December 6, 2012

The Gospel According to Christmas Carols

by Nathan Busenitz

Latin_CarolIt’s that time of year. Turn on the radio, take a trip to the mall, or simply stroll down the aisles of the local grocery store, and you’re likely to hear songs about Jesus’ birth playing in the background. Though we call them “Christmas carols,” they are really just Christian hymns celebrating the incarnation of our Lord and Savior. For a few weeks each December, these profound songs of worship become a ubiquitous part of the holiday atmosphere. And our society’s pervasive interest in them provides us with a unique opportunity to share the gospel. After all, it’s the perfect time to explain the meaning of these songs to those who don’t know Christ.

Today’s blog post is just one example of how the content of Christmas carols can be used to share the good news of the gospel. It is adapted from an evangelistic message I put together a couple holiday seasons ago. Whether you follow a format like this or not, be sure to make the most of this Christmas season — sharing the truth of God’s grace with unbelieving friends and family.

* * * * *

The carols that we sing each year do such a magnificent job of underscoring who Jesus is and why He came. It makes me sad, really, when I hear secular musicians singing Christmas carols; the irony strikes me about how these musicians, who make no claim to believe in Jesus, sing these beautiful songs about His birth. And the reality is that they have no idea what they are singing about. Perhaps you are in a similar place, familiar with the tunes of the great Christmas carols because you’ve heard them every winter season. But you’ve never stopped to consider their lyrics. Let’s consider some of these great songs and the profound truths they proclaim.

1. In O Holy Night, we are reminded that the world was “in sin and error pining,”  wasting away until our dear Savior “appeared and the soul felt [the] worth” of His salvation.

2. In God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen, tidings of comfort and joy come from knowing that “Jesus Christ our Savior” was born “to save us all from Satan’s power, when we were gone astray.”

Human beings, guilty of disobedience and rebellion against God, are enslaved to sin. They face God’s wrath against them. The Bible says that “All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God,” and that “the wages of sin is death” including eternal separation from God. But, “God so loved the world that He sent His only begotten Son, that whosoever believes in Him, shall not perish but have everlasting life.”

3. In Hark the Herald Angels Sing, we learn that only through “the new born King” can “God and sinners [be] reconciled.” We are also reminded that Jesus, being God, took on human flesh. “Christ, by highest heaven adored; Christ the everlasting Lord; . . . Veiled in flesh the Godhead see, Hail the incarnate Deity.” These words echo the words of the Apostle Paul who wrote that “there is one God, and one mediator also between God and men,” the Lord Jesus Christ. “God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself”—providing a way of salvation for those who deserve nothing more than God’s condemnation.

4. There are many Christmas carols, of course, that speak of Christ’s birth: Away in a Manger, O Little Town of Bethlehem, Go Tell It on the Mountain, and others emphasize the very heart of Christmas – the birth of the Messiah.

But Jesus did not stay a baby in the manger. The reason we celebrate His birth is (1) because of who He is – the Son of God – and (2) because of what He came to do – to save His people from their sins.

Because God is holy, He must punish sin. If sin is to be forgiven, it must be covered by an adequate sacrifice. The carols we sing at Christmas remind us that Jesus Christ was born to be that perfect sacrifice. In other words, He came to die.

5. The words of What Child Is This? underscore this truth beautifully. In the second verse, we find these lyrics: “Nails, spear shall pierce Him through, the Cross be borne for me [and] for you.” When Christ died on the Cross, He paid the penalty for sin for all those who would believe in Him.

Quoting Paul again, in his letter to the Colossians, we read this about those who have trusted Jesus Christ. “When you were dead in your transgressions and [sins], [God] made you alive together with [Christ], having forgiven us all our transgressions, having canceled out the certificate of debt consisting of decrees against us . . . ; and He has taken it out of the way, having nailed it to the cross.”

6. The last verse of The First Noel reiterates this point: “Then let us all with one accord, sing praises to our heavenly Lord, [who] hath made heaven and earth of nought, And with His blood mankind hath bought.”

The very God who created the world out of nothing, is the same God who makes salvation, forgiveness, and eternal life possible through Jesus Christ.

Of course, Jesus Christ did not stay in the tomb; He rose again on the third day, demonstrating that He had truly defeated sin and death. Forty days after His resurrection, He ascended to heaven where He now sits at His Father’s right hand.  By paying sin’s penalty and defeating its power, Jesus Christ alone makes salvation available to all who will believe in Him as their Lord and Savior.

7. The fact that sinful men and women can experience peace with God (and subsequently peace on earth) when they really deserve death is the essence of grace. That’s why the author of Silent Night could pen these words, “Radiant beams from Thy holy face, with the dawn of redeeming grace.”

Redeeming grace is why Jesus came. It is why He died; so that through Him, sinful men and women might be reconciled and restored to God. The message of Christmas brings sinners to a crossroads, where they must deal with the Person of Jesus Christ. Will you accept Him as Savior and embrace Him as Lord ? Or will you dismiss His claim on your life and reject the salvation He offers?

He is the only way of salvation. As the apostle Peter proclaimed about Jesus: “There is salvation in no one else; for there is no other name under heaven that has been given among men by which we must be saved.”

8. The well-known carol Joy to the World exhorts its listeners with these words: “Let earth receive her King; let every heart prepare Him room,” meaning that each person is called to embrace Jesus Christ, as both Savior and King.

9. The very title of O Come Let Us Adore Him underscores the worshipful attitude that characterizes all those who truly trust in Him. And Angels We Have Heard on High exhorts one and all to “come, adore on bended knee, Christ, the Lord, the new-born King.” The Word of God calls every person to embrace the Lord Jesus Christ – believing in Him, trusting in His sacrifice, and submitting to His authority in life.

10.  So what will you do with Jesus Christ this Christmas season? Will you ignore Him? Will you dismiss Him? Will you sing the songs of Christmas without thinking about the very words you are singing? Or will you embrace Him for who He truly is — no longer a little baby born in a stable in Bethlehem — but the risen and exalted Son of God who died for sin and rose again and now sits at the right hand of His Father in heaven. He Himself said, “I am the way the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me.”

If you have not come to a saving knowledge of the Lord Jesus Christ, having never been reconciled to God, let me extend to you the Bible’s invitation to embrace the true gift of Christmas. It is the gift God gave to the world — namely, His Son.

The Lord Jesus promises forgiveness, salvation, and eternal life to all who will come to Him: “All whom the Father gives Me will come to Me. And the one who comes to Me, I will certainly not cast out.” The gospel of John reiterates that promise, “He who believes in the Son has eternal life; but he who does not obey the Son will not see life, but the wrath of God abides on him.”

The Apostle Paul summed up the good news of salvation with these words: “If you confess with your mouth Jesus as Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved.”

With these truths in mind, I love the words of the second verse of Angels from the Realms of Glory. They serve as a fitting conclusion:

Sinners, wrung with true repentance,

Doomed for guilt to endless pains,

Justice now revokes the sentence,

Mercy calls you; break your chains.

Come and worship, come and worship,

Worship Christ, the newborn King.

Nathan Busenitz

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Nathan serves on the pastoral staff of Grace Church and teaches theology at The Master's Seminary in Los Angeles.
  • kevin2184

    Great post, Nathan. I remember singing “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” after coming to saving faith and being truly amazed at the theology contained in that hymn. I must have sung it countless times as a kid, but it was when sung as a believer, did the words truly have meaning for me.

  • Scott Fuemmeler

    I really like O Holy Night….I just wish our English version was more faithful to the original French “Cantique de Noël”. It’s magnificent.

    More directly related to the post, it always amazes me how easy it is to gloss over the massive amounts of truth contained in these songs. It would be profitable to use them year-round!

  • One of the interesting things I’ve learned about some of the Christmas songs is that there can be some disturbing back stories. “It came upon a midnight clear” (which, oddly, is in the Trinity hymnal) was written by a Unitarian, and you can pick that up from the fact that the hymn makes no mention of God or Jesus (the focus is all just on angels singing happy messages about “peace” and “goodwill”).

    • Paul Ellsworth

      It Came Upon a Midnight Clear is a strange, strange song. Strangest, perhaps, is that it ends not with salvation, but with the world singing the “angels’ song.” You’re right, it was written by a Unitarian.

      Many Christmas songs have a flaws. Aside from many being basically simple narratives or poetic expressions of Jesus in the manger (Away in the Manger, Angels We Have Heard on High…)…

      The First Noel has the Shepherds seeing the same star the wise men/magi saw and the magi at the birth, the English version of O Holy Night has some rather confusing phrases (“the soul felt its worth” – what does “it” refer to? the third verse has some missing elements … chains of what did he break?)

      Many of the carols were just that – carols – not hymns. The “hymn” ones, written by hymn writers, seem to often be much better – e.g., Hark! The Herald Angels Sing, Angels From the Realms of Glory (with the exception of some end times theology in there that one may not agree with), Joy to the World (which ends with the 2nd advent, not the 1st).

      There are modern Christmas hymns that, I think, have a lyrics that offer much more food for thought. One that I have especially come to like is Glory Be to God (Sovereign Grace Music). Many Christmas carols focus intently on the shepherds, the angels, and the manger… to the exclusion of, often, any delving into the awe of how God could possibly be born (Hark! The Herald […] does go into that somewhat – “hail th’incarnate deity […]”).

      To summarize, we should always be looking for good songs and not sing ones simply because they’re familiar, nostalgic, or traditional… and be wary that poetry does not equate to profundity (e.g., “Angels we have heard on high sweetly singing o’er the plains; and the mountains, in reply, echo back their joyous strains:” … the entire first first basically says that angels sang [which we’re not sure of 🙂 ] and loudly [which we’re also not sure of, I don’t think?]). My concern is that we often … “force” ourselves to sing mediocre Christmas songs simply because new songs don’t sound or feel like a Christmas song.

      Allll that said … Nathan’s post was regarding evangelism, and it’s very likely that Joe Jones on the street knows a smattering of Christmas carols, but not Christmas hymns… so the post is well taken in that respect. 🙂

    • Paul Ellsworth

      After further discussion and subsequent study with my wife … O Holy Night, the English version that we sing, was also written by a Unitarian.


    Thank you for this post and reminding us of evangelistic opportunities

  • threegirldad

    I really appreciate the thought and effort that went into this post. Very edifying.

    Scott Fuemmeler wrote:

    I really like O Holy Night….I just wish our English version was more faithful to the original French “Cantique de Noël”.

    I’ve loved that hymn all my life. But as Dan Phillips pointed out a few years ago, the lyrics are somewhat of a mixed bag, theologically speaking–and not by accident, it turns out.

  • I agree that this is an excellent post, Nate. Thanks for taking the time to weave all those wonderful themes together through their lyrics.

    During a season that tends to be so dampened by familiarity, this is a wonderful way to spur us all on to worship — as we sing these songs in church and even hum them as the 25th gets closer.

    Mild, He lays His glory by,
    Born that man no more may die,
    Born to raise the sons of Earth,
    Born to give them second birth!

    What richness!

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  • Thank you!! God allowed me to read this at the seniors Christmas Carol sing time this morning. 14 (at least) senior people heard the Gospel loud and clear.