May 29, 2013

Why we sing “I have decided to follow Jesus”

by Jesse Johnson

George Beverly Shea

I have decided to follow Jesus” is a polarizing hymn. Made popular by the Billy Graham crusades, it is inseparable from the concept of altar calls and emotional pleading. For some, it stands as a sort of Arminian anthem—a testimony to the power of human volition and an example of all that is wrong with modern Christian lyrics. For others, it is a song celebrating the simplicity of conversion–simple and sincere.

But when you know the story behind the song, you realize that it is not a statement about free will, nor about the ease of placing your faith in Christ. It actually stands as a monument to the international nature of the gospel, as well as a radical call to suffer and die with Jesus.

The late 1800’s saw an evangelistic explosion in India. Entire provinces formally closed to the gospel were swept up a missionary movement perhaps unparalleled in history. Wales in particular sent hundreds of missionaries to Northern India, and they were joined by Indian evangelists, as well as missionaries from England, Australia, and the United States. This movement was remarkable for two reasons; first, it was led mostly by Indians themselves, and those men became national figures.  Second, this missionary endeavor was focused on Northern India, which was firmly in the grips of the most oppressive forms of Hinduism. It was a place where the caste system was entrenched, and where headhunters ruled.   

These provinces often prided themselves on the hostile reaction they gave foreigners. Dozens and dozens of these missionaries were martyred, but despite the opposition and violence (or perhaps because of it) the gospel made inroads into this previously off-limits area.

India flagIn the 1880’s a Welsh missionary who had endured severe persecution finally saw his first converts in a particularly brutal village in the Indian province of Assam. A husband and wife, with their two children, professed faith in Christ and were baptized. Their village leaders decided to make an example out of the husband. Arresting the family, they demanded that the father renounce Christ, or see his wife and children murdered. When he refused, his two children were executed by archers. Given another chance to recant, the man again refused, and his wife was similarly stuck down. Still refusing to recant, the man followed his family into glory.

Witnesses later told the story to the Welsh missionary.  The reports said that when asked to recant or see his children murdered, the man said: “I have decided to follow Jesus, and there is no turning back.”

After seeing his children killed, he reportedly said, “The world can be behind me, but the cross is still before me.” And after seeing his wife pierced by the arrows, he said, “Though no one is here to go with me, still I will follow Jesus.”

Sandhu Sundar Singh

Sandhu Sundar Singh

According to this missionary, when he returned to the village, a revival had broken out, and those that had murdered the first converts and since come to faith themselves. The Welsh man passed along these reports to the famous Indian evangelist Sadhu Singh. Singh had risen to prominence in India because he was training foreign missionaries, and a theme in his teaching had been the necessity of avoiding the cultural trappings of Western Christianity. He insisted that the missionaries now pouring into India focus on the essentials of the gospel while allowing the now vibrant Indian Christian community to develop their own Christian customs.

The accounts of the family that had been martyred in Assam were so astonishing and widely circulated that most Indian believers were familiar with it. So Singh took the martyr’s last words, and put them to traditional Indian music in order to make one of the first uniquely Indian hymns.  The song immediately became popular in Indian churches, and it remains a mainstay of worship music there to this day.

Eventually some of the American missionaries returned from India and they brought that song with them. Finally, it ended up with Canadian song writer George Beverley Shea, and he made it a staple at the Billy Graham crusades.

When viewed through the lens of Calvinism vs. Arminianism, the song seems decidedly about free will. It can easily strike us as singing about our role in salvation, while minimizing the work of God in regeneration. Yet for the Calvinists, it is helpful to know the history, to understand that not all music was written in the context of debates about God’s role vs. people’s work in salvation. In this song, the word “decided” doesn’t have a minimalistic feel to it, but rather has a once-for-all commitment attached to it; a commitment that the author knew would lead to imminent death.

For those that use this song as an emotional manipulator, or as an example of how easy salvation is, they too should be embarrassed. Nothing could be further from the author’s intent. This song does not capture the ease of making a decision, but rather is about the staggering cost of picking up your cross and following after Christ.

This song reminds me of Christian, from The Pilgrim’s Progress. As his neighbors came out to persuade him not to leave the city and press on to the gate for eternal life, Christian put “his fingers in his ears, and ran on, crying ‘Life! Life! Eternal Life!’ So he looked not behind him, but fled towards the middle of the Plain.”

Christian ears running

“The cross before me, the world behind me. No turning back.”


Jesse Johnson

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Jesse is the Teaching Pastor at Immanuel Bible Church in Springfield, VA. He also leads The Master's Seminary Washington DC location.
  • “alter calls”

    Yes! I give those every week! Every preacher should.

    Altar calls? Not so much.

  • Wow, thanks, that was really encouraging and a reminder to judge righteously lest we make fools of ourselves.

  • Thanks, great encouragement and a reminder that we must judge righteously lest we make fools of ourselves.

  • Ray Adams

    Thank you so much for “redeeming” this very fine encouragement of my youth.

  • Blake

    Jesse do you know of any books, about the revivals in India at that time?


    • Bill

      Blake, one of the best bios I have ever read is about William Carey by S. Pearce Carey. It is assured to bless the heart of every believer.

  • Chris Parsons

    The people that should really be embarrassed are those that say that they follow Jesus and lives their lives thinking they are following Jesus, but actually they do not. This includes anyone who calls themselves a Christian and then proceeds to pass ANY TYPE of judgment on others. That’s a sin – no matter how small or big. Like those of you who vehemently profess to others the errors of their ways (i.e. gay marriage, abortion, etc…) and all the while you fall short every single day in your walk with Jesus. Don’t you readily admit that you fall short of God’s glory because you are a sinner? Weren’t you a sinner yesterday, a sinner today and will be a sinner tomorrow. How could you EVER point out the shortcomings of others with conviction and righteousness when you have a million of your own? You criticize and condemn people that believe in the same God you do. No wonder he is losing the battle for lives on this planet.

    How can the author of the article say, “Nothing could be further from the author’s intent.” Do you know the author of the song? Have you met them and discussed the intention and meaning of this song?

    You also say, “When viewed through the lens of Calvinism vs. Arminianism, the song seems decidedly about free will.” What about making it easy and keep to your belief by looking at it through the lens of Jesus. Have you ever tried to think of that? I thought ALL Christians worshipped the same Jesus. If you are following him, why do you let the views of others cloud, corrupt and twist your view of a very simple and loving person who’s message was very clear and ordained by his own words:

    Matthew 22:36-40 36 “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?” 37 Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’[a] 38 This is the first and greatest commandment. 39 And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’[b] 40 All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”

    There is nothing in there about judge your neighbor, criticize your neighbor, call your neighbor a murderer or sinner, hate your neighbor or anything like that. Right from the horses mouth, without any interpretation from Paul, Timothy and whoever else that has twisted the message, is the simple message of a very loving and forgiving God. Right from the horses mouth you get what Jesus answered as being the greatest commandment of all.

    Try working together to glorify his name and not against each other. Perhaps you should consider not being negative, judgmental and irresponsible with your views and knowledge about something many people look to for comfort and support. You turn people away and further divide believers amongst other believers.

    Jesus did not and would not EVER do that. He loved everyone NO MATTER WHAT. He even loved Judas. THAT is the message of Jesus and THAT is what people do when they decide to truly follow Jesus

    • Wow Chris. I mean, just wow. I think you really should go back and read what you wrote, and then read what I wrote. Then ask yourself who is coming off as judgmental? The irony of you critiquing others for being judgmental and harsh, while using waaaay harsher language than I did is sort of surreal. Plus, how you managed to read this post through the lens of “gay marriage” is straight up beyond me.

      I actually had someone ask me today (!) if I have people comment on my blog to criticize my blog for criticizing, and asked me if I thought those people saw the irony of what they were doing. I told him that I hadn’t had one of those kind of comments in a long time. And then four hours later, here we are. So I’ll address his question to you: Do you see the irony of your comment? And (and tell the truth), did you see the irony when you wrote it, or is it only plain now in retrospect?

  • Stephen

    Where did you get this info from? I’m from India, and have always wondered about the back story. All I knew is that it was from Assam.

    • CCEL (which is a journal that describes the origins of classic Christian hymns) had a story about it a few years ago. I also read about it in a book about martyrs (maybe even DC Talk’s Jesus Freaks? I can’t remember now). I’m sure a little snooping around will turn up the right sources. Thanks Stephen.

  • Jim

    Thank you Jesse. It is a blessing to know the story behind this hymn that I remember sining as a young boy in church.

  • Chris Parsons

    Dear Jessie: I know what I wrote. As far as deleting my post, you are allowed to do whatever you want with it. I take no offense to it. I would encourage you to ask yourself, in your heart of hearts, “why did I really take down that response?” Hopefully you will get a truthful response from yourself and one you can learn from. As always, our motives as humans are self-serving so perhaps examine that. What I like to do when someone points something out to me is think about what they are saying and try to be as honest with myself as I can. I like to consider what others have to say after I say it, which is exactly what I did with your email response.

    You discuss the irony being judgmental, but you never address what I posted. I find that interesting. Personally, when someone points out areas where I am absolutely wrong, I get embarrassed. I understand why you deleted my post. I can’t imagine how you felt after I clearly pointed out where you were wrong in a public forum on your own blog. While at times my comment may have been off topic, I pointed out clear violations of misinformation where you state your opinion to be fact. While on the internet you can say whatever you want, I want you to know you are misleading people. That is neither responsible authorship nor journalism. Your “blog” is your point of view. It amazes me how bright and intelligent people can be, yet fail to have any introspection which is vital to anyone, especially when they call themselves a believer.

    A good effort at some consciously inspired introspection might serve you well here. You can not say the person that wrote this song intended it to mean something when you have never, ever discussed the subject with the songwriter. Therefore, your whole argument (or presentation) of what the song is really about is not fact – it is your opinion based on your interpretation of the lyrics and possibly some things you have read about the song. You did not quote the source of your information as if you read it somewhere. Please consider refraining from using statements like: “Nothing could be further from the author’s intent.” You have no idea what the authors intent was.

    When you discuss Calvinism and how other believers may perceive the meaning of that song in a different way, acknowledging there are alternative interpretations of a song that is about the same God you both believe in, followed by stating their perceptions are not in line with what the song is truly about is plain and simple – passing judgment. Perhaps even blasphemy. Someone has to correct you. I can’t help you if you consider someone pointing out you are wrong as being judgmental. I may not have done it as best I could have, but I feel pretty good about my effort.

    My point is: Do you think Jesus cares about what you think the song is about? Or do you think he simply wants everyone to love his father and love each other before we ever consider interpreting the meaning of anything else? Have you ever thought about just living the walk that Jesus did when he was here and not saying anything about anything in regards to him until you are half the man that he was? Does he want you to pick his words apart (he obviously inspired the songwriter) or does he want us just to simply live them? He message was simple, direct and to the point. How can we, as mere mortals, with such a limited understanding of how massive God and his kingdom really are EVER begin to speak as if we know what we are talking about when it comes to anything – especially him. Can you explain how, when and why miracles happen? How can you explain God’s words if you can’t even fully understand him. Most believers will readily admit they are humbled by the magnitude of God and are unable to comprehend his grace, love and forgiveness, nor can they tell you why they even deserve any of it. But you are going to speak with authority on a spiritually uplifting songs about God’s son Jesus? A song that has withstood the test of time (I have never even heard it, probably because I do not go to church) and many people know and have their own personal interpretation of its meaning? Be more responsible with your presentation of God. Jesus can only be seen through one lens – the lens of love. Anytime you differentiate yourself in anyway from other believers, you alienate them from you and you from them. You can’t delete the facts of what I say, but you can delete the words that contain them. I am not saying that I am God or that I am Jesus, but you never know when, where and how Jesus and/or God are going to speak to you. Is that the case here? I dunno, that’s for you to work out with God.

  • pallu

    More about Sadhu Sundar Singh in

  • David Bishop

    Remind me again, how does the story of the murder of an Arminian make the story of the murder of an Arminian about the gospel?

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