Songwriting Tip: Pursue Doctrinal Accuracy

Every word in a worship song should be doctrinally accurate.

Worship songs can teach, declare and celebrate the truth of who God is and what he’s done for us in Christ.  They should help us dwell richly on the word of Christ:

Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God (Co 3:16).

Our worship songs should be full of truth about Jesus’ character and deeds.  Therefore we want to make every word as doctrinally accurate as possible.

This is challenging because songs are poetic – they use metaphors, pictures, and colorful language, like the Psalms.  But our metaphors must be clear and biblically accurate.  I really like Delirious and our church has been blessed by a number of their songs, but I don’t know what they mean by these lyrics from Did You Feel the Mountains Tremble:

Did you feel the mountains tremble?
Did you hear the oceans roar?
When the people rose to sing of
Jesus Christ the risen one

Open up the doors and let the music play
Let the streets resound with singing
Songs that bring your hope
Songs that bring your joy
Dancers who dance upon injustice

Although these lyrics are great poetically, I don’t know what they mean (of course, I could just be dense). But is this song about this age?  Or the millenium?  Or heaven?  What do they mean by “Dancers who dance upon injustice”?  When did the mountains tremble and oceans roar?

Once a man I didn’t know called me about one word in a song of mine that had been published.  One word!  The line of the song was, “If you make righteous, who can then accuse us?”  He said that technically, God doesn’t “make” us righteous – he “declares” us to be righteous.  He “imputes” Christ’s righteousness to us, but we never become righteous in and of ourselves.

My first thought was, “Picky, picky, picky!”  But I checked with another pastor who confirmed the man’s point.

“But if I change it to ‘You’ve declared us righteous’ that will be too many syllables – it won’t fit the rhyme scheme,” I said.  My friend responded, “Truth affects peoples’ lives.  We don’t want people thinking that somehow they can ever be righteous apart from Christ’s righteousness.   Better the song be a little less easy to sing than doctrinally inaccurate.”

He was right.  I changed the words of the song to “You’ve declared us righteous.”  The line wasn’t quite as easy to sing, but it was more accurate.

Be diligent.  Be ruthless.  Make sure every word and metaphor is clear and accurate.  Get your pastor to look at your lyrics.  And read sound theological books like Bible Doctrine by Wayne Grudem.  It matters what we sing.

Photo by Xoe Craft

Comments

  1. lisa says

    Thank you SO MUCH for your commitment in this area, Mark! Funny (!) you should post on this. As I was having my quiet time this morning, I was thinking about you and Stephen (I was listening to/singing one of your songs at the time). Here's what I was musing on: A good leader (parent, teacher, pastor…) leads by instruction and by example. You and Stephen, with these biblically accurate lyrics, are doing both. We are provoked by your example of heartfelt, passionate worship of our awesome God, and you are teaching us doctrinal truth about WHY we should be so expressively passionate about what God has done for us in Jesus. This is true of all the SG songwriters, of course, but you guys are kind of our favorites. :-) (Joe, too — he just does this in other ways.) Very grateful for you guys. When we first encountered SG music, after a diet of music that was somewhat so-so theologically (with some exceptions — some good, some downright INaccurate), it was like the difference between Chuck E. Cheese pizza and a Ruth's Chris Steak. Thanks for making this a priority.

    • MarkAltrogge says

      Thanks so much for your kind words, Lisa. I have so many to be grateful for that I even know these things – if it weren't for the teaching we've received I'm sure we'd be writing songs with some pretty poor doctrine. In my early days, some of my songs weren't that doctrinally astute… anyway, thank you again for your gracious encouragement.

      • lisa says

        Yeah, isn't that why you wrote verse two to "I Stand in Awe" (after some amount of time had passed)? Not that the first verse was lame or untrue or anything, but you wanted to get that cross in there somewhere… love it.

        • MarkAltrogge says

          Yes in a way – I was contacted by a guy who wanted to use the song with a choir for an Easter project, and asked if I could write a second verse that would relate to Easter somehow. But in God's providence, by that time, I had received much teaching from Sovereign Grace, Piper, Spurgeon and others about the gospel and the cross, so I wrote v2 on the cross…

  2. MarkAltrogge says

    Hi David, I'm assuming you mean "How He Loves" by David Crowder.

    Did David Crowder actually write this song? At any rate, I totally respect David Crowder and he's done some great songs.

    As far as this song goes…Very poetic and powerful images. I think some of the poetry is a little bit on the edge for me…for example, "We are his portion" – Christians are God's people, his flock, his beloved – but are we God's portion? I wouldn't feel comfortable with that one. God is his own portion, if you want to put it that way. Also, "Drawn to redemption by grace in his eyes" – it's true God draws us by his grace, but bringing in the metaphor of "grace in his eyes" isn't clear to me, though I think I know what he means.

    "Heaven meets earth like an unforeseen kiss and my heart turns violently inside of my chest." I assume he's talking about how surprising God's love is. I would rather focus on how amazing and surprising the cross is.

    Overall, poetic lyrics like these work better in performance songs than worship songs for me. In a concert an artist can explain his song if he desires to. When I think about doing a song like this in our church, I think it would take too much explaining…I don't think it is doctrinally clear enough.

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