In Christ Alone: A Gospel Anthem


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Thus far, most of the hymns I’ve analyzed have been older–that is, they aren’t really “recent.” And while many modern worship songs tend to be vague, repetitive, and shallow, there are of course exceptions that are worth studying (and which don’t get on my nerves). So I thought it was high time to study just such a hymn.

For this month then, we will take a look at one of my absolute favorite modern hymns, written by Keith Getty and Stuart Townend in 2001: “In Christ Alone.”

This song has become a frequent and well-known addition in many churches, and for good reason. With a moving melody and doctrinally sound, thought-provoking text, it offers praise to God, encouragement to the believer, and in short, the message of the Gospel to all.

Even though I know the majority of my fellow church members can sing this song by heart without even opening the hymn book, let’s first review the text anyway:

1. In Christ alone my hope is found,

He is my light, my strength, my  song;

This cornerstone, this solid ground,

Firm through the fiercest drought and storm.

What heights of love, what depths of peace

When fears are stilled, when strivings cease!

My comforter, my all in all–

Here in the love of Christ I stand.

 

2. In Christ alone, who took on flesh,

Fullness of God in helpless babe.

This gift of love and righteousness,

Scorned by the ones He came to save.

Till on that cross as Jesus died,

The wrath of God was satisfied.

For ev’ry sin on Him was laid–

Here in the death of Christ I live.

 

3. There in the ground His body lay,

Light of the world by darkness slain.

Then bursting forth in glorious day,

Up from the grave He rose again!

And as He stands in victory,

Sin’s curse has lost its grip on me.

For I am His and He is mine–

Bought with the precious blood of Christ.

 

4. No guilt in life, no fear in death–

This is the pow’r of Christ in me;

From life’s first cry to final breath,

Jesus commands my destiny.

No pow’r of hell, no scheme of man

Can ever pluck me from His hand;

Till He returns or calls me home–

Here in the pow’r of Christ I’ll stand.

Amen! I could sing this song every day and never get tired of it. And, being a Reformed Baptist, I cannot help but think of the Five Solas of the Reformation when I hear it. In a way, all five play a part in this song, and not just the most obvious one. Let me explain.

The “Five Solas” were a set of core beliefs held by the Protestant reformers, in opposition to the Roman Catholic church’s theology. Each consists of the Latin word “sola,” meaning “alone, only.” They are: Sola Gratia, Sola Fide, Solus Christus, Sola Scriptura, Soli Deo Gloria. Or: by Grace Alone, through Faith Alone, in Christ Alone, through Scripture Alone, for the Glory of God Alone.

If you will allow me a moment, I would like to briefly apply each to the hymn’s text before we analyze the music.

Solus Christus

Of course, the most obvious one is Solus Christus, in Christ Alone. This idea is presented not only in the song title, but in each of the verses. It is a constant reminder that Christ is the focus, because He is the Way, the Truth and the Life. No man may come to the Father except through Him. The Son of God, then, is pivotal to the Gospel. His life, death and resurrection make our salvation possible. Should He not be at the center of our worship?

Sola Gratia

But what of the other four Solas? Although they are not expressly mentioned in the text, their influence is nevertheless present. Take a look again at the second verse:

In Christ alone, who took on flesh,

Fullness of God in helpless babe.

This gift of love and righteousness,

Scorned by the ones He came to save.

Till on that cross as Jesus died,

The wrath of God was satisfied.

For ev’ry sin on Him was laid–

Here in the death of Christ I live.

What boundless stores of grace God displayed that He would send His only Son to take on weak flesh and die to satisfy His wrath in our place! Christ bore our death penalty on the cross that we may live through Him. Instead of condemning us for our sin, God sees the works of His Son in our place and welcomes us into His presence. If that isn’t the very picture of Grace Alone, I don’t know what is.

Soli Deo Gloria

What is the meaning of life? And before you say it–no, it’s not 42.

The meaning of life is this: to display God’s wondrous glory! And if there is any one act in all of creation that most clearly manifests God’s glory, it is surely the resurrection of Jesus Christ and His victory over sin and death, as laid out in the third verse:

There in the ground His body lay,

Light of the world by darkness slain.

Then bursting forth in glorious day,

Up from the grave He rose again!

And as He stands in victory,

Sin’s curse has lost its grip on me.

For I am His and He is mine–

Bought with the precious blood of Christ.

“What is the chief end of man? To glorify God and to enjoy Him forever” (Westminster Shorter Catechism).

Sola Fide

“For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast” (Ephesians 2:8-9, ESV).

Have you ever noticed how Christianity is the only religion based not on our good works, but on God’s? What a relief that is, too. Because if our salvation was truly up to us, we’d all be doomed. Good works is not just a difficult path to maintain–it’s an impossible path that never leads to heaven.

The Lord regenerates hearts and gives us faith to believe in Him. Only the one blessed with this gift of faith can boldly proclaim:

No guilt in life, no fear in death–

This is the pow’r of Christ in me;

From life’s first cry to final breath,

Jesus commands my destiny.

No pow’r of hell, no scheme of man

Can ever pluck me from His hand;

Till He returns or calls me home–

Here in the pow’r of Christ I’ll stand.

Sola Scriptura

Finally, where do we learn all these truths? In the only infallible source of truth: God’s Word. That is, Scripture Alone. The Lord not only saw fit to sacrifice His only Son on our behalf, but He has given us His very Word to instruct, convict, encourage, and strengthen us. It is in God’s Word that we trust, and nothing else. For it is there that truth is found.


Now let’s get down to the music!

First off, this hymn is in Ternary form–or AABA. That means the first and second lines are identical, then the third line introduces a completely different idea, and the fourth line returns to the original idea. For those of you who have read my previous hymn analyses, it should come as no surprise to you that this is the most commonly-used form in hymn writing. Not only does it serve as a helpful memory aid, but it can also make a powerful impact–particularly on the third line, which is highlighted by its contrast from the other lines.

We begin at the first line:

in-christ-alone-1

It begins with three pickup notes (“In Christ a-“), before the first downbeat (“-lone”). As a brief reminder, in music the downbeat is the first beat of a measure, and is generally the beat that receives the stress. Thus, by choosing an appropriate time signature and arranging the text in a certain way (in this case, by beginning with pickup notes to delay the initial stress), emphasis can be established on specific words.

In the first verse, then, we sing, “In Christ aLONE, my hope is FOUND, He is my LIGHT, my strength, my SONG. This cornerSTONE, this solid GROUND, firm through the FIERCEst drought and STORM.” The emphasis is clear. It’s not “In Christ plus good works,” but “In Christ ALONE.”

The confidence in Christ alone to save is therefore reinforced by the use of stress on the word “alone;” and the stress placed on the following descriptors keeps the focus directed on Him.

One more note on the rhythm. In the first half of the line, there is a pattern–not an exact replica, mind you, but still close enough to be worth mention. It goes like so: three short pickup notes followed by one longer note (shown in red in the image above). This pattern happens twice in a row. In addition then to the most prominent stress falling naturally on the first beat of the measure, this first beat is also held out longer. And since held notes tend to draw our attention because they last longer, this creates an additional emphasis on the stressed words.

However, the pattern does not continue in the second half of the line–at least, not exactly. You might almost think it is going to, since the word “found” is followed by three more short pickup notes, as before. But the next measure does not begin with a long note, but more fast notes instead. In a way, it’s as if the initial pattern (three short-one long) is extended, or stretched out. The short notes are multiplied, so they continue for longer than usual. After five short notes, at last the long note is sung again, but this time on beat two, instead of the downbeat. That is important to note because, even though beat two might not receive the most prominent stress, because a long note is held on this beat it is still emphasized to a certain extent. I particularly appreciate this since it is at this point in the first verse that a list of descriptors is given for Christ. And by use of this “displaced stress,” each item on the list is emphasized–“light” and “song,” because they are both downbeats; and “strength,” because it is held out longer than its surrounding notes.

As for the melody itself, there is yet another pattern, which follows the rhythmic pattern already mentioned. Here’s the same line again, so you don’t have to scroll back and forth as much:

In Christ Alone 1_0001

With the first iteration of “three short-one long,” the melody begins low and climbs higher until it lands on the tonic, or the first note of the scale used to make up the song. As you might recall, because the tonic is the first note of the scale, it is the primary note of the song and gives a feeling of completion and resolution. Therefore, in addition to the word “alone” landing on the stressed downbeat of the measure, it is also sung on the tonic pitch, thus increasing its emphasis still further by granting the listener the satisfaction of resolution. There is nothing ambiguous about it. You know exactly where you are supposed to be–and in the case of the text, you know exactly where your hope is found.

When this ascending pattern is repeated immediately after, you will notice that it begins on the exact same pitches as before, making it almost identical in sound to the first. However, there is one major difference: The last note of the pattern does not land on the tonic, but instead goes up one tone higher. It is this last note that distinguishes the reiteration of the pattern from its predecessor. The melody is gradually climbing higher, as on a staircase. Plus, since the pattern does not end on the tonic the second time as on the first, it gives a feeling of incompletion. The resolution is suspended, prodding the listener to continue on with the song.

Next we come to the second half of the line. It begins one tone higher (in fact, it’s basically the highest point of the line), then it gradually descends back to the tonic by the end, finally resolving and giving the listener that sense of completion. If one could draw a line through the notes and connect them all together, one could see that their shape almost resembles a mountain. The highest point is right in the center, and from that point both sides slope down; so upon approach one must first climb uphill, but once you’ve reached the top it’s all downhill from there.

Alright. I know that was a lot of information for just one line of a hymn, but seeing as it is repeated three times, you now have a good sense for the majority of the song. The second line is exactly the same, so there is not much to add to what has already been pointed out. Let’s just look briefly at the music with the new line of text:

In Christ Alone 2_0001

See? Exactly the same. So all of my previous points apply here as well. For the sake of time, let’s continue on to line three:

In Christ Alone 3_0001

Ah, my favorite part. This brings tears to my eyes every time. As is common with hymns, the climax comes here, at the third line, and is accentuated by the introduction of a new melodic idea.

Remember that the previous line ended on the tonic note, and E-flat in this case. And if you compare it to the first note of line three, you’ll see that it is the same note. Thus, line three picks up right where line two left off–on the tonic.

But it doesn’t stay there for long. For after the tonic is sung, the melody climbs up higher and higher, which of course illustrates exceedingly well the subject of the text: what heights of love.

Then the line descends right back down, once again illustrating the text: what depths of peace. The second half of the line begins again on the tonic, just as at the beginning of the line, and immediately it leaps up to the same note–the tonic–but an octave higher. Here is the climax, both melodic and emotional, where the singer shouts out in praise (often in terms of volume as well as the high pitches). The end of the line descends, ending on one tone higher than the tonic, once again suspending the resolution and leaving us “hanging.” The final line must be sung before resolution can come, for it is only then that completion is sensed.

But before we leave the third line behind, I would like to draw your attention again to the rhythm:

in-christ-alone-3

Remember the rhythmic pattern found in the previous lines, “three short–one long”? Well, here that pattern is continued still. But this time instead of repeating it twice and then drawing it out for the last half of the line, as was previously done, this line does no such embellishment of the rhythm. Instead, the simple four-note pattern is repeated over and over, each reiteration exactly the same as before (marked in red in the image above). While I cannot speak for the writers personally, I can say that it certainly seems like a conscious decision on their part. And the benefit to this repetition is that it frees up the mind and ears of the listener to focus on the message of the text, in conjunction with the climatic build of the melody, rather than trying to “keep up” with a convoluted rhythm (not that the rhythm was convoluted on previous lines, but it is still clearly simplified here).

Just as soon as this emotional climax has burst forth, it is brought back under control with a return of the original idea in the final line:

In Christ Alone 4_0001

Once again, it is an exact replica of the first line, but with different text. This repetition also has many benefits. One I’ve already mentioned–it serves as a useful memory aid, because there’s not as much “musically” to remember, which is very helpful especially in a church congregation made up of folks with varying degrees of musical education. Simple, easy to remember melodies are key.

Another benefit, which I just mentioned when discussing the repeating rhythmic pattern of line three, is it frees up the mind and ears to focus on the text instead of getting bogged down trying to figure out what notes to sing.

Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, the return of the melodic line at the end of the song helps to return the focus to the importance of the message. Rather than ending on the climax with its emotional high, we are brought back down to rest on solid ground, being reminded of what we are singing about and why. It is a final declaration of truth, based not upon fickle emotions or deceptive feelings, but upon the very foundation of God’s Word.

It is because of these truths we find in Scripture–because of God’s grace and Christ’s sacrifice and victory on our behalf–that we can sing with full assurance of where our hope is found. And it is that message that we proclaim to the world until Christ returns or calls us home:

And as He stands in victory,

Sin’s curse has lost its grip on me.

For I am His and He is mine–

Bought with the precious blood of Christ.

This is the message of the glorious Gospel.


Please enjoy this performance of “In Christ Alone,” by Keith and Kristyn Getty. Thank you, and God bless!

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7 thoughts on “In Christ Alone: A Gospel Anthem

  1. Great post and great hymn! Too bad the Presbyterian hymnal committee got stuck on the theology of the phrase “til on the cross as Jesus died, the wrath of God was satisfied” which ended with their excluding it from their new hymnal. Townend and Getty obviously did their homework on the hymn and stood firm on their lyrics when the committee asked permission to change the line. Another (Celebrating Grace) hymnal had already been published changing the line without permission and agreed to fix the change.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. This is probably in my top three favorite hymns. I love it so much and it always brings tears to my eyes. I can’t wait to sing it in heaven with the whole body of believers. I love the line, “Light of the world by darkness slain.” So perfect. So beautiful. So poetic. And it works so well with the music when he rises again.
    Thank you !

    Liked by 1 person

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