In the Fall of 2012, the Presbyterian church that I was serving as part-time Director of Worship was beginning to focus on celebrating the Reformation. Each October, like many other like-minded congregations, we would give special attention to many of the doctrinal truths recovered and emphasized during the Reformation, along with important historical figures who served as catalysts for the movement. The culmination of this focus ended in a final celebration on the last Sunday in October closest to the 31st, the day Martin Luther nailed his "95 Thesis" to the door of Wittenberg.
As many Christian Reformed Churches and other like-minded denominations have been looking forward to this year, marking the 500th anniversary of that historic event, so too was a struggling song-writer and part-time Director of Worship. I began to think of ways that I could contribute to this celebration, by giving a musical voice to the truths that unite so many believers across time and history, geographical location and ethnicity. I began to think about what was truly essential to the teachings of the Reformation. While there are certainly doctrines that have divided people over the years, what truths have united believers more than others? What are the most significant common denominators of the Reformation?
While I'm sure we all have our differences as believers and there is much diversity within the body of Christ, I find more often than not, that we have several common denominators. Sure, there are several people I've talked to throughout the years who have had similar denominational upbringings and who have read the same books or were impacted by certain pastors, encouraging them toward a Reformed/Covenantal understanding of the Scriptures: I cant tell you how many people I've spoken with who have been impacted by the ministry of John Piper for example.
However, that is not quite what I have in mind when I think about the commonality with other believers. In fact, I still have many brothers and sisters in Christ who believe contrary to what I believe concerning denominations, God's sovereignty, election, baptism and who our favorite authors are. What I find most common with other believers, is something that has actually been used as a summary of the teaching of the Reformation... whether my non-Reformed brothers and sisters realize it or not.
The Five Solas
- Sola Scriptura - “Scripture alone”
- Sola Fide - “faith alone”
- Sola Gratia - “grace alone”
- Solus Christus - “Christ alone”
- Soli Deo Gloria - “to the glory of God alone”
*For the sake of space and time, I've chosen to narrow in on one of these solas. I chose to focus on the Word of God because I find that it is often under attack, more so than any other. Scripture alone also serves as a means to understand all the other solas. While we can learn much about God through creation (general revelation), it is through God's Word alone (special revelation) that we learn of what is required of man and the means of salvation.
Sola Scriptura - Whether we recognize it or not, every follower of Jesus is responding to a clear call from the living Word of God. Romans 10:14-17 beautifully describes this truth and the necessity for believers to faithfully proclaim the gospel... "faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ." (ESV)
The familiar slogan "preach always and use words when necessary" fails to account that when preaching the gospel, words are always necessary to produce faith! Faith only comes when the gospel is clearly communicated, using words to those who have ears to hear. (I believe the intent of this passage is not to limit communication to merely words heard by those who can physically hear, but by any means available to communicate what God has done for us in Jesus Christ and what he requires as the appropriate response: faith and repentance.)
No "lifestyle" can clearly communicate what God has done by making satisfaction for sin and absorbing the wrath that we deserve. Nor can our actions explain how God requires people everywhere to repent and turn to Christ in faith. What our lifestyle does (should) accomplish is that it puts on display the righteousness of Christ imputed to us so that others may glorify the Father and Lord willing, ask about the hope that is in us. We of course should not passively wait for those moments, but intentionally seek out ways to communicate the good news. The good news that is necessary for faith.
Not only does Sola Scriptura mean that faith comes by hearing from God's Word alone, (initial saving/justifying faith) but also that the Word of God is the only means the Christian needs for a life of godliness (continued sanctifying faith).
2 Timothy 3:16-17 serves as beautiful summary of how the Scriptures are sufficient for everything pertaining to a life of godliness.
"All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work."
God's Word is truly "perfect" and sufficient to restore the soul. (Psalm 19:7)
In the Scriptures alone can we find the meaning to all the other remaining solas. Salvation is the free gift of God's grace received by faith alone in Christ alone. By his active obedience he secured the righteousness of God for all those found "in Him," and by his death he satisfied the just wrath of God, accomplishing the forgiveness of sin. This glorious salvation is to the praise of his glorious grace. It has been accomplished, applied and eternally secured for all those who find rest in him.
A Modern Hymn for a Timeless Reformation
As I pondered these great truths recovered and emphasized some 500 years ago, I began the process of writing a new hymn to voice these truths. My goal was not to spell everything out completely or exhaustively, but rather to poetically describe what these truths mean for believers of all times.
The melody came rather quickly as I originally wrote the tune to serve as a re-tune for an older hymn text. As I completed the melody and chord progression, I thought, why stop here? Since we were already in the midst of focusing on the Reformation and it was fresh on my mind, I thought to use the five solas as a framework for new lyrics. The final result was the song "For Thine All-Surpassing Glory."
In 2012 I was wrapping up a recording of several others songs that I had written, along with the new hymn. It wasn't until years later, when I was serving in my first full-time ministry role as Director of Worship, when I began to consider how this new hymn could better serve the church. Because this was a hymn, I was longing to hear it with four-part harmony and played on the organ! This was something I was (am) incompetent to accomplish. I recruited the help of an amazing pianist and choir director at our church to help with the harmonization. As a result, I hope, in a small way, that we captured the truth, goodness and beauty of a timeless Reformation.
I'm not entirely sure why I decided to write it with the "thees" and "thous" other than the fact that they just seem to fit! Since it was a traditional hymn meter and format, I thought I would write it as such.
I pray that you enjoy this song and that you celebrate well this coming October. More importantly, I hope that you all treasure (and lead others to treasure) the beauty of Christ and what he has done for us! In Christ alone do we find true common peace!
*The recording is not of the SATB version but of the original recorded version. If you desire a copy of the SATB version, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org or leave a comment below.
For Thine All Surpassing Glory
In Thy Word alone is for me
untold riches of Thy love
and the richest treasure from Thee
comes through Jesus’ precious blood
Grace alone saw our condition,
restless sinners; reconciled
not by might nor fond ambition.
Grace has met what Thou required!
True repentance Thou hast granted
Saints, no longer stand condemned
Faith to stand before Thee, righteous
freely given to defend
Object of all highest measure
once forsaken and despised.
Now Thy wrath and Thy good pleasure
Christ alone has satisfied!
For Thine all surpassing glory
all has come to pass in time
and from Thine eternal story
making all things praise Divine!