About 2 months ago I began serving as Associate Pastor of Worship and Discipleship at Faith Bible Church. In the very first song of the first service I was leading, I made a fairly bold decision. Unannounced and somewhat unplanned, I stopped everything. I could see the startled faces, the looks of confusion. It had dawned on me the possibility existed that we may be singing lyrics we did not completely understand. How can we be worshiping the Lord in spirit and in truth if we do not understand the truth we are singing? A brief teaching moment in the course of the service served to clarify, in the minds of some, what they were singing to the Lord.
A quick survey of some of the most beloved hymns of the faith reveals they are replete with somewhat enigmatic phrases. For example,
- “Here, I raise my Ebenezer…”
- “A bulwark never failing” or “Lord Sabaoth His name”
- “Eternal Thy goodness for naught changeth Thee”
- “How does that visage languish”
We could go on, of course, but for our purposes here the above examples will suffice.
For a moment, I want to explore the theology behind the lyrics of a fairly well known hymn. I hope that in doing so, some of the most profound and precious truths of the gospel will rise to the surface, in turn compelling us to worship with hearts and minds that are more fully engaged and exult more deeply in the person and work of Christ.
In 1776, Augustus Toplady published the hymn “Rock of Ages”. Writing in response to the crisis of national debt in that day, Toplady hoped to encourage believers in the truth that their debt of sin before God the Father had been paid in full by Christ (cf., Col. 2:13-14). The end of the first stanza reads:
Let the water and the blood
From Thy wounded side which flowed
Be of sin the double cure
Save from wrath and make me pure.
Here, Toplady was highlighting two realities secured by the sacrifice of Christ for those to trust in him by faith.
First, in light Christ’s cross work, Toplady notes that believers have been saved from God’s righteous wrath against their sin (cf., Eph. 2:1-10). On the cross, Jesus absorbed that cup of wrath to the very last drop (cf., Matt. 26:39-42). The theological term for this aspect of Christ’s saving work is “propitiation” (pron. “pro-pitch-ee-ay-shun”). Having been crucified as a substitute, Jesus fully absorbed God’s wrath for those who are in him, thereby securing the believer’s peace with God (cf., Isa. 53:4-6; 2 Cor. 5:21). As believers in union with Christ, we no longer need to fear facing God’s wrath because of our sin.
Second, Jesus has purified those who believe in him by taking away their sin. Theologians refer to this act of taking sins away as “expiation” (pron. “ex-pee-ay-shun”). Harkening back to the Old Testament Day of Atonement (cf., Lev. 16, see esp. 16:21-22) the high priest laid his hands on the scapegoat and, after confessing the sins of the people, released it into the wilderness signifying the taking away of sin. This act in the Old Testament pointed to the work that Jesus would ultimately do. Jesus is the true and better scapegoat, for his blood truly purifies us from all sin (cf., Heb. 9:11-14).
Propitiation and expiation are two glorious aspects of the gospel! Remember, because of what Jesus has done, we now stand before God the Father with the very purity of Christ (cf., 2 Cor. 5:21). He has saved the believer from the wrath of God by bearing that holy wrath in our place.
It is my hope that an increased understanding will move you to sing with joyful confidence and savor the reality of what Christ has accomplished for unworthy sinners like you and me.
http://www.toplady.org.uk/toplady%20writings/Gospel%20Magazine.htm. Accessed 10/17/13.