Whenever I download a new mainstream worship record, I feel like I have to brace myself for two very well-worn words whose meaning and potency have been largely neutered by a deadly combination of overuse and de-contextualization. In recent years, as the gospel of Christ’s finished work on my behalf has come to mean more and more to me, my jealousy has intensified in desire to take back these two words that I feel have been largely coopted to a different camp of meaning.
The words I am talking about are “victory” and “freedom.” I don’t need to quote any particular worship album, artist, or song, because the terms are simply everywhere. They are gospel-words. They reside in the Pauline wheelhouse of soteriological phraseology.
I’m purposefully not quoting and not being specific, but when I hear the words “victory” and “freedom” in worship songs, both their lyrical and musical contexts make me feel as though the songwriters have in mind quite individuated ideas of personal triumph and unfettered self-expression. (If you’ve read my blog, you’ve heard me address this idea of “triumphalism.”) Certainly the writers are aware that such victory and freedom are grounded in Christ, and that grounding does sometimes make it into the songs. But even then, the impression is still given that the type of freedom we’re singing about pertains more to our demonstration of worship in the moment (we’re free to individually emote and self-express) than to our standing with Christ in eternity (we’re forever free from the slavery of sin, death, and the enemy). And the impression is still given that the type of victory we’re singing about pertains more to our being “armored up” to go out and conquer the world for Jesus than Christ’s being violently stripped of all power and conquering through defeat. Hymn-writer Samuel Gandy wrote:
By weakness and defeat
He won the glorious crown
Trod all His foes beneath His feet
By being trodden down
And Gandy was only making poetry out of Paul’s profundity when he told the Colossians: “God made [us] alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross. He disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him” (2:13-15, ESV).
You see, the only victory we have to stand in is Christ’s, not ours. The only triumph we own is Christ’s, not ours. Jesus is not just our victory. He is our ONLY victory. That’s a very important distinction that distinguishes Gospel from lie.
And the freedom we have is both a freedom from and a freedom to. We are free from the crushing demands of the law, not because the law is abrogated but because it has been fulfilled by the Righteous Law-Keeper (Rom 3). We are free from the deadly power of sin. We are free from a fettered will that can’t do anything but return to its own vomit.
And we are free to live guiltlessly. We are free to live with purpose, identity, and meaning. We are free to give without needing to take. We are free to serve without needing reciprocity. We are free for mission, and we are free to love the world without needing to extract its resources to replenish our stores…because our cup overflows.
So, at the risk of sounding a bit grandiose, I commission worship songwriters anywhere and everywhere, to help us all redefine victory and freedom, to sharpen their dulled edges and wipe away their smears and smudges, that we may look clearly through them, past ourselves, to see Christ in all his crucified and resurrected splendor.
Don’t get me wrong. I think we should all be full-throated, physically expressive worshipers. Emoting is important. It’s a sign of the impact of the gospel. We just need to be very conscious not to emote about freedom and victory, but about Christ, who IS our freedom and victory.