Several hymns that Christians sing seem to revere (i.e., worship or regard with deep respect and/or awe) the cross on which Jesus Christ died, but is this appropriate? We will consider three such hymns, but there may also be others that would raise the same question.
The first hymn is entitled “The Wonderful Cross.” We question whether the cross on which Jesus Christ was crucified was actually wonderful (i.e., amazing, marvelous, or very good). We know of no valid reason to believe it was not an ordinary cross, similar to those on which thousands of other people were crucified. Even the death of Jesus Christ on that cross did not make that cross wonderful.
What is wonderful is not the cross on which Jesus Christ died, but instead what Jesus accomplished by His death on the cross. What He accomplished was to assure eternal salvation for every person who sincerely accepts His sacrificial death on the cross as the payment to atone for their sins, so they will be reconciled with God and spend eternity with Him, rather than being alienated and separated from Him because of their sins. Following are the lyrics of “The Wonderful Cross”:
When I survey the wondrous cross
On which the Prince of Glory died,
My richest gain I count but loss
And pour contempt on all my pride.
See from his head, his hands, his feet,
Sorrow and love flow mingled down.
Did ever such love and sorrow meet
Or thorns compose so rich a crown?
O the wonderful cross, O the wonderful cross,
Bids me come and die and find that I may truly live.
O the wonderful cross, O the wonderful cross,
All who gather here by grace draw near and bless your name.
Were the whole realm of nature mine,
That were an offering far too small.
Love so amazing, so divine
Demands my soul, my life my all.
Although this hymn alludes to the love expressed by the suffering of the Prince of Glory (i.e., Jesus Christ) on the cross, the cross itself seems to be the primary focus, as indicated not only by the title of the hymn, but also by the first line of the first stanza and at least the first three lines of the third stanza.
A second hymn, “The Old Rugged Cross,” specifically expresses love and cherishing of the cross. In contrast, nowhere in the hymn is there an expression of love or cherishing of Jesus Christ, although recognition of what He accomplished on the cross is proclaimed in verses two and three. The lyrics of this hymn are as follows:
On a hill far away stood an old rugged cross,
The emblem of suff’ring and shame;
And I love that old cross where the dearest and best
For a world of lost sinners was slain.
So I’ll cherish the old rugged cross,
Till my trophies at last I lay down;
I will cling to the old rugged cross,
And exchange it some day for a crown.
Oh, that old rugged cross, so despised by the world,
Has a wondrous attraction for me;
For the dear Lamb of God left His glory above
To bear it to dark Calvary.
In that old rugged cross, stained with blood so divine,
A wondrous beauty I see,
For ’twas on that old cross Jesus suffered and died,
To pardon and sanctify me.
To the old rugged cross I will ever be true;
Its shame and reproach gladly bear;
Then He’ll call me some day to my home far away,
Where His glory forever I’ll share.
Our primary concern with this hymn is the last stanza, which focuses on being true to the cross rather than to Jesus Christ, who is not even mentioned in this stanza. How can a person be true to the cross without revering it? It is our belief that the primary focus should be on being true to Jesus Christ (i.e., striving to live according to His teachings and the other teachings in the New Testament).
A third hymn that seems to inappropriately glorify the cross is “Jesus Keep Me Near the Cross,” the lyrics of which follow:
Jesus, keep me near the cross;
There a precious fountain,
Free to all, a healing stream,
Flows from Calvary’s mountain.
In the cross, in the cross,
Be my glory ever,
Till my raptured soul shall find
Rest beyond the river.
Near the cross, a trembling soul,
Love and mercy found me;
here the bright and morning star
Sheds its beams around me.
Near the cross! O Lamb of God,
Bring its scenes before me;
Help me walk from day to day
With its shadow o’er me.
Near the cross I’ll watch and wait,
Hoping, trusting ever,
Till I reach the golden strand
Just beyond the river.
As was true with the two previous hymns, the principal focus of this hymn is the cross, not Jesus Christ. Neither any of the stanzas nor the refrain mention finding glory (i.e., worshipful adoration or praise) in Jesus Christ. Instead, this hymn indicates that it is the cross where glory is found. We believe it is inappropriate to sing about finding glory in the cross rather than in Jesus Christ for what He accomplished by His death on the cross.
Most importantly, nowhere in the Bible is there a scripture indicating that the cross on which Jesus Christ was crucified should be revered. The cross on which Jesus Christ was crucified was merely the means for God to fulfill His desire to provide eternal salvation to every person who sincerely trusts in Jesus Christ’s sacrificial death to pay the penalty for their sins. [For a discussion of how a person can be assured of eternal salvation, click on “What Must a Person Do to Be Assured of Eternal Salvation?”]
Furthermore, scriptures pertaining to the Second Commandment indicate that any form of worshiping manmade objects is a sin (see Exodus 20:4-5a). Worship may include songs as well as other types of adoration (i.e., great love, devotion, and respect). Since there is little distinction between adoring and revering, we think there is sufficient reason to believe that the cross itself should not be either adored or revered.
Even if the hymns we have considered in this article are intended to revere Jesus Christ for what He accomplished by His death on the cross, rather than to revere the cross itself, the lyrics themselves do not make this intention clear. As a result, many Christians may unwittingly revere the cross rather than Jesus Christ when they sing these hymns. Therefore, we urge those who continue to sing these hymns to take care to consciously revere Christ, rather than the cross, as they sing the lyrics.