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GUEST POST from Andy Naselli

Sometimes it's disheartening to learn what the author of a hymn intended by his or her lyrics. It can ruin what you thought was a good hymn!

To pick just one example of dozens, I used to sing "The Cleansing Wave" in churches I grew up in:

The cleansing stream I see, I see!

I plunge, and O it cleanseth me;

O praise the Lord, it cleanseth me,

It cleanseth me, yes, cleanseth me.

Later I learned that this is the most famous hymn by Phoebe Palmer (1807-74). Palmer was part of the holiness movement, embraced Methodist perfectionism, and was a forerunner of the Keswick movement. Section 1 of her book The Way of Holiness is titled "Is There Not a Shorter Way?", and her emphatic answer is Yes. Her teaching emphasized this (erroneous, I think) teaching, and her famous hymn illustrates how she emphasized sanctification's immediacy. She compares the crisis of Christian perfection to a baptism or internal cleansing that results in a pure life.

So what do you do if you're singing a hymn like this with a congregation that is generally unaware about the hymn's authorial intent? I can think of at least two options: (1) don't sing, or (2) if the lyrics are redeemable, sing but don't interpret the hymn according to its authorial intent. In other words, a postmodern hermeneutic may save you from the dilemma of not singing versus affirming error. What would you do?

[Editor’s note: Two other examples of beloved hymns with Keswick theology are Take My Life and Let it Be and Like a River Glorious, both by Frances Havergal.]

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27 thoughts on “When a Good Hymn Goes Bad (Andy Naselli)”

  1. ScottL says:

    I think it would be good to understand the greater view of Wesleyan sanctification and perfection in love. It might calm our hearts (or minds) and not get overly bothered by it.

    Occasionally I have changed one or two words to communicate what I thought was more Scriptural. One was a song by Delirious, My Glorious. One line stated: God is bigger than the air I breathe, the world we’ll leave.

    It seemed a little more [dispensational] premillenial than I hold to. So I changed to: God is bigger than the air I breathe, the world we see.

  2. HC says:

    Frances Havergal was not “Keswick’s hymnist.” Frances kept her distance from the Keswick movement, not wanting herself to be identified nor associated with them. She clearly rejected “sinless perfectionism” as false doctrine against Scripture. She died in 1879. The first Keswick convention was in 1875. The majority of her writings (poetry and prose) were written well before the birth of the Keswick theology of sanctification.

  3. You could pretend you’re M. Lloyd-Jones (so you’re still reformed), in which case you would agree with the idea of a baptism of the Holy Spirit as a second work of grace and you could sing whole-heartedly. :)

  4. Interesting point by HC. I will be interested to see any response. In the little reading I have done on Havergal I di dnto think she was in the Keswick line. I also don’t see the Keswick element in Take My Life & Let It Be. What is it?

  5. I think we’re missing the point of the question… There are several hymns that, during and since seminary, I have been able to identify with Arminianism, postmillennialism (to which I do not hold), and a host of other doctrinal positions–positions which 99% of those singing are unaware. Mostly, I think, it’s because people zombie-sing or sleep-walk their way through hymns (which is a horrible shame).

    These days, I usually come to these realizations during the one “contemporary” chorus that we sing in my church. My favorite tactic is to nonchanlantly sub out a word to redeem the majesty of the song, while not compromising sound doctrine.

  6. Ben says:

    Interesting post, Andy. I have faced this dilemma many times with different hymns sung at my church. Very rarely I whisper to my wife that we will not sing a particular verse or chorus of a song, but most often, I change words or interpret them differently than what was intended in order to be able to sing along.

  7. Mike says:

    Maybe we have hymns go through some sort of evangelical stamp of approval like the Catholics imprimatur? Set up an Evangelical Hymn Association to filter out theological impurities. We worship God in spirit and in truth, but we still sing off key and none of us have our theology down perfectly.
    I’m not sure any of can claim to have the clean heart and pure hands save for what our Messiah has done for us that we can boldly come into His presence.

  8. Richard says:

    I would not sing it. I have a similar problem with the Christmas hymn, “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear,” written by a Unitarian. Or, “It is Well with My Soul,” written by one who abandoned the historic Christain faith. And, yes, these hymns should be filtered by the church.

  9. Nathan says:

    So…how about some good, ol’ Psalm-singing! Always agree with the author’s intent, never have to sub-out a few words, know every song is theologically correct, and know that God’s authority rides on every line of the song!

  10. kristin says:


    I’ve seen/heard others “not sing” with hymns that they don’t agree with before (I’m talking about not agreeing, not blatantly wrong, gospel-denying doctrine in a hymn — hymns that deny the fundamentals of salvation simple aren’t included in the hymnals we use). I usually don’t do this (not sing). Not singing usually comes off as being self-righteous, and is probably generally unhelpful — the only exception being if you just cannot sing with a clear conscience before the Lord because the words explicitly go against your personal convictions. In this case, do not sing, because you stand or fall before your own Master (Romans 14). This reminds me of the weaker brother who abstains from foods offered to idols because of his weak conscience — and this is ok (for him to abstain) — because before his own Master he stands or falls. Abstaining from singing this song is ok — but perhaps doesn’t show the freedom in Christ that one has quite as clearly. Christ, who sees the heart, can purify a song written without perfect theology in mind (as many hymns are, because very few hymn writers have comprehensively correct knowledge of theology or Scripture). We deceive ourselves if we think that all of our words, etc, reflect a “perfect” understanding of doctrine or theology — there is always more to learn about the knowledge of God, and there are always things that we, in our human ignorance, lack true knowledge of. We don’t want to be theological perfectionists (because to do so appeals to our desire to attain righteousness through having correct doctrine rather than a life of faith in Christ) — but rather to sing with pure hearts and clean consciences before the Lord.

    I’d recommend singing (option #2), but with a mind that is focused on what we do know to be true in Scripture — singing the lyrics with any “theological corrections” in our heads and hearts before the Lord — God sees and knows the heart and mind. He accepts “imperfect” lyrics that are sung with a right heart — a heart the desires to honor him and a heart that continually seeks to grow in the knowledge of him.

    In other words, let’s not make a similar mistake that the perfectionists of the holiness movement did, and assume that we, the finite creatures, have a full handle on perfect doctrine, and are fully qualified to judge the hymns of our brothers and sisters who wrote them with pure hearts and a genuine desire to please Christ. If we see error, than let us correct gently as needed, or sing the “redeemable” lyrics with right understanding in mind. But let’s avoid the self-righteous feel of theological perfectionism, because God alone has perfect theology (ie, perfect knowledge of Himself, His character, and ways). We see through a glass, darkly.

  11. Adam says:

    I wonder if the writer or other posters are aware of or made uncomfortable by the passages in the Psalms that are factually erroneous. (Psalm 4:5, for example). My point is that this is poetry, art open to interpretation first and reflections of the writer’s doctrine second (if at all). The inherent risk in co-opting someone else’s emotion and work as your own prayer (as most churches do every Sunday) is in realizing you disagree with the message. Either write your own work or, as several posters suggested, just sing something else.

  12. Jared says:

    Adam, how is Psalm 4:5 “factually erroneous”? What others?

  13. Adam wrote…

    wonder if the writer or other posters are aware of or made uncomfortable by the passages in the Psalms that are factually erroneous. (Psalm 4:5, for example).

    How on earth is “Offer right sacrifices, and put your trust in the Lord” “factually erroneous?”

    Do tell…

  14. Matt says:

    “(2) if the lyrics are redeemable, sing but don’t interpret the hymn according to its authorial intent.”

    I’m not sure if I’d consider this option legitimate. It’s the same line of thinking that’s made pop and Top 40 songs so prevalent in younger services. We just pretend like a song that was really written about a girl is about God instead.

    Also, where could this lead? Could we use this logic to construe any song as “Christian?” If somebody tried this with a song like N.W.A.’s “F— tha Police,” would that be legitimate?

  15. Adam says:

    Apparently my typing is yet again more erroneous…

    I meant 6:5…

    4Return, O LORD, rescue my soul;
    Save me because of Your lovingkindness.
    5For there is no mention of You in death;
    In Sheol who will give You thanks?

    Here we see David writing a psalm that was expressly used by “the choir director.” In it he implies that there is no knowledge of God after death. We know from other passages that this is not so. So, what’s the rub? Could be a couple of things. One, David honestly didn’t believe in the after life (unlikely) or Two, he was using poetic voice to express fear, faith and frustration.

  16. Chris Zodrow says:

    “…if his mistaken interpretation tends to build up love, which is the end of the commandment, he goes astray in much the same way as a man who by mistake quits the high road, but yet reaches through the fields the same place to which the road leads”. — Augustine

    I doubt that Miss Palmer had the intention to deceive. I am not sure that the hymn itself is theologically wrong. It appears her intent is to rejoice in the cleansing from sin that is every Christian’s joy. How could another intent be read into the verses quoted?

    By the way- I am not post-modern. Andy assumes that the only way to accept her words is to be one. This is poisoning the well, and could create burdened consciences in worship, where once there was freedom. Are we supposed to start asking where the souls of the writers are before we sing hymns that are — for all intensive purposes — theologically sound?

    Andy, post-modernity is more pernicious than you suggest here. At the same time it is not “here” when we sing songs that glorify God- despite the personal confusions of the writers.

  17. Andy Naselli says:

    FYI: I plan to write a follow-up blog post to be published here next week that explains how Frances Havergal is connected to Keswick theology.

  18. Chris Zodrow says:

    I meant “for all intents and purposes” — um, duh.

  19. Melinda says:

    “How could another intent be read into the verses quoted?”

    By learning more about the author (as Andy disclosed above)and discovering that she was saying (based on her writings, also referenced above) something quite different than what I thought she was saying. At the moment that I discover what she truly meant by her words–not what I initially and erroneously thought she meant–then I have a postmodern choice to reject her authorial intent in favor of my own interpretation.

  20. Chris Zodrow says:

    The verses quoted in the article are innocuous and the whole hymn is based around Scriptural verse. Not to deny the possibility of Keswick teaching underpinning Miss Palmer’s theology, but I could (as both a reformational and anti-Keswick believer) sing her song without a pang of conscience- and not because I am a pomo (which I am not). Should the church now throw out “Come Thou Fount” because the author later rejected the faith?

    Miss Palmer loved the Saviour. Her intent was to glorify Him. If that is not evident, and instead I am supposed to attribute some sort of deceit or heresy to her, well, I will not follow you there.

    Post-modernity is not the issue here, as the content of the song is not theologically distorted. If the intent was to destroy the faith, she did not do it with this hymn. If I say, “apples are often red” while my intent is to say that “donuts are manna”; it does not take away from the fact that often apples truly are red.

    Let’s get pomo teaching right before we start using it as a pejorative against the saints.

  21. Chris Zodrow says:

    PS- According to the definition of post-modernity asserted by both Any Nasselli and Melinda, the apostle John would be considered a pomo as well. The acceptance of “truth” in spite of authorial intent is something that John thought was acceptable. Read John 11:49-50.

    “A person who is a good and true Christian should realize that truth belongs to his Lord, wherever it is found, gathering and acknowledging it even in pagan literature, but rejecting superstitious vanities and deploring and avoiding those who ‘though they knew God did not glorify him as God…'”.
    Saint Augustine, On Christian Teaching II.75

    Andy and Melinda need to get post-modernity right. The pomo rejects the meaning in the text, because they reject authorial intent. The Christian accepts the meaning in the text, and sometimes in spite of authorial intent.

  22. K Threlfall says:

    We always think of you whenever the congregation sings “Higher Ground.” :)

  23. Julie says:

    Kudos to HC and ScottL. Thank you!

    The holiness movement definitely took sanctification too far in the ‘event’ direction, but there was always a tension between event and process.

    But if you think holiness theology is from the devil, you can always edit your hymns, like Wesley did with some of Isaac Watts’ ;-)

    Obviously I don’t mind a little tension between extremes. I’m a Free Methodist reading a Reformed blog!


  24. Kenneth says:

    “Battle Hymn of the Republic” falls in the bad intentions category.

  25. Respectabiggle says:

    In a similar vein, I leave out “indivisible” when reciting the Pledge of Allegiance.

  26. Andy Naselli says:

    I just added two follow-up clarifications:
    1. What about Keswick today?
    2. Is Frances Havergal really connected to Keswick theology?

  27. Dan says:

    When I sing the hymn ‘Cleansing Wave’, it speaks to me of when I was baptized, I received the “cleansing wave” of both the symbolic water, and the redeeming blood of Jesus. In as sense, I then walked above the world of sin, because Jesus’ blood is what saved me. In another sense, I’m not walking above the world of sin, because I live in a sinful, fallen world, and I have strong sinful propensities. When I sin, I don’t need to be re-baptized, but I do need a renewal of the “blood of Jesus”, which I receive when I repent and humble myself before the Lord, knowing I can trust him in all things. I don’t mean I am lost in the time between my sin and when I seek the Lord, but that I do need periodic, even frequent renewals of the covering blood of Jesus, if I am to follow the path the Lord has for me.

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Kevin DeYoung

Kevin DeYoung is the senior pastor at Christ Covenant Church in Matthews, North Carolina. He is chairman of the board of The Gospel Coalition, assistant professor of systematic theology at Reformed Theological Seminary (Charlotte), and a PhD candidate at the University of Leicester. Kevin and his wife, Trisha, have seven children. You can follow him on Twitter.

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