At a recent church service, we sang the chorus of well-known contemporary worship song The Anthem by Planetshakers (video below). In case you’re not familiar with it, the words are as follows:
Hallelujah, You have won the victory
Hallelujah, You have won it all for me
Death could not hold You down
You are the risen King
Seated in majesty
You are the risen King
In many ways it’s a great song, declaring Jesus’ victory over death and his eternal reign in glory, all set to a rousing tune that can stir a congregation to passionate corporate worship. But there’s one thing in this song that bothers me. Can you guess what it is?
It’s these seven words: You have won it all for me.
Now, in a broad sense, these words are true: Jesus has defeated the power of sin and death, and he offers the benefits of that victory to all who accept the invitation to be part of his family. There’s nothing we can do to win what he offers us. That’s the point of grace: God has done all the work – all the “winning”, if you like – and He offers us the fruit of His victory on a plate.
The reason I find this line bothersome is that it places the emphasis on me, the recipient, rather than on Jesus, the great victor. A newcomer to church with no knowledge or understanding of the biblical gospel could quite easily assume on hearing these words that Jesus’ prime motivation in going to the cross was to secure individual benefits for me. In fact, I have a hunch that many Christians also assume this to be true, perhaps subconsciously.
I believe the Bible makes clear that, while Jesus’ mission obviously had massive (and intended) benefits for us, God’s lost children, in no way was Jesus’ focus on securing those benefits for me personally. I just don’t see how any thoughtful reading of Jesus’ life and mission can arrive at that conclusion. His focus was unflinchingly on doing the will of his Father and seeing his Father’s name glorified; this was the “joy that was set before him”, for which he endured death on a Roman cross.
Perhaps I would feel less uneasy about singing these words if we weren’t surrounded by and soaked in such a me-centric culture. The consumer society in which we live tells us that life is largely all about us – that what we need is what makes us look good, feel good, and have maximum comfort and convenience. In that context, whenever we emphasise me in our worship songs, we risk blurring the lines between the Kingdom of God, whose cornerstones are self-sacrifice and other-centred love, and the kingdom of this world, which is built very firmly on me and everything I want, need and deserve to make me happy and fulfilled.
I don’t want to be someone who worships Jesus because he makes me look good or feel good or fulfils me or sorts out my problems, whether temporal or eternal. I want to be someone who worships him because he is the eternal Word, the one by whom and through whom all creation has its being, and because God has declared him Lord over all things, now and forever.
So no, I don’t think Jesus won it all “for me”. I think he won it all for his Father, who was pleased to share the glorious benefits of that victory with us, his beloved children. Jesus didn’t go to the cross to meet our needs or make us happy; he did it so the Father could reconcile the world to Himself.
Another song that troubles me for similar reasons is the hugely popular Above All by Michael W. Smith. Again, it has a very appealing and singable melody, and the words are compelling:
Above all powers, above all kings
Above all nature and all created things
Above all wisdom and all the ways of man
You were here before the world began
Above all kingdoms, above all thrones
Above all wonders the world has ever known
Above all wealth and treasures of the earth
There’s no way to measure what you’re worth
Crucified, laid behind a stone
You lived to die, rejected and alone
Like a rose, trampled on the ground
You took the fall and thought of me
Once again, I have no quibble with 95% of this song. In fact, the verse is a wonderful exaltation of Jesus, comparing him to nature, kingdoms and wealth and finding him immeasurably better than all of the above. But the last six words bother me greatly: “and thought of me above all”. I simply can’t bring myself to sing it any more. Yes, I’m immensely and eternally grateful for Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross, without which I would not know the benefits of salvation. But to conclude that what caused him to “set his face like flint” and endure betrayal, mockery, torture and the shameful death of a criminal was the thought of me and my individual salvation… well, I just can’t find a way to reconcile that with anything Jesus said about his message or his mission.
You may think I’m splitting hairs or being needlessly nitpicking. If you do, that’s fine – just move along and come back tomorrow. But I happen to believe that what we sing often shapes our theology and our faith far more than what we hear from the pulpit. Songs have a way of permeating our psyche and staying in our head and our heart much longer than sermons. One implication of this is that worship leaders carry a great responsibility in choosing the songs that a congregation will sing. Another is that each of us should think carefully about what we sing. This isn’t about being pernickety and insisting on only singing songs that line up with every jot and tittle of scripture; it’s about making sure we sing songs that genuinely honour God and invite us to partake of His Kingdom, which is in radical opposition to the cultural forces that surround us twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. Those forces are so strong that it’s not surprising that they might occasionally seep into our corporate worship. It’s up to us to make sure that while we’re worshipping, we’re not inadvertently declaring values and principles that are closer to the kingdom of this earth than the Kingdom of Heaven.