The Influence of Calvinism in Our Song Books

It Is Well With My Soul

Recently at the congregation where I preach, we concluded a study on the subject of Calvinism. We discussed the five major tenets of this false doctrine (often remembered by the TULIP acronym) – total depravity, unconditional election, limited atonement, irresistible grace, and perseverance of the saints – along with some other ideas that are connected to Calvinism.

Over the years, I have noticed that certain ideas that can be found in lyrics in our song books reflect an influence of Calvinism. When someone else made a comment to this effect during our study, I decided to put together an additional lesson at the end about the influence of Calvinism in our song books. That is how this article originated.

Note: The point of this is not necessarily to make a list of songs we cannot sing in worship. We can make some allowance for “poetic license.” However, we ought to be mindful of the influence of Calvinism that can be found in our song books. We teach one another through singing (Colossians 3:16) and we are to sing with understanding (1 Corinthians 14:15). Therefore, it is important to evaluate the songs that we sing to see if they convey the truth.

Additional note: The song books we use at the congregation here are Sacred Selections For The Church edited by Ellis J. Crum. Therefore, I used songs that are found in that book. There may be others found in other hymnals (and even other songs in this one) that could have been included. This is not meant to be an exhaustive list of examples.

Types of Phrases to Notice

The following are some types of phrases to notice. The authors of these songs may have been writing from a Calvinistic perspective, or they may have simply written lyrics that can fit with that theory. As we consider each of these, we will see how they may be suggestive of a Calvinistic understanding of the Scriptures, what the Scriptures actually teach in contrast with the Calvinistic understanding, as well as how (or if) we might be able to grant some allowance for “poetic license” and sing these phrases with a Biblical understanding.

Sins nailed to the cross – This is based upon the idea that our sins were imputed to Christ (our sins were nailed to the cross as He was nailed to the cross). Calvinism teaches what is sometimes referred to as “three-pronged imputation” – Adam’s sin is imputed to mankind (total depravity), our sins are imputed to Christ, and Christ’s righteousness is imputed to us in order to “cover” us so that when God sees us He sees the perfect righteousness of Christ.

  • Example #1: “My sins are all nailed to the cross” (Nailed To The Cross, Carrie Ellis Breck, 1899).
  • Example #2: “My sin – not in part but the whole – is nailed to the cross and I bear it no more” (It Is Well With My Soul, Horatio Gates Spafford, 1873).

The Scriptures teach that when Jesus was crucified, the old law was nailed to the cross: “Having canceled out the certificate of debt consisting of decrees against us, which was hostile to us; and He has taken it out of the way, having nailed it to the cross” (Colossians 2:14). Our sins were not “nailed to the cross”; instead, they are washed away in baptism: “Now why do you delay? Get up and be baptized, and wash away your sins, calling on His name” (Acts 22:16). In order to sing with a proper understanding, we need to recognize that sins are forgiven through the blood which was shed by Jesus on the cross when we believe and obey Him.

Jesus made our sins His own – Again, this is the idea of imputed sin [see previous point].

  • Example #1: “He took my sins and my sorrows, He made them His very own” (My Savior’s Love, Chas. H. Gabriel, 1905).

When Jesus died on the cross, He died as a sinless sacrifice, not a sacrifice of one who had taken the sins of the world as His own. In describing Jesus – who was our high priest in addition to being the sacrifice that was offered – the author of Hebrews wrote, “For it was fitting for us to have such a high priest, holy, innocent, undefiled, separated from sinners and exalted above the heavens” (Hebrews 7:26). When Jesus died on the cross, He was not a sinner; rather, He was still “innocent, undefiled, [and] separated from sinners.” When we sing, we need to understand that Jesus did not take on our sins, but that He took on the responsibility to make the atoning sacrifice for our sins.

Jesus died in our place/stead – This idea is based upon the theory of substitutionary atonement (the next step after imputed sin). If our sins were imputed to Christ, then He died “vicariously” for us. This fits with the idea of Calvinism in this way: If Jesus died in our place and suffered the punishment that was due us for our sins, then that punishment no longer applies to us. Thus, we are saved by His grace before we were ever born (unconditional election) and our salvation is assured and cannot be lost (perseverance of the saints) since the punishment for our sin was already satisfied.

  • Example #1: “In my place condemned He stood” (Hallelujah! What A Savior!, P. P. Bliss, 1875).
  • Example #2: “Living for Jesus who died in my place” (Living For Jesus, Thomas O. Chisholm, 1917).
  • Example #3: “There was One who was willing to die in my stead” (Nailed To The Cross, Carrie Ellis Breck, 1899).
  • Example #4: “I stood condemned to die but Jesus took my place” (He Bore It All, J. R. Baxter, Jr. 1926).

The reality is that the death Jesus suffered on the cross was not the same death that we stand to face for our sins. Jesus was “put to death in the flesh” (1 Peter 3:18), yet mankind continues to face death (Hebrews 9:27); therefore, He did not suffer physical death as our substitute. The punishment that we stand to face for our sins is spiritual and eternal (Romans 6:23; Revelation 20:14-15). Jesus did not face this. Therefore, we cannot sing with the idea that Jesus died “in our stead” or as a substitute for us. Instead, we need to understand that Jesus died for us on the cross so that we do not have to die the “second death” (Revelation 20:14).

Jesus paid the debt for our sins – This is related to the concept of imputed sin and substitutionary atonement. It is based upon the idea that forgiveness requires our “debt of sin” to be repaid. Since we cannot pay it, Jesus paid it by dying “in our place” and suffering the punishment that we were due for our sin.

  • Example #1: “Gone is all my debt of sin… Your debt, too, He made His own… Jesus paid it all” (Jesus Paid It All, M. S. Shaffer, 1915).
  • Example #2: “And the debt for my sins was all paid in His suff’ring on Calvary” (The Depth Of God’s Love, Tillit S. Teddlie).

The Scriptures do liken sin to debt (Matthew 6:12). However, God is willing to forgive us on His terms without requiring the “repayment” of our “debt.” When Jesus offered a parable about forgiveness (Matthew 18:23-35), He described a servant who was forgiven by His master of an incredibly large debt without repayment ever being made – not even by one offering to pay the debt in place of the debtor. Furthermore, when the servant proved to be unworthy of that forgiveness, the master held him responsible for the previously forgiven debt – something that would have been unjust if the debt had been paid off by someone standing in for the servant. The truth is that Jesus redeemed us by shedding His blood on the cross (Ephesians 1:7; 1 Peter 1:18-19). Therefore, He certainly “paid a price” to save us (He gave His life and shed His blood); yet He did not pay off a “debt,” making our salvation unconditionally guaranteed.

We are clothed in His righteousness – This is based upon the Calvinistic idea of imputation – not of sin [earlier points], but of righteousness. Again, according to this idea, with Jesus’ righteousness imputed to us, God now sees that righteousness when He sees us.

  • Example #1: “Dressed in His righteousness alone” (The Solid Rock, Edward Mote, 1834).
  • Example #2: “This is all my righteousness, nothing but the blood of Jesus” (Nothing But The Blood, Robert Lowry, 1876).

We can be declared by God as righteous by practicing righteousness: “Little children, make sure no one deceives you; the one who practices righteousness is righteous, just as He is righteous” (1 John 3:7). It is not by the personal righteousness of Christ being imputed to us and covering our sins. Our sins are cleansed as we follow the Lord, not as we continue in sin: “This is the message we have heard from Him and announce to you, that God is Light, and in Him there is no darkness at all. If we say that we have fellowship with Him and yet walk in the darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth; but if we walk in the Light as He Himself is in the Light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus His Son cleanses us from all sin” (1 John 1:5-7). Rather than being “clothed” in Christ’s personal righteousness, we can follow His perfect example and be counted as righteous through our faithful obedience.

Conclusion

It is good to consider the songs that we sing. Even if we have sung these phrases and never thought of how they might be understood from a Calvinistic perspective, we ought to realize that some can sing these songs without thinking of any perspective but that. We need to strive to understand and teach the truth, even though our songs.


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Comments

  1. R.Story says

    Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned—every one—to his own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all. He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent, so he opened not his mouth. By oppression and judgment he was taken away; and as for his generation, who considered that he was cut off out of the land of the living, stricken for the transgression of my people? And they made his grave with the wicked and with a rich man in his death, although he had done no violence, and there was no deceit in his mouth. Yet it was the will of the Lord to crush him; he has put him to grief; when his soul makes an offering for guilt, he shall see his offspring; he shall prolong his days; the will of the Lord shall prosper in his hand. Out of the anguish of his soul he shall see and be satisfied; by his knowledge shall the righteous one, my servant, make many to be accounted righteous, and he shall bear their iniquities. Therefore I will divide him a portion with the many, and he shall divide the spoil with the strong, because he poured out his soul to death and was numbered with the transgressors; yet he bore the sin of many, and makes intercession for the transgressors.
    Isaiah 53:4‭-‬12 ESV
    https://bible.com/bible/59/isa.53.4-12.ESV

  2. T. FeliciEn says

    In the name of not wanting to be like other denominations, you’ve missed Jesus and the whole Bible. Instead of looking to the world, look to Jesus and read the many verses that talk about how Jesus paid our debt (Isaiah 53:5; 1 John 2:2, etc.)

  3. Here’s a portion of one of the articles linked above that discusses in more detail the misconception of our sins being transferred to Jesus:

    The idea here is that Jesus took on our sins. By doing this, our sins were essentially “nailed to the cross” at His crucifixion. Our sins became His sins; therefore, they are no longer our sins. If this is true, then we are no longer accountable for our sins because they have become His sins. What would have to logically follow then is that we, as Christians, cannot be lost. Since Jesus made sacrifice “once for all” (Hebrews 10:10), that sacrifice would cover our past, present, and future sins. If he took on our sins and nailed them to His cross, no future sin could be committed that would be held against us. The doctrine of “once saved, always saved” would be an inescapable conclusion.

    If our sins were transferred to Jesus 2,000 years ago and eradicated in His death, we have no need to seek for forgiveness. We have no obligation to obey God. If our sins were “nailed to the cross,” why did Saul have to be told, “Be baptized, and wash away your sins” (Acts 22:16)? If this doctrine were true, his sins would have already been washed away. There would have been no need for him to be baptized.

    If Jesus had man’s sins transferred to Him prior to His death, one of two things would have to be true. Either all men will be saved or Jesus did not die for the world but just for a few. We know that not all will be saved. In fact, Jesus said “many” will go down the “way [that] is broad that leads to destruction” (Matthew 7:13). But we also know that Jesus died for the world (John 3:16). How can we harmonize these passages with the idea that Jesus took on our sins? If Jesus died for the world and the sins of the world were transferred to Him, we should see the Bible teach that all will be saved. On the other hand, if only a few will be saved and the sins of those who are saved were transferred to Christ, we should see the Bible teach that the sacrifice was not made for all but only for the elect. This faulty interpretation causes Scripture to contradict Scripture. Jesus said, “The Scripture cannot be broken” (John 10:35). Therefore, this view cannot be correct.

    What about passages that seem to teach that our sins were transferred to Christ? Let us notice a couple of them:

    1 Peter 2:24 – “And He Himself bore our sins in His body on the cross, so that we might die to sin and live to righteousness; for by His wounds you were healed.” Yes, Jesus “bore our sins in His body.” But what does that mean? Let us notice Isaiah 53:4, a passage that prophecies of the suffering of Christ: “Surely our griefs He Himself bore, and our sorrows He carried.” Jesus bore our griefs and carried our sorrows. What does the Bible mean by these terms?

    In Matthew 8:16-17, we have inspired commentary on the passage we noticed in Isaiah. In this passage, those who were sick and demon-possessed were brought to Christ and He healed them. Verse 17 specifically stated that this was a fulfillment of the prophecy in Isaiah 53:4. What does it mean that Jesus bore our griefs and carried our sorrows? Does it mean he contracted the diseases He healed? No! Does it mean He became possessed with the demons He cast out? Certainly not! Then why do we interpret 1 Peter 2:24 to mean that our sins were transferred to Christ? What that passage means is that Jesus made it possible for our sins to be forgiven. He did so in the sacrifice of His body on the cross. He did not take on our sins any more than he took on the diseases and demons of those He healed in Matthew 8.

    Hebrews 9:28 – “So Christ also, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time for salvation without reference to sin, to those who eagerly await Him.” We already noticed in looking at 1 Peter 2:24 what it means when it says that Jesus bore our sins. It means He made provision for them to be removed. This passage is simply teaching that when Jesus came the first time, He came to make sacrifice for sins. When He comes the second time, it will not be to sacrifice, but to gather home those who took advantage of His sacrifice and had their sins forgiven.

    Jesus Christ – A Sin Sacrifice

    The interpretation that we are left with is that Jesus was made a sin sacrifice. The Holy Spirit used a figure of speech known as metonymy. This simply means that one word or phrase is substituted for another that is closely related. Hence, “sin sacrifice” is replaced with “sin.” This is actually used quite often in the Bible in relation to this topic. Leviticus 16 discusses sacrifices which were to be made for sins. It refers to the “sin offering” ten times in the chapter. But if you look at the Hebrew, the language in which this was originally written, you see the word “sin” but not “offering.” But “offering” is implied by the context. The bulls and goats did not become sin. They were a sacrifice for sin. The translators, experts in the language, recognized the figure of speech being used and translated the passage accordingly. Likewise, Jesus did not become sin. He was a sacrifice for sin.

    If this is true, then we retain our sins until we meet God’s conditions of pardon. This harmonizes with Scripture. Jesus made forgiveness possible, but we have a responsibility to meet His conditions. Just as Saul retained his sins until he had them washed away in baptism (Acts 22:16), we retain our sins until we obey the gospel.

    “He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him” (2 Corinthians 5:21). Jesus Christ lived a life free of sin and offered His body on the cross as a sacrifice for our sins. By His death, remission of sins is possible. If we follow the teachings of His word, we can be “righteous, just as He is righteous” (1 John 3:7).

  4. Here’s a link to another helpful article by Wayne Jackson: https://www.christiancourier.com/articles/1512-did-christ-literally-bear-our-sins-on-the-cross

  5. T., none of those passages teach that Jesus paid our debt. He died on the cross, sacrificing His life, to make atonement for our sins so that we could be forgiven.

  6. The response you’ve received from the article shows the depth of misunderstanding prevalent today. These teachings of men, like Calvinism, cause this misunderstanding. The hymns are loved by thousands and accepted at face value, but false teaching can show itself anywhere including our hymns. Good work brother.