One of the saddest effects of the Calvinism debate among Southern Baptists has been the way the discussion about predestination, etc. has moved from the realm of praise to that of polemics. Truly, the faith we hold must be defended. Christians are a people who are called to contend for the faith once for all delivered to the saints (Jude 3). Nevertheless, when we find election in the Bible it is often a source of praise (Ephesians 1:4–6), a motivation for missions (John 10:16, 26; Acts 18:9–10), and a reason for comfort and assurance (Romans 8:29–39). Rarely, if ever, is election up for debate in the Scripture.
For this reason, discussions about “the TULIP,” which only swim in the pond of argument and persuasion, miss the genre and the goal of biblical election. While I cannot speak for all Calvinists, I can say the ones I know are far more interested in worship and winning the lost than winning the debate about “Calvinism.” For those who hold to the doctrines of grace, the doctrines of grace increase our affections for God and his mission to reach the world for Christ.
For Calvinists, unconditional election is a source of sheer amazement that God would set his love on such a worm as me. Limited atonement becomes a risk-empowering confidence that the cross will accomplish the salvation of all God’s sheep. And irresistible grace is the power God employs to free sinners, so that they can freely follow him.
To be sure, each of these points need sub-points, but the doctrines of grace—to those who delight in them—are not mere theological shibboleths; they are invitations to worship the omni-benevolent and all-powerful God. With this in mind, it is not surprising to find that the Baptist Hymnal (the old one) is filled with songs that not only touch on the TULIP, but praise God for the very doctrines espoused in that acronym.
Now, maybe you’ve never noticed just how many (not all) hymns are written by Calvinists. Once you begin to learn the backdrop to the Baptist Hymnal, however, it is hard to miss the rich hymnody produced by the likes of Isaac Watts, John Newton, William Cowper, and others who affirmed the TULIP. It is my hope that by drawing attention to the following songs, you might see the doctrines of grace in their native habitat—the praise and worship of the church. My prayer is that God may open your eyes to behold the beauty of his multi-faceted grace, what sometimes goes under the acronym TULIP.
T — Amazing Grace (330)
In John Newton’s hymn, “Amazing Grace,” we find the scandal of grace. Newton a former slave-trader who did not deserve the kindness of God was overwhelmed by the mercy he had received. He knew the depths of his sin, and he wrote his first stanza exclaiming his own wretchedness:
Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound /
That saved a wretch like me /
I once was lost, but now am found /
Was blind, but now I see
Newton never forgot who he was before Christ, and thus he remained amazed by grace. So too, every believer who looks not at the sins of others, but who ponders the depths of his or her own depravity, will not want to forget their total depravity. As Paul wrote, “The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost” (1 Tim 1:15). As a former persecutor of the church, Paul never “got over” his violent opposition to Christ. So too, we who have received the mercy of God in salvation can’t forget who we were before salvation. Rather, we ought to find fresh amazement at God’s grace to us—the worst sinner we know. For this reason we sing of the total depravity from which we were saved.
U — My Lord, I Did Not Choose You (289)
While the doctrine of election has provoked many to anger; it is meant to evoke praise. As in Josiah Conder’s hymn, “My Lord, I Did Not Choose You.” Conder, a nineteenth century British Congregationalist and Abolitionist, wove the words of John 15:16 and 1 John 4:19 into a beautiful hymn describing God’s electing love. He sings,
- My Lord, I did not choose you, / For that could never be;
My heart would still refuse You, / Had You not chosen me
You took the sin that stained me, / You cleansed and made me new
Of old You have ordained me, / That I should live in You.
- Unless Your Grace had called me / And taught my opening mind
The world would have enthralled me, / To heav’nly glory blind
My heart knows none above You; / For Your rich grace I thirst
I know that if I love you; / You must have loved me first
Sadly, many American Christians loathe the doctrine of unconditional election, but it’s truth is deeply biblical and one that celebrates the “sovereign goodness” of God and “promotes humility” in the believer, as the Baptist Faith and Message says (Article V).
Even more, God’s electing love is a wellspring for praise. When Paul speaks of it in Ephesians 1:5–6, he does so in the context of an elongated praise chorus. When he considers the wisdom of God in electing Jews and Gentiles, assigning them to equal disobedience, so that he can have grace on them all, he is spellbound (see Romans 11:32–36). In short, Paul didn’t argue for election; he simply worshiped God for it. So should we, giving praise to God for his unmerited, unconditional election.
L — The Church’s One Foundation (350)
Perhaps the most contentious petal on the TULIP is the ‘L,’ which stands for Limited Atonement. Better described as Definite Atonement or Particular Redemption, the heart of this doctrine is that God the Son bled and died for the covenant people whom God gave him before the world began (see John 17). Variously described as his sheep (John 10), his church (Acts 20:28), his beloved bride (Eph 5:25–27), and God’s children (John 11:51–53), the focus on this doctrine is not the exclusion of the non-elect. It is the precious reality that all God set his love on (i.e., those who he foreknew/foreloved), he stopped at nothing to procure their salvation. It stands against the provisional notion of the cross and extols God’s power, wisdom, and love to effectively accomplish the salvation of his own.
In Baptist hymnody, no song captures this doctrine better than Samuel John Stone’s, “The Church’s One Foundation.” Writing as an Anglican minister in the 19th C., Stone’s hymn captures the purpose of Christ’s incarnation—to effectively secure the salvation of his bride.
The church’s one foundation is Jesus Christ her Lord.
She is his new creation by water and the word.
From heaven he came and sought her to be his holy bride.
With his own blood he bought her, and for her life he died.
Without denying the universal offer of the gospel, Calvinists rejoice in the powerful working of the Son. Definite atonement is the belief that Christ’s death saved his people without remainder. Thus we sing songs like “The Church’s One Foundation,” because it glories in promise of Revelation 5:9: By his blood, Christ “ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation.” The language of this heavnly verse speaks of God saving his people “from” or “out of” (ek) every nation; not that he redeemed every person in every nation. If he attempted to do the latter, the efficacy of the cross would be lessened—and thus praise decreased. As it stands we sing praise to the Son for his definite atonement.
I – And Can It Be (147)
Exception might be taken to the fact that one not be a Calvinist to sing these songs with gusto. And, of course, this is true. Many believers can praise God for biblical truths without situating them in a theological system. But such an objection misses the mark: the point to be made is that the hymns which best extol the grace of God are most coherent with Calvinist theology, whether the author is Calvinist or not. Certainly, this is the case with non-Calvinist Charles Wesley.
Charles, the brother of famed non-Calvinist preacher, John Wesley, wrote thousands of hymns in his life. And few are more famous than, “And Can It Be.” This hymn speaks of his own salvation experience, and in the fourth stanza he speaks of the work of the Spirit bringing him from death to life. What he exactly meant, and how he exactly understood the operations of the Spirit in regeneration, I don’t know—I’d be happy for someone better versed in Wesley’s theology to share. But what he describes is the doctrine of Effectual Calling (i.e., Irresistible Grace) as Calvinists understand it.
Long my imprisoned spirit lay /
Fast bound in sin and nature’s night;
Thine eye diffused a quick’ning ray, /
I woke, the dungeon flamed with light;
My chains fell off, my heart was free; /
I rose, went forth and followed Thee.
Wesley recounts his personal response to God, placing it in response to the light of the Lord that broke into the darkness of his living coffin. In a sense he speaks of the same Spirit-given grace we find in Titus 3:4–7:
But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that being justified by his grace we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life.
In poetic terms, Wesley describes the work of the Spirit—at the command of Jesus, the Spirit awakens the unbeliever from his spiritual deadness. The resurrection power of the Spirit provides a “quickning ray” and frees the spirit. As Wesley orders it, the unbeliever is released from his enslavement to sin and is able like Paul and Silas to walk out of the tomb crying out to God. In other words, the order here is regeneration first, then believing pursuit. However Wesley understood it, this is what Calvinists praise God for—while we lay dead in darkness, God awoke us by shining his light into our heart; hence, freed from our shackles, we (and all true Christians, regardless of their theology) freely chose to follow the one who set them free. Understood in this way, it is obvious why we extol the irresistible grace of God.
P — Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing (15)
Finally, we come to Robert Robinson, who wrote of God’s sustaining and preserving grace in the third verse of “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing.” Appropriately, his song expresses both his commitment to God and his need for God’s grace to keep him.
Oh, to grace how great a debtor daily I’m constrained to be!
Let thy goodness, like a fetter, bind my wandering heart to thee:
prone to wander, Lord, I feel it, prone to leave the God I love;
here’s my heart, O take and seal it; seal it for thy courts above.
Appropriately, the collaborative effort of God’s preservation and the believer’s Spirit-empowered perseverance strikes the right balance. Unlike election, atonement, and calling, which depend entirely on God’s free grace; the doctrine of perseverance is a ‘synergistic’ work between God and the believer. Whereas, the triune God effects salvation from first to last (what is called ‘monergism’); perseverance involves the volition and action of men to keep believing. Still, such belief is not self-generated. As “Come Thou Fount” implores, ability to keep walking with God is a gracious gift from God, underwritten by the Son’s sacrifice and supplied by the Spirit of Christ.
Hence, believers sing songs of lament for their ongoing debt, confessing the waywardness of their hearts. And simultaneously they express hope that God can supply them with the grace to keep traveling on the road to the Celestial City. Indeed, this last stanza is the testimony of every Calvinist—Lord I believe; help my unbelief. Lord, I trust you, but I feel my heart wandering. Jesus, I love you, so keep me in love with you.
Grace that Makes You Sing
In truth, the doctrines of grace are not meant, first and foremost, for the court of debate. They come from the pages of Scripture calling us to worship the triune God for his unfathomable grace. And for those whose eyes have been opened to see their beauty, they will not become ends in themselves, but portals to behold the infinite splendor of God himself—the Father who elects; the Son who atones; and the Spirit who regenerates.
In response to the God who sings over us (Zeph 3:17), may we delight to return praise to him for his free grace.
Soli Deo Gloria, ds