One of my biggest beefs is with the modern worship music industry. That’s not really controversial to say in today’s world, and far better commentators than I have written extensively about the different problems that modern corporate worship is facing. Having spent four years at one of the largest Christian music schools in the nation, I know a thing or two about the different conflicts and debates that spring up around Christian worship music.
If you know me at all, you know I don’t take issue with the idea of contemporary worship. Every church I have ever consistently attended has been infused with a contemporary style of worship. Some of my best friends are contemporary worship leaders. I do it myself on occasion. For me, that’s not where the conflict lies. The conflict lies in the dangers that have slipped into the otherwise good thing that is contemporary worship music. There are many, but I want to focus on just one.
One of the most contentious points among those truly passionate about worship music with a heart for the things of God is the issue of the particular words that we use in whatever songs we’re singing. See, here’s the danger. As Christian music started to gain a more and more popular market throughout the 1970s and into the present day, the focus apparently shifted to writing things that would sell rather things that were true. Now, that doesn’t mean everything automatically went off the rails. In fact, I would say the majority of songs sung in worship nowadays could still be considered “in line” with biblical teaching. But most people can almost immediately point out the difference between past hymns and present songs. It’s not that one is heresy while the other is Sacred Tradition. It’s more like the past focuses on the words while the present focuses on the music. The result of this is songs that, while technically correct, are lacking in any sort of substantial theology. And eventually, without solid theology, songs begin to unknowingly incorporate sloppy theology into their lyrics, with the mindset that so long as the sentiment is good, then that’s all that matters.
The most recent example of this paradoxical trend (the better the music, the worse the theology) is Cody Carnes’s latest single “The Cross Has The Final Word.” (If you don’t know Cody Carnes, you probably know his wife, Kari Jobe.) I first encountered this particular song on a friend’s Facebook profile asking people’s opinions of the lyrics. This friend has a healthy criticism of worship songs and only uses them if they meet a certain content standard. One element of that standard is correct theology, and he was unsettled about that song, so he made the rest of us aware of it and his concerns to gauge whether or not he was correct in his initial apprehension. All of this, of course, being seen against the backdrop of Scripture.
It got my gears turning, and I found myself agreeing with his general suspicion, which I will elaborate on in a moment. Then just recently (within the last few days of my writing this), I saw the song come up as a sponsored ad from Carnes’s official FB page. The post is still public if you wish to see/evaluate my response and exchanges.
Here’s my opinion:
In reviewing the song again, I came to the conclusion that the actual line “The cross has the final word” is not only errant theology, but is actually contrary (read: opposite) to the Gospel message. This is not to say that Carnes is out there intentionally preaching a false gospel, but the words he is using to present it are not accurate.
Allow me to elaborate. Perhaps you aren’t familiar with him (he wasn’t very popular in his time), but there was this writer in the first century AD who went by the name Paul of Tarsus. Maybe you know him better as the writer of half the New Testament and essentially the first writer of Christian theology. Ring a bell? Good, we’re on the same page then.
One of those writings that he churned out back in the day was a letter to the church at Corinth concerning different theological disputes and practices that this church was struggling with, a letter now known as 1 Corinthians. (Struggling is an understatement. I had a theology professor describe them as so messed up that even on the off occasion when they actually tried to do something right, they still got it wrong.) One of the issues that the Corinthian church struggled with was the fate of believers who had died before the return of Christ. This church believed that those who had died before the Second Coming had missed out on the establishment of the physical redemption of the world and were thus gone forever. Paul’s passionate response is basically to say that the Corinthians really don’t have any idea what is actually entailed in what they believe (which is sad, because they should have known, since Paul had already told them).
In the penultimate chapter of this letter (ch.15), Paul presents the case for the resurrection of Christ and what it means for the life of believers. In essence, Paul says that if Christ had not been raised, then the dead are without hope, as are the living. But since Christ has been raised (evidenced because Paul, the Apostles, and 500+ other brothers saw Him), then the dead are not without hope, and neither are we. Christ’s resurrection is the nail in death’s coffin. We have nothing to fear for ourselves, nor for those who have gone before us. In fact, in his first letter to the church at Thessalonica, Paul says that not only do the dead have security in their inclusion in the return of Christ, but they will actually have priority over those of us who are still alive when Christ returns. They will be raised and joined with Christ before living believers are taken away to the same gathering.
NT Wright, a brilliant (somewhat controversial) New Testament historian and Anglican bishop, has a short video describing Paul’s intentions with his first letter to the Corinthians. He says it’s very easy to read 1 Corinthians as sort of a laundry list of different theological topics. How to do proper worship, thoughts on head coverings, proper taking of the Lord’s Supper, sexual behavior in the church body, etc. And all of that is covered to an extent. However, underneath it all there is a current in which Paul is encouraging his readers to think in a new way. It’s this new way of thinking that is informing his teachings on all of these different topics. He’s teaching them to think “resurrectionally,” that is, in light of the resurrection of Jesus. To Paul (and every other New Testament writer), the resurrection was the event that changed everything, the lens through which all of the past and the future now had to be re-viewed. This was now the crux of all of human history.
Why do I go into detail about this? What does this have to do with Carnes’s song? Because of how the resurrection is contrasted with the cross.
So much of 1 Corinthians 15 is showing the consequences of the fact that Christ has been raised and is not a victim of the cross. Yes, the cross was the means by which Christ atoned for the sins of the world, but without the resurrection, it is pointless. It was necessary that Christ should be raised from the dead in order that the fullness of redemption might be complete. For it is only by His physical resurrection that we will be physically resurrected. “The last enemy to be destroyed is death.” (15:26) This enemy is destroyed by the Second Coming of Christ in the power of the resurrection which He will give to those who have died in Christ. And Christ can defeat this enemy in all of creation because He has already taken it upon Himself on the cross and annihilated it. The cross did not have the final word.
How was the cross viewed to those who first heard this message? It was a stumbling block due to the abject humiliation and shame that was inherent in its very nature. Philippians 2 follows the path of descent Christ took from the throne of glory to the lowest point imaginable. First “he was in the form of God” (2:6). Then He “emptied himself,” He took on “the form of a servant,” and was “born in the likeness of men.” (2:7). Continually, He makes Himself lower and lower. But it doesn’t stop there. After “being found in human form, he humbled himself [even further!] by becoming obedient to the point of death”. But not just any death, for there are noble deaths, but the lowest forms of death any human could endure, “even death on a cross.” (2:8). But from this point, “God has highly exalted him” in the power of the resurrection (2:9). The cross did not have the final word.
The writer of Hebrews demonstrates that the cross couldn’t have held final power because that’s not why Christ went to it. Why did He endure the cross? “[F]or the joy that was set before him” (12:2). What is that joy? The redemption of humanity and the further glory of God in the restoration of the fallen creation. The cross did not have the final word.
When Christ Himself spoke of carrying our cross in Matthew 10:38 and Luke 14:27, what did He mean? The New English Translation gives the following note:
“It was customary practice in a Roman crucifixion for the prisoner to be made to carry his own cross. Jesus [spoke] figuratively here in the context of rejection. If the priority is not one’s allegiance to Jesus, then one will not follow him in the face of possible rejection.”
And yes, for most of us it is figurative language. The threat of crucifixion is mostly far removed from our context. Yet, I believe Jesus’ followers remembered these words as they saw Him literally carrying His cross to Golgotha. And perhaps they asked themselves, “Are we willing to be rejected even so much as to literally carry our cross to follow this man?” What makes such a thing bearable and worth the price? The cause of Christ does, which is the redemption of the world through the power of the resurrection. The cross did not have the final word.
I know Cody Carnes understands the importance of the resurrection. I know that he is not trying to demonstrate the supremacy of the cross to the resurrection. But in understanding the mindset of the biblical writers in their passionate treatises describing just how horrid the cross was for Christ (and how it is our deserved penalty) and just how revolutionary and overwhelming the power of the resurrection is, I can’t imagine even considering using the phrase “the cross has the final word.” Because even if what is meant is that the action of Christ on the cross had the final word over sin and death, that action and victory is represented far more in the resurrection of the Savior, not in His death. We look back at the crucifixion as a paradoxically glorious thing (and the cross itself as a symbol of that) in light of the resurrection. And even then, when we see the glory of God on the cross, we are seeing it because of Who is on it, not because of the thing itself. God’s glory is His alone, and the means with which He displays it cannot be conflated with the glory itself. God’s glory is fully revealed on the cross, yes. But I would think twice before saying His glory is in the cross. His glory is in Himself and in the redemption of His people through Himself, which was accomplished on the cross and demonstrated in the resurrection.
Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross is a glorious thing, but it means nothing without the resurrection. The glory of God on the cross should not be diminished for the overwhelmingly terrifying, beautiful, and powerful thing that it is, but we cannot make the leap to saying the cross has the final word, because it didn’t, and Christ’s victory over the cross and all it represented proves that. It has been transformed into a symbol of power because of Christ’s victory over it, what happened in spite of all it stood for.
Even when Paul speaks of the power of the cross of Christ in 1 Cor. 1:17, he speaks of the simple message of a crucified Savior as opposed to eloquent presentations. Just in the next verse, he shows that what happened on the cross is the representation of the power of God. Why? Because we know the whole story. The power of the cross here is the power of the truth of its message, that is, the whole message. Truly, without the sacrifice of the cross, there would be no possibility of redemption, but again the complete picture requires the resurrection, which Paul places at the heart of Christianity in chapter 15, for without it having the final word over the death so clearly seen on the cross of Christ, the cross becomes nothing. The cross is necessary, central, and powerful. All was accomplished there. But it is not the final word because it’s only the first half of the picture. Just saying “the cross has the final word,” at it’s heart, just isn’t enough.
And this isn’t a matter of semantics either. The words we use to reflect the truth are crucial to the preservation of that truth.
One of my favorite examples of this was in the heat of the Arian controversy in the 4th century AD. Arianism basically taught that Jesus, God the Son, was not an eternal being on equal grounds and substance with the Father, as the church had taught from the beginning, but was instead a created being similar to the Father. Divine, but not always divine. One of the ways this was expressed was by Eusebius with the word “homoiousios” which means “of a similar substance.” The competing term, and the orthodox Christian understanding as affirmed by the Council of Nicaea, was “homoousios” which means “of the same substance.” The difference between heresy and orthodoxy here is literally one letter, in this case the Greek letter iota (which is where the expression “not one iota” comes from). So why the big fuss? It’s one little letter. Yes, but that one little letter, if added, denied the traditional understanding of the Trinity and undercut the efficacy and purpose of Christ’s sacrifice and ultimately the Gospel itself and the salvation it carries.
Correct phrasing is key to the preservation of correct teaching. Christ Himself demonstrated this when He proved the reality of the resurrection to the Sadducees (who didn’t believe in it) by using their own Scriptures in Matthew 22. He referenced Exodus when God spoke to Moses and said “I am the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob” (paraphrased). Why, Jesus asked, would God say that He is the God of people who aren’t around anymore because they’re dead? No, in fact, God said He is the God of those men because He still is, meaning Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob aren’t gone forever. They still exist and will be raised at the last day. One little word undercut an entire false theology. The fact that God foresaw this event and saw fit to include that particular phrasing is (1) testament to His sovereignty and (2) an example to us that we should actively secure correct teaching in correct wording before it gets out of hand.
The real difficulty with Carnes’s song, as an anonymous professional pointed out to me, is that you can spin the lyric to represent whatever element you want. If “the cross” can mean “the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus” then it’s alright. But as I’ve hopefully shown above, that’s not all that is garnered from this phrase, and it devolves into sloppy theology bordering on heresy.
Cody Carnes’s wording of “the cross has the final word” is incorrect, if only unintentionally so. It undercuts the message of the rest of the song and the rest of Christian theology as a whole. I understand that Cody does not intend for this to be the case. The other lines of this song stand in stark contradiction to this phrase, which evinces to me that he either did not fully understand what this phrase entailed, or didn’t think through its implications. He sees it as meaning that the finality of Christ’s work is the end of our guilt and shame, which is a comforting follow up to lines like “evil may put up its strongest fight” or “sorrow may come in the darkest night”. But the fact of the matter is “the cross has the final word” doesn’t convey that message, whatever meaning you may intend to infuse it with. It’s incorrect. The wording and the message is wrong.
We cannot play fast and loose with the wording of our theology, especially in times of corporate worship. The world is watching and waiting for us to slip up, which is why we have to maintain the core truths of our identity. Our message has to be inseparable from the teachings of Scripture. If we don’t consider the implications of different lines that we use, we can end up unintentionally misrepresenting the message of the Gospel. Obviously at times, context clues can shed light on what is meant by difficult phrases, and that is how I know any misrepresentation Carnes’s song may make is unintentional. However in this instance, context clues are not enough to justify the use of a phrase that is contrary to the victory of the resurrection and the message of the Gospel.