Worship wars: Worship as fuel for the fight

By wars in this case, I mean: That great struggle which makes up the entirety of the Christian life from first blush to final breath, the good fight of faith; and by worship I mean: The wonderful help that song can be in training, motivating, and sustaining our hearts through the long war.

I was listening again to Jody Killingsworth’s sermon from the 2009 ClearNote Fellowship Conference the other day, and there are some important quotes in there that need the surrounding context of the message to carry their force. So I have transcribed the message here. Profitably give it a read and a listen, men of God.

(This is sermon 4 in a series; see also sermon 1, sermon 2, and sermon 3.)

Worship Wars: Worship as fuel for the fight

Mr. Jody Killingsworth
2009 ClearNote Fellowship Conference

This session is entitled Worship Wars, which is really just a play on words, as I’m not here to talk about the superiority of hymns over choruses or organs over guitars, or psalter—a cappella singing only—versus basically everything else. I’m not here to talk about any of that tedium which we normally think of when we hear the words “Worship Wars”. By “wars” in this case, I mean:

That great struggle which makes up the entirety of the Christian life from first blush to final breath, the good fight of faith;

and by “worship” I mean:

The wonderful help that song can be in training, motivating, and sustaining our hearts through the long war.

To better express this, I’ve subtitled our session Worship as Fuel for the Fight. Every soldier has his rations to sustain him in war, and if he doesn’t get them or doesn’t eat them he grows weak and he dies. As Christian soldiers, we’re in the habit of calling our rations “means of grace”. These are the means God has given us by which we improve and maintain our strength—things like baptism, the Lord’s Supper, prayer, fasting, searching the Scriptures, Christian fellowship, and so on. To which I want to add, singing.

I can’t imagine why that one is hardly ever included in these lists of means of grace that people rattle off, when Paul so clearly teaches us that we are to “teach and admonish one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with grace in our hearts to the Lord” (he says that on two occasions). I don’t know, maybe singing is merely assumed under “prayer”, since the two bear so much in common. As Augustine said, “He who sings, prays twice.”

Even so, psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs clearly make up an essential part of our regular nourishment as believers, and are therefore a tremendous help to those of us who fight the good fight of faith against sin, Satan, the world, the flesh, and so on, as I know many of you can attest.

Now we can look to more than one passage of Scripture to see the symbiotic relationship that exists between singing and battle. But my favorite is this: Psalm 149, verses 5-9. It says:

Let the godly ones exult in glory;
Let them sing for joy on their beds.
Let the high praises of God be in their mouth,
And a two-edged sword in their hand,
To execute vengeance on the nations
And punishment on the peoples,
To bind their kings with chains
And their nobles with fetters of iron,
To execute on them the judgment written;
This is an honor for all His godly ones.
Praise the LORD!

It says, “Let the high praises of God be in their mouth, and a two-edged sword in their hand, to execute vengeance.” It’s amazing, and not a little disturbing. It’s hard for me to stomach the thought of personally dealing out God’s judgment on the heathen. That’s unnerving.

Well, let me try and ease that tension for us by reading what Spurgeon says about the passage. He says:

In this Israel was not an example, but a type: we will not copy the chosen people in making literal war, but we will fulfil the emblem by carrying on spiritual war. We praise God and contend with our corruptions; we sing joyfully and war earnestly with evil of every kind. Our weapons are not carnal, but they are mighty, and wound with both back and edge. The word of God is all edge; whichever way we turn it, it strikes deadly blows at falsehood and wickedness.

And here is the most important part. He says:

If we do not praise we shall grow sad in our conflict; and if we do not fight we shall become presumptuous in our song.

Isn’t that the perfect summary of where we’re at as the evangelical church today. Having called a truce with the world; having called a truce with sin; having laid down our weapons; having retreated from the gaps in the wall; we’ve become presumptuous in our song.

Never before have we sung more about how much we love Jesus. Never before in history have we sung more about how much God loves us. But if we’ve laid down our weapons, if we’ve given up the fight, if we’ve carefully cultivated an ignorance, a blindness, to sin—if we’ve made concession after concession to an advancing world until there’s no distinction left—if we’ve even fallen so far as to call what is evil, good and what is good, evil—then what is the truth about us? The truth about us as the evangelical church in America is, there is no grace for us. What we have, and we have it out the you-know-what, is cheap grace. And cheap grace is all presumption. There will be no heaven if we will have no war. Remember what Jesus said: “The kingdom of heaven suffers violence, and violent men take it by force.”

What I want to try and do this afternoon through a few words and some singing we’ll do together later, is remind us all that there is indeed abundant and everlasting life to be had. There is a crown to win. There is peace and contentment and joy and rest and comfort and feasting and delight, and whole storehouses of perfection to be enjoyed in God’s good heaven. But the only way to get there, and I mean the only way to get there, is through violence. Violence to our sin, violence to the flesh, violence to the reigning philosophies and ideologies of our day—what the Bible calls “the world”—violence, as Jesus said, even to heaven. My aim is to call us all back to the battle, where we are to face certain death, sure. But where by God’s grace, from the ground there blossoms red, life that shall endless be.

Before we sing, there are just a couple of points that I want to make, and the first is this:

I want everybody here to understand that the predominant, the primary metaphor that Scripture uses to describe the Christian life is the metaphor of war.

Now Pastor Baker made this point so well last night that I get to skip several pages of Scriptures that he’s already read to you. I just want to remind you that the Scriptures are full from first to last of the imagery and language, the metaphor, of battle.

And all this is brought to bear in the New Testament to describe our life—what our life is to be, what God expects of us.

Now I grew up hearing that if the Bible repeats itself on any particular point, you need to pay extra special attention, because if God says something twice then He means it, and He wants to get His point across. If He says something three times, then He really means business.

Now that is stupid, because we know that if God says anything that it’s serious, and our very life depends upon it. But brothers and sisters, let me assure you that if the Bible says something over and over and over and over again, it really does mean it, and we need to make use of it. Shouldn’t we expect to hear more about it than we do? Shouldn’t we expect to be singing more about it than we do?

Which brings me to my second point, and that is that until recently, this biblical war metaphor has always been a prominent theme in Christian worship.

To prove that, bring me virtually any good hymnal more than fifty years old, and there will be an entire section in it devoted to Christian warfare. Bring me an older one still—let’s say a hundred and fifty years old—and that section will be even bigger, and the language won’t have been emasculated. It will use words like I just did: violence, to describe your life.

Take a hymnal older still, and you’ll probably have in your hands a psalter, which is the psalms set to music in some form, and then almost every song in the book will have to do with battle, as Stephen pointed out—it’s just everywhere in the Psalms. Psalm 2, “The kings of the earth take their stand”; that’s how the book virtually opens. And from then on it’s just war and enemy and safety and retreat, and fear, and persecution, and danger, weaponry—

Do you see a trend?

What’s going on there? Well what’s going on there is this. Let me read to you a quote from a book called Ministry and Music by Robert Mitchell, written in the late 1970s. He says,

There are many traditional hymns whose imagery is rooted in the concept of the “holy war.” No matter that some of these are favorite songs or that this imagery is based upon Scripture. Today, for some thoughtful Christians, this imagery has become inappropriate. Many who have experienced the trauma of Vietnam and of the religious wars in Ireland and the Near East find it difficult to sing about the church’s mission in these terms. “Sound the Battle Cry,” “The Son of God Goes Forth to War,” “Onward, Christian Soldiers,” “Am I a Soldier of the Cross?” “Soldiers of Christ, Arise,” “Stand Up, for Jesus, Ye Soldiers of the Cross,” and other similar expressions are incompatible in today’s world with the sharing of the good news about the love of God as seen in Jesus Christ. The fact that many of us in the church do not connect such songs with the reality reported in the daily newspaper strongly points up the issue. Though we may simply enjoy the tunes and the vigorous cadence and ignore the words, they speak explicitly to those outside the fellowship–those with whom we want to share the gospel. They are not theologically useful.

“Not theologically useful” — that’s saying the Bible is not theologically useful. And is it any surprise that the very next paragraph has this to say:

Similarly, at this moment in our society the issue of sexism is becoming important to many. Emotional debate is going on as to whether all exclusive sexist language should or can be eliminated from the hymnbook. At such a time, if such persons are part of the worshiping community, it is questionable whether a hymn with the focus of “Rise Up, O Men of God” or “Men and Children Everywhere” can be considered useful.

What we see here is the church moving away from a firm commitment to God and His Word, which is always accompanied by persecution, to a firm commitment to being well-liked. We see a church moving away from her fight. And what happens when the church moves away from the fight? I’ll tell you what happens: Many, many, many souls go to hell.

I said earlier that there’s a sort of symbiotic relationship that exists between singing and warfare — that the two help feed each other — and I said that singing certain kinds of songs can help strengthen and sustain Christian soldiers in their fight. But this assumes that we are fighting. What if we’re not?

What if all the churches in America have left the field of battle, found a nice quiet comfy corner for themselves somewhere out of the way, lain down and fallen asleep?

Well then there’s all the more need to sound the battle cry. What’s the theme verse for ClearNote? “If the bugler doesn’t sound a clear note, who will be called to battle?” The music of our churches desperately needs to sound the battle cry. It needs to rouse the troops. It needs to warn us of danger. It needs to motivate us. It needs to strengthen us. It needs to command us. Music has the power to do this, as Paul said. It can teach and admonish. It also has a symbiotic relationship, it seems, with preaching, as it uses God’s Word and proclaims it, and draws men together to confess it.


The band is going to come up now and join me, and they’re going to lead us in singing five songs, five songs that are what we consider good examples of the types of songs we need to be singing. And if you have any influence in your church as to what music is done, if you have any sway with your pastor or your music minister or if you are a music minister, I commend to you these types of songs, and I’ll be leading us through them as we go along.

This first one is just a classic one, just to get us going on the right foot. It’s just so good, and deals with almost all of the issues that we’re going to be talking about. “Am I a Soldier of the Cross?

Am I a soldier of the cross,
A follower of the Lamb?
And shall I fear to own his cause,
Or blush to speak his name?
Must I be carried to the skies
On flowery beds of ease,
While others fought to win the prize,
And sailed through bloody seas?

Are there no foes for me to face?
Must I not stem the flood?
Is this vile world a friend to grace,
To help me on to God?
Sure I must fight, if I would reign!
Increase my courage, Lord!
I’ll bear the toil, endure the pain,
Supported by thy word.

Thy saints in all this glorious war
Shall conquer, though they die;
They view the triumph from afar
And seize it with their eye.
When that illustrious day shall rise,
And all thine armies shine
In robes of victory through the skies,
The glory shall be thine.

I tell you, I don’t know where we would be without Isaac Watts. He knew how to write.

Jacob Mentzel: I was just talking with Jody over lunch about the nature of poets and warriors and warrior-poets, and we were talking about how the reason we don’t have any good music in the last fifty to a hundred years in the church is because there have been no warriors. Men who are willing to die, men who are willing to fight for something, are men who love much, men who are poets and whose love overflows in fighting and overflows in poetry, in music, and…those are my thoughts.

Jody: Another category of song that’s very important and very helpful to motivating us or helping us in the fight is the kind of song that establishes the stakes, that frames the war in the right way, that helps us understand that we are going to give an account for the deeds we do in the body. Songs about judgment set the stakes for the war—that there’s life and death, there’s danger. And we have to be constantly reminded of that.

This is an old text I found in a hymnal that we put a new tune to.

Great God, what do I see and hear?
The end of things created;
The Judge of mankind doth appear
On clouds of glory seated.
The trumpet sounds; the graves restore
The dead which they contained before:
Prepare, my soul, to meet Him.

The dead in Christ shall first arise
At that last trumpet’s sounding,
Caught up to meet Him in the skies,
With joy their Lord surrounding.
No gloomy fears their souls dismay;
His presence sheds eternal day
On those prepared to meet Him.

The ungodly, filled with guilty fears,
Behold His wrath prevailing,
For they shall rise and find their tears
And sighs are unavailing;
The day of grace is past and gone;
Trembling they stand before his throne,
All unprepared to meet Him.

Great Judge, to Thee our prayers we pour,
In deep abasement bending;
O shield us through that last dread hour,
Thy wondrous love extending;
May we, in this trial day,
With faithful hearts Thy word obey,
And thus prepare to meet Him.

Great God, what do I see and hear?
The end of things created;
The Judge of mankind doth appear
On clouds of glory seated.
The trumpet sounds; the graves restore
The dead which they contained before:
Prepare, my soul, to meet Him.

There’s something else that we need to be reminded of, and that is how while we love to think of Jesus as our High Priest, and we love to meditate on that and preach about it and sing about it constantly, we like less to think of Jesus as a prophet, who speaks hard things. And I think we even like less to think of Jesus as King, who reigns and sits in all authority over everything. And especially a vision of Him as our King leading us in battle, is entirely neglected in the church today. Calling Jesus our Captain is something that was popular in old days, but something that you’d never hear a preacher say these days.

Imagine if we sang this, what it would have to sound like, and how hopeful it would be:

Hosanna to the prince of light
who clothed himself in clay
He entered iron gates of death
And tore the bars away

Death is no more the king of dread
since our immanuel rose;
He took the tyrant’s sting away,
And He conquered all our foes

See how the Conqueror mounts aloft
And to His Father flies
With scars of honor in His flesh
And triumph in His eyes…

[Here the recording cuts to The Son of God Goes Forth to War]

[Here’s the version that’s on the Good Shepherd Band’s album]

The Son of God goes forth to war,
A kingly crown to gain;
His blood red banner streams afar:
Who follows in His train?
Who best can drink his cup of woe,
Triumphant over pain,
Who patient bears his cross below,
He follows in His train.

That martyr first, whose eagle eye
Could pierce beyond the grave;
Who saw his Master in the sky,
And called on Him to save,
Like Him, with pardon on His tongue,
In midst of mortal pain,
He prayed for them that did the wrong:
Who follows in His train?

A glorious band, the chosen few
On whom the Spirit came;
Twelve valiant saints, their hope they knew,
And mocked the cross and flame.
They met the tyrant’s brandished steel,
The lion’s gory mane;
They bowed their heads the death to feel:
Who follows in their train?

A noble army, men and boys,
The matron and the maid,
Around the Savior’s throne rejoice,
In robes of light arrayed.
They climbed the steep ascent of Heav’n,
Through peril, toil and pain;
O God, to us may grace be given,
To follow in their train.

One more thing that we have to have our eyes fixed on is heaven. And that helps — it’s profitable, it’s necessary, it’s edifying.

We need to have in our minds firmly planted and exercised regularly, a vision of that day, it has to loom large in our mind and in our heart; otherwise there’s no prize before us. We have to have the prize set before us, and that is enjoying heaven with all its delights in the presence of God forever, without pain or sorrow or grief. The fight will be over. And so we do need to think of that day often.

[We Will Dance (David Ruis, 1992). Here’s the Everlasting Word Band’s rendition:]

You can’t think about that too much. But we don’t think about it often, do we? day to day, during the week.

We’re going to end with one song, a song which we’ve fallen in love with around here: Lead On, O King Eternal.

This entry was posted in ClearNote Fellowship, courage, faith, Good Shepherd Band, music, stand in the gap, suffering, transcripts, treasure in heaven. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Worship wars: Worship as fuel for the fight

  1. Pingback: Worship As Fuel For The Fight | Andrew Dionne's Blog

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