Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Buried with Christ

Praise for the Lord #85

Words: Thomas O. Chisholm, 1935
Music: Lloyd O. Sanderson, 1935

What was the greatest collaboration between Chisholm and Sanderson? They contributed a number of fine hymns to the repertoire of the Churches of Christ, but I am fairly sure that their best hymn together is either "Be with me, Lord" or "Buried with Christ." Choosing between these two is fairly subjective; I think "Be with me, Lord" wins on the strength of being just nearly flawless, but "Buried with Christ" certainly is a strong contender.

This is one of the most heavily doctrinal songs I can name that is written in the gospel style. Sanderson meant it to be, suggesting the text of Romans 6:3-18 as the basis of a hymn. This is a key passage on the meaning of baptism, and he hoped that in the process of writing a hymn on it, his Methodist friend would examine the subject afresh. Sanderson himself was a Methodist in his younger days, and knew that this text was critical to a Scripture-based understanding of salvation. Sanderson says of this episode,
After my conversion, I tried to influence others. Thomas O. Chisholm was among them. We exchanged many letters on religious convictions. We seemed agreed. He had a similar background, but we lived far apart. I was in Springfield and he in Vineland, N.J. Long trips were "out" in those days. So to know if I might have made an impression, I asked him to write me a poem on Romans 6:3-18. The words to "Buried With Christ" were the result. I do not see how a true Methodist could write such meaningful words.(Sanderson)
Whether Chisholm's views on the subject changed is unknown; but it cannot be denied that he wrote a thoroughly Scriptural hymn on the meaning of baptism. The content of the Romans 6 passage is woven together with references to supporting passages from elsewhere in Scripture in a fashion that makes every line worth careful reading. This has been one of my go-to songs for baptismal services for many years.

Stanza 1:
Buried with Christ, my blessed Redeemer,
Dead to the old life of folly and sin;
Satan may call, the world may entreat me,
There is no voice that answers within.

"We were buried therefore with Him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life."(Romans 6:4) Here is the keystone of the entire argument put forth in the sixth chapter of Paul's letter to the Romans: our baptism into Christ physically reenacts His death and resurrection, and a parallel spiritual transformation takes place within us. His grace allows us to put down the life we once lived, with our guilt of sins; in a sense that person is put to death, being under condemnation of spiritual death already. His power raises us up free from sin, with His Spirit living within us, a new creation growing into what He would have us to be.

This is a powerful text on the meaning (and necessity!) of the rite of baptism, but Paul is really stressing its effect on our lives after the fact:
What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it? Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?(Romans 6:1-3)
Paul visits this topic often in his letters, for it is a central issue of the Christian life:
You . . . were taught in Him, as the truth is in Jesus, to put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires, and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.(Ephesians 4:21-24)

If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. . . .

Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry. On account of these the wrath of God is coming. In these you too once walked, when you were living in them. But now you must put them all away: anger, wrath, malice, slander, and obscene talk from your mouth. Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have put off the old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its Creator.(Colossians 3:1-2,5-10)
Sadly, though, we tend to keep that "old self" on life support, if you will pardon the expression, far too long. The second half of this stanza is to some extent wishful thinking, something we sing as an aspiration to better things. I am afraid that I still hear those "voices that call me," though not quite as often or as loudly as once I did. It is our ongoing task to "put to death the deeds of the body."(Romans 8:13)

Dead to the world, to voices that call me,
Living anew, obedient but free;
Dead to the joys that once did enthrall me--
Yet 'tis not I, Christ liveth in me.

Here is where we are when we rise from the waters of baptism, having taken hold of God's free gift of grace. With Paul we can say, "the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world."(Galatians 6:14) The relationship we had with that former life has been severed. We still live in the world, of course, and we live with the consequences of past actions, but our spiritual life is entirely new.

In light of this, we have to realize the changes that have taken place. The world around us--the culture at large and its values, and even its specific people and their values--is no longer our standard of behavior. Paul told the Roman Christians later in the epistle, "Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect."(Romans 12:2) We cannot listen to the standards of the world any longer.

Likewise, we cannot expect to receive the world's approval, and all of its benefits, if we are a new spiritual creation that is becoming more like Christ.
Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world--the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride in possessions--is not from the Father but is from the world.(1 John 2:15-16)
This does not mean we no longer love the people in the world. John 3:16 tells us how much our Father loves the people of this world, and if He in His holiness can love sinful humanity enough to make such a sacrifice, we must do our best to imitate that love. But our love for sinners outside of Christ (as opposed to us, sinners forgiven by Christ) does not mean we conform to their ways, but rather that we humbly and gently show a better way. Sometimes that will not be appreciated! No one understood that better than Peter:
But even if you should suffer for righteousness' sake, you will be blessed. Have no fear of them, nor be troubled, but in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect, having a good conscience, so that, when you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame.(1 Peter 3:14-16)
The last line of the refrain is a reference, of course, to Galatians 2:20,
I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me.
It is a profound paradox that what most appears to be freedom, to the worldly mind, is slavery to the appetites of the flesh, or slavery to the god of self; yet what appears to be surrender and servitude to a demanding God is actually the road to freedom. "For one who has died has been set free from sin."(Romans 6:7) What a freedom it is!

If we know, deep down, that we are not what we should be, we want to feel better about it. We make excuses, but we know they are excuses--because we see right through them when another person uses them toward us. We can seek forgiveness from other people, which is noble, but ultimately their forgiveness is too easily won since they are just as flawed as we are. I think this is what David meant when he said, "Against You, You only, have I sinned and done what is evil in Your sight, so that You may be justified in Your words and blameless in Your judgment."(Psalm 51:4) But when the God of the universe, infinite in purity and holiness, washes us clean and pronounces us forgiven, we are "free indeed."(John 8:36)

The following stanza is omitted in some hymnals:

Stanza 2:
Think it not strange that things I once cherished
Cannot allure me or charm as before;
For in the flesh with Christ I have suffered,
Old things are passed, I love them no more.


The third line of the stanza may strike us as a bit odd, and may be the reason this stanza is dropped by some editors. But it is a reference to 1 Peter 4:1-2,
Since therefore Christ suffered in the flesh, arm yourselves with the same way of thinking, for whoever has suffered in the flesh has ceased from sin, so as to live for the rest of the time in the flesh no longer for human passions but for the will of God.
Certainly the practical application of this passage aligns perfectly with that of Romans 6, that we have died to sin and are no longer to live in it. "We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin."(Romans 6:6) But Chisholm makes an interesting interpretation here of "whoever has suffered in the flesh." By laying it alongside the Romans 6 discussion, he seems to suggest that Peter is speaking of our vicarious participation in the suffering and death of Christ. Though the larger context of 1 Peter leads me to believe that Peter was speaking of present, actual suffering by those who were undergoing persecution, certainly our reenactment in baptism of the suffering of Christ should steel us against the frivolous claims the world would press upon us.

Stanza 3:
Dead unto sin, alive through the Spirit,
Risen with Him from the gloom of the grave,
All things are new, and I am rejoicing,
In His great love, His power to save.


Chisholm was likely thinking of this verse as he began this stanza: "So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus."(Romans 6:11) Where the earlier stanzas emphasize our death to the old life of sin, here he focuses on what replaces it--a new life. "For if we have been united with Him in a death like His, we shall certainly be united with Him in a resurrection like His."(Romans 6:5) Certainly it refers to the final, literal resurrection and the new body; but in this context I believe it also means that we rise from the grave of baptism with a literal "new lease on life."

The spiritual realm seems to abhor a vacuum just as much as the physical; when Jesus told the parable of the cast-out demon returning to a house "swept and in order," He said that "the last state of that man is worse than the first," because the returning evil spirit brought with it seven others worse than itself.(Luke 11:24-26) Common sense tells us that it is easier to give up a bad habit if it is replaced with something else that redirects the energy and fulfills the same needs. God does the same with us--we do not simply try not to sin, we are living a new life.

Fortunately, when Romans 8:13 says, "put to death the deeds of the body," there is that adverbial phrase that shows us how: "by the Spirit." By His power, "our inner self is being renewed day by day."(2 Corinthians 4:16) There was an incredible power behind the resurrection of Jesus, and that same power is behind our new birth. When the Lord says, "Behold, I make all things new,"(Revelation 21:5) it is not just a promise of the world to come--we really can begin again, right here and now.

Stanza 4:
Sin hath no more its cruel dominion,
Walking in "newness of life," I am free--
Glorious life of Christ, my Redeemer,
Which He so richly shareth with me.


The Scripture behind this stanza must have been, "For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace."(Romans 6:14) But to understand this, we need to look back earlier in Paul's argument:
We were buried therefore with Him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.(Romans 6:4)

Now if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. We know that Christ being raised from the dead will never die again; death no longer has dominion over Him. For the death that He died He died to sin, once for all, but the life He lives He lives to God."(Romans 6:8-10)
Our freedom from sin's dominion rests upon the fact that we have, through baptism, participated in the death and resurrection of Christ. Just as He broke the power of death through His resurrection to eternal life, He also broke the power of sin and gave us the way to a new spiritual life. Our ability to be free from slavery to sin, a spiritual death, is just as real and certain as His victory over physical death.

The stanza concludes with a burst of praise for the new life that Christ brings through this death and resurrection, fulfilling His promise, "I came that they may have life and have it abundantly."(John 10:10) Life, and that abundantly, is the end result that ties together much of this section of Romans.

Back in the fifth chapter, discussing the entry of sin into the world through Adam, Paul says, "For if, because of one man's trespass, death reigned through that one man, much more will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man Jesus Christ."(Romans 5:17) This sets the stage for the sixth chapter's argument, based on our participation in Christ's death and resurrection: "Do not present your members to sin as instruments for unrighteousness, but present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and your members to God as instruments for righteousness."(Rom 6:13)

Not only does this new life free us from sin, "But now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves of God, the fruit you get leads to sanctification and its end, eternal life."(Rom 6:22) The chapter concludes with a summation of what we have escaped, and what we have gained: "For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord."(Rom 6:23)

About the music

Chisholm wrote this text in a rather complex meter. The syllable pattern of the stanzas is, and the stress patterns of the stanza are, using the simplest scansion:

Bur-ied withChrist mybles- sed Re-deem- er
_ u u_ u_ u u_ u
Dead to theold life offol- ly andsin;
_ u u_ u u_ u u_
Sa- tan maycall, theworld may en-treat me,
_ u u_ u_ u u_ u
There is novoice thatans- wers with-in.
_ u u_ u_ u u_

This is not that simple--a tetrameter of alternating dactyls and trochees! The refrain is slightly more regular, but uses the same basic meter. Sanderson's music alters the trochees to spondees, evening out the weak endings of lines 1 and 3, which is great in poetry but can play havoc with musical phrasing:

Bur- ied withChrist, mybles- sed Re-deem- er,
_ u u_ __ u u_ _
Dead to theold life offol- ly andsin;
_ u u_ _ u_ u u_
Sa- tan maycall, theworld may en-treat me,
_ u u_ __ u u_ _
There is novoice thatans- wers with-in.
_ u u_ __ u u_

In the process of doing this, Sanderson created a lilting overall rhythm, "short-short-short-long-long," that serves to unify the melody. The choice of 9/8 time was perfect for the text.

In this hymn the alto harmonizes against the soprano in parallel 3rds and 6ths, so that it sounds pretty good just as a duet--the harmony is fully implied by just these two voices, except at a handful of places which do not detract from the overall effect. If you make it a trio with soprano, alto, and bass (which is what many congregations are, given the scarcity of tenors!), there is virtually complete harmony throughout except on the word "joys" in the refrain, which will be an open 5th. The bass fills out the voice exchange on "Yet 'tis not" in the refrain, and the open 5th on "'tis" is barely noticeable, coming in the middle of the exchange.


Sanderson, Lloyd O. "The Lord has been mindful of me: an autobiography." Gospel Advocate 146/9 (September 2004), pp. 26-28. Online at

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Bringing in the Sheaves

Praise for the Lord #84

Words: Knowles Shaw, 1874
Music: George A. Minor, 1879

Knowles Shaw (1834-1878) was a preacher, singer, and songwriter (of both words and music). In his day he was one of the best known figures in the American Restoration Movement, and a colorful character he was. A witness to Shaw's gospel meeting held in Memphis, Tennessee, described the following scene:
Imagine [another preacher] leaving the pulpit in the midst of his sermon, and, going to the remotest corner of the house, mounting a bench, and singing with most lugubrious air and whine, "How tedious and tasteless the hours," in illustration of the half-hearted, back-slidden Christian, who needs a protracted meeting every six months in order to keep any life in him. But when the protracted meeting has well advanced, this same remote-corner-Christian rushes to the front, singing with great vim, "Am I a soldier of the cross?" just as Brother Shaw did, suiting the action to the word. Well, this is precisely what he did, and what is more, he did it successfully.(Baxter, ch. 12)
Shaw was an exceptional singer by all acounts, and integrated hymns into his sermons as a natural extension of his message, as was the practice of the great evangelistic teams of the day. David Walk, a contemporary preacher who was sometimes critical of Shaw's flamboyance, said nonetheless, "He is as good a singer as either Sankey or the lamented Bliss, an infinitely better preacher than either Moody or Whittle."(Baxter, ch. 12) His biographer made this estimation: "He was as a singer, beyond all doubt, fully the peer of Sankey and Bliss. By many who have heard them, he was deemed superior in some respects to both."(Baxter, ch. 9) Shaw published five hymnals, and lists over forty hymn texts under his name, though he probably wrote more. Besides "Bringing in the sheaves," he is remembered for the words and music of "I am the vine" (PFTL #260) and the music for "We saw Thee not" (PFTL #726) and "Tarry with me" (PFTL #609).

"Bringing in the sheaves" was written in 1874, and was dedicated to the memory of Augustus Damon Fillmore (1823-1870), a fellow preacher and songwriter, the patriarch of a significant American musical family.(Baxter, ch. 9) For some reason this hymn has taken hold of the popular imagination as the go-to cultural reference for American "old-time religion." It has appeared in a lengthy list of movies and television episodes.(Wikipedia) It seems they were singing this hymn every time the Ingalls family went to church on Little House on the Prairie.

Stanza 1:
Sowing in the morning, sowing seeds of kindness,
Sowing in the noontide and the dewy eve,
Waiting for the harvest and the time of reaping--
We shall come rejoicing, bringing in the sheaves.

Bringing in the sheaves, bringing in the sheaves,
We shall come rejoicing, bringing in the sheaves.

The source of this hymn's famous imagery is Psalm 126, verses 5-6:
Those who sow in tears shall reap with shouts of joy!
He who goes out weeping, bearing the seed for sowing,
Shall come home with shouts of joy, bringing his sheaves with him.
But this passage is most fully referenced in the final stanza, and I will discuss it there in more detail.

Wheat sheaves near King's Somborne in Hampshire.
Photo by Trish Steel from Wikimedia Commons.
Ancient Israel was an agrarian society, and Jesus himself grew up in the farming country of Galilee, so the Bible naturally is full of references to the commonplace sights of planting and harvesting. It was difficult work to get a crop out of the dry, drought-prone land of Palestine, and then as now the farmers relied on their store of practical knowledge to get the most from their land. Jesus referred to this common knowledge in John 4:35, "Do you not say, 'There are yet four months, then comes the harvest'?" How many city dwellers today could tell you the harvest times of the foods they eat?

The harvest was a joyous time, especially if there was an assurance of a good yield after the uncertainties of the planting and growing season. Reapers would cut off the stalks close to the ground with a scythe, tying up convenient  arm-loads and stacking them in groups for loading onto carts. (The method is still in use in some places today.) The book of Ruth gives a lively, detailed description of the ancient harvest practices, including the harvest feast when the crops were taken in and the work was over.

The Bible makes at least two spiritual applications of this earthly process. On a personal level, our actions and course of life, good or bad, are often compared to planting seed that grows to a harvest--good or bad. And in a more outward-looking sense, our efforts toward spreading the gospel and leading others to Christ are frequently compared to sowing seed that will bring about a harvest in the lives of others.

I believe the most complete and concise statement of the first point is given in Galatians 6, verses 7-9:
Do not be deceived: God is not mocked, for whatever one sows, that will he also reap. For the one who sows to his own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption, but the one who sows to the Spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life. And let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up.
The absolute nature of this law is underscored by the parable of the tares (or "weeds") in Matthew 13:24-30, which Jesus concludes with the warning, "Let both grow together until the harvest, and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, 'Gather the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn.'" The wheat and the tares were growing side by side, and were apparently impossible to separate, but a final reckoning would sort each out. God will not be mocked; His just judgment will return a harvest fitting to the seed that is sown.

The Hebrew Testament spoke this truth in proverb and prophecy, and often with great poetic beauty. Proverbs 22:8 says, "Whoever sows injustice will reap calamity," returning on himself the misfortunes he causes to others. Hosea 8:7 goes a step further, famously warning, "For they sow the wind, and they shall reap the whirlwind." The result of continued sowing of wicked deeds is presented in terrifying language in Joel 3:13--"Put in the sickle, for the harvest is ripe. Go in, tread, for the winepress is full. The vats overflow, for their evil is great." When God "tramples out the vintage" of His "grapes of wrath," it is not a sight any wise person wants to witness. But even in the absence of great wickedness, the lack of good deeds has its consequences: "The harvest is past, the summer is ended, and we are not saved."(Jeremiah 8:20)

On the positive side, the Bible also presents the harvest as a long-awaited recompense for the righteous person's struggles. Hosea, though so much of his prophecy was of punishment, also exhorted the people with this beautiful picture of a better harvest to come: "Sow for yourselves righteousness; reap steadfast love; break up your fallow ground, for it is the time to seek the Lord, that He may come and rain righteousness upon you."(Hosea 10:12) James seems almost to echo these words in this passage: "But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere. And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace."(James 3:17-18)

In this sense we are all farmers, planting seed every day in the words we say and the things we do, for either good or bad; our harvest is being determined now, both in quality and proportion. "Whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows bountifully will also reap bountifully."(2 Corinthians 9:6)

Another Scripture application of planting and harvesting is in the work of spreading the gospel. As the crowd of Samaritans was coming out to Jacob's well to see this amazing prophet who they thought might even be the Messiah, Jesus said to His disciples, "Do you not say, 'There are yet four months, then comes the harvest'? Look, I tell you, lift up your eyes, and see that the fields are white for harvest."(John 4:35) I remember seeing fields of wheat outside my home town in the plains of northern Oklahoma, and as the wind bends the stalks, the sun catches the sides of the lighter-colored heads of grain and creates the appearance of waves of white across the gold. McGarvey suggests that the appearance of the crowd of Samaritans, their light-colored cotton robes and headgear bobbing in the distance as they approached, may have evoked this comparison in Jesus' mind.(McGarvey, pt.4, sec.26) A field of ripe wheat is a beautiful thing, because it means mouths fed (and bills paid, for the farmer!), but how much more beautiful is a willing audience for the gospel!

Jesus gave the responsibility for that harvest to His disciples, both those then present and those yet to come. "I sent you to reap that for which you did not labor. Others have labored, and you have entered into their labor."(John 4:38) This is an encouraging thought, but also one that lays a responsibility upon us. We are not alone in the work; others are laboring as well, and if we are not immediately and visibly successful in our efforts to share the faith, we should remember what Paul said of the church in Corinth, "I have planted, Apollos watered; but God gave the increase."(1 Corinthians 3:6) This process is not one that we always understand, operating as it does in the sphere of God's providence:
And [Jesus] said, "The kingdom of God is as if a man should scatter seed on the ground. He sleeps and rises night and day, and the seed sprouts and grows; he knows not how. The earth produces by itself, first the blade, then the ear, then the full grain in the ear. But when the grain is ripe, at once he puts in the sickle, because the harvest has come."(Mark 4:26-29)
At the same time, we need to remember that Jesus also said, "The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few. Therefore pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into His harvest."(Luke 10:2) We have a great responsibility to our fellow laborers in the field--to those who went before us, that we carry on their work in a way that honors God and them, and to those who come after us, that we leave them in good shape to carry the work forward. Paul continued in the same passage,
For we are God's fellow workers. You are God's field, God's building. According to the grace of God given to me, like a skilled master builder I laid a foundation, and someone else is building upon it. Let each one take care how he builds upon it.(1 Corinthians 3:9-10)
Stanza 2:
Sowing in the sunshine, sowing in the shadows,
Fearing neither clouds nor winter's chilling breeze;
By and by the harvest and the labor ended--
We shall come rejoicing, bringing in the sheaves.


Another of the great parables of Jesus involving planting and harvesting, of course, is the parable of the sower, one of the relatively few parables that appears in each of the first three gospels. It is also called the "parable of the soils" because its emphasis is on the effect of different soils (types of hearts) on the success of the seed (the gospel). But if I may stretch a point--perhaps further than intended by the parable, which is easy to do--there might be an observation worth making about the sower as well.

The planting done here is by the broadcast method, taking handfuls of seeds and scattering them over an area, rather than deliberately planting in a more organized fashion such as a furrow. Using this process, the sower in the parable scatters the seed over a number of different types of soil, some of which are not productive. Would the sower be blamed for that? Probably not; in the literal planting process, which I have done in planting lettuce and mustard greens, this is just part of the process. You scatter a large quantity of seed, knowing that some of it will not produce for various reasons, but counting on the fact that much of it will.

When we spread the gospel by various means--in person, one-to-one, or by a broadcast method such as public assemblies, television, radio, or Internet--we cannot always know the type of soil beforehand. Now, our supply of seed is unlimited, but our time and means of planting it is not. Why not use every legitimate method available to get the gospel to as many people as possible--a literal "broadcast" method of planting?

I think that is the point of this stanza. Whether we have sunshine or shadow, spread the gospel. If the weather is unpleasant, cloudy and threatening, still plant the seed. Get the word out. We may never see the result of it, but that does not mean it is not worth doing. "He who gathers in summer is a prudent son, but he who sleeps in harvest is a son who brings shame."(Proverbs 10:5) I don't mean that there is anything wrong with focusing on a field obviously ripe for harvest--Paul did this, explaining once that, "I will stay in Ephesus until Pentecost, for a wide door for effective work has opened to me, and there are many adversaries."(1 Corinthians 16:9) And obviously we shouldn't waste our time when it is really obvious we are wasting our time. Jesus did say, after all, not to "cast your pearls before swine,"(Matthew 7:6) and I agree with McGarvey's commentary on this verse, "To give pearls to swine is to press the claims of the gospel upon those who despise it until they persecute you for annoying them with it. When such men are known, they are to be avoided."(McGarvey, pt.5, sec.42) This makes good sense and has the approval of Jesus when He said, "wherever they do not receive you, when you leave that town shake off the dust from your feet as a testimony against them."(Luke 9:5)

But how often have we really tried to share Jesus, to the point that the uninterested worldly person is complaining about it (not that this is the goal, or that we should be annoying about it), as opposed to deciding in advance that the person is "not a good prospect?" I plead guilty; you decide for yourself. "He who observes the wind will not sow, and he who regards the clouds will not reap."(Ecclesiastes 11:4) This is good advice for farming, good advice for life generally, and good advice for sharing the gospel. The time is shorter than we think for all of us; we need to get busy in the fields of the Lord, and if we meet a little discomfort or opposition, all the better for our growth in being like Christ.

Stanza 3:
Go then even weeping, sowing for the Master,
Though the loss sustained our spirit often grieves;
When our weeping's over He will bid us welcome--
We shall come rejoicing, bringing in the sheaves.


This stanza makes several references to Psalm 126, the language of which lies behind the entire hymn. Here is the entire psalm, in the King James Version in which Shaw would have read it:
When the Lord turned again the captivity of Zion,
   We were like them that dream.
Then was our mouth filled with laughter,
   And our tongue with singing:
Then said they among the heathen,
   The Lord hath done great things for them.
The Lord hath done great things for us;
   Whereof we are glad.

Turn again our captivity, O Lord,
   As the streams in the south.
They that sow in tears shall reap in joy.
He that goeth forth and weepeth,
   Bearing precious seed,
Shall doubtless come again with rejoicing,
   Bringing his sheaves with him.
This is a complicated little text, like many of the Psalms of Ascents from which it come. The first section speaks of a deliverance accomplished; the second, of a deliverance yet unfulfilled. Is the writer released from captivity, or still in it? This may date Psalm 126 to the post-exile period, when God's people were so to speak "out of the frying pan and into the fire," having been released from foreign bondage but subjected to fears and threats in their old homeland. In a broader view, however, this reminds us that as long as we are in this world, our victory is not complete. Leslie Allen comments on this aspect of the Psalm that, "God’s people are sustained with the resource of prayer and with the assurances of both His past salvation and His inherent faithfulness. Present distress is no argument for the denial of Yahweh’s power or grace."(174)

But why is the sower weeping as he goes? There may be echoes here of the ancients' association of sowing and reaping with death and rebirth.(Miller, 406) Jesus even took up this imagery and recast it into a greater spiritual truth:
Most assuredly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it produces much grain. He who loves his life will lose it, and he who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life.(John 12:24-25)
But there may be an even simpler answer: farming is hard work. The planting is a great deal of effort and investment, and the harvest is the payoff. R.E.O. White comments on these verses,
The casting of precious grain upon the dry soil, in helpless hope of rain, would often seem a desperate choice when wife and children cried for bread.  After any poor season and dry summer, sowing cost discipline and tears, demanding deep faith that the seed sack would be exchanged for sheaves.(189)
Looking back to the personal application of the "sowing and reaping," this stanza of Shaw's hymn reminds us that we will often forgo the easy path in this life, taking the path of tears and struggle when we could opt for an easier road. Whatever the sacrifice, we know we will be rewarded in the end with a rich harvest.

In view of Shaw's own experiences, however, I believe this stanza refers more specifically to his efforts in spreading the gospel. Shaw's work as a revivalist kept him away from home the majority of the year. This was trial enough on a family, but tragedy was added to trial as he lost three of his five children within just four years' time. The year 1869 was almost unbearable; his youngest, Knowles Jr., died in August, then in December his oldest child, Georgie Anna, age fourteen, became gravely ill. Shaw broke off a meeting and rushed home in time to be with her before her death.(Baxter, ch. 9) When Shaw wrote of the "spirit deeply grieved" by the "loss sustained," it was not a poetic exaggeration.

Most of us will not be called upon to make the sacrifices of a man of Shaw's talents. But there is a place for us to serve in spreading the Lord's good news. If it requires some effort and sacrifice, "rejoice to the extent that you partake of Christ's sufferings, that when His glory is revealed, you may also be glad with exceeding joy."(1 Peter 4:13)

About the music:

Though Shaw wrote his own music for the text, the universally known tune is by George A. Minor (1845-1904). Born in Richmond, Virginia, Minor was educated in a military academy and served in the Civil War; but following that conflict he turned to a career in music. He directed the Sunday School at the First Baptist Church in Richmond, and published several hymnals. This tune, however, is the only one of his works to remain in common use.

How much Minor's military experience influenced his music is impossible to say without examining more of his music, but this tune certainly matches the style of military marches of the day, with simple dotted rhythms indicating a martial character. (The more robust American march style of John Philip Sousa was still a generation away.) The short phrases and upbeat tempo make this tune easy to sing while working or marching, and have probably contributed to its lasting popularity.


Baxter, William. Life of Knowles Shaw, the Singing Evangelist. Cincinnati: Central Book Concern, 1879.

"Bringing in the sheaves." Wikipedia.

McGarvey, John W. The Fourfold Gospel. Cincinnati: Standard Publishing, 1914.

Allen, Leslie C. Psalms 101-150, vol. 21 of Word Biblical Commentary. Waco, TX: Word Books, 1983.

Miller, Clyde M. Psalms pt. 2, v. 10 of The Living Word Commentary. Austin, TX: Sweet Publishing, 1980.

White, R.E.O. A Christian handbook to the Psalms. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1984.

"George Austin Minor." Cyberhymnal.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Christ is the World's True Light

Praise for the Lord #83

Words: George W. Briggs, 1931
Music: DARMSTADT, Ahasuerus Fritsch, 1679; arr. J.S. Bach, 1724

A common misconception I have run into among my brothers and sisters in the Churches of Christ, is the idea that the classical hymn (of the Watts and Wesley type) is a thing of the past. Nothing could be further from the truth; in fact, the 20th century quickly produced works in this tradition that were often better than their Victorian predecessors. By the closing decades of the century the "hymn explosion" in Great Britain was in full bloom, and a sort of ecclesiastical British Invasion of the United States was underway. We just don't know these hymns in the Churches of Christ (at least most of us in the United States), because after Elmer Jorgenson's large infusion of classical hymnody via Great Songs of the Church, in the first third of the 20th century, this style had relatively few advocates among us to keep up with the new developments. (The 1990s hymnals Praise for the Lord and Songs of Faith and Praise made some amends to this neglect.)

George Wallace Briggs (1875-1959) was a Cambridge-educated Anglican priest who rose to be the Vicar of Worcester. (He should not be confused with George Ware Briggs, 1810-1895, who was a Unitarian minister and hymnwriter from Boston.) He left an indelible mark on English-language hymnody, both as a writer and as a co-founder of the Hymn Society of Great Britain and Ireland, an institution that coincided with the 20th-century revival in the classical hymn.("Briggs") Another of his widely sung hymns is PFTL #198, "God has spoken by His prophets," a thoughtful and timely hymn on the authority of God's word.

Erik Routley, the British hymnologist whose pointed, witty analysis could make Simon Cowell appear warm and fuzzy, wrote of his friend Briggs:
An author of the "traditional" kind who succeeded excellently in writing simple and persuasive material for our time was the late G. W. Briggs. . . .

That kind of material, unspectacular and innocent but sound and honest, can add much to the virility of a modern hymnbook, and will appeal to those whose tastes are traditional without assenting to any unwillingness to be surprised.(Routley, 158ff.)
I can't think of any better praise for a modern hymnwriter; in an era when the cultural divide between the churched and unchurched is almost inconceivably broad, what better way to speak to our time than through strong, simple language? And Routley's almost reverent tone, especially coming from one who so often delivered withering rebukes, indicates to me that Briggs is a hymnwriter I should get to know better.

Stanza 1:
Christ is the world's true Light,
Its Captain of Salvation,
The Day-Star clear and bright
Of ev'ry man and nation.
New life, new hope awakes
Where'er men own His sway;
Freedom her bondage breaks,
And night is turned to day.

Briggs starts with a time-tested method for writing a great hymn--he quotes the Scriptures. The passages that refer to Jesus as "the Light" are too numerous to mention, but there are three particular aspects of the topic especially pertinent to this stanza.

In the great cosmic overture to the gospel according to John, the apostle states that, "In Him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it."(John 1:4-5) In terms of actual physical phenomena, light is something, but darkness is nothing. Light is the presence of a form of energy, and darkness is its absence. Likewise, life is the presence of certain vital functions, and death is their absence. The darkness could not comprehend or overpower the light, because ultimately, the prince of darkness is nothing, and Jesus is everything.

Second, that light equals some sort of information and understanding. Jesus said, "I am the light of the world. Whoever follows Me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life."(John 8:12) As if to make the case even plainer, He later said,
"The light is among you for a little while longer. Walk while you have the light, lest darkness overtake you. The one who walks in the darkness does not know where he is going."(John 12:35)
We are naturally fearful to walk in physical darkness, and instinctively put a hand out to protect ourselves from a sudden collision with an unseen obstacle, because we do not trust ourselves to go forward without information about what is in front of us. Why we are so willing to do this very thing spiritually, in such a cavalier manner, is a great mystery. Perhaps the natural body has a greater instinct for self-preservation than does the immortal soul.

Finally, the light Jesus brings comes with a responsibility to respond. Having information does not mean one will follow it, and odd though it would be, we could have plenty of light but insist on shutting our eyes and walking in darkness anyway. Thus Jesus spoke of "walking" in the light, that is, making an active response to the light. 1 Peter 2:9 tells us, "But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for His own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of Him who called you out of darkness into His marvelous light." What we do once we are there is up to us. John develops this theme most thoroughly in his first epistle:
If we say we have fellowship with Him while we walk in darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth. But if we walk in the light, as He is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus His Son cleanses us from all sin.(1 John 1:6-7)
Briggs next calls on two other names of Jesus, one of them relatively little-used. "Captain of Salvation" is from Hebrews 2:9-10 (King James Version),
But we see Jesus, who was made a little lower than the angels for the suffering of death, crowned with glory and honour; that He by the grace of God should taste death for every man. For it became Him, for whom are all things, and by whom are all things, in bringing many sons unto glory, to make the Captain of their salvation perfect through sufferings.
We use the term "captain" today for a military officer or a commander of a vessel, which is not the full sense of the Greek archēgos, though it does mean "prince" or "chief." The same expression is used in Hebrews 12:2, calling Jesus "the Author and Finisher of our faith."("Archēgos")

"Day Star" as a name for Jesus can be found in 2 Peter 1:19 (King James Version): "We have also a more sure word of prophecy; whereunto ye do well that ye take heed, as unto a light that shineth in a dark place, until the day dawn, and the Day Star arise in your hearts." The morning star is of course the harbinger of dawn, calling to mind the similar expression found in the touching Song of Simeon at the end of the first chapter of Luke:
And you, Child, will be called the Prophet of the Highest;
For You will go before the face of the Lord to prepare His ways,
To give knowledge of salvation to His people
By the remission of their sins,
Through the tender mercy of our God,
With which the Dayspring from on high has visited us;
To give light to those who sit in darkness and the shadow of death,
To guide our feet into the way of peace."(Luke 1:76-79)
Perhaps Briggs had this in mind as well, as the passage ties in neatly with the overall theme of Jesus as the Light of the world and Prince of peace.

In the second half of the stanza Briggs introduces another great theme of the hymn, Jesus as our Liberator from bondage. Jesus spoke plainly about mental slavery and freedom, and of His role in emancipating those who are willing:
So Jesus said to the Jews who had believed in Him, "If you abide in My word, you are truly My disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free."

They answered Him, "We are offspring of Abraham and have never been enslaved to anyone. How is it that You say, 'You will become free'?"

Jesus answered them, "Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin. The slave does not remain in the house forever; the son remains forever. So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.(John 8:31-36)
Probably the best-known phrase from this passage is the pithy line, "You will know the truth, and the truth will set you free." But just as was discussed previously about walking in the light, there are two contingencies upon which this freedom depends: first, we must hear the truth, and second, we must be willing for it to free us. It was on the second point that Jesus' hearers failed, as do so many people today. Ironically, not only did they fail to acknowledge the historical reality of their nation's enslavement to Rome, but they told themselves a far worse lie by refusing to acknowledge their personal enslavement to sin. The Light will guide us, but only if we are willing to open our eyes.

Briggs suggests this truth by the juxtaposition of seemingly contradictory ideas: "freedom her bondage breaks" only when "men own His sway." There is no freedom from sin without submission to Christ, turning from one master to the other. Paul makes this point in the sixth chapter of Romans:
Do you not know that if you present yourselves to anyone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin, which leads to death, or of obedience, which leads to righteousness? But thanks be to God, that you who were once slaves of sin have become obedient from the heart to the standard of teaching to which you were committed, and, having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness.(Romans 6:16-18)
As Bob Dylan's song rightly said, "Gotta serve somebody." Serving self seems like freedom but is ultimately slavery; submission to Christ seems to the outsider like slavery, but its outcome is the ultimate liberation.

Stanza 2:
In Christ all races meet,
Their ancient feuds forgetting,
The whole round world complete,
From sunrise to its setting.
When Christ is throned as Lord,
Men shall forsake their fear,
To plowshare beat the sword,
To pruning hook the spear.

In the second stanza, Briggs expands on the line in the first stanza, "of ev'ry man and nation." The world of 1931 was just as troubled as our own, if not more so. India was slowly, painfully marching toward independence from the British Empire. In the United States, the sham trial of the "Scottsboro boys" was yet another outbreak of that disease of racism that so disfigured our ideals of liberty. There were revolutions in South America, Franco established a new government in Spain, and Mao established the first Chinese Soviet Republic. The National Socialist party was on the rise in Germany. The world banking system was out of control and appeared ready to collapse.(Wikipedia)

Ecclesiastes 4:1 rightly says, "I returned, and considered all the oppressions that are done under the sun; and behold, the tears of such as were oppressed, and they had no comforter." It was true then, it was true when Briggs wrote, and sadly, it remains true today. But Christ came to bring enlightenment, and He means for us to play our part in fighting back the darkness. Though He is the ultimate Light of the world, He means for us to reflect that light as best we can:
"You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven."(Matthew 5:14-16)
And if we need any further explanation that "walking in the light" is an active, practical, everyday matter, John tells us that,
Whoever says he is in the light and hates his brother is still in darkness. Whoever loves his brother abides in the light, and in him there is no cause for stumbling.(1 John 2:9-10)
We do not know specifically what kind of hatred John refers to, but we know that the early Christians struggled mightily with the transition of the faith from a Jewish-centered community to one that included all nations. Peter, though he was known to have lapses (see Galatians 2!), strongly stated the new understanding they had to embrace after his encounter with the Roman centurion, Cornelius: "Truly I understand that God shows no partiality; but in every nation anyone who fears Him and does what is right is acceptable to Him."(Acts 10:34-35) And if they are acceptable to God, are they not good enough for me?

Briggs emphasizes the uniting power of Christ to overcome these differences. "In Christ all races meet," because Christ is the "new Adam." Paul staked out the philosophical high ground in his sermon at Athens, declaring that God "made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth."(Acts 17:26) In the letter to the Romans he built on this foundation, arguing that,
Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned--for sin indeed was in the world before the law was given, but sin is not counted where there is no law. Yet death reigned from Adam to Moses, even over those whose sinning was not like the transgression of Adam, who was a type of the One who was to come. But the free gift is not like the trespass. For if many died through one man's trespass, much more have the grace of God and the free gift by the grace of that one man Jesus Christ abounded for many.(Romans 5:12-15)
Jesus is also the "new Adam" in the sense that He is "the firstborn from the dead,"(Colossians 1:18) and though "what we will be has not yet appeared," we are assured that "when He appears we shall be like Him."(1 John 3:2) We who are Christians are already a "new creation" on the inside,(Galatians 6:15) and someday we shall be re-created on the outside as well. To the extent that we are truly born again, race and nationality should be understood as the transitory, incidental things they actually are by comparison. When we are more like Christ, we will be able to see every person as a brother or sister, a child of our heavenly Father, and can begin to fulfill the prophecy of Isaiah 2:4,
They shall beat their swords into plowshares,
And their spears into pruning hooks;
Nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
Neither shall they learn war anymore.
Stanza 3:
One Lord, in one great name
Unite us all who own Thee;
Cast out our pride and shame
That hinder to enthrone Thee.
The world has waited long,
Has travailed long in pain,
To heal its ancient wrong;
Come, Prince of Peace, and reign!

Is that unity possible? Sometimes we seem further from it than ever, but it was never easy; Paul describes it as "endeavoring [NIV 'making every effort'; ASV 'being diligent'] to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace."(Ephesians 4:3) The Greek verb beginning that verse is the same used in Hebrews 4:11, "Let us therefore strive to enter that rest."("Spoudazō") We are called to work for the unity of the church with the same diligence with which we seek our personal salvation!

But how far are we willing to go? Consider the following quotation from a well-known preacher and author among the Churches of Christ:
We believe it is sinful to have two congregations in the same community for persons of separate and distinct races. That race prejudice would cause trouble in the churches we know. It did this in apostolic days. Not once did the apostles suggest that they should form separate congregations for the different races. But they always admonished them to unity, forbearance, love, and brotherhood in Christ Jesus.(quoted in Campbell, 29)
This statement would stir controversy even today in far too many communities--but it was written by David Lipscomb in the Gospel Advocate in 1878! He was a Southerner, writing in Nashville only twelve years after the Civil War--right at the end of Reconstruction and the beginning of Jim Crow. As the people at Nazareth said of Jesus, "Where did this man get these things?"(Mark 6:2) He got them from the Word of God, faithfully applied, without fear or favor. This is what can happen when we, as Briggs says in his hymn, "Cast out our pride and shame / That hinder to enthrone Thee."

Of course there are divisions that are not of our individual making, that we personally cannot help; for example, when a division comes about over a matter of doctrine, at least one side may be right, and cannot help but be divided from those in the wrong. But I wonder how often division has really been over doctrine, as compared to division over matters of opinion, matters of culture, or even matters of personality, that simply were not handled in an humble and Christ-like spirit? How often has fellowship been hindered by the jealous guarding of power? How often has it been hindered by the old excuses, "We are all happier as things are," or, "They are welcome to come over here any time they choose?"

I am not talking only of race--have we not seen the same kind of segregation take place between age groups within churches, between social classes, and even between groups with different preferences in worship music styles? Sadly, we cannot deny the accusation of Paul: "For you are still of the flesh. For while there is jealousy and strife among you, are you not of the flesh and behaving only in a human way?"(1 Corinthians 3:3) God help us to keep our eyes fixed on the light of Jesus Christ, "Who desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth."(1 Timothy 2:4)

About the music:

Ahasuerus Fritsch (1629-1701), who wrote the melody sometimes known as "DARMSTADT," was the son of a small-town Burgermeister and lawyer. The dislocations of the Thirty Years' War brought the family to Jena, where young Ahasuerus pursued his father's profession at the city's famous university. In 1657 he became tutor to Count Albrecht Anton at Rudolstadt, which became his chief source of support. A true Renaissance man, he contributed to scholarship in jurisprudence, theology, and anthropology, as well as writing hymn poetry and tunes.(Göschel, 359ff.)

This tune first appeared in the 1679 edition of Fritsch's chorale collection Himmels-Lust und Welt Un-Lust ("Desire for Heaven and Disdain for the World"), with the text "O Gott, du frommer Gott" ("O God, Thou faithful God") by Johann Heermann. Its popular name "DARMSTADT" came from its use in the "Darmstadt Hymnal," the Geistreiches Gesangbuch published in that city in 1698. In this work it was set to the text, "Was frag ich nach der Welt?" ("What ask I of this world?").(

The congregational chorales remained at the heart of the Lutheran church music tradition even as a complex choral and instrumental repertoire built up around them, and tunes such as DARMSTADT infused the works of the great Lutheran classical composers such as J. S. Bach and Felix Mendelssohn. Dietrich Buxtehude, greatly admired by the young J. S. Bach, wrote a cantata using DARMSTADT (BuxWV 104). Bach himself used this tune in several of his cantatas; it makes brief appearances in BWV 45, 64, 128, 129, and 197a, and was the basis of the entire cantata Was frag ich nach der Welt? (BWV 94). This is an excellent example of how a composer wove a chorale into a large-scale work; despite the complexity of his writing, the familiar old tune (at least to his audience) is always around the next corner.(Bach Cantatas) A full score of this work is available at,_BWV_94_(Bach,_Johann_Sebastian), and high-quality performances are available on Youtube.

Bach never seems to have set a melody the same way twice, even when writing in the traditional chorale style with its straightforward treatment of the melody and (relatively) conservative counterpoint. I have been unable to identify the exact source of the version of DARMSTADT found in Praise for the Lord, but it appears to be closest to Bach's setting of the tune in the final movement of BWV 45, the cantata Es ist dir gesagt, Mensch, was gut ist ("It has been told you, O man, what is good"). The most notable difference is the running bass line in the second phrase, found in the version in the hymnal but not in Bach's BWV 45. Perhaps this was spliced in from another version by an editor who was a bass singer!

As usual for the Bach chorales, the melody itself is not so difficult, but the harmonization--which was intended not for the congregation, but for the choir and instruments--is atrociously difficult for the average congregation. Bach's writing is always worth the effort, but in this case I wish the editors had chosen one of the simpler versions of this tune that can be found in nearly any Lutheran hymnal.


"George Wallace Briggs." Cyberhymnal.

Routley, Erik. Hymns Today and Tomorrow. New York: Abingdon, 1964.

"Archēgos." Thayer's Lexicon, from

"1930." Wikipedia.

"1931." Wikipedia.

"Spoudazō." Thayer's Lexicon, from

Campbell, Will D. Race and the Renewal of the Church. Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1962. Excerpt at

Göschel, Karl Friedrich. Zur theologisch-juristischen Biographie und Literatur. Schleussingen: Conrad Glaser, 1842.

"O Gott, du frommer Gott (Fritsch)."

"O Gott, du frommer Gott." Chorale melodies used in Bach's vocal works.