The following was originally published in a denominational journal (though this is a modified reprint).
In a letter written to Pliny the Elder (in AD 112), the younger Pliny reported to his uncle that the Christians he was persecuting would gather in the woods, and “sing hymns to Christ, as to God.”
The hymn of these early Christians, on the run, in the woods, was sung to Christ, as to God. And it is right that we would address our Lord this way. For it was Thomas, the disciple, who worshiped Jesus and called him “my God” (John 20:28). It was Stephen, the deacon, who looked up to heaven, “calling upon God, saying, ‘Lord Jesus, receive my spirit’” (Acts 7:59).
Alas, so addressing ourselves to Christ as to God, in hymns, has suffered the ravages of religion. We have reached a point where it may be more common to sing a hymn to some generally agreed-upon virtue as to divinity. In fact, the more agreeable the virtue, the more widely received the hymn (crossing the boundaries of sects, cults, denominations and religions). The most popular of all is that beloved, “Amazing Grace.” And why wouldn’t it be beloved? For consider, Who would object to Grace?
Please, do not misunderstand, I am not saying we should never speak of the abstract or generally known virtues of divinity. Rather, we have access to the abstract in the concrete particular—in the Incarnation of our God. God has come in flesh. So we may sing hymns to Christ as to God! Grace has come enflshed. We can now sing of the Incarnated Grace of God this way, “Amazing Christ, How Sweet the King, who saved a wretch like me!”, for where once we only had an abstract sense of grace, now we have found the concrete reality in the God-Man: Jesus.
Jesus himself is our salvation, whereas grace is a description that explains how we come to receive him. And he himself is more than the sound of a word, he is the Word enfleshed. And so, we should not give to Grace that which belongs to Christ (only the religious would attempt to pull off such a swap).
“Amazing Grace” has only served as an example. Many examples are available. And to be fair to the hymn writers, most would insist that the meaning of their hymn is Christ, through and through, even if only by implication. But to be fair to those of us who sing, we may not be able to know the implicit intent. While singing, what we have before us are the explicit words. And so it is in the hymn itself that must carry the meaning (in the actual words). It is by such words that we will confess to Pliny, and to ourselves, and to God, who it is we address in our song. My objective, then, is not to deconstruct a beloved hymn for the sake of deconstruction, but to use it to be suggestive of another way.
I am not saying any of this to be offensive for the sake of offense. My desire is Christ. But if we are offended, let us find shelter in Christ, and let us not retreat to an automatic defense of the traditions of men and their hymns (no matter how endearing those hymns are to us).
My encouragement to you is this: Write new hymns to Christ, as to God. Let us hear your thoughts on Christ through hymns. And to help us start, we could begin with those old tunes, and refresh the words (which I have attempted below). I am not musically inclined, but I wanted to speak back to Christ his glory. I took the meter of a hymn I knew, and I matched syllables to it. I took that old Nettleton tune from the hymn, “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing” and I wrote a hymn to Christ, as to God:
The Man of Virtue, Loved by God
(which may also be sung to the tune of, “Stricken, Smitten and Afflicted”)
In a manger, Christ so lowly, Second Adam, meek and mild.
Found in flesh, born of a virgin, Covenant Keeper, God the Child.
Nailed high up for death and torture. “God must hate Him”, people cried.
God was shown to be His motive–only friend of God–He died.
Circumcised in crucifixion, “Where is he?” the women cried?
“He is risen! Death has lost him! He is risen, glorified!”
God has found a Man of virtue, God Himself is satisfied.
God enfleshed is God’s own treasure, by Him are we justified.
All to Jesus praise and glory, always Him true worship sees,
Now and ever Incarnated, in God’s throne room now is He.
He is coming — Maranatha! O Saint, ponder what will be.
Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, three yet one, blest Trinity.