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.

About Pastor Mark Preus

Mark Preus is pastor of St. Andrew’s Lutheran Church and Campus Center in Laramie, WY. He graduated from Concordia Theological Seminary in Fort Wayne with an M.Div. in 2008 and then obtained an M.A. in Classics at the University of KS in 2010. He was ordained at Faith Lutheran Church, Wylie, TX in August of 2010. He has been married to Becky since 2005. God has graciously given them four daughters and five sons. Pr. Preus loves to read and write poetry, especially Lutheran hymns, and talk theology with anybody who has an ear to listen. He also likes coffee too much and tobacco too much, as well as microbrew beer. He can also prove with reasonable certainty that Paul Gerhardt wrote most of his hymns while smoking and drinking beer.

You can find more of Pr. Preus's writings at his blog.


Really, Christians Should not Sing “Come Thou Fount”: A Reply to My Critics — 99 Comments

  1. @Mark #39

    However, should our Synod ever grow indifferent toward purity of doctrine, through ingratitude forget this prize, or betray or barter it away to the false church, then let our church body perish and the name ‘Missourian’ decay in disgrace.”
    Rev. C. F. W. Walther,…

    Yes, that’s better, Mark.

  2. Of all the comments made by Pastor Rolf Preus, I think that there is one comment which stands out for me:

    “God blesses us with the pure gospel. How do we respond to this blessing? We treat it with contempt. We complain against those who defend it, promote it, and teach it. What will God do with doctrinal indifferentists who dismiss as trivial the teaching of the pure gospel? He will take the pure gospel away from them! He will send them spiritual drought.” Certainly we see the playing out of this truth in the pews emptying out of many churches of all denominations. Though there could be many other reasons for such results, I believe that refusing to repent of false doctrine is a major one.

  3. @Pastor Prentice #63

    Pastor Prentice:

    The Preus’s have been an influence in LCMS for several generations and by now are probably the largest single clan in Missouri. [Regarding children, they tend to think in dozens.] Google them in wikipedia, or Concordia Theological Quarterly, or perhaps a few other Lutheran lists and blogs.

    Please. Do yourself a favor and remember the proverb:
    “It’s better to be silent and be thought ignorant, than to speak and remove all doubt.”

    If that’s too severe, I apologize, but I am afraid of what will show up under your name next! I would like to think that you are more knowledgeable than you sound here, if only because (Lord, have mercy!) you are a convention delegate!

  4. “…that we never had it in our hymnals. We didn’t need to wean people off of it because they didn’t know it. Now they love it, and it is not going to help them in their faith.”

    I’m not a musician and didn’t grow up in a German- or Norwegian-descended family. I’m also an adult convert who was familiar with English hymnody before I converted.

    The English hymns are easier. The poetry, rhyme schemes and tunes come naturally. They’re easier to memorize and remember. After 8 years in a Lutheran church, I’m pretty comfortable with the good Lutheran hymns. I have many favorites. Ease of learning and comfortableness of words and tunes shouldn’t guide us in choosing hymns. BUT translations can be less than satisfying, if not outright awkward, even bad. Balancing accuracy of meaning with the words’ sounds and syllables must be hard. Though we in the west have succumbed to mass marketed (mostly by Sweden) pop music, I still think Americans have an ear for Anglo song patterns–in old folk and country music, traditional nursery tunes and the like.

    So the cultural “hook” might be part of the appeal, and the ease of the words.

    I do love the line “Jesus sought me when a stranger” and the rest of that stanza.

    Thanks for the hymn study. It’d be great to have more of these.

  5. @Katy #78

    I’m not a musician and didn’t grow up in a German- or Norwegian-descended family. I’m also an adult convert who was familiar with English hymnody before I converted.

    Some of our German congregations in Carolina have a charter from George III.
    At what point would you concede that they became “American”? 🙂

    OTOH, our Pastor in Minnesota taught German and confirmation in German till WW II. (I missed it.) But I probably didn’t learn an English rhyme till I went to school.

    You’re right, though. Some translations don’t do justice to the original.


  6. @Pastor Prentice #21

    Pr. Prentice,
    I believe you misunderstood me, based on your response. The backbeat, rhythm, etc. from rock music is intentionally meant to evoke emotional responses. Did you truly read the book, because I have no idea what you mean by “articles.” I could care less about what you listen to on the side. I was referring to music of the Divine Service. But this is another thread for another time, which has been beat to death on this forum. I will comment no further, but I did want to clarify my comment so that you might understand. Have a good day!

  7. I can’t even imagine any Christian being indifferent to pure doctrine.   That’s not the same as obsessing over stanza 3 for several days.  There are also plenty of other urgent challenges to pure doctrine such as persecution of Christians in 105 countries.

    Helen is right.  After 50 comments we all (especially me) start repeating ourselves. 

  8. @helen #65
    Dear Helen,
    Lord BE praised (and I thank Him in prayer that I was elected) that I am a convention delegate, because I can sift through all the left wing / right wing, confessional / non-confessional, etc. banter. All of you do not know when to take “the breathe” and chill for a moment. I have learned how.

  9. @LadyL #80
    Dear LadyL,
    One final thought back at you. This thread does leave me thinking of a few things (music wise):

    01) Yes, we MUST watch and guard against error in music lyrics, now some good discussion what constitutes error.

    02) Even as BJS disdains contemporary music (of the more up beat nature, etc.), before we rip it, look at the lyrics, the content. I love my Luther, Bach, Franzen, Gerhardt, etc., but you need to toss in some Starke, etc. too. And newer. AND watch for the theological meanings.

    03) And as for the response of contemporary music, the senses, etc. that are evoked, well, we are people that do love have our senses tingled. The early Church was very sense driven, smoke, oil, etc. There is a fine balance, I still am figuring it out.

    GOOD SHEPHERD INSTITUTE – a great place to work through it!!!!!

  10. EDITOR’S NOTE: I will be going back and cleaning up the comments due to both Rev. McCall and Rev. Rolf Preus coming to peace as brothers in Christ and fellow pastors. What a wonderful thing when men act as Christians, believing the Word, confessing sin and being reconciled in Christ.

    Here is a statement from Rev. Rolf Preus:

    Pastor Willis McCall and I recently visited on the phone. We are brothers in Christ and brothers in the ministry. We are at peace with each other and we wanted everyone who visits this website to know that. We are also neighbors, living in adjacent circuits here in the vast open spaces of eastern Montana. I’ve asked Pastor Scheer to edit out some recent posts.

    Pastor Rolf Preus

  11. “Moreover, let us not show a lust for controversy, nor an inclination for disputing, an impudence to argue, a desire to win, nor a foolish longing to show off one’s wisdom, but rather a mind desirous of the truth, a humble spirit, and a heart which fears God, so that in God’s sight and with His Word leading us we may depend on the word of His mouth alone and not pervert the things which He has revealed to us in Scripture according to the norm and measure of our own reason, but humbly and firmly embrace them in the simple obedience of faith.”

    Martin Chemnitz, Chemnitz’s Works, trans. J.A.O. Preus. vol. 6, The Two Natures in Christ (St. Louis: CPH, 1971) 258.

  12. Another Chemnitz quote: “”It is not shameful not to know something but to be unwilling to learn is both shameful and wicked.” Martin Chemnitz, The Harmony of the Four Evangelists”

  13. Hey Rev. Preus
    I think from your blog you write excellent hymn lyrics you could suggest a recommended hymn tune and give the meter for your hymns. Perhaps NewLutheranhymns is a better title than revivelutheranhymns

    More importantly you have the talent to tweak the words of unfortunately non-solid theological hymns so they could be improved and pass what doctrinal standard you think they should have.

    Please tweak Unde et Memores for me The words are by william Bright”
    And now O Father mindful of the love”

  14. @James #90

    Thank you, James. I took your advise. I made that blog when I was in Seminary some 10 years ago, and it needed a name change. Thank you for the suggestion.

    I don’t know how we can save “And now, O Father, mindful of the Love,” though it has very beautiful words in it. It is an Anglo-Catholic view of the Lord’s Supper as re-presentation, dangerously close to the abomination of the mass of the Roman Catholics, and yet expressing a better doctrine of the atonement.

    I don’t have time to do this right now, but it would be a noble task.

    Thank you again!

  15. Pr. Mark,

    Speaking of your own contemporary music, I emailed you the revised version of your hymn “I Come O God Back to this Bath”, sung at our district pastors conference last month. I’m afraid it didn’t go through, so if you didn’t get it, please advise me where to mail it. (I was at the palace in StL shortly thereafter and heard it played on that beautiful chapel organ too, besides a few favorable comments about the sound theology therein.)

  16. Having read the articles and the comments I feel “constrained” to weigh in, if just for one time.

    I find it interesting how far afield the comments have gone and also how the original author has, in my opinion, strained at gnats in order to make a point about the great danger of pietism and feeling based theology found in hymns and “praise songs” with which our synod is toying.

    I know what I’m about to say will likely be taken with a grain of salt or, more likely, with the ramblings of ignorance, but I personally understand the stanza that has caused such consternation in an entirely different way. As I read “O to grace how great a debtor Daily I constrained to be!” as saying how unworthy of God’s grace I, “a poor miserable sinner” I truly am. I am “constrained” to say that I, in now way, deserve God’s unmerited or deserved grace / love / gift of His forgiveness, mercy and love.

    To my simple mind, the next line follows logically from this interpretation: “Let Thy goodness, like a fetter, Bind my wandering heart to Thee” as saying, “Though I, in my sin, would walk away from You, hold me close and call me back to You daily.”

    I suppose one could interpret “Here’s my heart” as “What is that to give God?” (cf. Hammer of God), that doesn’t necessarily negate what was said before, if my interpretation has any merit.

    Just saying!

    Don’t we have more important things to spend our time on and worry so much about?

    In Christian love.

  17. @John Rixe #81

    obsessing over stanza 3 for several days

    If we count the number of times the stanza will be sung in a few years time, and multiply that by the number of congregations singing it, and by the number of people in attendance, 3 days of consideration is not out of proportion.

  18. Dear Rev. Preus: For a number of years, as I have hymns in church, I would suddenly be taken aback, because I felt there was something wrong with the words. I toyed with the idea of taking a hymnal and going through it to check out my suspicion. Your two posts on “Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing”, 686 in the Lutheran Service Book, have now motivated me to do just that.
    I have not completed the task. I have gone from 331 to 399, a total of 68 hymns. So far I have found 8 hymns with words that are objectionable to me – about 18%. Space does not permit showing the objectionable texts of all 8 hymns; for now I will limit myself to 4:
    340, Lift up Your Heads Ye Mighty Gates, v5, “Redeemer, come and open wide My heart to Thee, here Lord, abide! O enter with Thy grace divine; Thy face of mercy on me shine.”
    341, Lift up Your Heads, Ye Mighty Gates, v4, “Fling wide the portals of your heart, Make it a temple set apart From earthly use for heav’n’s employ, Adorned with prayer and love and joy. So shall your Sov’reign enter in And new and nobler life begin.”
    350, Come, Thou Precious Ransom, Come, v2, “Enter now my waiting heart, Glorious King and Lord most holy. Dwell in me and ne’er depart, Though I am but poor and lowly. Ah, what riches will be mine When Thou art my guest divine!”
    361, O Little Town of Bethlehem, v4, “O holy child of Bethlehem, Descend to us, we pray, Cast out our sin and enter in, Be born in us today. We hear the Christmas angels The great glad tidings tell; O come to us, abide with us, Our Lord Immanuel!”
    The common thread that runs through these verses is that our membership in the Kingdom of God is a thing of the future, not something that happened in Baptism.
    Since I believe that there are some problems with the LCMS doctrine of the Holy Spirit, something Hermann Sasse seemed to confirm when he quoted a colleague approvingly, who wrote, “the doctrine of the Holy Spirit has lost its citizenship in the Lutheran Church,” I was curious what the Pentecost hymns would look like. No surprise! 8 hymns, 8 with objectionable wording, all denying the reality of the indwelling of the Holy Spirit.
    It was one of your family members who wrote that any heresy impacts the doctrine of Justification. Inasmuch as justification is a part of the Gospel, I believe that any wrong doctrine impacts the Gospel, and therefore the purity of its preaching. I can only surmise from what I have discovered in the hymnal so far, that the purity of the Gospel is not a significant concern of our church.
    Peace and Joy!
    George A. Marquart

  19. @Scott Diekmann #96

    Constructively, what are the Steadfast Brothers recommending here?  Are there hymnals beside TLH and LSB that are more doctrinally pure?  What steps should be taken to fix LSB?  Thanks.

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