Wednesday, May 30, 2007

"Evangelicalism at its best"

Mark Noll, in a lecture originally posted at Christianity Today in 1999, makes the case for the significance of hymns in the history of evangelicals. Excerpts:
Evangelicalism at its best is the religion displayed in its classic hymns. The classic evangelical hymns contain the clearest, most memorable, cohesive, and widely repeated expressions of what it has meant to be an evangelical. ....

One way to mark the influence of evangelical hymnody is to ask: When did modern evangelicalism arise in the English-speaking world? It is possible to date that beginning with Jonathan Edwards's preaching of justification by faith in his Northampton, Massachusetts, church in 1735, or with John Wesley's Aldersgate experience in May 1738, or with George Whitefield's momentous preaching tour of New England in September 1740. But it makes more sense to date the emergence of modern evangelicalism to an act of hymn composition by Charles Wesley.

The very week his brother John received an unusual manifestation of divine grace during a Moravian meeting at Aldersgate, Charles Wesley underwent a similar experience. Many know what John Wesley wrote in his journal after his experience: "About a quarter before nine, while [the speaker] was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone, for my salvation; and an assurance was given me that He had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death." But many more people have sung the words that Charles composed about his transformation:
Where shall my wond'ring soul begin?
How shall I all to heaven aspire?
A slave redeemed from death and sin,
A brand plucked from eternal fire.
How shall I equal triumphs raise,
Or sing my great Deliverer's praise?
Come, O my guilty brethren, come,
Groaning beneath your load of sin;
His bleeding heart shall make you room,
His open side shall take you in.
He calls you now, invites you home—
Come, O my guilty brethren, come. ....
The classic evangelical hymns do not offend on doctrines of the church and the sacraments because they touch on these matters only indirectly, if at all. ....

Rather, their overriding message and the single offense upon which they insist is compacted into the four words that best summarize their message: Jesus Christ Saves Sinners. These hymns, in other words, proclaim a particular redemption of substitutionary atonement through a particular act of God accomplished in the particularities of the birth, life, death, resurrection, ascension, and kingly rule of Jesus Christ. ....

Evangelicalism at its best is an offensive religion. It claims that you cannot be reconciled to God, understand the ultimate purposes of the world, or live a truly virtuous life unless you confess your sin before the living God and receive new life in Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit. Such particularity has always been offensive, and in the multicultural, postmodern world in which we live it is more offensive than ever. But when evangelicalism is at its best, as it is in its greatest hymns, that declaration of a particular salvation is its one and only offense. ....

It is evangelical to insist that humans are redeemed by God's grace rather than by the achievement of their own perfection; it is evangelical to claim that the righteousness on which we rely is a forensic gift rather than a personal possession; it is evangelical to claim that power resides in powerlessness and that the Cross is a symbol both for human weakness as well as divine love. Holiness unto the Lord is a prominent evangelical theme, but it rests upon justification by faith alone.

Thus, even if evangelicals have acted at our best only inconsistently, there is nothing in that fact contradicting evangelical conviction. In fact, for evangelicals to confess how far short they have fallen of the divine beauty that they claim to honor is a very important first step toward realizing evangelicalism at its best. ....
Source: Christianity Today: We Are What We Sing

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