Years ago I talked with a respected Christian leader about the need for our songs to refer more often and concretely to the cross of Christ. His response caught me off guard. “I think Matt Redman has written enough songs about the cross for all of us.”
Eventually I heard he had changed his mind. But he’s not the only person I’ve met who has struggled with how many “cross songs” are being written and sung today. In fact, you might agree with a prominent worship leader I recently saw quoted as saying, “We sing about the cross too much in church.”
Why would someone say that? There could be a number of reasons. You might think singing about the cross all the time is introspective and even depressing. You could offer that the cross is simply one of many biblical themes we can sing about when we gather. Some people have suggested that songs about the cross have the effect of minimizing the significance of the resurrection. You might be able to add to this list.
The Center of Our Praise
But the more I’ve studied Scripture, the more I’m convinced that as we worship God for his word, his works, and his worthiness, the blazing center of our praise will always be the substitutionary sacrifice of Jesus.
Christ dying for our sins and rising from the dead is “of first importance” (1 Corinthians 15:3–4). The death of Christ gives us access to God and makes all our offerings of praise acceptable (Ephesians 2:14–18; 1 Peter 2:4–5). Paul said that whenever we share the Lord’s Supper, we are proclaiming Christ’s death (1 Corinthians 11:26). Paul gloried in the cross and admonished those who were enemies of the cross of Christ (Galatians 6:14; Philippians 3:18). Baptism is a visual representation that we have been baptized into Jesus’s death (Romans 6:3). In the Book of Revelation, worship is directed not only to the One on the throne, but to the Lamb who was slain (Revelation 5:9–14). If the worshipers of heaven never get over the cross, neither should we.
But people still ask, “Can we sing about the cross too much?” My short answer is no. At least, not if we’re going to be in line with heavenly worship. But we can sing about the cross in the wrong ways. Here are four I’ve encountered.
1. We can fail to connect Christ’s death to everything else.
Not many years ago, a speaker at one of our events told me it seemed every one of our songs said the same thing. He was right. We rarely moved beyond substitutionary atonement. His comment helped me see that singing about the cross doesn’t mean we only sing about Jesus dying in our place to reconcile us to God. We will always sing about that, but “the cross” takes into account who it was on the cross as well as what his death accomplished.
While the cross is at the heart of the gospel, it doesn’t exist alone. Its significance is connected to the incarnation, obedience, resurrection, ascension, and reign of Christ. We can rightly sing about God’s glory in creation, his sovereignty, longing, celebration, lament, the church, consecration, and more, all the while exploring how each is seen more brightly and clearly in the burning light of Calvary.
2. We can fail to apply the results of the cross to our lives.
Our songs might be filled with plenty of cross language, but never articulate exactly what it means for those who have trusted in Christ. Over time we find ourselves praising God for a cross that has nothing to say to our daily struggles, sufferings, and fears. But the cross isn’t simply about Jesus dying.
It means no condemnation or accusation against us can stand (Romans 8:1; Colossians 2:13–14).
We are no longer God’s enemies and have been adopted into his family (Romans 5:10; 8:15).
God’s love for us is eternally unwavering (Romans 8:37–39).
We have been delivered from sin’s deadly dominion and set free from the deceptive pleasures of a passing world (Galatians 5:14, 24).
Our future is secure and God will provide every good thing we need (Romans 8:28–32).
Death has become a doorway rather than a destination (1 Corinthians 15:54–55).
As Stuart Townend and Keith Getty put it so powerfully, “No guilt in life, no fear in death, this is the power of Christ in me; from life’s first cry to final breath, Jesus commands my destiny.” And these things are true because “on the cross as Jesus died, the wrath of God was satisfied.” In light of these and other realities, singing about the cross should ultimately fill us with inexpressible joy.
3. We can sing about the cross in ways that magnify us more than God.
Worship sometimes turns in on itself. That happens when the cross is interpreted merely as a sacrificial example for us to follow, God showing us how valuable we are, or an expression of God’s love devoid of any mention of wrath or judgment. Yes, God so loved the world that he gave his Son (John 3:16), but that love is the overflow of the love shared between the Father and Son. Jesus died so we might be delivered from God’s wrath through his all-sufficient sacrifice (1 Thessalonians 1:10; Romans 3:25).
While Jesus certainly had those he redeemed in his view and heart when he died (John 17:24), his ultimate passion was to glorify his Father (John 17:1–2). And he died for us that we might share that passion.
4. We can sing about the cross to check it off our “gospel-centered” list.
Sadly, it’s possible to sing well-written, theologically precise songs about Christ’s substitutionary atonement and love our orthodox doctrine of the cross more than the Savior who hung on it.
One of the greatest temptations for those familiar with the cross is to become increasingly unmoved by it. To think there must be something more amazing we can be giving our attention to. But as theologian David Prior said, “We never move on from the cross, only to a more profound understanding of the cross.” There is nothing more profound to consider than the Son of God giving his life as a ransom to redeem us.
Labor to Be Affected
The Puritans were known to say we should “labor to be affected by the cross.” It’s hard work. But it’s not because the cross is dull. It’s because we are.
I pray that singing about the cross and the Savior who gave his life there will never become boring, rote, or irrelevant for you and your church. Because the gospel of Jesus Christ is the greatest news the world has ever heard, and our singing is but one more opportunity to passionately proclaim it.