Theology in Song: "Your Love Never Fails"

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A friend asked me recently if we could sing the song "Your Love Never Fails" (Anthony Skinner & Chris McClarney) in our church. I'm generally open to song suggestions, so I listened to the song and read the lyrics. It's a pretty good song, with some great references to Psalm 30 and Lamentations 3. Overall, the song speaks solid, Biblical Truth. Yet one line really struck me. It's found in the bridge, and is repeated several times:

"You make all things work together for my good."

At first, I thought it sounded a little odd; perhaps a bit too colloquial or everyday. And maybe it seemed like a slight over-reach, but not altogether theologically unsound. Consider Romans 8:28, as found in the New International Version:

"And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose."

Carry that statement to its logical conclusion: I am one of "those who love [God]" therefore God must work in all things for my good. Thus, with a little re-wording, it's not a gigantic stretch to arrive at the line from the song. Still, that lyric didn't sit well with me, so I kept reading.

The NIV includes a very important footnote for this verse. It states that in some manuscripts, this sentence reads differently. The note indicates the line could be translated as "We know that all things work together for good to those who love God" or "that in all things God works together with those who love him to bring about what is good." Both of these alternatives imply a very different meaning. Furthermore, Romans 8:28 in the English Standard Version reads significantly differently:

"And we know that for those who love God, all things work together for good, for those are called according to his purpose."

From the ESV and the alternate manuscripts, I have a very hard time getting to the line penned by Skinner and McClarney. Those translations tell us that God has a greater good in mind, a benevolent plan that transcends our finite comprehension. As we struggle through life's painful experiences, we still know that God is in control, that his purposes will prevail. Even in the NIV translation, the corporate language seems important. To me, God working for the good of his people, is not exactly the same as working for my good.  In any case, one other thing stuck in my mind, too.

In Question and Answer 1 of the Heidelberg Catechism, there is a reference to this verse. Though I've never read the original German, the approved translation is that all things work together for my salvation. My salvation is a much bigger concept than my good. Salvation is the ultimate gift from God, a gift we have already received, but will only realize in the future.

So what do you think? Even if you can accept the theology of this lyric, does the subjectivity of the word good cause you any doubt? That word can be fairly imprecise, especially in modern usage. I worry that most people will think first of pleasure and worldly success. That's unfortunate, even if many people see, upon further reflection, that good means something else in this context. Have you used this song in your worship? If so, did you discuss this line with anyone? I'm curious what others think of this song, and whether they are using it.

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“To me, God working for the good of his people, is not exactly the same as working for my good.”

This is precisely why the Church’s expectations must be defined by God’s Word and Spirit, not by our human nature and culture.

Without explaining all the Greek on this, let’s go to context. In Rom. 8.18, Paul writes, “I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us.” If we tend to believe that personal suffering is the greatest evil (and much of our culture does), then we have a problem. Why? Because Paul has already admitted to believers “suffering” – and “suffering” in Rome for being a Christian included more than a raised eybrow or a lost job. Either the Bible is wrong or our understanding of “good” and “bad” is off-base.

How off-base are we? Again, let’s look at context, especially looking at Paul’s death. According to history, Paul was martyred by being crucified upside down. Was that “good” for him or “bad” for him? Was that “good” for the whole Body of Christ? While that is the question we wrestle with in our culture and our understanding of the word “good”, here’s a different question: What if the will of God being worked out in us – even in painful, self-denying ways – is “good” in and of itself AND for the whole Body?

Since Scripture interprets itself, I think we have to see our “good” in Christ’s words alongside and defining Paul’s:
Matthew 16.24: “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.”
Luke 14.26: “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters—yes, even his own life—he cannot be my disciple.”

When the Word and Spirit define our own personal “good”, we will have a much different outlook than the rest of the world.

Thanks for your interest, Christy, in hymnology.  But don’t you think that you are making a stretch to come to your conclusion?  If God works out all things for the good of his kingdom (those who love him) then it is natural to conclude that they are also ultimately for my good, as a part of his kingdom.  If you want to go with some alternate manuscript, which is not likely the most authentic or if you want to interpret “good” in a way not intended by the Bible (or a particular Bible verse), then you are simply putting your own spin on the words of the song.  And then you might as well start scrutinizing a lot of songs and hymns we sing, even ones from the Psalter, because they likely don’t fit with your own personal theology either.  Who is going to be responsible, in the church, to scrutinize the words of our hymns to the level that you have examined this one phrase?  I might not agree with the theology of many of the hymns and songs we sing in church, but finding others to agree with me (or my theology) would be an impossible task.  I think you, are facing an impossible task, as well.

I don't know about the song, but I agree with your reservations about the theology.  I wonder if Romans 8 should be read like this: 

Romans 8 is not primarily (and certainly not just) about your personal salvation, but about the way God plans to use those who are in Christ to bring hope and healing (salvation) to a broken world.  So the first part of the chapter talks about the wonderful, and necessary, changes that are needed in the believer (those who are called), and the assurance that God is doing that work in us ("he who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies because of his Spirit who lives in you")  The creation waits in eager expectation for this to happen (i.e. "for the children of God to be revealed").  In equipping us for that work we are displaying "the firstfruits of the Spirit".  The Spirit helps us to carry out the work God intends, not the work we intend.  That's why it says "the Spirit intercedes for God’s people in accordance with the will of God [my italics].  Our wills are meant to conform to God's will. We are meant to conform to his Son. "the Spirit intercedes for God’s people in accordance with the will of God" [again, my italics].  Only in that context does it seem right to expect that God will work for our good. 

Perhaps even the Heidelberg Catechism misses some of that.

There is a similar dynamic, I think, in the asking in my name passages in John 14-16.