The Extent of the Atonement in Baptist Hymnody

[Please read the last two posts for the context of what you are about to read.]

The verse I mentioned at the end of the last post, Revelation 5:9, which mentioned the song the saints will sing in heaven to Jesus, who ransomed people for God from throughout the world by His blood, provides an excellent transition to the next point under consideration, that of Dr. Vines’ appeal to Baptist hymnody, as he expressed with the following statement:

“We sang these beautiful songs tonight… about the Cross, ‘For Man, the creature’s, sin.’ That’s the death of Christ for the whole world!”

Dr. Vines attempted to demonstrate that the hymns sung in Southern Baptist churches are indicative of incompatibility between Southern Baptist beliefs and the doctrine of Limited atonement. In response to this, I would like to assert that the songs found within the majority of Southern Baptist hymnals fall into three categories:

  1. Some hymns sung in most Southern Baptist churches, upon close inspection, actually may contradict the doctrine of Limited atonement. This is the case due to at least two influences upon Southern Baptist beliefs:
    1. Arminianism. Though the first Baptist association in America, as founded in Philadelphia in 1707, drafted a statement of faith based on the thoroughly Calvinistic 1689 London Baptist Confession [Chad Owen Brand and David E. Hankins, One Sacred Effort, Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2005. 63], and though the 1689 Confession (or the Philadelphia or Charleston Confessions, which were based on the 1689 Confession) was the confessional statement of the church or association of every one of the 293 delegates who gathered in Augusta, Georgia, to organize the Southern Baptist Convention in 1845, no one can deny that, especially since the late 1800s, General Baptist teaching (which, by definition, denies the doctrine of Limited atonement) has gained influence in the SBC. Wesleyan Arminianism has, to a certain degree, also influenced Southern Baptist hymnody as seen in the large number of hymns written by Charles Wesley (as well as some by John Wesley) in many Baptist hymnals.
    2. Anti-doctrinalism. OK, I might’ve coined this term, but what I’m getting at is the fact that beginning around the end of the 19th century, there seemed to be a particularly intense turn to downplay doctrine within the Church. This was played out in hymnody as well. As noted by Pastor John MacArthur, “Musicians and singers without formal pastoral or theological training (such as Ira Sankey and Philip Bliss) became the dominant songwriters in the church. Choruses with lighter, simpler subject matter proliferated. Popular Christian music became more subjective. Songs focused on personal experience and the feelings of the worshiper. The newer compositions were often called ‘gospel songs’ to distinguish them from ‘hymns.’” MacArthur points to songs such as “In the Garden,” “Love Lifted Me,” and “Count Your Blessings” (all of these found in many Baptist hymnals) as examples of popular church music that is almost entirely devoid of gospel content. It should not be a surprise, then, that some relatively modern songs– songs that so often fail to mention the atonement at all– actually may deny the doctrine of Limited atonement through simple lack of theological reflection.
  2. Most hymns sung in the majority of Southern Baptist churches make no mention of the extent of the atonement, but anti-Calvinists such as Dr. Vines often regard these hymns as teaching against Limited atonement. This opinion of these hymns is formed by anti-Calvinists due to their own faulty presuppositions. Many hymns sung in Southern Baptist churches are focused upon reaching the world with the message of Christ, as this has been the consistent commitment of Southern Baptists from the beginning of the denomination. Since anti-Calvinists regard Calvinism as opposed to world missions, these hymns are taken to be anti-Calvinist as well. But the historical record demonstrates that Calvinists have always been committed to world missions, from the students of Calvin himself who were often martyred while trying to preach the Gospel to Roman Catholic nations in Europe, to George Whitefield who came to the American colonies to preach the Gospel, to David Brainerd and Jonathan Edwards who preached the Gospel to Native Americans, to the present day in which so many young men and women have been motivated to go to the foreign mission field by the faithful, passionate, Calvinistic preaching of John Piper.
  3. A few hymns that are dearly beloved to many Southern Baptists, upon close inspection, actually teach the doctrine of Limited atonement. This is true of the hymn “Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing,” written by Robert Robinson, who was converted under the preaching of the Calvinistic evangelist George Whitefield and later wrote History of Baptism and Baptists. “Come, Thou Fount” contains the line, “Jesus sought me when a stranger, Wand’ring from the fold of God; He, to rescue me from danger, Interposed his precious blood.” This idea of the interposition of Christ’s sacrifice pictures God’s wrath as coming against sinners, but falling instead upon Christ, who bore the full punishment of our sins so that we could experience God’s mercy. That this doctrine is only compatible with Limited atonement should be obvious, as all of us for whom Christ has interposed His blood cannot experience God’s wrath, but those for whom there is no interposition bear the weight- as it were- of God’s wrath upon their own heads. Ironically, the hymn that Dr. Vines quoted from in his statement above, which is titled, “Alas, and Did My Savior Bleed,” was written by Isaac Watts. This is ironic because Watts’ hymns were used by George Whitefield in his evangelistic meetings and by Jonathan Edwards in his church congregation. These Calvinists who were contemporaries of Watts and through whom God brought the Great Awakening utilized Watts’ hymns because they were considered to be in strict conformity to the Calvinistic understanding of biblical doctrine. In other words, people in Watts’ day did not consider his hymns to teach against Limited atonement- Dr. Vines’ perception of “Alas, and Did My Savior Bleed” is once again tainted by his own unchecked presuppositions.

This third point brings me to the reason I have taken the time to devote an entire post to Dr. Vines’ brief statement concerning one hymn. I truly think, upon listening to all of Dr. Vines’ anti-Calvinism speech, that his reading of this hymn is indicative of the way he reads and interprets Bible passages as well, at least when it comes to the subject of Calvinism. Dr. Vines took a line from this hymn out of context, failed to check his presuppositions concerning what this hymn may mean, and failed to check authorial intent concerning this hymn. Likewise (as I hope to demonstrate in further posts), throughout his anti-Calvinism speech Dr. Vines took Bible verses out of context, failed to check his presuppositions concerning these verses, and failed to check authorial intent concerning these verses. Though I believe that the ‘5 points of Calvinism’ reflect biblical doctrines and thus desire to persuade others of these doctrines, my greatest concern is not that those who are influenced by Dr. Vines’ speech will fail to embrace ‘5 point Calvinism,’ my greatest concern is that those who are influenced by Dr. Vines’ speech will be misinformed about how to read their Bibles in general.

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7 Comments on “The Extent of the Atonement in Baptist Hymnody”

  1. Sam Hughey Says:

    I realize how this might be received by some, and while I intend no disrespect to Dr. Vines (or anyone) I am compelled to state plainly that when anyone attempts to defend an unbiblical teaching on the basis of what songs we enjoy, it is indicative of a desperate attempt in self-justifying the unbiblical teaching. While I have no argument against songs, I firmly believe our songs must reflect the Bible’s theology, not our own. Our songs must give a clear and distinct sound to which the ears of our understanding become attentive.

    Several years ago when I attended my first Founders Conference in Birmingham, AL, we were singing And Can It Be during the evening service. This was already one of my favorite songs but something happened that night I will never forget. While we were singing, the music stopped. We continued to sing without music and the joy I experienced as I sang the words and heard the words and meditated upon those words was indescribable. To think that a person such as Charles Wesley could believe in the self-centered attitude of one’s own ‘will’ determining if they are to be saved and if they are to continue being saved could actually write the words,

    ‘Tis mercy all, immense and free,
    for O my God, it found out me!

    Or should we say

    it found out me, and left to me
    to decide for me, what it shall be,
    heaven or hell, for so long as I want it to be
    ?

    Why does Charles Wesley omit his ‘free-will’ theism? But no greater words can be spoken or sung than,

    Long my imprisoned spirit lay,
    fast bound in sin and nature’s night;
    thine eye diffused a quickening ray;
    I woke, the dungeon flamed with light;
    my chains fell off, my heart was free,
    I rose, went forth, and followed thee.
    My chains fell off, my heart was free,
    I rose, went forth, and followed thee.

    If Christ’s died to set free man’s imprisoned spirit, whom He alone chose from before creation to be set free, how then can man determine the contrary to what God has already pre-determined (Isa.55:11)? Can man’s imprisoned spirit ‘choose’ to be free when fast bound in sin and nature’s night, asleep and chained to a dead heart? Does fallen man cause his chains to fall off and set his own heart free to follow Jesus only to mock the blood that freed him and gave him life by ‘choosing’ to reject that life?

    I am reminded of my former beliefs when every time we sang Have Thine Own Way Lord, we previously heard a sermon which emphasized my own way if one is to be saved. I was such a hypocrite and didn’t know it. I thank God daily for loving a fool and that He did not leave my salvation to be determined by an imprisoned sprit, fast bound in sin.


  2. Sam:

    Your comment is greatly appreciated.

    -I do want to make clear to everyone that Baptist hymnody was not Dr. Vines’ main argument against Limited atonement (his main argument being the standard proof-texts, which I hope to address in my next post), but we’re trying to be thorough (though not exhaustive) in our response to what Dr. Vines taught.

    In Christ,
    -Andrew

  3. Dull Iron Says:

    I so appreciate you guys. Great work as always. I am a missionary with the IMB serving in Eastern Europe (forgive the ambiguity). I love sharing many of these hymns with folks who haven’t heard. By the way, check out the words to “Crown Him with Many Crowns”. AWESOME!!!

    Thanks again.

    Dull Iron

  4. Aaron Says:

    I watched this sermon the next day after it was preached. I am so glad you guys are taking the time to deal with this.

    There are many issues raised by Dr. Vines that needs addressing, and I am sure you will get to all of them.

    Again, thank you

  5. Bob Devine Says:

    Thanks for giving a Biblical analysis of an area close to my ‘heart”. Your points about taking verses of a hymn out of context is excellent. However, one should take the idea and the concept of ‘mis-using’ music a bit further. Vines ‘appears’ to be using verses of music to support historical Biblical truth, whereas music is not where we FIND our doctrine but rather where SOUND doctrine is expressed and reflected. Finally, taking this ‘mis-=use’ of music just one more step, once a congrgant believes that SOUND doctrine is FOUND in music, said congrgant may/likely will gravitate toward music that satisfies him (because the man centered lyrics imprees him that ‘its all about me’) and leads him to become ‘experiential.
    Sorry to be tedious, but it hit me hard and quick.


  6. And yet a lot of Charles Wesley’s hymns do, as Sam Hughey says, logically teach a limited atonement. Why? Because substitution is MEANINGLESS unless it is limited. Did Christ die in the very place of Judas? Of those who had already been in hell for thousands of years? Answer – no! This is why post-Wesleyan Arminian Methodists abandoned Wesley’s teaching on substitution.


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