Melodies of Sin and Salvation: Why Modern Worship Music Needs a More Holistic View of Salvation
I have Cebu, Philippines, stuck in my head like a song—a little fragment of melody that keeps playing on a loop.
I traveled this summer to Cebu with My Refuge House (MRH), an organization that seeks to restore survivors of commercial sexual exploitation and abuse. Our small group spent a week at MRH’s campus learning about the human trafficking industry, connecting with community partners in the Philippines, and spending time with the girls MRH cares for. I went on the trip as a storyteller—someone who knew very little about MRH’s work before getting on the plane to Cebu, but who would bear witness to the redemptive work God is doing.
Our group got to visit MRH during a special time: their 10-year anniversary. Some of the girls learned a song to sing at their anniversary celebration, and the Americans who were teaching them had chosen one of 2018’s most popular worship songs: “Reckless Love.” I can’t sing to save my life, so I was mostly hovering around the circle, listening as the girls learned all the words. When they sang the bridge, I sat in the grass behind them and wept. “There’s no shadow you won’t light up, mountain you won’t climb up, coming after me. There’s no wall you won’t kick down, lie you won’t tear down, coming after me.”
I’d sang the song a thousand times—in my car, from the back pew at church, humming along while I studied at my seminary library—but I had never thought too deeply about it. The girls learning this song had faced shadows and mountains I couldn’t dream of. For many of them, the walls preventing them from freedom had been literal, not figurative.Our worship should teach us to long for more than our individual salvation, but to long for the redemption of the whole world. Our worship should form in us a desire and a hope for holistic redemption, a desire and a hope that will very likely lead us to seek glimpses of that redemption here and now.
I spent that week learning about commercial sexual exploitation in the Philippines—the factors that cause it (poverty, desperation, lack of resources and education), the state-run facilities in the Philippines overflowing with girls as young as infants, and the therapy and community engagement that MRH is doing to seek redemption. “Reckless Love” is a beautiful song, but in that moment, that idea that God would light up shadows, climb up mountains, and kick down walls “for me” was far too small. There were deeply systemic issues at play here, and I found myself desperate to believe that Jesus’ death lit up all the shadows, not just mine. I wanted to sing that he had kicked down all the walls in the world, torn down every lie, and defeated the powers of death and darkness for once and for all.
The girls at MRH have been sinned against by individuals, but their situation is also the result of systemic sin. Poverty, the subjugation of women, and the worldwide perversion of human sexuality are all systemic issues that exist in a fallen world. They are not merely the results of individual sins racked up over time, they are the result of the active work of evil in the world. There is something bigger going on than merely the sin in every human heart; there is an Enemy at work that seeks to disrupt and destroy, and one of the means he uses is infecting our cultures, nations, and systems with evil.
“Reckless Love” is a beautiful song, and there’s something incredibly important about the Parable of the Lost Sheep that the song references. Yet like many modern worship songs, the lyrics are fairly individualistic. Many of the songs we sing focus on individual salvation, far fewer focus on the cosmic work of redemption that Jesus’ death and resurrection accomplished. When we want to sing about the power of Christ’s death and resurrection, we often reach for ideas about our individual liberation, the weight of our own sin, or restoring individual broken hearts. These are important messages, but it’s worth considering whether we’ve allowed the individual implications of God’s redemptive work to overshadow the systemic implications.
Our worship songs are formative—the things we repeatedly sing in community become the way we speak, think, and act. These songs are the rhythms that are intended to bleed outside of the sanctuary and influence our whole lives. While many of these songs still proclaim truth and beauty, this individualistic focus is reflective of the way evangelicals often, and sometimes almost exclusively, talk about sin.
A couple weeks after my trip, I heard a sermon on the parable of the money lender in Luke 7:36–50. A Pharisee invites Jesus to dinner, but a woman “who lives a sinful life” interrupts the party to anoint Jesus. When the Pharisee objects (in his thoughts), Jesus tells him the parable of two people who both owed a money lender some money. One owed much more than the other, but the lender forgives the debts of both. Jesus asks the Pharisee which person would love the money lender more, and he correctly answers, “the one who had the bigger debt canceled.” The parable represents the very real scenario playing out in front of Jesus: someone who thinks they have very little debt fails to truly recognize the Savior of the world dining at his table, but a woman the whole town identifies by her sin sees Jesus for who He is.
The sermon encouraged us to deepen our understanding of our own sin in order to more fully understand the depth of God’s grace. While the pastor is certainly right that we don’t often understand the gravity of our sin, I couldn’t help but wonder if another reason we don’t appreciate Jesus’ work on the cross is because of exactly the focus he was encouraging. So much of our worship—the songs we sing, the sermons we listen to, or the prayers we pray—focuses on sin as individual acts of wrongdoing. Maybe instead of trying harder to feel worse about our own sin, our whole understanding of sin needs to change.
You can’t wander through a cramped building housing dozens of sex trafficking victims and not ache for a day when God sets everything right. You can’t learn about the way poverty, colonialism, and misogyny intersect and reinforce each other to produce widespread exploitation of women and not believe that sin is a power at work in the world.
Part of deepening our understanding of our own sin is understanding those systems and the part we play in them. The proud religious leader was not only unaware of his own individual sin (though that’s certainly true), he was also unaware of the way he was implicated in the systemic sins around him. He was a moral person, following the law carefully and instructing others in how to follow it. And yet he was missing the systemic sins of his culture: the subjugation of women, the exploitation of the poor, the arrogance of religious leaders. I can’t know what this man’s individual sins were, but I do know that he was—as we all are—a participant in a broken world. And just like many of us, he was a beneficiary of some of that brokenness. As a powerful religious leader, he benefited from the systemic sin that kept women who “lived sinful lives” from experiencing redemption and restoration. He gained power by upholding interpretations of the law that marginalized women and other social outcasts. He may never have individually sinned against this woman, but he benefited from a broken world that gave him outsized power, often at others’ expense.
When you’re confronted with broken and perverted systems, the hope of Jesus dying on the cross for your individual sins doesn’t seem very satisfying. When you are educated about the desperation poverty brings, the difficulty of working with law enforcement, and the deep marks of colonialism on a nation, you find new hope in Revelation 21:5: “Behold, I am making everything new!”
The MRH campus is a glimpse of this newness: it’s a gorgeous little slice of land in Cebu, dotted by blue cottages and filled with stories of redemption. Each girl and staff member has an individual story, but together they are a community of redemption. Any time spent with them gives you a taste of the kind of holistic redemption we are aching and waiting for.
Our understanding of sin is formed by the sermons we listen to, but it’s also (perhaps more strongly) formed by the songs that get stuck in our head. The songs we sing together work their way into our thinking, give us language to use, and anchor more abstract propositional concepts in rhyme, imagery, and melody. Perhaps our music even gives us insight into the theology we wouldn’t explicitly acknowledge but has worked its way deeply into our thinking.
In light of the formative power of our worship, we must reflect on the theology in all aspects of it – our music, our prayers, our preaching, our liturgy. Our worship teaches us what to want, and it teaches us what to hope for. Our worship should teach us to long for more than our individual salvation, but to long for the redemption of the whole world. Our worship should form in us a desire and a hope for holistic redemption, a desire and a hope that will very likely lead us to seek glimpses of that redemption here and now.
I went on this trip to tell a story, but it turned out that the story unfolding in Cebu is the same story we find in Scripture: even in a deeply broken world under the influence of the power of sin, the inbreaking kingdom of God beckons, inviting us to create glimpses of that coming redemption.
Thoughtfully and Beautifully written. Please continue to share your thoughts.
I am also studying theology (ThM) at Regent College, Canada from Nagaland, India
Thank you Kaitlyn for your helpful contribution to the ongoing conversation about what makes for music that builds up the church and its many members. I have shared your article with others.
Here is some food for further thought. You reflect on “the systemic sins of…culture” and rightly, I think, point out that those of us with power (you might easily have said privilege) often benefit at others expense from the sins of the culture. You call your readers to consider broken “systems and the part we play in them.” I mean no rebuke, and I’m not even saying this is your perspective, but my experience with lots of folks who share your concern is a tendency either to judge other believers for not “checking their privilege,” or to fall right back into overly-personalizing corporate repentance (e.g., confessing someone else’s sins as one’s own), which is, I think, just an extension of the very self-focused pattern you are calling us out on.
“The systemic sins of the culture” is foremost a problem of “sin,” not sins. My sin, and the sin (sinfulness) of the world, has been baked in ever since “we all died in Adam” and “we all died in sin.” Apart from redemption by, in, and through the death, resurrection, ascension, and future return of Christ (God the Son), there is no hope for restoring the sin drenched, broken culture that the Bible calls “the world.” I certainly have to deal with my own personal sins before God. (Ps. 51 is a wonderful template.) And that we are called to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with our God is sure. But part of walking with humility is to realize that to eradicate sin from the world is not our personal or corporate mandate; it is Christ’s and his alone.
Making, singing, and promoting music that celebrates the majesty of God (past, present, and future), his eternal purpose to have a people (not just a collection of persons), and his never ending provision for his broken creatures (collectively, not just personally), especially through the gift of life by the death and resurrection of his Son, is indeed worthy of our pursuit.
Thanks again for writing.
That is interesting that music gives us sight in theology. Maybe it would be good to start listening to Christian music. That is something I would want to look into soon.
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