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Preface to Hymns to the Living God

The people of God sing. From the earliest days, in both Testaments, God’s people sing as an expression of worship. Miriam and Moses, David and Asaph, Isaiah and Jeremiah, Jesus and Paul—they all sang their praise to God. Indeed, from cover to cover the Scriptures command such heartfelt responses of the affections of believing people: Sing to the LORD, for He has triumphed gloriously (Exod 15:21); Oh sing to the LORD a new song, for He has done marvelous things! (Psa 98:1); Sing praises to the LORD, for He has done gloriously (Isa 12:5); Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly … singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs (Col 3:16). Singing praise to God is the natural response of men who adore their Maker. But singing is—thanks be to God—also the commanded duty of all God’s people in all eras of His dealings with humankind. Singing is one of the ways we fulfill the chief end for which God made us: to glorify and enjoy Him.

Our singing to God is a most sacred thing. The words of the epistle of Hebrews surely apply as much to singing as they do to any other aspect of worship in Christ’s assembly: Therefore let us be grateful for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, and thus let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire (Heb 12:28-29). This command excludes from our worship any expression of song or prayer that is untrue, or unworthy, of the God who is over all and blessed forever. Paul took such a high and sober-minded view of preaching that when he commanded Timothy to preach the word continually, he solemnly charged him in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by His appearing and His kingdom (2 Tim 4:1). Likewise, we believe that the duty of holy singing by the saints of God in their weekly gatherings for worship is of such a nature that Paul’s charge would be equally fitting for this aspect of divine worship as well​.

We sing to God. We sing to the Father, thrice holy and forever blessed. We sing to our Savior, Jesus Christ, who shed His blood for us. We sing to that Holy Spirit whom God has given to us to dwell in our hearts, making us God’s holy temple. This means that we dare not assume that the way we sing to God is a matter of “adiaphora” or indifference. We have an obligation to sing to God in a manner that is worthy of who He is and that exemplifies the expressions of reverence and joy found throughout Holy Scripture. This means that our singing must sound very different from popular music concerts and carnival tunes.

The careful inquirer can find saints in every age who felt the weight of this reverent obligation to sing to God in a manner worthy of Him. While Augustine believed church music a good way to raise the affections of worshippers, he warned in his Confessions, “When it happens to me that the music moves me more than the subject of the song, I confess myself to commit a sin deserving punishment.” In his Preface to the Genevan Psalter, John Calvin said, “Touching the melody, it has seemed best that it be moderated in the manner which we have adopted, to carry gravity and majesty appropriate to the subject, and even to be suitable for singing in the church.” John Wesley says in the Preface to his 1780 hymnbook that he sought to purge the hymnal of all “doggerel,” “bombast,” and “words without meaning.” A. W. Tozer lamented of the popular religious music of a generation ago, “Many of our popular songs and choruses in praise of Christ are hollow and unconvincing. Some are even shocking in their amorous endearments, and strike a reverent soul as being a kind of flattery offered to One with whom neither composer nor singer is acquainted. The whole thing is in the mood of the love ditty, the only difference being the substitution of the name of Christ for that of the earthly lover.” Singing the truth (and we must sing only what is true) means we sing what is true doctrinally with expressions worthy of the eternal God who rides upon the thunderstorm.

This book of hymns is a modest attempt to collect some of the best congregational songs available in the English language. Herein are compiled texts and tunes with sources including ancient Israel, North Africa, Syria, Greece, Italy, Germany, France, Spain, England, Scotland, Ireland, and America, covering a time period extending from the second century BC through 2017. Translations into English come from sources originally written in Hebrew, Greek, Latin, German, French, Spanish, and more. This collection is truly catholic in its scope. In most cases, we have attempted to preserve each author’s original text, particularly for hymns written in English. We have made some alterations for translations into English, especially updating archaic pronouns, as long as those changes did not sacrifice poetic integrity. In a few minor cases we have made changes for doctrinal reasons.

Our selection of hymns has been based on the central criterion of fidelity to biblical truth. What a church sings has often more impact upon the theology, devotion, and behavior of its members than the church’s doctrinal confession or even what a pastor preaches. It is therefore important that a church sings only what is biblically true. This is the primary reason we have placed an emphasis on Scripture-based hymns in this collection. Hymns that are close versifications or paraphrases of Scripture are clearly marked, and we have provided an index of these hymns as well.

We have assessed a song’s truthfulness on at least three bases. First, we have endeavored to choose hymn texts that are theologically rich and sound. This is, without question, a Biblical mandate for all Christian churches. When Paul told the Colossian church to sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, it is in the context of another command: Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly (Col 3:16). If the hymns we sing do not accurately articulate Biblical truth, we have disobeyed our Lord on a most basic level. We dare not suppress the truth or exchange the truth about God for a lie (Rom 1:18, 25). We do not want to teach any different doctrine (1 Tim 1:3). So we have aimed to include only hymns texts that are orthodox.

Second, we have chosen only those texts we believe correspond to Scripture on a poetic level. Poetry is not merely decorative—it is an essential part of the communication of truth. The poetry of hymns expresses not just the “what” of biblical doctrine, but also how God chose to aesthetically present His truth in Scripture. Although we cannot know where the authors of our hymns ultimately stood before God, we have sought Christian poetry whose aesthetics represented both the beauty and holy affections of true evangelical belief. In this sense, we agree with John Wesley: “That which is of infinitely more moment than the spirit of poetry, is the spirit of piety.”  Therefore, we have worked to choose hymns whose poetry shapes the affections and imaginations of worshipers in ways similar to how Scripture does.

Third, we have chosen hymn tunes that we believe best communicate the kinds of sentiments and affections that are fitting for biblical truth. Tozer wisely cautioned, “Human emotions are curious and difficult to arouse, and there is always a danger that they may be aroused by the wrong means and for the wrong reasons.” The church’s battle against heresy defined Christian orthodoxy; there is a sense in which its battle against irreverent worship has attempted to define orthopathy: right affections. Orthopathy cannot be defined as precisely as the creeds and confessions have delineated Christian doctrine, but hymnbooks function similarly to those confessions. They are an attempt to represent instances of ordinate affection. We hope you find that deep love for Christ pulsing through the veins of our hymnal. As with poetry, musical form is not neutral; rather, melody, harmony, and rhythm combine to give expression to right affections.

One may wonder if, in the year 2017, a new hymnal is necessary or relevant. Does not the use of electronic technology make a larger number of songs more accessible and inexpensive than producing a book of hymns? We are certainly aware of the benefits of technology, which is why all of the hymns in this collection and more are freely available at www.ClassicHymns.org. However, we believe there is great value in publishing and using good hymnals for several reasons.

First, when you hold a hymnal in your hands, you hold something of your Christian heritage. The physical nature of a hymnal has the effect of embodying a collection of the work of the church triumphant, and in using such a book, you identify with the entire church, and you sing her experience into yours.

Second, when you hold a good hymnal in your hands, you are holding the distilled affective responses of hundreds, if not thousands, of believers. A hymnal is a testimony of how Christians collectively have responded to the various truths of the Christian life. With hymnal in hand, one can peruse these responses and use them as a point of comparison for those of contemporary Christianity.

Third, a good hymnal remains the best devotional literature we have. Devotional literature is formative, and while it does not necessarily have to be printed, hymns in printed form provide a convenient and settled collection for personal and family devotion. Every Christian should have a hymnal (or several) at home for personal and family worship. Hymns ought to be contemplated, understood, and sung to the Lord outside church gatherings.

A printed hymnal offers saints a thoughtfully curated collection of some of the finest extra-Biblical expressions of God’s truth in warm, devotional form. In this hymnbook you will find the great fundamental doctrines of Christian orthodoxy represented. As John Wesley said of his own hymnal, “This book is, in effect, a little body of experimental and practical divinity.” In this volume, you will find words and music to give wings to the Christian’s ordinate affections, whether they be of adoration to the Triune God, or of thanksgiving to Christ as Mediator, or of bittersweet tears at His atoning passion, or of steadfast hope in the goodness of God amidst days of trial. So, we trust that this volume contains nothing but songs which are, in the words of Calvin, “not only honest, but also holy,” songs which are not just theologically strong, but devotionally warm.

Fourth, since producing printed hymnals is more time- and labor-intensive than producing electronic media, there is a greater likelihood that the editors of those hymnals have sifted through the chaff to find the very best of Christian hymnody. While any given hymnal contains some theological bias, it at least represents a kind of canon, a standard of Christian hymnody settled in the eyes of its editors.

A fifth reason for a printed hymnal is the importance of fostering a strong church culture of reading musical notation, particularly among the youth of the church. There is still great value in a congregation seeing musical notation, something not common when hymns are projected onto a screen. While musical education is not the sole goal of corporate worship, the more we understand what we are doing, the more meaningful the worship, and the better we can judge if what we are offering is appropriate. Further, since both the music and the lyrics contribute to a song’s overall meaning, we believe that hymnals better serve Christ’s church, for hymnals portray the two together.

Finally, singing is commanded by God. Singing is not simply a joyful expression of adoration and confession and praise to God, but it is also a most sacred duty. God wants us to sing by ourselves, sing in our families, and, most importantly, sing in fellowship with other believers. All Christians ought to sing heartily to the Lord (or “lustily and with a good courage,” in the memorable words of John Wesley). This means they must learn to sing. They ought to seek to learn to sing the best they can, because God has bid them sing. Jonathan Edwards once said, “Those … who neglect to learn to sing, live in sin, as they neglect what is necessary in order to their attending one of the ordinances of God’s worship.” We should not only learn to sing ourselves, but we should also teach our children to sing. This is reason enough for the publication of our hymnal, for hymnals help us keep this wonderful command of God.

No hymnal is perfect or adequate on its own. Yet it is our prayer that this modest collection will give honor to the living God and aid His people in singing His praises.

For information about Hymns to the Living God, click here.

Scott Aniol

About Scott Aniol

Scott Aniol is the founder and Executive Director of Religious Affections Ministries. He is Chair of the Worship Ministry Department at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, where he teaches courses in ministry, worship, hymnology, aesthetics, culture, and philosophy. He is the author of Worship in Song: A Biblical Approach to Music and Worship, Sound Worship: A Guide to Making Musical Choices in a Noisy World, and By the Waters of Babylon: Worship in a Post-Christian Cutlure, and speaks around the country in churches and conferences. He is an elder in his church in Fort Worth, TX where he resides with his wife and three children.

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