“In Christ Alone: Hymns/Songs that Give Us Life”
The story behind the hymn
Since the song we are considering is only 20 years old rather than 200 like some of our other hymns, the story behind the song doesn’t have nearly the mystique and intrigue that the other ones did. We can relate to it much more because it is set in a contemporary context. The lyrics were written by Stuart Townend; the melody was written by Keith Getty.
Townend grew up as the youngest of four children in a Christian family in West Yorkshire, England, where his father was a vicar in the Church of England. The Townend family always enjoyed music, and young Stuart began to play the piano at the age of seven. Townend had already written another of our favourite songs – “How Deep the Father’s Love” – before he was 30. “In Christ Alone” was written about 10 years later.
Townend explains: “Keith [Getty] and I met in the autumn of 2000 at a worship event, and we resolved to try to work together on some songs. A few weeks later Keith sent some melody ideas, and the first one on the CD was a magnificent, haunting melody that I loved, and immediately started writing down some lyrical ideas on what I felt should be a timeless theme commensurate with the melody. So the theme of the life, death, resurrection of Christ, and the implications of that for us just began to tumble out, and when we got together later on to fine tune it, we felt we had encapsulated what we wanted to say.”
Townend and Getty both admit they are motivated by the idea of capturing biblical truth in songs and hymns that will not only cause people to express their worship in church, but will build them up in their Christian lives.
Getty and Townend have co-authored some other songs that we sing and love here at Hope Lutheran: a soft Christmas song – “Joy has Dawned Upon the World;” a powerful Good Friday song – “The Power of the Cross;” and a majestic resurrection song – “See What a Morning!”
There’s lots to talk about in “In Christ Alone,” and lots and lots of Biblical references, so… here we go…
v.1 – In the love of Christ I stand
In Christ alone my hope is found He is my light, my strength, my song
This Cornerstone; this solid Ground Firm through the fiercest drought and storm
What heights of love What depths of peace When fears are stilled When strivings cease
My comforter, my All in All Here in the love of Christ I stand
The first verse of this song especially describes the character, the nature, the attributes of Jesus Christ, and what blessings He brings to my life, to your life. (For a few of these, they might fit equally into Christ’s character and His blessings, so I have quite arbitrarily set them in one category.)
Townend calls Jesus “my light.” He is the one who illumines our spiritual lives, helping us to see things and to see our own lives from God’s perspective. Whether we take the words of Psalm 27 – “The Lord is my light and my salvation, whom shall I fear?” – OR the words of Jesus in John 8 – “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” OR the testimony of John the Gospel writer – “In [Jesus] was life, and that life was the light of men… The true light that gives light to every man was coming into the world.” – they all point to Jesus as the source of spiritual light and understanding. We “get” life on earth and in heaven more clearly when we see it through the lens of Jesus’ teaching, His life, death and resurrection.
Townend calls Jesus “this cornerstone, this solid ground.” I’ll save “solid ground” for the blessings category. Several times in the New Testament – from the lips of Jesus, Himself, and from the pens of Paul and Peter and Luke – we hear Jesus referred to as the cornerstone, the most important rock in the building of a house. The person of Jesus, the saving work of Jesus is the most important piece of the building of our lives of faith. If we don’t have Jesus, we don’t really have anything of value at all. My hope is built on NOTHING LESS than Jesus!!
Townend describes Jesus’ character using contrasting images – the heights of love and the depths of peace. The “heights of love” reminds me of what Paul wrote to the Ephesian believers, praying that they would grasp how wide, and long, and HIGH, and deep is the love of Christ. Because we are sinful, and because of the unimaginably great love of God for us, Jesus went to the darkness of the cross and the depths of hell to demonstrate that love… but that’s really jumping ahead to a theme that is more prominent in verses 2 and 3.
The depths of peace is described by Jesus in a John 14 conversation with His disciples on the night before He died. He told them, “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God; trust also in me.” Then later in the chapter, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give [peace] to you as the world gives.”
I don’t know exactly what thoughts troubled the disciples that night. Did they have an inkling of what might happen? Were they feeling anxious and afraid? Whatever it was, Jesus was giving them His peace… not just ‘saying’ it, but actually imparting it to them. I don’t know what thoughts might be troubling you right now, but please know that Jesus’ peace is just a prayer away. He promises the same, “My peace I give you… do not let your hearts be troubled.”
I love another verse about peace from Philippians 4. Paul wrote, “The peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, WILL guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.” That’s the depths of peace that Townend knows – a peace that enables us to say “whatever my lot… it is well with my soul.”
We need to touch on the blessings in that first verse. “In Christ alone” – the title of the song – is a truth that we hear again from multiple sources in Scripture. Also in John 14, Jesus said, “I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” “In Christ alone” we hear the truth, we see the way, we experience the life. Peter said the same thing in Acts 4, “Salvation is found in no one else” – in Christ alone. Townend translates that into the blessing of hope – “In Christ alone my hope is found.” That’s basically like we heard from Edward Mote last week – “My hope is built on NOTHING LESS… than Jesus Christ, than Christ alone!” Our hope to get from earth to heaven is not found in the security of money, the flimsy bridge of our selves and our good works, or the shaky teachings and religions that have no basis in truth. It’s Christ alone!! And so, besides being our cornerstone, he is also our solid ground – taking its imagery again from that story about the men who built their houses on a rock and on sand. Jesus is our solid ground when drought and storm and fears and strivings relentlessly attack our little lives. It’s only and always because Christ is my everything that we sing “Here, in the love of Christ, I stand.”
v.2 – In the death of Christ I live
In Christ alone! Who took on flesh Fullness of God in helpless babe
This gift of love and righteousness Scorned by the ones He came to save
Till on that cross as Jesus died The wrath of God was satisfied
For every sin on Him was laid Here in the death of Christ I live
As Stuart Townend moves into verse 2, he takes us into the incarnation and death of Jesus. “In Christ alone who took on flesh.” This is a reference to John 1:14 – John’s one verse account of the Christmas story. There we read that “The Word [of God] became flesh and made His dwelling among us.” We might also be reminded of the angel Gabriel’s message to Mary that the child she would bear would be called the Son of the Most High God. When we as a human race, and when we as individuals, strayed and rebelled and turned against God in our sinfulness, this loving and gracious God was not content to leave us at arm’s length nor to condemn us to our deserved eternity apart from Him. So, as Paul wrote in Philippians 2, Jesus, though He had equal status with God didn’t think so much of Himself that he had to cling to the advantages of that status no matter what. Not at all. When the time came, He set aside the privileges of deity and, became human, taking on the nature of a servant!
When Townend uses the phrase “Fullness of God in helpless babe,” it is from two verses in Colossians that tell us that “in Christ the fullness of the deity lives in bodily form.” So… fullness of God in helpless babe laid in a manger in Bethlehem, but also fullness of God as an adult bringing the Kingdom of God – the love and righteousness of God – into the lives of the people of Israel.
Those people, His own ethnic group of people scorned Him, rejected Him. John’s Gospel tells us that when Jesus came to His own people they did not receive Him, and Luke’s Gospel tells us that the people of Jesus’ home-town of Nazareth also rejected Him and were going to throw Him off a cliff. They weren’t successful at that time, but it was only a matter of time until the Jewish religious leaders – out of jealousy – did take Jesus to the Roman governor and then eventually to the cross to silence Him and His unwelcome-to-them teachings and practices. But Jesus on the cross wasn’t only the desire and the relief of those religious leaders, it was also the redemption / salvation plan in the very heart of God. And so Townend describes it: “When Jesus died God’s wrath [over our sin] was satisfied.” God’s justice required that sin be paid for by the shedding of blood – that’s what all the Old Testament sacrifices were about. Because Jesus was the perfect, sinless, innocent sacrifice, every sin of ours, every LAST sin of ours, was laid on Jesus with the result that, when Jesus said, “It is finished,” the debt for our sin had been fully paid. That’s why we can humbly, softly, and genuinely say, “Thanks be to God!” That’s why we can – as Townend wrote – live in the death of Christ. He must have gotten that thought from Paul in Romans 6 when he wrote about being united with Christ in His death – dead to sin but alive in Christ. OR maybe Paul’s profound truth in Galatians 2: “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me.” “Here, in the death of Christ, I live” indeed!
v.3 – Bought with the precious blood of Christ
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 Sin’s curse has lost its grip on me
For I am His and He is mine Bought with the precious blood of Christ
The third verse of Stuart Townend’s beautiful story of the life of Christ continues with the events that follow His crucifixion. “There, in the ground, His body lay.” This is a reference to the fact that Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus received Pilate’s permission to hurriedly take down the body of Jesus from the cross and to bury Him before the darkness of twilight and the beginning of the Sabbath rest. They buried His body in a new tomb in which no body had ever been placed before. And then, with the stone rolled down into the entrance of the tomb, Jesus’ body lay in its own Sabbath rest.
The next line in the song describes the implications of Jesus’ death on a spiritual plane, rather than a physical one. “Light of the world, by darkness, slain.” We already heard about Jesus being our light, and the light of the world. In Ephesians 6, St. Paul uses darkness as a metaphor for the devil and the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. When Jesus was hanging on the cross, and darkness came over the whole land for three hours, it was a picture image of Satan’s darkness snuffing out the life of the light of the world. And when Jesus breathed His last, those demonic forces must have shouted with glee – the light slain, defeated, expired.
The following words turn the tables: “Then bursting forth in glorious day Up from the grave He rose again.” This is the wonderful Easter message – light conquering darkness, life conquering death, good conquering evil, God conquering the devil. Jesus’ resurrection is the theological and musical climax of Townend’s and Getty’s song. “He stands in victory!” At the end of 1 Corinthians 15, the great resurrection chapter, St. Paul chimes in: “Thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ!” Yes, indeed!! His victory is also ours for just as death lost its grip on Jesus on that glorious Sunday morning, so sin’s curse loses its grip on you and me, and Jesus’ grip on us is found to be the strong and solid and secure one. As Peter writes in his first letter, it is the precious blood of Christ that has bought us, and that’s why we belong to Him, and He to us.
v.4 – Jesus commands my destiny
No guilt in life, no fear in death This is the pow’r of Christ in me
From life’s first cry to final breath Jesus commands my destiny
No pow’r of hell, no scheme of man Can ever pluck me from His hand
Till He returns or calls me home Here in the pow’r of Christ I’ll stand
The last verse of this song lands where the last verses of many of the other hymns we have looked at did – at a consideration of the last day – whether that is our final breath, or Christ’s return… till He returns or calls me home. But it starts out with a boat load of confidence – no guilt in life, no fear in death. No guilt in life because we live in the grace of God. Psalm 32 and Jeremiah 33 both affirm that God forgives the guilt of our sins. “We have been justified through faith,” writes Paul. “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law,” writes Paul. “By grace you have been saved,” writes Paul. Our sins and the guilt that is associated with them… all covered by the sacrifice of Jesus and the grace of God.
No fear in death… we might fear dying and the pain and suffering that may be associated with it, but we need not fear death itself because there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. If you are in Christ, if you have faith in Christ, then know, really KNOW that death has been defeated. That is the life-giving power of Christ in each one of us. Jesus gave us life – we are fearfully and wonderfully made – right from that first cry when the doctor gave us a slap on our new-born bottom, to the final gasp of air as we leave this earthly life. Jesus controls all of that, all of life. Jesus is sovereign over all of creation, but personally we recognize that He is sovereign over us. He commands our destiny, what happens in our lives. He determines our eternal future, and nothing can change that!!
Nothing – no human force, no spiritual force – can separate us from God. With the armor of God clothing us, with the power of Christ enveloping us, we will be able to stand in the day of evil when the very powers of hell come against us and attack us. Paul had that as his very confidence as he concluded Romans chapter 8: “I am CONVINCED that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any power, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
This song points us to a tiny Baby in a manger. It calls us to look up at the cross. After the dark hours of the cross, the song shouts of victory. Triumphantly, the song comes full circle by returning to our relationship with Christ. It conveys the deep freedom, joy, and power we find in Christ. And so let’s stand, and boldly, confidently, passionately sing – “In Christ alone!!”