Really, Christians Should not Sing “Come Thou Fount”: A Reply to My Critics

LSBThe reason the worship wars have been so heated is because people are emotionally attached to songs that they feel have helped their faith. But we are often the poorest judges of how we are convinced of the truth – a fact those who promote testimonials really ought to take to heart. In warning you of a hymn you shouldn’t sing, I cannot help but trample on the emotions of many of you. It can’t be helped. I don’t do it purposely. I’m not being arrogant because I’m not arrogating to myself some authority over your emotions. I am appealing the authority over your faith, namely, the divine doctrine taught in Sacred Scripture. With that being said, I ask my critics of my last article to hear me out.

Hymns are not meant to be interpreted by different people in various ways. This is the way most people interpret music these days, since the emotions and thoughts music bring out of us are considered to be unifying only in that we all feel something about the music, not a particular thing, which itself a reflection of the plague of relativism our postmodernists embrace in fear of or disgust of the moralistic rationalism of bygone years. The actual meaning of the lyrics or words doesn’t actually matter to people today, as long as they have a meaning they find pleasing. This is not how Christians should think and behave, but we must recognize that we are not immune from this postmodernist way of thinking. Words, beauty, art – all these have meaning that is not relative. Meaning is not determined by us. It can only be discovered by us by an appeal to truth.

So, for example, in the second stanza of the hymn “Amazing Grace,” the last two lines say, “How precious did that grace appear / The hour I first believed!” I don’t remember the hour I first believed. I was baptized as a baby. If Lutherans were to sing these words, they would be confused, and rightly so. Why are we singing about the experience of our first believing? What does that have to do with grace or how amazing it is? We understand the meaning behind the words when we know that the man who wrote it was an “evangelical Anglican,” who denied that baptism saves, and placed great stock on the conversion experience as evidence of one’s faith. This is why many hymns and songs of Arminians to this day celebrate the experience of believing rather than the power of God’s Word and sacraments to create faith.
The editors of the “Lutheran Service Book,” in including “Amazing Grace,” removed the aforementioned stanza for this very reason. The words of the hymn reflect a doctrine and view that is unscriptural. However, the words themselves could actually jibe with an orthodox faith if we understood them in a way different than the way they were intended. A person could sing these lines and not have his faith harmed, either be interpreting them differently or by ignoring their meaning altogether. Should the editors of LSB have kept this stanza in our hymnal because it is possible to understand them in a correct manner? Of course not. They removed them because the actual meaning and intent of the words was against the sound pattern of words in Scripture and our Confessions.

I disagree with the editors of LSB for including “Come, Thou Fount” in our hymnal, or at least the stanza I wrote against in my previous post. I also disagree with many other inclusions or a lack of other hymns. When you who disagree with me decide whether I am right or wrong, it doesn’t help us simply to rely on the editors of the hymnal. I know many of them and have great respect for them. But this is neither here nor there. The issue is what stanza three of “Come, Thou Fount” in LSB actually means. And so I will address some of the objections raised to my article.

First, I do not object to being a debtor to grace. We are debtors to the Spirit – this is true, and since the Holy Spirit is the one who saves us by grace with the Gospel, I don’t object to the phrase, “O to grace how great a debtor.” My objection is being constrained to be a debtor, and describing God’s grace (or goodness, as the hymn originally goes) as a chain or fetter that binds us to God. Lutherans can sing about being bound to God by love, as Gerhardt does in the hymn Upon the Cross Extended. And, as one commenter astutely pointed out, Paul says that the “love of Christ constrains us, because we hold that if one died for all, all died.” In this instance, we know that the love of Christ sets aside all obstacles to us preaching the gospel to everyone. “If one died for all, all died.” This is a clear statement of the universal atonement and part and parcel to it, objective justification. Paul is not saying here that we are constrained to be debtors to grace. He is saying that grace constrains us to preach the Gospel.

The various interpretations of different people with regard to what “constrained to be a debtor to grace” means should at least make us wonder what it actually means. The reason we cannot agree what it means is because we are trying to find an explanation to what it means that is not Calvinist, which is precisely the only reasonable meaning we can attribute to the Reformed author of the hymn, namely, that of irresistible grace, a grace that is separate from the Word that only can reveal it to us.

All talk of not being able to find the true authorial intent here is done away with when we know who the author is and what he believed. The analogy of faith teaches us what the authorial intent of Scripture is. The words themselves show the context and we interpret them in light of other authors of Scripture. So also, the evangelical Anglican’s words ought to be interpreted in accordance with what evangelical Anglicans taught in the 18th and 19th centuries. To summarize, we know exactly what the words mean. They refer to irresistible grace, and a view of grace that is bereft of the external word, the Gospel and sacraments.

The last lines of the verse in question give further context that Lutherans should not ignore. As I mentioned, I noted the truth of the words, “Prone to wander, Lord I feel it, etc.” It is a reference to original sin and the deceitfulness of the flesh, which would “deceive us and mislead us into false belief, despair, and other great shame and vice.” The answer to our wrestling with the flesh, however, is not to ask God to seal our hearts. As I mentioned in my original article, the Bible always only speaks of Christians having been sealed, not going to be sealed (2 Corinthians 1:22; Ephesians 1:13). God never urges us to get our hearts sealed, because this seal happened in baptism. He promises to give us new hearts in baptism (Ezekiel 36:25-26). The answer to a guilty conscience is not the assurance that we pray might happen to our hearts; this is positing prayer as a means of grace, which it is not. The answer to a guilty conscience, as the Scriptures themselves say (1 Peter 3:21; Hebrews 9:14), is to point us to where God actually sealed us with His Word that gives us the forgiveness of sins now even as it gave us salvation when it first brought us to faith (1 Corinthians 6:9-11). The Reformed and their Arminian children believe that we are sealed by the Holy Spirit apart from the Gospel and sacraments. That is what they teach, and that is what the author taught and believed, and that is what he meant in writing this hymn. In other words, that is what the words of the hymn mean, regardless of how so many Lutherans interpret it or claim the hymn helps them in their faith.

In short, the actual and real meaning of the hymn is explicitly rejected by the Scriptures and our Confessions. I point you all to Luther’s precious words on enthusiasm from the Smalcald Articles III.VIII.3-4, “And in those things which concern the spoken, outward Word, we must firmly hold that God grants His Spirit or grace to no one, except through or with the preceding outward Word, in order that we may [thus] be protected against the enthusiasts, i.e., spirits who boast that they have the Spirit without and before the Word, and accordingly judge Scripture or the spoken Word, and explain and stretch it at their pleasure, as Muenzer did, and many still do at the present day, who wish to be acute judges between the Spirit and the letter, and yet know not what they say or declare. For [indeed] the Papacy also is nothing but sheer enthusiasm, by which the Pope boasts that all rights exist in the shrine of his heart, and whatever he decides and commands with [in] his church is spirit and right, even though it is above and contrary to Scripture and the spoken Word.”

To conclude, I would like to point out that the very same arguments that I am making against Lutherans promoting and enjoying this hymn are those which confessional Lutherans habitually pose against the proponents of the contemporary music of the sects, namely, that the words themselves are not merely shallow, but truly reflect a false theology which is not to be tolerated, much less defended, in the church of God. And many of the arguments made against me have been of similar kind that those who promote the music of the sectarians make against us.

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