Reflections on "In Christ Alone" - Part II

1. In Christ alone my hope is found, He is my light my strength, my song.
This cornerstone, this solid ground, firm through fiercest dark drought and storm
What heights of love what depths of peace, when fears are stilled and strivings cease
My comforter, my all in all, here in the love of Christ I stand.

2. In Christ alone who took on flesh, fullness of God in helpless babe
This gift of life and righteousness, born for the ones he came to save
Till on that cross as Jesus died, the wrath of God was satisfied
And every sin on him was laid; here in the death of Christ I live.

3. There in the ground, his body lay, light of the world by darkness slain
Then bursting forth, in glorious day, up from the grave he rose again.
And as he stands in victory, sins curse has lost its grip on me.
For I am his and he is mine, bought with the precious blood of Christ.

4. No guilt in life, no fear in death, this is the power of Christ in me.
From life’s first cry to final breath, Jesus commands my destiny
No power of hell no scheme of man, can ever pluck me from his hand.
Till he returns or calls me home here in the power of Christ I’ll stand.

Perhaps the highest compliment that can be paid to hymnwriters who hold a high view of Scripture is that the richness of intertextuality in their hymns--the weaving of Old and New Testament truths, images, and phrases seamlessly into one train of thought--approaches that of the greatest master of biblical mosaic in English-language hymnody, Charles Wesley. This can be said of the epoch-making text by Stuart Townend with tune by Keith Getty, “In Christ Alone.” This text develops doctrinal themes and biblical narrative in an overarching train of thought that unfolds across multiple stanzas, is set to music strophically and intended to be sung congregationally in corporate worship. It is also the hymn that many contemporary evangelical worshippers would likely point to as having ended an era and begun a new one in the ongoing development of the modern worship movement.

The first couplet introduces language and imagery from the biblical canticles, those passages of prophetic song interspersed throughout Old and New Testaments uttered often at highly dramatic moments in the life of the individual or the nation of Israel, yet always with a view beyond the immediate situation propelled by the far-sighted vision of God’s plan of redemption through history, ultimately to be fulfilled in and through Christ. The triad begun in line 2 of “strength, song and [salvation]” first appears in the opening canticle of the Bible-- the prototype of all the rest--Moses’ song at the Exodus (Ex. 15:1-22). The image of rock, evoked here as both Cornerstone (i.e., Christ as foreshadowed in Psalm 118) and solid ground recalls Moses’ parting song, which is God’s warning song to Israel before the death of Moses and is the first passage in Scripture in which God identifies Himself as their Rock. The canticle of praise to Jahweh in Isaiah 12 closely echoes Moses: The LORD is my strength and my song and is become my salvation.” Leland Ryken’s Dictionary of Biblical Metaphor, a powertool for personal Bible study as well as for songwriting preparation, explores the full spectrum of biblical meanings and uses for the word and image of rock in Old and New Testaments, from the stability and power of a massive rock in the desert, “firm through the fiercest drought and storm,” up through the picture of the Cornerstone laden with messianic interpretation.

The second couplet in stanza one draws from the exalted passage in Ephesians 3 in which Paul wishes and prays for the Ephesians that they might grasp “what is the length and breadth and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ, which passeth knowledge,” that they might be “filled with all the fullness of God.” Such a grand, even limitless vista is ours as well when we finally allow Christ to “still our fears” and we give up our last “striving” [against suffering, circumstances, even against Him and His ways in our lives]. The latter phrases conflate in one tight isocolon the scene of Christ’s miraculous stilling of the storm at sea and the Psalmic injunction amidst the human and cosmic chaos depicted in Psalm 46: “Be still and know that I am God, I will be exalted among the peoples, I will be exalted in the earth.” Completing the subtle Trinitarian aspect of this hymn is the address to the Holy Spirit with the title “my Comforter” at the end of stanza 1.

After the narrative of the incarnation, death, and resurrection of Christ dramatically retold in the central stanzas we see Christ standing in an eternal triumph that breaks chains--breaks every curse of sin from my life. The early Greek church emphasized the theme of Christus Victor in its hymnody and liturgy. We recover the grandeur of that Easter theme here, not only at Easter but every moment of our Christian walk, paid for and secured only “by the precious blood of Christ.”

Stanza four seems to be framed by Romans 8 and permeated by the rhetoric of that famous chapter. “No guilt in life” is such a commanding, riveting line by itself, recalling immediately the magisterial opening of Romans 8:1: “There is therefore now no condemnation to them which are in Christ Jesus.” It is the pardon from prison, judgment, and from the death sentence to every believer in Jesus Christ, made even more gripping by the balancing phrase: “no fear in death.” In the manner of the classical device of inclusio (i.e., “bookends” in modern English) stanza four’s reference to “fear in death” echoes the fears that Christ has already stilled and overcome as sung in stanza one, so the phrase unifies the outer stanzas effectively.  Here, however, we are looking at the final fear at life’s end, the anticipatory grief that comes when we receive a diagnosis of decline or of untreatable illness.

The opposing realities of life and death are further intensified in the next couplet, embracing in two tiny phrases the entire human lifespan from our first breath to the last, ending with the stunning thought that our entire destiny is known to Him and under His sovereign control alone. Further contrasts and carefully placed opposites arc like electric sparks across multiple lines in this stanza—the “power of Christ” in me (line 2) is unthinkably greater than any “power of hell” (line 6) that would seek to tear me from Him—as it builds to its climax in the final line. This stanza brings to bear the fullness of the Christ event--the overwhelming truth and immutability of the gospel--upon every moment of the life of every believer and specifically upon my life as a believer--whatever my past, my struggles, my condition at this moment, whether I have been abandoned by a loved one, am in the final stages of cancer, under persecution, in the midst of war, in a refugee camp, hospitalized in a psychiatric lockdown unit, in prison for the gospel’s sake, or am a premature infant fighting for my life in an incubator.  If all the glorious claims of the preceding stanzas are true, then the hymn’s final couplet brings them all to a sudden sharp clarity that is striking and irreducible. This is the clarity Paul knew when writing from prison to the Philippians--that there are really only two options at any given moment of life for the Christian: to live, which is Christ, or to die, which, in Christ, is gain. Whether I attain the end of my faith at the moment of His return or whether He first calls me to His presence through death of this body, I will be present with the Lord. Until that moment, I stand, will stand (we should note and sing with intentionality the crucial change from present to future tense in the hymn’s last line) as Christ stands, and in the power of Christ.

A concluding word might be in order here on hymn troping—the practice originating in the medieval liturgy and currently again ubiquitous in congregational worship song of adding new text and/or music to an existing piece. A great hymn is strong enough that it generally needs no trope, appendage, emendation, or recasting, but is rather often weakened by these. “In Christ Alone” is a great hymn. The sole attempt that has been made at grafting additional text onto it was vigorously resisted by the writers. Many readers will recall the “worship medley” of the 80s, spurred by a healthy impulse to pair subjective worship songs--perhaps valuable but delicate personal prayers--with a more biblically-rooted, expansive hymn on the same topic to provide doctrinal correction, counterpoise, or further development of the theme. Given the working definition of a hymn above, perhaps the worship medley was an attempt to quilt together for congregations an experience of cohesive unfolding thought in worship from multiple songs. The medley appears to have quietly subsided with the rise of the modern hymn which has rendered it unnecessary, as local churches across the country write new hymns and record their original fresh arrangements of revivified historic hymns. “In Christ Alone,” strongly rooted in the literary heritage and biblical-hermeneutical riches of historic hymnody, has opened a door from past to future, and inaugurated perhaps more than any other composition a new era of singing hymns with intentionality and thought—singing with the Spirit and the understanding also—in much evangelical worship today.

This is Part II of a two part series.  To read Part I, Click below.  

Esther Crookshank

Dr. Crookshank is a Professor of Church Music at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, KY. She teaches in the areas of hymnology, musicology, applied ethnomusicology, and musical aesthetics. Since 2009 she has also served as director of the Academy of Sacred Music, the seminary’s guest artist and lecture forum.