Inspired by the critical efforts of Jonathan Aigner, we recently began a series on popular contemporary Christian worship songs, comparing them with more traditional work and seeing how and whether they measure up to the standard set by examples of earlier Christian art, namely music and poetry (though focusing more on the poetry aspect–I’m no expert in music. I’m just a lowly tuba player). In the first post we looked at ‘Our God,’ which was followed by a discussion on Psalm 29. We continue this series by looking now at ‘One Thing Remains,’ and then at a traditional hymn, both of which purport to be about the love of God.
Before I begin, I want to note that two different lists of CCM songs that, according to the authors, need to be mixed, have only two songs in common, and this is one of them! For those of you who are interested, I’m linking to these lists here & here, and will include the lists (but not the authors’ respective rationales) at the bottom of the post.
On ‘One Thing Remains,’ the first list author Corrie Mitchell writes, ‘It’s not necessarily that there’s anything wrong with this song, but it provides so little in the way of theological depth. It’s not that every song should spell out the gospel in its entirety, but there’s something irksome about songs that seem intended to make us feel, to simply incite that euphoric worship experience, that spiritual high. It almost seems cheap . . . or fake.’
In the second list, Aigner writes of the same song, ‘That “Jesus-Is-My-Girlfriend” label is often unfair criticism, but in this song, it holds. There’s no mention of Jesus or any other member of the Trinity. We’re just left with a couple phrases that might be part of our sacred jargon (“power of the grave,” “debt is paid”). Just who are we talking about? There is a time for repetition, and we’re often reminded of the examples of the psalmist in Psalm 100 and Psalm 150. But this doesn’t seem like good repetition. It’s not part of a rich litany. It doesn’t seem to have a didactic function (Remember – Unlike the Carly Simon classic, we still don’t know who this song is about!). It seems like it repeats the same thing over and over again because the lyricist literally had nothing else to say. And so we ride a wave of “Your love never fails, never gives up, never runs out” until the end.’
Let’s take our own closer look at the text.
‘One Thing Remain’s (Johnson, Gifford, Riddle)
NB: verses/refrains marked by symbols so as to render more easily the order in which the lyrics are sung in the sample video.
*Higher than the mountains that I face
Stronger than the power of the grave
Constant through the trial and the change
One thing remains
One thing remains
**Your love never fails it never gives up it never runs out on me X3
^On and on and on and on it goes
It overwhelms and satisfies my soul
And I never ever have to be afraid
One thing remains
^^In death and in life I’m confident and covered by the power of your great love
My debt is paid there’s nothing that can separate my heart from your great love
When I first did an internet search for the lyrics to this song, a Jesus Culture album feature popped up on the right side of the screen, with track listings. This song’s duration was a whopping 8 minutes, 37 seconds. Fortunately for me, the Youtube videos run about 5 minutes long. Given the unstructured nature of the text, and the fact that it doesn’t seem feasible that singing it through once would take even the lower estimate of 5 minutes, there must be some repeats in there; we’ll look at one of the posted Youtube lyrics videos and see what happens…
As I listened to the above-linked video, I took note of which sections were sung, in what order, and how many times, along with some points of style: *, **, instrumental, ^ (rocky), **, instrumental/percussion, ^^, **, (then there’s some apparent improv—words here are not in the listed lyrics), ^; it ends with one of the singers calling out, ‘Your grace never fails’.
The melody is inconsistent…and aimless. Without all the instrumental support, how could a congregation possibly sing this?
But let’s get right to the meat of things: the first three lines, at least, are related to each other in terms of structure. There’s an adjective, twice in a comparative form, and something to which the ‘one thing’ is compared. I’m not sure what the mountains are supposed to be, since it’s the opening line and one can’t be certain if the obstacle is literal or figurative. Also, the poetry is not exactly my favorite, but these three lines together do have more going for them than anything in ‘Our God’.
More puzzling is the titular line, ‘One thing remains.’ This has a 1 Cor.13:13 ring to it, especially with the well-known NIV translation, which uses ‘remain’ rather than, say ‘abide’: ‘And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.’ Nice—I will assume for the purpose of our discussion that this verse is the inspiration for the title & theme of the song. Scriptural basis is good.
BUT. First—it seems strange to take inspiration from the first part of the verse, using the word ‘remains,’ only to ignore the other two virtues in favor of skipping to the second part which is not articulated in the text of the song. The close of verse 13 use the superlative form of the adjective for love, but without anything to which to compare love (such as faith and hope), it of course makes sense that there would be no declaration of love as ‘the greatest.’ ‘One thing remains’ is rather an incomplete picture.
Second, Paul in the preceding verses of 1 Cor. 13 has been discussing love in the church, the love of Christians for other Christians. This follows a comparison of love to spiritual gifts in vv.1-3. Of course, the church’s love flows from the outworking of the Holy Spirit, and without the love of God for His people, there is no love between His people. But the contemporary song uses this phrase to refer to God’s love (well, ish–God is never actually mentioned; see Aigner’s commentary on this point), which not only turns the meaning of the scripture reference; it also goes further than most songs in terms of limiting focus on few or one of God’s attributes. ‘One thing remains’ doesn’t just concentrate on God’s love—implicit in this line is a focus on God’s love to the exclusion of all else. As Dr. James White has pointed out in his podcast, the four creatures around the throne in Revelation 4 are not declaring, ‘Love, love, love!’
While the theme is God’s love, so far introduced by ‘one thing remains’ at the end of *, and confirmed in **, we do not sing about what God’s love means, that is, what He has done or how He has demonstrated His love. Rather, the praise of God’s love focuses on the experiential—it never fails (another reference to 1 Cor. 13?), it never ‘runs out on me.’ The singer’s experience of this amorphous love continues in ^. The first line of ^ doesn’t say much. Is God’s love a leaky faucet, or a talking doll with a design flaw? The next two lines about overwhelming and satisfying of one’s soul, and the lack of fear, again hint at the emotional and spiritual impact of God’s love. But there is no substance, no specific reference to the ultimate act of divine love—Christ’s work on the cross. It wouldn’t be too much of a stretch to say that here God’s love acts as an upper, or a timely hot shower.
Our closing lines come nearest to a declaration of gospel love. In the first line, however, the singer is still the subject; not wrong in itself, as plenty of psalms and hymns discuss the singer’s experience of God’s redemptive work and presence. But this song again hasn’t actually talked about why God’s love is so great, and most of it has been about ‘me.’ We have to wait until the very end for any direct mention of the atonement that realizes God’s love for sinners:
My debt is paid there’s nothing that can separate my heart from your great love.
It’s a shame we didn’t start with that debt and its payment. That would have given us reason to rejoice. That would have given us a love we can think about, as well as sing about.
The last thing worth noting is the phrase ‘separate my heart’. It is a bit reminiscent of pop sentimentality, but it’s not a crime. Still, why not just ‘separate me?’
For a brief comparison, let’s take a look at a traditional hymn that also takes as its theme God’s love, stanza by stanza. Forgive the quick and dirty analysis but an amateur: Wesley’s quality of poetry deserves much better.
Love Divine, All Loves Excelling—C. Wesley
1 Love divine, all loves excelling,
joy of heaven, to earth come down,
fix in us thy humble dwelling,
all thy faithful mercies crown.
Jesus, thou art all compassion,
pure, unbounded love thou art;
visit us with thy salvation;
enter every trembling heart.
The song begins with its title (a notable difference between many contemporary songs and many traditional hymns), with the subject of its verbs always Jesus, with the singing congregation (plural rather than singular) as the object of Christ’s love and work. His act of love, his incarnation, is hinted at in the opening lines, and his saving act in justification by the Holy Spirit closes the stanza.
2 Breathe, oh, breathe thy loving Spirit
into every troubled breast;
let us all in thee inherit;
let us find the promised rest.
Take away the love of sinning;
Alpha and Omega be;
end of faith, as its beginning,
set our hearts at liberty.
The loving Holy Spirit’s work of justification is then picked up and developed in this stanza. Lines 3 & 4 note the end of that work, with line 4’s ‘promised rest’ an answer to line 2’s ‘troubled’. The more immediate effect is in line 5, the fatal love of sinning contrasted with the life-giving love imparted by the Spirit. The new love now in its place puts Christ on the throne, and the 6th and 7th lines are packed with theology: faith in Christ makes him the final reward and its object, but he is also its author, faith’s end as well as its beginning. Finally, salvation’s supplanting of love of sin also frees us from the slavery to sin.
3 Come, Almighty, to deliver,
let us all thy life receive;
suddenly return, and never,
nevermore thy temples leave.
Thee we would be always blessing,
serve thee as thy hosts above,
pray and praise thee without ceasing,
glory in thy perfect love.
This third stanza appears to be a prayer for the Lord’s presence among His people now. Not only do the singers request the Almighty’s visitation to save and give life, but also to remain, with the biblical image of the believers as temples. In response, His people commit to blessing the Lord, emulating the praise of angels, and obedient to Paul’s command to pray [and praise] without ceasing. Finally, God’s love is perfect—already described in the previous lines—and inspires the saints to glory in it.
4 Finish, then, thy new creation;
pure and spotless let us be;
let us see thy great salvation
perfectly restored in thee:
changed from glory into glory,
till in heaven we take our place,
till we cast our crowns before thee,
lost in wonder, love and praise.
The last stanza is a prayer for completion of God’s loving redemptive work, the resurrection of the dead and the new creation. Every line is derived from scripture, and each is specific in the truth it communicates. It creates a crescendo from the prayer for ultimate restoration, to the saints’ opportunity to acknowledge its fulfilment. In the presence of the Lord the saints’ symbol of their glorification is cast as tribute before their king, and love, mentioned once in each stanza and thus traceable through the whole of the hymn, characterizes the moment, along with its effect—wonder and praise.
We’ll take stock of each time the word ‘love’ or a permutation of it is used:
Stanza 1: Jesus is love divine, all loves, excelling, pure and unbounded.
Stanza 2: the loving Spirit takes away the saints’ love of sinning
Stanza 3: in service and praise the saints would ‘glory’ in the perfect love of God.
Stanza 4: the saints glorified in heaven are lost in love
We can sum up by saying just a few more things. One big plus of Wesley’s effort is that it is clearly Trinitarian. As we mentioned above, no person of the Godhead, not even the word ‘God,’ is mentioned in ‘One Thing Remains.’ Also, as in the CC song, love is clearly the theme of ‘Love Divine,’ but in the latter it is given definition–it is explored in its many aspects, and is even made to exclude certain things: godly love is differentiated from other types of love, for example the sinner’s for his sin. Also, its effect on the recipients of Christ’s love is much more powerful and provocative than that in ‘One Thing Remains,’ for its effect is demonstrated in the saints’ response, in their actions, rather than in their feelings. These saints, the singers, also look forward in stanza 4 to the future partaking of divine love in the perfection of glory. They will be lost in love because all God’s promises to His people have been fulfilled and His redemptive plan has been completed. This contrasts with the very present (in-my -life-now) focus of the contemporary song, where the permanence or forward-looking aspect is only found in the declaration of the singer’s inner conviction: And I never ever have to be afraid…I’m confident and covered by the power of your great love…there’s nothing that can separate my heart from your great love.
I don’t think I have to continue droning on about the differences between the two. Point goes to Charles Wesley.
Next in the series: ‘Forever Reign.’
Mitchell’s list: ‘Let’s Stop Singing These 10 Worship Songs’ (I’ve *ed those I haven’t heard of before; this list is from January 2015.)
1.In the Secret [author’s note: I’ve always found this song a little creepy]
2. Draw Me Close
3. At Your Name (Yahweh, Yahweh)*
4. Lord, I Lift Your Name on High
5. Above All (author’s note: have always loathed this song because of the line ‘you took the fall’, which is completely out of place in an otherwise elegant register of poetry)
6. Burn for You*
7. One Thing Remains
8. Jesus, We Celebrate Your Victory*
9. You are Mine*
10. How He Loves*
Aigner’s list: ’10 Worship Songs We Should Stop Singing’ (many of these I would also be unfamiliar with had I not listened to/read them after initially coming across Aigner’s comparison essay from April 2016; this list is from February 2016)
10. Blessed Be Your Name
9. As the Deer
8. One Thing Remainds
6. Amazing Grace (My Chains are Gone)
5. How He Loves
4. How Great is Our God
3. Our God
2. Victory in Jesus
1. Revelation Song