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An Explanation: Why I Don’t Like “At the Cross”


I should have expected this: I’ve been asked why I don’t like “At the Cross,” a popular version of Isaac Watts’ “Alas, and Did My Savior Bleed” with a chorus tacked on. In this post, I will answer that question.

Let me be clear on this: I love the Watts hymn as he wrote it, but I have three objections to this chorus. I’ll begin with the least before moving on to two important criticisms.

I’m not a fan of added choruses and so-called bridges. If you think you can write a better song, then have at it, but show some respect and don’t mess with another author’s work. I’m also not usually in favor of updating the language of old hymns. In most cases, your congregation is smart enough to understand a simple explanation of an archaic word or phrase, and it’s better to do that than risk violating the author by changing his meaning, e.g., “Here I raise mine Ebenezer” does not mean “Here I raise my voice to heaven.” As usual, there are exceptions, Watts’ twelve (by my count) references to “bowels” (by which he usually means “heart” as we figuratively use it) in his Psalms and Hymns being most notable. I suspect a “simple explanation,” in those cases, would be inadequate to still the distaste of one demographic and the snickering of another.

Moving on to more serious criticisms, let’s begin by reviewing the offending words:

At the cross, at the cross,
Where I first saw the light,
And the burden of my heart rolled away.
It was there by faith I received my sight,
And now I am happy all the day!
—Not Isaac Watts

I’ll begin with the first error that caught my eye, that is, the final line: “And now I am happy all the day!” Is this not ridiculous on its face? How many of you who are believers can say that you are happy all day, every day? More importantly, should you be? Do you not have knowledge and experiences that should make you, as disciples of “a man of sorrows” who was “acquainted with grief,” legitimately unhappy? This line is childishly silly, at best, and grotesquely offensive, at worst.

Finally, this chorus confuses the doctrines of conversion and justification. I was justified at the cross. This is a major point of doctrine that separates Reformed (and Lutheran) Christians from every errant and heretical form, and one on which we stake our very hope of eternal salvation. Yet this chorus says nothing at all about justification, describing, instead, conversion. But we know, thanks to Nicodemus’ conversation with Jesus in John 3 and Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 2:14ff, that can’t happen until one has been born again, that is, regenerated. This is clearly biblical, and again, fundamental Reformed orthodoxy. As a Reformed minister, Isaac Watts would have abhorred this chorus, giving us all the more reason to reject it, not only as unbiblical and stupid, but as an offense to the hymn’s author.

Addendum: Many will think this trivial, but the medium really does carry its own message.



Posted 2019·01·08 by David Kjos
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Posted in: Isaac Watts · Music · Musical Miasma & Putrid Poetry

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