Justification Central to Lutheran Hymnody

My parents did not teach my siblings and me to be hymn-Nazis. Rather, they simply taught us good hymns and good theology, and they encouraged us to keep singing good hymns and to read good theology. So for my first post on BJS, I would like to briefly give my case for why I can hardly stand one particular hymn: “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross” by Isaac Watts (LSB 425, 426).

The hymn does not once mention the forgiveness of sins, the cancellation of guilt, Christ bearing our sins or satisfying the wrath of God, or anything about the merit of Christ’s passive obedience credited to us poor sinners. It seems as though Watts based this hymn off of Philippians 3:7- 8 where Paul says that he counts all his works but loss for the sake of Christ. One can hardly criticize him for paraphrasing Paul’s powerful words in Philippians 3; however, he did not include the full thrust of Paul’s words:

For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith— (Phil 3:8b-9)

Watts fails to include the comforting promise of the alien righteousness credited to us by faith. Instead, the hymn dwells on the self discipline the Christian undertakes by meditating on the cross of Christ. Certainly, there is nothing blatantly erroneous in Watt’s hymn; however, this apparently cross-centered hymn fails to express the central theme of the Atonement, the great and blessed exchange where God’s wrath on all mankind and His mercy on all mankind meet in the suffering of His own Son. We like to call this Objective Justification.

Last summer I was talking theology with my brother Stephen, and naturally, we stumbled onto the topic of justification and the preaching of the gospel. After we agreed that it is unacceptable for a pastor to preach a sermon without preaching the atonement and the forgiveness of sins (which did not take long), my brother eventually referred me to an article that Dr. Kurt Marquart wrote, entitled “The Reformation Roots of ‘Objective Justification.'” As I read the article, I noticed that Marquart quoted Luther in Against the Heavenly Prophets. Here is what Luther said, as quoted by Marquart (The Reformation Roots of “Objective Justification.” A Lively Legacy: Essays in Honor of Robert Preus. 1985, pg 124):

If now I seek the forgiveness of sins, I do not run to the cross, for I will not find it given there. Nor must I hold to the suffering of Christ, as Dr. Karlstadt trifles, in knowledge or remembrance, for I will not find it there either. But I will find in the sacrament or gospel the word which distributes, presents, offers, and gives to me that forgiveness which was won on the cross. (LW, 40, 212-13)

Marquart continues to demonstrate that Objective Justification is simply the objective promise, which is the Gospel. But this promise is not merely information. He writes (127):

Far from being a mere reminder or ‘assurance’ of a forgiveness we already have in some other way, the Gospel is God’s actual – and only – means of granting forgiveness…

This “only means of granting forgiveness” has been taught by faithful Lutheran parents to their children and faithful pastors to their congregations for hundreds of years. Reading this article deepened my conviction that Watts’ hymn is far from Lutheran, which makes sense, since he wasn’t a Lutheran. As much as Justification is the central article of Lutheran theology, it should remain the central theme for Lutheran doxology. Doxology which is not evangelically didactic is a waste of time. Especially when we sing hymns about the cross, the words should edify us by teaching the truth of the cross: “One has died for all, therefore all have died… For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. (2 Cor 5:14b, 21)”



Biographical info:

My name is Andrew Preus. I grew up mainly in northern Minnesota, and I earned my BA at University of Minnesota, Morris. I am in my final academic year at Concordia Lutheran Theological Seminary in St. Catharines, ON, at which I am also the editor for our student journal Propter Christum. I am married, and my wife and I have one son. I come from a family of twelve children, and my dad is a pastor up in North Dakota and northern Minnesota. So far seven of my brothers are either in the seminary or are already pastors. I love to talk theology, and throughout my studies, I pray for a deeper understanding of that Love of God which surpasses all understanding.

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