“mighty to save” needs theological precision

Zac HicksWorship Theology & Thought21 Comments

“Mighty to Save” is now a well-worn mainstay in most evangelical churches of modern worship styles.  It’s appeared repeatedly on CCLI’s top lists.  And why not?  It’s got all the trappings of a great worship song…singability, a resurrection-oriented chorus with stirring melodic rise, accessible chord progressions, driving rhythm to match the song’s simlutaneous intimacy and explosion.  We use it in our church on a regular basis, and it’s obvious that it’s a favorite among our people (worship leaders know what I’m talking about when a song really gels with your community…it lights up the room).

However, at Creek, we’ve chosen to amend the second verse, for reasons of theological precision.  The second half of that verse originally reads:

I give my life to follow
Everything I believe in
Now I surrender

We’ve changed it to:

I’d given my life to follow
Everything I’d believed in
But now I surrender

It’s a subtle change…present tense to past tense (the pluperfect, to be precise).  And some of you will no doubt think we’re being nit-picky here, but here’s the rub for me with the original text.  It’s a bit too triumphant and boastful for my taste, given that we’re worshiping before a God who sees all–especially all the ways that we, even as blood-bought Jesus-followers, don’t give our lives to follow Him.  Even more, “everything I believe in,” apart from God’s prior work to give me faith (faith is an extrinsic gift, according to Ephesians 2), is anti-God, anti-Jesus, faithless, and destitute.  If I truly “give my life to follow everything I believe in,” I have to be honest that I’d head down the wrong road (think of the mantra of the book of Judges: “everyone did what was right in their own eyes”…scary).  I don’t think the statement, as it stands, is theologically wrong (which is why I use the term “imprecise”).  Many sing it genuinely as a kind of ideal to commit to, even knowing (like me) that they can’t really live up to it.  It just strikes me as too triumphant for me to sing with an honest heart.

So our emendation toward the past tense makes verse 2 more confessional, more humble, more needy–and before Yahweh’s presence, that’s the side I want to err on.  It exposes weakness as opposed to boasts strength.  It says, “I don’t have the power…I need Yours, Lord.”

Worship leaders, if some of the songs you use cause some “theological itchiness,” don’t be afraid to amend the words.  Hymn-writers have been doing it for years with the nifty little tag “alt.” (short for “altered”).  And when congregation members ask why you hacked to pieces their favorite worship song, give them a humble reply, and use it as a pastoral-educational moment to infuse some biblical thought into life.

21 Comments on ““mighty to save” needs theological precision”

  1. Hey man,

    Interesting thoughts here. I struggle with this song in a number of places too

    However I would raise a question about encouraging amending lyrics. Now I am certainly far from happy with the ideology/theology of copyright/licensing stuff for worship music (the underlying question being is God really that bothered?) however the fact remains that it is technically illegal to ammend the song words from the original

    Having said that I’m still not sure about the whole issue nut thought I would raise it

  2. I’m sure you’ll hear this from others, and definitely from copyright owners if you asked them, that amending copyrighted lyrics is not permitted without permission of the copyright owner. Old hymn alterations are allowed because they are public domain. While there may be nothing a deceased hymnwriter can do about it :), if they were living they would certainly object to having their name associated with some of the lyric changes that have been foisted upon them. I’m sure this raises the old debates of ‘whose lyrics are they anyway?’ But our current copyright system is pretty specific about it. I requested permission from copyright owners to change “Glorify Thy Name” to “Glorify Your Name”: Denied. Also denied: changing “I Exalt Thee” to “We Exalt Thee” or “We Exalt You”. My recommendation about copyright issues: if in doubt, ask.
    Jeff Rakes

  3. Hey Zac,

    Our church too sings this song. In my opinion the lyrics by Ben Fielding & Reuben Morgan need no alteration. I think that if the specific lyrics you mentioned are changed, then other lyrics would also need to be altered to keep the thought progression.

    The lines which precede “I give my life to follow…”

    So take me as you find me
    All my fears and failures
    Fill my life again

    do expose weakness and a humble asking/longing to be filled once again (daily/each moment) by the One in whom we boast.
    Being bare before Him who knows that “everyone needs compassion, kindness, mercy…”
    results in finally surrendering for the first time and then many times again, only by His kindness…
    The Savior who can move mountains can move fearful/failing hearts to fully believe, surrender and follow Him.

    Anyway, just my thoughts on the leave a comment section. 🙂

  4. Hey Everyone,

    See the two important comments from Jeff Rakes and Sim…helpful correctives. Thank you, gentlemen. “Alt” works for Public Domain material, but not copyrighted stuff. I should have known better. So I’ve reluctantly changed our words back to the original and am seeking approval (which sounds hard and probably fruitless) for the emendations.

    Many have expressed this, but I’ll express it, too: it’s a travesty that we’re at this place with our legal system. So maybe the bigger issue is to encourage worship leaders to be more thoughtful and theologically reflective so we don’t have to amend less than ideal words in the first place. Let’s route the system and pray for more thoughtfulness in songwriting and song selection.

  5. Zac,
    Without getting too fixated on the copyright conversation (a necessary point but not your main point), I wanted to comment on the imprecision in many popular worship songs. I’ve always struggled with “Amazing Love” (the new one not the Wesley one) that says, “in all I do, I honor you.” What a horribly imprecise statement. To be in the present tense, I cannot sing it. About my freshmen year in college I decided I would no longer sing this song whatever the context. Who can sing these words in honesty? I just don’t, even with Christ’s righteousness, honor God in all that I do. I suppose only a sinless theologically Keswick person can sing that honestly, and I’m pretty sure it wasn’t written by someone in the Keswick tradition (and I’d even remind them of 1 John 1).

    After I had made my commitment with this song, I began to notice words that I could not sing honestly in many worship songs. I did find that David Crowder lyrics (although not the pop songs on Passion) were genuinely honest about shortcomings and other promises to God.

  6. […] As I’ve said about “Mighty to Save,” I just can’t in good conscience before God sing the Pre Chorus lyrics sincerely.  Because I know, no matter HOW far I’m down the journey of sanctification, I still have times where I AM shaken.  I still do have times where I slip and DO let go.  I can’t claim that kind of triumph.  It should be my ideal, but I can’t sing them honestly. […]

  7. […] strong committal, triumphalistic texts (”I can do this, I will do [such and such a righteous act], I’m going to live [in such and such a pious way]“; this is the very notion I criticized in verse two of “Mighty to Save” [read about it]) […]

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