need you may have some suitable word of refuge and support...

3. Preserve the spirit of prayer always in exercise and the spirit of fortitude will descend on you...

4. Get a greater degree of weanedness from the flesh, and from all the delights and satisfactions that belong to this mortal life; then, as you will not feel so great a pain in being stript of them, so neither will your soul be filled with terror when you are in danger of losing them...

5. Endeavour to keep yourselves always employed in some proper work, that your fears may be diverted when they cannot immediately be overcome. If our thoughts and hands are idle and empty we lie open to the invasion and tumult of our fears, and we give them leave to assault us on all sides...

6. Keep your eye fixed on the hand of God in all the affairs of men. View his power and over-ruling providence in all things, even in those things that awaken your most troublesome fears...

7. Recollect your own experiences of the goodness of God in carrying you through former seasons of danger and sorrow...

8. Charge your consciences solemnly with the authority of the divine command to suppress your fears...(Watts,195-206)

It is an insightful and practical list. The last of these points is perhaps the hardest to hear. Jesus was just as clear in His oft-repeated command to "fear not" as He was in condemning any vice. Matthew 10:28 is the clearest statement: "And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul." We are not in obedience to Him when we allow fear constantly to overcome us. But what to do about it? Watts enjoins the following stirring passage from Isaiah as a "generous and divine cordial to keep the soul from fainting."(Watts,193)

"I, I am He who comforts you; who are you that you are afraid of man who dies, of the son of man who is made like grass, and have forgotten the Lord, your Maker, who stretched out the heavens and laid the foundations of the earth, and you fear continually all the day because of the wrath of the oppressor, when he sets himself to destroy? And where is the wrath of the oppressor? He who is bowed down shall speedily be released; he shall not die and go down to the pit, neither shall his bread be lacking. I am the Lord your God, who stirs up the sea so that its waves roar--the Lord of hosts is His name. And I have put My words in your mouth and covered you in the shadow of My hand, establishing the heavens and laying the foundations of the earth, and saying to Zion, 'You are my people.'"

Stanza 5:
Thy saints in all this glorious war
Shall conquer, though they die;
They see the triumph from afar,
By faith’s discerning eye.

A friend who was putting in a lot of tough, late hours at work took up the habit of recording the games played by his favorite football team and watching them late at night after work. The odd part of this is that by prior agreement, if his team lost, his wife erased the recording before he got home--he only watched the games they won. It was eerie, he said, to watch those games knowing what he already knew. Sometimes his team made terrible mistakes, or lost players to injury, but he knew it would be okay. Sometimes they were terribly behind in the score, late in the game; but he could sit back and enjoy it, because he knew that somehow they were going to come out on top.

The Scriptures give the Christian that same assurance. Jesus said in John 16:33, "In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world." Remember that Satan lost this fight against Jesus long ago, and is just fighting a scorched-earth tactic to destroy as much as he can on his way down. 1 John 5:4 promises us likewise that "Everyone who has been born of God overcomes the world. And this is the victory that has overcome the world--our faith."

Stanza 6:
When that illustrious day shall rise,
And all Thy armies shine
In robes of victory through the skies,
The glory shall be Thine.

Peter, a man who knew persecution well, said long ago,

Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice insofar as you share Christ's sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when His glory is revealed.(1 Peter 4:12-13)

And that glory will certainly be revealed! The Revelation is full of such passages:

"Worthy is the Lamb who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing!" And I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea, and all that is in them, saying, "To Him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honor and glory and might forever and ever!"(Revelation 5:12-13)

What will the fears and foes of this life be, compared to the glory we can hope to see someday in heaven?

About the music: Rigdon McIntosh (1836-1899) was intimately involved with the history of the music of the Churches of Christ in the southern United States. A native Tennessean, he studied music for a time under Asa Everett (1828-1875), a notable Nashvillean who wrote such favorites as "There's a fountain free"(PFTL#655). McIntosh moved in fairly elite musical circles during his sixty years, teaching at Vanderbilt University in Nashville and Emory University in Georgia, and serving as music editor for the Methodist Episcopal Church, South (in the days before the reunion of the Methodists into simply the "Methodist Church").

It was likely this latter role that brought him to the attention of David Lipscomb and the Gospel Advocate staff--Nashville (then as now) was a religious publishing center, and the M.E. South publishing office would have brought McIntosh into town frequently. For years Lipscomb had been trying to bring out a hymnal that would be more affordable for the impoverished southern congregations, and that would get them free from dependence on the Disciples Hymn Book published by Isaac Errett and the Standard Publishing Company of Cincinnati. (The "hymn-book controversy", as some called it, was exacerbated by the decision of the trustees of the Disciples Hymn Book to donate a percentage of the proceeds to the American Christian Missionary Society, which not only kept the price higher but made each hymnal a de facto donation to an institution that the more conservative segment did not support.)

Lipscomb was no music editor and knew it, and his attempts to recruit an editor from elsewhere within the Churches of Christ had fallen through. Apparently resolved not to trust the project to any further long-distance correspondence, he assigned his co-editor Elisha G. Sewell to review texts, and secured the services of Ridgon McIntosh as music editor. The resulting Christian Hymns of 1889 stayed in print for years, and was the first and most influential hymnal among the Churches of Christ during the difficult period of separation from the Disciples of Christ. Though McIntosh's composing talents were not remarkable (at least from the songs I have seen), his editorship was apparently quite acceptable. It is interesting that most hymnals among the Churches of Christ even today contain more songs written or arranged by Rigdon McIntosh than does the current edition of the United Methodist Hymnal.

McIntosh also gave us our arrangement of the Southern Harmony tune for "On Jordan's stormy banks"(PFTL#509), the arrangement at PFTL#613 for "Take my life, and let it be", and the music of "Work for Jesus" (PFTL#791). This tune, MCANALLY, is also used for "The gospel is for all" (PFTL#632). It is a good 6/8 march, appropriate to the text. It can be sung effectively at a medium or even moderately slow march tempo, but no slower--the nature of the text is rallying, not contemplative.


Watts, Isaac. Holy fortitude, or, Remedies against fear (Sermons IX-X). Sermons on various subjects, divine and moral, with a sacred hymn suited to each subject. 2 vols. Bungay: Brightly & Childs, 1814, pp. 167-215.

Cyberhymnal. Rigdon McCoy McIntosh.

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