Interview with

Founder & Teacher, desiringGod.org

Audio Transcript

“Reckless Love” — the mega-hit worship song. Its lyrics have reached millions and inspired over a dozen emails our way in the last month, like this one from Tim, a regular listener to the podcast. “Pastor John, hello! Over the past couple of months, I’ve been hearing the song ‘Reckless Love’ playing in churches and on the radio. One of the main lines in the chorus celebrates ‘the overwhelming, never-ending, reckless love of God.’ My question — is this a biblically and theologically correct way to describe God’s love? Is the term ‘reckless’ too reckless? I don’t want to sound judgmental, but every time I bring it up, I get called a Pharisee for focusing on just the one word rather than the message of the whole song. Just hoping you could shed some light because I truly believe that words matter, especially in songs of worship and praise.”

My response to this concern needs to be expressed to two different groups of people — pastors and lead worshipers, and the congregation. On the one hand, I’m lumping pastors and lead worshipers together as worship-service shapers, and the congregation as the other group. You have the shepherds to feed the flock with songs, and the sheep who are asked to savor the truth and the music that they’re being fed.

I have two words for the pastors and lead worshipers and something for the rest of us.

Plenty of Songs

First, we live in a time of unprecedented wealth of Christian music, and there is no shortage whatsoever of older songs, newer songs, and fresh renditions of older songs that are rock-solid in their biblical content — creative, fresh, and powerful both in their lyrics and in their tunes.

“Pastors and lead worshipers are never boxed in to using theologically defective or musically dated songs.”

Pastors and lead worshipers are never boxed in to using theologically defective or musically dated songs, if they don’t want to. If you want to be theologically and biblically faithful as a lead worshiper and feed your flock with the richest of biblical food and the most engaging of tunes, there is a wealth of old and new to choose from so that you never have to sing something theologically defective or misleading or unhelpful.

Spiritual Reality

The second thing I want to say to pastors and lead worshipers is that it is your primary responsibility to build into the minds and hearts of the people the truth that portrays Christ and the Father and the Spirit and the way of salvation in biblically faithful ways so that the people’s minds engage with spiritual reality, not just imaginary things.

You are aiming for people’s hearts to move toward authentic spiritual affections rooted in that reality. That’s your job.

Defective Lyrics

Third, a word to the congregation. The concern that Tim is raising for us here is, What does a congregation or an individual in the congregation do if a song has defective lyrics — especially if we think the song is theologically or biblically defective, not just poetically defective?

Tim gives us this specific example of a popular song right now called “Reckless Love,” but there are many such problems in many songs — both old and new, not just new.

So let me take this one for an example as to how we might respond when this happens.

Risky Love

“Reckless Love” has a refrain that ends like this: “Oh, the overwhelming, never-ending, reckless love of God.”

Now, I don’t know enough about the theology of the author to know what dimension of the meaning of reckless he intended. I am aware that today there’s a kind of theology that sees God as not knowing the future and therefore treating him as though he could take real risks since he doesn’t know what might happen.

In the second case, the giving of his Son might be described as reckless. He might have given his Son for salvation and not have succeeded. I mean, there are a lot of people who believe this, who believe that God doesn’t know the future exhaustively; therefore, he’s taking real risks because he doesn’t know what the outcome is going to be — at least not in the short run.

If reckless sort of fits into that theology, I would regard it as heretical.

Negative Associations

Now, I hope the author did not intend it that way. In fact, it seems to me that there’s good evidence in the song that he didn’t mean it that way. But the reason the word reckless raises the question is because, in modern English, you have to work really hard to put a positive meaning on the word reckless in relation to God.

“God’s love may look foolish and ill-advised, but in fact the foolishness of God is wiser than the wisdom of men.”

If you just click on a good thesaurus online and look at all the meanings associated with reckless, here they are: audacious, brash, carefree, careless, daring, foolhardy, hasty, ill-advised, imprudent, negligent, thoughtless, adventuresome, adventurous, breakneck, daredevil, desperate, devil-may-care, fast and loose, feckless, harebrained, headlong, heedless, helter-skelter, hopeless, hotheaded, inattentive, incautious, inconsiderate, indiscreet, kooky, mindless, playing with fire, precipitate, brash, regardless, temerarious, uncareful, venturous, wild.

Now, that is the general sense that one gets when one hears the term reckless driver. He doesn’t care about what other people do or what he might do to other people.

But maybe the author used the word reckless in the sense that God’s love may look, to an outsider, foolish, ill-advised, brash, and breakneck, but in fact the foolishness of God is wiser than the wisdom of men. The recklessness of God is more assured of success than the most carefully executed plans of men. Maybe.

In other words, maybe he’s treating the word reckless the way Jesus treated the word hate when he said you have to hate your mother and father in order to follow me (Luke 14:26). Well, it looks like hate to a lot of people when you follow Jesus and leave your mother and father behind.

Affirming Truth

What should you do sitting in the congregation if you don’t like this word reckless, and you have all these negative connotations in your head? One of the things you do is look at the lyrics of the song to see if there are evidences of how the word might be construed or intended.

Here’s a couple of examples. The song says, “Before I spoke a word, you were singing over me.” Now, in my mouth, those are radically Calvinistic lyrics. God only sings over his own people. He doesn’t sing over those who are in rebellion against him. He sings over his own people (Zephaniah 3:17). If you are God’s own people, before you spoke a word, he loved you. That’s unconditional election.

Here’s another example: “Before I took a breath, you breathed your life into me.” In my mouth, that’s a radical affirmation of the Calvinistic doctrine of sovereign grace, irresistible grace. Since the Bible doesn’t teach that God breathed life into us before we were physically born, I take the words “you breathed life into me” to be a reference to the new birth.

The song is saying that the new birth happened to me before I took any breath at all — meaning, before I did anything to signify that I had life, which is exactly what happens in the new birth. It is a sovereign gift of God. We don’t make new birth happen. God makes new birth happen.

Singing Good Theology

Now, I don’t know whether the author is that Calvinistic. I kind of have my doubts, but I don’t know. But that’s the way I would sing these words, if we ever did sing it. That’s their most natural meaning — at least, I hear them that way.

This means when I get to the word reckless, I’m going to put a meaning on it that ascribes to God absolute control over the objects and circumstances of his love because that’s what’s implied in those previous lyrics. I hope that those who love the word reckless in this song also love the Calvinistic theology in the rest of the lyrics.

Here’s the point. If you’re in a church that’s basically singing sound and helpful lyrics, and along comes a song with questionable words, then either stop singing if your conscience won’t let you sing, or put a meaning on the words that you are able to affirm.

“And Can It Be”

Now, lest you think I’m asking you to do something quirky or unusual with new songs that we don’t do with old songs, consider one last illustration.

“I hope that those who love the word ‘reckless’ in this song also love the Calvinistic theology in the rest of the lyrics.”

Most gospel-loving, evangelical churches, including mine, love to sing Charles Wesley’s “And Can It Be.” Great song, right? But what do you mean when you sing, “He left his Father’s throne above — so free, so infinite his grace — emptied himself of all but love.”

Give me a break. He did not empty himself of all but love. That is absolutely not true. He didn’t empty himself of righteousness and wisdom and justice and holiness and deity. Well, you can either protest the song to your worship leader and stop singing the song, or you can stop singing, or you can do what I do — you can take it as poetic license for overstatement in a poem and construe it to mean, “He emptied himself of everything he needed to empty himself of in order to be as loving as he could be.” Something like that. I don’t think Charles Wesley was a heretic — not like that, anyway.

My Chains Fell Off

But take the next verse. Most Calvinists love to sing the next verse. It sounds exactly like what we believe, right? Sovereign, irresistible grace to the dead and imprisoned sinner: “Long my imprisoned spirit lay, fast-bound in sin and nature’s night.” That’s original sin. “Thine eye diffused a quick’ning ray — I woke, the dungeon flamed with light. My chains fell off, my heart was free, I rose, went forth, and followed thee.”

When I sing that, I’m singing like a full-blooded, seven-point Calvinist. “My chains fell off. My heart was free.” I’m free because of the sovereign grace of God and that only. Charles Wesley didn’t mean that. Charles Wesley — being the good Wesleyan that he was, not a Calvinist — probably did not mean what I mean when I sing that verse.

He meant that God’s prevenient grace overcame original sin and struck off the chains of helplessness and put me in a position where I, with newly granted, autonomous freewill, may or may not leave the prison. My choice is final and decisive: “I rose, went forth, and followed thee.”

That’s not what I mean when I sing that song.

Final Word to Pastors

Back to the pastors and lead worshipers. Please do your job, and do not ask too much of the sheep. As we sit in service, give us songs whose original meaning we can joyfully affirm because they are fully biblical.

Don’t give us too many where we have to change the meaning in order to be faithful.


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