After my last column, a review of the Top 10 most popular worship songs in 2022 according to CCLI, a reader named Keoki commented: “Thank you for doing this. I always look forward to this list. Would you consider doing an article such as ‘Pastor Gabe’s 10 Favorite Songs (for Corporate Worship) on the CCLI Top 100 List’ or something like that?”
What a great idea!
In my previous article, which was really more of a critique of the most popular songs, I mentioned “Good Lyrics” and “Questionable Lyrics.” None of the songs on the following list have what I would consider to be “Questionable Lyrics.” So instead, I’ve replaced these sub-headings with “Why It’s Great” and “My Favorite Part.” I’ve dropped the question “Should the song be sung in your church?” If it’s on this list, of course I think it should be sung in your church!
This is a countdown from #10 to #1, with the #1 song being my most favorite. I’m going to have to break this up into two parts. So for this week, I’ll present songs 10 through 6, and then next week songs 5 to the top (see if you can guess my number one song before then). Some of these songs might surprise you—not because I recommend them, but because you didn’t know they were under Christian Copyright Licensing International (CCLI). Starting with this first one:
10) “Victory in Jesus” written by Eugene M. Bartlett
Placement on the CCLI chart: #61
Yes, this is the classic hymn you may have grown up singing, published in just about every hymnal you’ve ever opened for as long as you’ve been alive. Believe it or not, this song is not in the public domain; therefore, churches have to report to CCLI every time the lyrics to Victory in Jesus are published. (According to Copyright Law 17 USC, section 110, performances of a religious nature during a service at a place of worship or other religious assembly are not infringements of copyright law, so churches do not have to report any time they sing a song—only when they publish, project, or print copies of the lyrics.)
Victory in Jesus was written in 1939 by Eugene Bartlett, the last song he wrote before he died. That year, Bartlett suffered a major stroke that left him unable to walk or even speak. He was a traveling music minister and hymn writer who held singing schools and taught brothers and sisters in the Lord how to read music. When he suffered his stroke, his friends and family thought his ministry was over.
But it was while he was bed-ridden, hardly able to move or speak, that he wrote his most famous hymn—from start to finish a song of Christ’s redeeming power, His victory over sin and the grave. Though it was written in the darkest year of Bartlett’s life, he wanted to the melody to be full of joy and excitement. Hence the up-tempo hymn of praise Victory in Jesus was born. Bartlett would never write another song. He entered the presence of the Lord in glory in 1941.
Why It’s Great
The song contains three verses and a chorus, and all three verses begin with “I heard.” The song begins, “I heard an old, old story, how a Savior came from glory. How He gave His life on Calvary to save a wretch like me.” We sing about the gospel, “Of His precious blood’s atoning,” followed by a personal testimony of faith: “Then I repented of my sins and won the victory!”
The second verse follows much the same pattern: “I heard about His healing, of His cleansing power revealing” (that part probably hits a special way knowing that the man who wrote it was paralyzed). After hearing that Jesus made the lame to walk and the blind to see, we sing, “And then I cried, ‘Dear Jesus, come and heal my broken spirit.'”
The third verse is about going to heaven and singing with the angels. And who can forget that catchy chorus: “O victory in Jesus, My Savior forever. He sought me and bought me with His redeeming blood. He loved me ere I knew Him, and all my love is due Him. He plunged me to victory beneath the cleansing flood.”
My Favorite Part
There’s a single word in the second verse that moves me every time. Singing, “And then I cried, ‘Dear Jesus, come and heal my broken spirit.’ And somehow Jesus came and brought to me the victory.” It’s that word “somehow.” There’s so much mystery expressed in a single word. We know that by faith in Jesus, we are saved—that all the blessings of His atoning sacrifice are transferred to us and our sins are forgiven. But how that happens is a mystery of God’s gracious work that though I cannot explain, I continue to rejoice in.
9) “How Deep the Father’s Love for Us” written by Stuart Townend
Placement on the CCLI chart: #35
This is a song I once thought was much older than it is. Just a few years ago, I found it in a hymnal and noticed that the writer is Stuart Townend, co-writer of In Christ Alone. Then I knew the song couldn’t have been as old as I thought it was, but I could have sworn I’ve sung this one my whole life. Perhaps it has just that classic hymn sort of feel.
Townend has said about writing the song, “I found the melody came very quickly. It was one of those things where you feel the melody came so easily, you’re thinking, ‘I’ve borrowed this from something, from somewhere else.’ So I probably spent the first two years of the song’s life in panic that someone was going to come up and say, ‘You stole my melody,’ or ‘Did you realize it’s exactly the same as this?’ And then the lyrics began to kind of just spill out, when we contemplate on the cross and the power of the cross, and it came very simply.”
Why It’s Great
This is definitely not one of those repetitive 7/11 songs—you know, where you sing the same 7 words 11 times. The title of the song is the first line of the song, and then we never sing that line again in any of the three verses. Nonetheless, the song is deeply poetic in pondering the beauty of the gospel: “How deep the Father’s love for us, how vast beyond all measure, that He should give His only Son to make a wretch His treasure.”
Now, I said none of these songs have “questionable lyrics,” but there is a line in this song that has caused some debate. It’s in the very next line of the first verse, where we sing, “How great the pain of searing loss, the Father turns His face away.” Some will contend that the Father did not turn His face away from the Son as He hung on the cross, and the line therefore is a little overly poetic to the point that it expresses something that is the opposite of what Scripture says.
When Jesus was being crucified, He prayed, “My God, My God, why have You forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46), the first line of Psalm 22. Some have interpreted this to mean something like, “The Father turned His face away.” However, further down in Psalm 22:24, we are told, “He has not hidden His face from him; but when he cried to Him for help, He heard.”
Some are content to accept Townend’s line as simply something figurative, not an attempt to convey anything contrary to Scripture. Others interpret it to mean the Father poured His wrath out on His Son—after all, the next part of the verse refers to “wounds which mar the chosen One bring many sons to glory.” Others have changed the line, “The Father turned His face away,” to something like, “The Father gave His Son away.”
Regardless of the debate, I hope you are able to enjoy this terrific hymn. Fred Sanders, professor at Biola University, has said, “I can easily sing How Deep the Father’s Love for Us with a clear conscience—always have. What do I do when I get to the line, ‘the Father turns His face away’? I instinctively interpret it charitably, in the high-trust environment of my local church.”
My Favorite Part
The line I enjoy the most is not in the first verse, but the second. This is my testimony: “Behold the Man upon the cross, my sin upon His shoulders. Ashamed, I hear my mocking voice call out among the scoffers. It was my sin that held Him there until it was accomplished. His dying breath has brought me life. I know that it is finished.” I also love the very last line of the song: “But this I know with all my heart, His wounds have paid my ransom.” Amen.
8) “His Mercy is More” written by Matt Boswell and Matt Papa
Placement on the CCLI chart: #39
The Matts Boswell and Papa have written many songs and done several recordings together. This is the first of three of their songs that will appear on this Top 10 list. The lyrics were inspired by the following quote from one of the many sermons of John Newton, author of Amazing Grace:
“Are not you amazed sometimes that you should have so much as a hope, that, poor and needy as you are, the Lord thinketh of you? But let not all you feel discourage you. For if our Physician is almighty, our disease cannot be desperate, and if He casts none out that come to Him, why should you fear? Our sins are many, but His mercies are more. Our sins are great, but His righteousness is greater. We are weak, but He is power. Most of our complaints are owing to unbelief, and the remainder of a legal spirit. And these evils are not removed in a day.”
Why It’s Great
There’s a lot of repetition here, but it doesn’t feel repetitious. Each verse and also the chorus end with the line, “Our sins they are many, His mercy is more.” Though inspired by Newton, each verse is thoroughly biblical, with the gospel throughout. The third verse goes, “What riches of kindness He lavished on us. His blood was the payment, His life was the cost. We stood ‘neath a debt we could never afford. Our sins they are many, His mercy is more.” Making a song out of that Newton quote was a great idea.
My Favorite Part
I love the line, “Thrown into a sea without bottom or shore, our sins they are many, His mercy is more.” There was a time in my life when I struggled with the fact that I was truly forgiven my sins. If I could still remember the wrongs I was done, how could I be assured that I’m forgiven? That was when I learned not to trust in how I felt or the reliability of my own mind, but to trust in God’s word. So that line in the opening verse resonates with me as it comes from one of those comforting passages: “You will cast all their sins into the depths of the sea” (Micah 7:19).
I will admit that the tune at the beginning of the chorus is not my favorite. I don’t have a reason why, and I don’t know how I would improve upon it. The stretched out vowels are just not my thing. But that doesn’t stop me from belting it out when we get to that part of the song. My kids love to sing it loud, and as their dad, of course I have to match their volume and enthusiasm. I hope that the lyrics sink deep in their hearts as they grow up to know our Savior, for indeed our sins they are many, but His mercy is more.
7) “Before the Throne of God Above” written by Charitie Lees Bancroft and Vikki Cook
Placement on the CCLI Chart: #69
While the hymn has been popular in many reformed congregations over the last couple of decades, the lyrics go back over a century and a half. Irish woman Charitie Lees Smith wrote the words to this song when she was very young. In fact, one of her first hymns was published by the famed Anglican Bishop J.C. Ryle before Charitie was even 20 years old. She would also have songs published by Charles Spurgeon. This particular lyric was quoted by him in his last public address before he died.
The hymn was originally entitled Within the Vail with Jesus, first published in London in 1863, and introduced in the United States by 1865. However, these publications contained only the lyrics and not the music. The version published in the U.S. was often sung to the tune “Duke Street” by James Hatton (you’ve probably heard several songs set to this same tune). The version sung in most churches today was arranged by Vikki Cook in 1997. The six stanzas were made into three verses, and the song was titled after its opening line: “Before the Throne of God Above.”
Why It’s Great
Like How Deep the Father’s Love For Us, the song has a familiar-sounding tune; you feel like you know it before you even sing it. At the same time, there’s an undertone of complexity that keeps both the music and the lyrics interesting.
The words bring the singer right to the throne of God, and reminds us that our name is “graven on His hands” and “written on His heart,” and no one can tear us away from Him. Gospel and glory are intertwined from one stanza to the next: “Behold Him there, the bleeding Lamb. My perfect, spotless Righteousness, the great unchangeable ‘I Am,’ the King of glory and of grace. One with Himself, I cannot die, my soul is purchased by His blood. My life is hid with Christ on high, with Christ my Savior and my God.”
My Favorite Part
It’s hard to pick a favorite. I love each stanza equally. But the verse I enjoy the most is perhaps this one: “Because the sinless Savior died, my sinful soul is counted free; for God the Just is satisfied, to look on Him and pardon me.” Christ gave Himself for us, the just for the unjust, that we may have fellowship with God now and dwell with Him forever later.
6) “Come Behold the Wondrous Mystery” written by Matt Boswell, Matt Papa, and Michael Bleecker
Placement on the CCLI chart: #85
Written in 2013, this song has gained popularity through Together for the Gospel, the Getty’s Sing! Conference, and the Shepherds’ Conference. In the Hymns of Grace hymn book, which is my favorite hymnal, it’s song #184. It’s a popular hymn for many churches that lean toward Reformed theology; four verses containing rich theology set to a very singable tune.
Why It’s Great
There are not many songs that clearly highlight the active and passive obedience of Christ, but this one does. By the way, in case you don’t understand those terms, Christ’s active obedience was the way Jesus lived His life, doing what the law required. His passive obedience was in the way He died, submitting Himself as a substitute for the sacrifice the Father required.
Each of these four verses begin, “Come behold the wondrous mystery.” The first verse is about the incarnation of Christ: “He the theme of heaven’s praises, robed in frail humanity.” The second verse is about His fulfilling the Law in His active obedience: “In His living, in His suffering, never trace nor stain of sin.” The third verse is about His crucifixion in His passive obedience: “Christ the Lord upon the tree in the stead of ruined sinners.” The fourth verse is about His resurrection and eventual return: “Christ in power resurrected as we will be when He comes.”
In addition to the solid theology, it is such an easy song to sing. As songwriter David Regier has said, “The first time I heard it, it was as if I knew it already. The melody line follows a very clear, hymnic pattern that doesn’t go anywhere unexpected. The harmonization remains completely in the diatonic key, and the range is only a major sixth.” What does that mean? Simply that “this makes it congregationally comfortable,” an easy song to sing for the body of Christ in corporate worship.
That’s something I believe is lacking in many of the songs in the Top 10 which I critiqued last week. They’re really not that singable. One song I said felt like it was written to showcase the lead singer’s voice rather than with the congregation in mind. Another song I said got really chaotic in the bridge, resulting in more noise rather than orderly worship. As 1 Corinthians 14:33 says, “God is not a God of confusion but of peace, as in all the churches of the saints.”
This hymn or modern praise song—however you may categorize it—is a song that has in mind to involve the whole congregation in magnifying Christ, inviting us all to “Come behold the wondrous mystery.”
My Favorite Part
I love that very line, “Come behold the wondrous mystery.” It is an invitation to marvel at the work God has done through His Son, Jesus Christ. As with the hymn “Victory in Jesus,” I so enjoy singing about the “mystery” contained within the gospel story. In this particular case, that “mystery” is the gospel revealed. Ephesians 1:8-9 says that He has caused us to abound “in all wisdom and insight, making known to us the mystery of His will, according to His good pleasure which He purposed in Him.” Chapter 3 verse 9 says that He has brought “to light for all what is the administration of the mystery which for ages has been hidden in God who created all things.”
There is mystery to the gospel, as I explained before. Perhaps you know little about the active and passive obedience of Christ, and just my mentioning it makes you want to know more. But we don’t need to be in mystery about that which has been revealed in Christ—that God is working all things to the council of His will, reconciling us through the person and work of Jesus. Come behold the wondrous mystery revealed, the gospel of Jesus Christ.
I hope you enjoyed this list. Next week, I hope to feature Part 2 with the Top 5 songs as well as some honorable mentions. Thank you for visiting the blog!