As someone who plans and leads worship, and as a musician, I have a keen interest in the hymns and songs that we sing in church. And being brought up in a conservative evangelical tradition, hymns and songs about the cross featured heavily in my experience of worship. Whilst the Cross of Christ is clearly a central feature of Christianity, it has become in some traditions, the only feature in a landscape that surely contains the life and ministry of Jesus, and the resurrection. (To name two other landmarks).
Songs about the cross usually point in one of two ways … to the great love of God, that inspires us to worship, or to the work of Christ as paying for sin.
A contemporary example of the former would be ‘I will offer up my life’, which has the refrain,
Jesus what can I give, what I bring,
to so faithful a friend to so loving a king,
Saviour what can be said, what can be sung,
as a praise of your name for the things you have done.
O my words could not tell, not even in part,
of the debt of love that is owed by this thankful heart
An example of the latter would be ‘In Christ alone’ in which one verse says:
In Christ alone, Who took on flesh,
Fullness of God in helpless babe!
This gift of love and righteousness,
Scorned by the ones He came to save.
Till on that cross as Jesus died,
The wrath of God was satisfied;
For ev’ry sin on Him was laid—
Here in the death of Christ I live.
I can remember some years ago, being in a service with other clergy, and looking round as we sang this verse, seeing several people frown and shake their heads at the 6th line of that verse. I understood their unwillingness to sing that line, because I felt it too, although I think I still joined in and sang it.
In many ways, it’s a great example of a modern hymn, but I now find I can’t sing that line about the wrath of God being satisfied. Yet in the same hymn, we have the fantastic line ‘Light of the world by darkness slain’. It was the forces of evil that Jesus challenged, and it was evil and not God that crucified him. So, do we still sing the hymn ? Have we the right to leave out that verse, or amend it ?
It is our sung worship that often shapes the way our congregations think about God and the world. (As much as other parts of our liturgy). If we are to be happy for that to happen, then good theology must also shape our sung worship.