Helpful Grids for Writing Great Gospel-Centered Songs

Zac HicksSongwriting1 Comment

If there is one biblical idea that should be the source of fresh and endless songwriting inspiration, it is the gospel. But if you’re a songwriter who operates like I do, when you’re writing songs about the gospel, you tend to gravitate to the same phrases, clichés, metaphors and realms of thought.

When you have a passion for gospel-centrality, and when your pastorally-oriented heart desires for the ancient gospel to be preached and sung in fresh, inspiring ways, you long for imagery, words, phrases, and music which give new voice to the old Story. You want a song that embodies “mercies new every morning.”

I was recently reading Tim Keller’s magnificent book, Center Church, and he offers some helpful “grammars”* for thinking through the gospel of Christ’s atonement. I’d like to take two of his ideas and add a third to perhaps give a roughly comprehensive snapshot of salvation in its full-orbed sense, narrowing in on the gospel in its most specific sense. The purpose of this isn’t for us to open up yet another debate. Rather, I want to provide a toolbox for songwriters’ imaginations to think about (and give song to) the atonement from different angles.

Five Atonement “Grammars”

This comes from Keller’s way of summarizing what theologians call different “theories” of the atonement. I prefer Keller’s language of “grammar,” because there’s something in every “theory” that rings true for how we talk about the atonement.

1. The language of the battlefield. Christ fought against the powers of sin and death for us. He defeated the powers of evil for us. This is sometimes called Christus Victor. (Colossians 2:15)

  • Metaphors: Jesus as King, General, Warrior, Hero, Champion, Victor, Strong, Courageous, Mighty, Unstoppable, Unparalleled; struggle, warfare

2. The language of the marketplace.  Christ paid the ransom price, the purchase price, to buy us out of our indebtedness. He frees us from enslavement. (Colossians 1:14)

  • Metaphors: redemption, purchasing, buying back, debt, moving from “object sold” to person, new identity

3. The language of exile. Christ was exiled and cast out of the community so we who deserve to be banished could be brought in. He brings us home.

  • Metaphors: Jesus’ 40-day wandering for us; Jesus being crucified “outside the camp; Jesus as New Moses, Leader, Fire and Cloud; from slavery, prison, jail, wandering, casting out, chains, shackles, bonds, addiction, desert, alien, sojourner, exodus, rootlessness, homelessness, famine…to freedom, unshackling, home, restoration, rest, promised land, anchor, permanence, welcoming, feasting, abundance

4. The language of the temple. Christ is the sacrifice that purifies us and makes us acceptable to draw near to the holy God. He makes us clean and beautiful. (Hebrews 9:14)

  • Metaphors: Jesus as High Priest, Sacrifice / Lamb of God / Lamb who was slain before the foundations of the world, Servant / Minister; sacrifice, purification, substitution, atonement, death for life, blood, offering, washing, cleansing, renewal 

5. The language of the law court. Christ stands before the judge and takes the punishment we deserve. He removes our guilt and makes us righteous. (1 Peter 3:18) 

  • Metaphors: Jesus as Judge, Prosecutor, Defendant, Advocate; ruling, declaration, pardon, guilt, innocence, justified, acquittal, pleading, advocating, defense, clean record, absolution, law, binding verdict, case against, case for, Luther’s “simul justus et peccator” (simultaneously just and sinner)

The Ordo Salutis

Keller does not mention this (it’s beyond the scope of his chapter), but what has classically been called the ordo salutis, the much-debated “order of salvation,” I think often serves to help excite the imagination of what the start-to-finish journey of God’s salvation of us through Jesus looks like. Researching and learning more about any one of these themes in the “golden chain” of salvation (Romans 8:30). I offer here the Reformed ordo, well, because I believe in it. In my understanding, the elements of the below ordo step out of the realm of the gospel proper (the gospel is not all of these things), but this is the journey of salvation that may offer songwriting fodder for gospel-oriented songs.

  • Election – God’s free, unmerited, predestined choice (Eph 1:3-10)
  • Effectual Calling – a summons so powerful that it gives the very response it calls for (Acts 16:14)
  • Regeneration – new birth, moving from a heart of stone to a heart of flesh, being born again (Eph 2:4-7)
  • Faith/Repentance – God’s gift to us of our trust in Christ; changing our minds about ourselves and about Jesus (Eph 2:8-9)
  • Justification – God’s declaration that we, sinners, are righteous by virtue of the Sinless One, Jesus Christ (Rom 3:21-26)
  • Adoption – We are named and brought in as sons and daughters of God, co-heirs with Christ (Gal 4:5; Rom 8:15)
  • Sanctification – God’s work of conforming us to the image and likeness of His Son (1 Thess 5:23)
  • Perseverance – God’s work of keeping us from falling away unto the end (Phil 1:6)
  • Glorification – the completion of God’s salvation where we, in body and soul, are transformed into the fullness of Christ-likeness (1 Cor 15:42-59)

The Center of the Gospel

As Keller says of the above atonement grammars, there is “one, irreducible theme that runs through every single one of these models—the idea of substitution” (p. 131). Think about it with me. Whenever you’re singing a song about the gospel, what’s the point at which the truth overflows from head to heart? When is the moment when you’re gushing with emotion, thanksgiving, adoration? At what point does the gospel overwhelm us? At the point of substitution. It’s at the point where we recognize that Christ was crucified in our place—the Just for the unjust. It’s at the point where we sing of the great exchange—His righteousness for our unrighteousness. For instance, doesn’t your heart completely melt when you sing, “Before the Throne of God Above” and you get to the lines:

Because the sinless Savior died
My sinful soul is counted free
For God the just is satisfied
To look on Him and pardon me

So to tie all this up, I’d like to remind us of the words of Martin Luther, when he said that justification by faith alone is “the doctrine by which the church stands or falls.” If we bore down to the most basic, fundamental need of every human being, it is the need to be justified. All our pursuits, longings, dreams, hopes, and ambitions really do stem from the question, “How can I be justified?” The more we understand this, the more we realize why substitution is such a powerful summary of the center of the Gospel. Substitution answers the most fundamental question of every human being, and it shows God to be a God who justifies solely by gracious, unmerited love.

Therefore, in all the above metaphors and grammars, the way we construct a truly gospel-saturated song out of them is to somehow eventually drive home justification and substitution. Those words might not be used (they are somewhat sterile), but their concepts should be exposited. In songwriting, justification and substitution are the “sweet spot” on the gospel-bat that ensures the ball will get over the fence.

I often find that, when I’m writing songs about the gospel, it makes sense to place justification and substitution in to the chorus or bridge of a song. For instance, our song “His Be the Victor’s Name” is a hymn loaded with wonderful, paradoxical battlefield imagery:

By weakness and defeat,
He won the glorious crown.
Trod all His foes beneath His feet
By being trodden down.

But my question is, when does the emotional home run occur in the song?  It occurs in the chorus, and maybe even more so in the bridge.  Notice what is being sung there: 

What though the vile accuser roar
Of sins that I have done
I know them well and thousands more
My God, He knoweth none

My sin is cast into the sea
Of God’s forgotten memory
No more to haunt accusingly
For Christ has lived and died for me

There you have it. Justification by substitution. Forgiveness because of the merit of Another. These are the emotional climaxes of the song precisely because they bore down to the center of where the gospel meets the most fundamental human need. 

Hopefully this gives a decent picture of how writing a gospel-centered song can happen.  

*Timothy Keller, Center Church: Doing Balanced, Gospel-Centered Ministry in Your City (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2012), 130-131.

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