The 10 Best Modern Hymn-writers

One of the fascinating (and very encouraging) trends of the modern American church is the resurgence of the hymns for worship music. Sometimes these hymns are played in a similar format to earlier generations, other times they are freshened up some to a more contemporary sound, but whatever the case, biblically-rich hymns are not going away. At the same time, many of those responsible for the revitalization of classic hymns are also writing some excellent new hymns. But who are these people? Actually, a Google search won’t provide too many clear results. That’s why I’d like to share my list of the 10 best modern hymn-writers.

A few caveats are in order to begin, however.

First, there is some level of subjectivity in this list. I do try to shy away from making this a popularity contest, but a major criterion for choosing whomever in this list has to do with influence.

Second, I tried to distinguish hymn-writer from general songwriter. There are some very talented songwriters that I love, such as Andrew Peterson or Phil Wickham, and while they have written some incredible hymns (see Peterson’s “Is He Worthy” or Wickham’s “Hymn of Heaven”), a large portion of their writings are a little broad in style. I tend to view “hymns” as songs that are designed for corporate worship that are purposefully singable (to all generations), thus, they usually avoid syncopated rhythms and informal lyrics.

Third, you will have to forgive me for a lack of consistency in distinguishing collective groups from individual artists. There’s a lot of overlap in this, and I actually that’s a good thing. It tends to hedge against the desire for platforming. More than anything, I just hope that this list will provide churches with resources for incorporating new songs to their music repertoire.

Finally, here is the list:

10) Aaron Keyes

Probably among the lesser known in the list here, I actually have enjoyed songs by Aaron Keyes for several years. However, he has been quite influential in songwriting and worship leading training. In 2007, he co-wrote “Psalm 62 (My Soul Finds Rest)” with Stuart Townend. More recently, he helped write one of my favorite modern hymns: “God The Uncreated One (King Forevermore).” It was also interesting to read his chapter on worship leading and discipleship in Doxology and Theology (ed. by Matt Boswell), and see how he has trained young men to lead worship as a means of discipleship. See his website for more information on how he has continued in his discipleship ministry, as well as other resources.

9) Joyful Noise

This collective, Joyful Noise, is by far the most recent group that I’ve discovered (through my wife’s recommendations on Spotify, I should add). Based in the UK, this group has put together several songs in the last couple of years. I wouldn’t be surprised if we start to see more from this group as they are gifted in composing beautiful and biblically-rich hymns that tend to be easy for congregational singing. For fans of CityAlight (a group below on this list), you will find some similarities in how they write music, in my opinion.

8) Matt Redman

I almost didn’t include Redman on this list, not because of a lack of talent or influence (he has both), but because some of his music is more of a modern worship music style. However, he has an impressive array of modern hymns as well, so I did include him after all. “10,000 Reasons” would easily fall into the hymn category. He teamed up not too long ago with songwriters from the Getty Music team (Matt Boswell and Matt Papa) to write “Lovingkindness.” Several others are sort of a blend between modern worship song and hymn, so I would say that some traditional churches may struggle with singing other songs from Redman, but most would gladly benefit from singing “The Heart of Worship” or some others from him.

7) Chris Anderson

This hymn-writer is probably more well known in traditional church music circles, though church of all musical styles would benefit from checking into what Chris Anderson has written. My favorite hymns from Anderson are “His Robes for Mine,” “My Jesus, Fair,” and “I Run to Christ.” But he has a whole growing collection to see here. Also highly recommended is Chris Anderson’s book, Theology That Sticks: The Life-Changing Power of Exceptional Hymns. He has a tremendously helpful grid for choosing the very best songs for corporate worship, plus several other practical ministry tips.

6) Indelible Grace Music

Kevin Twit is essentially the ministry mastermind behind Indelible Grace. It was birthed from a group of college students to whom he served as a campus minister. Twit realized that many of these 19 to 20-something year olds really gravitated towards the rich theology of old hymns, some of which aren’t even well known. There are multiple artists that have written music with Indelible Grace, perhaps most notably Matthew Smith, Sandra McCracken, and Matthew Perryman Jones. I first discovered one of their CD’s (their first album) at a New Jersey record store several years ago, and I’ve seen their music get some more traction since then. One caveat is that while their music has wonderfully rich theology, their style of music is very eclectic and largely written as a ministry to young people (though now their original audience is aging millennials). Some predominately traditional churches might have a harder time adjusting to some of the songs. But their process of taking old (sometimes forgotten) hymns and reviving them for a new generation has had a big influence on me.

5) Sovereign Grace Music

There are so many resources of note from Sovereign Grace Music. Their website has so many songs with an unbelievable amount of free resources. This is the group that put together “Behold Our God,” “All I Have is Christ,” “O Great God,” and “Jesus, Thank You.” Their rich theology is matched with singable melodies. They curated a list of songs (some of their own, some in public domain) by themes, which is very helpful for selecting songs for corporate worship (click here). Also, I highly recommend their podcast, Sound + Doctrine.

4) The “Matts”: Matt Boswell, Matt Papa, and Matt Merker

This is probably the most questionable combination for just one of the ten on this list. These three “Matts” have served in local churches for many years, but in the last several years they’ve also partnered with the Getty Music team for writing some of the best songs in the last several decades. Here’s a brief list: “His Mercy is More,” “Come Behold the Wondrous Mystery,” “Christ Our Hope in Life and Death,” and “He Will Hold Me Fast.” Not all three worked on all these songs, but altogether these three (with the Getty Music team) have so richly blessed the Church with robust theological hymns that are singable and memorable.

3) CityAlight

I was so excited to hear CityAlight share several of their songs live at the Sing! Conference in 2022. This is a collective group from Australia (not to be confused with Hillsong) that has written several instantly singable hymns in the last few years. One of the writers remarked that one of the critiques of their songwriting is that they could be “more…interesting.” But their retort is that they would rather have songs that sound 300 years out of date than 3 years out of date. They’re writing very simple songs (melody-wise), but the lyrics are biblically faithful and theologically instructive. If you’re less familiar with CityAlight, you need to check out “Yet Not I But Through Christ in Me,” “Only a Holy God,” and “Ancient of Days” right away.

2) Stuart Townend

One of the veterans in this list, Stuart Townend co-wrote what is probably the greatest hymn of the last century, “In Christ Alone.” Another modern classic is “How Deep the Father’s Love for Us.” He’s written multiple others of similar unparalleled substance with Keith Getty, including “O Church Arise,” “Speak O Lord,” “Behold the Lamb,” and “The Power of the Cross.” Our church sings these and many others that Townend authored.

1) Keith & Kristyn Getty

Thom Rainer recently said the following about the Gettys: “The influence of Keith and Kristyn Getty is clear and profound in introducing hymns to a new generation.” Any church musician, worship leader, or pastor would be richly blessed by attending the yearly Sing! Conference in Nashville, TN, hosted by the Getty Music team. I don’t think there’s anyone even close as being most influential for reviving hymnody than Keith and Kristyn Getty. Multiple songs listed above were co-written with one or both of Gettys. “My Worth is Not in What I Own” is a personal favorite among their newer releases. See this link for more of their treasure trove of resources.

That concludes the list of the 10 best modern hymn-writers. Please share any suggestions for other great modern hymn-writers in the comments!

The Emptying of Christ

When my family took a nearly 7-hour drive on Tuesday, we were just 20 minutes away from our hotel in Florence, Kentucky (which is nicely located at about 20 minutes from the Creation Museum and 30 minutes from the Ark) but ran into some traffic. This wasn’t just a matter of slow-moving vehicles; we were virtually at a standstill for over a half an hour. At first, I didn’t think much of it, but I realized we were at about 1/8 of a tank of gas—normally no problem since Florence has gas stations all over the place. But the car kept running while we could’ve walked at a higher speed. Finally, things were moving again and we just made it in time to a gas station to fill up.

In the book of Philippians, there’s an amazing passage that describes the “emptying” of Jesus Christ. Philippians 2:6-8 says, “Who, being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God: But made himself of no reputation, and took upon him the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men: And being found in fashion as a man, he humbled himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross.” That phrase, “made himself of no reputation” is simply from one Greek word. One resource renders this word as meaning “to completely remove or eliminate elements of high status or rank by eliminating all privileges or prerogatives associated with such status or rank” (BDAG). Or more simply, “to empty oneself, to divest oneself of position.” I think that latter definition really gets the point across from Philippians 2. Jesus, fully human and fully divine, put aside His privileges as being very God of very God, the King of Kings, and Lord of Lords. He could have readily come to earth and demanded us all bow down in allegiance (indeed, see verse 10 on that matter). But instead of coming down to earth in splendor and glory, He condescended to us as a servant.

Notice also the use of the word “form” in verses 6 and 7. This is from the Greek word “morphe.” This can mean that Jesus took on the nature and status of a servant. As God, He possessed all prestige and honor imaginable. When He took on the form of a servant, He didn’t lose His deity in any way. He simply put aside those privileges so that He could display the most righteous act of humility possible, with the example of Him voluntarily giving Himself up for us on the cross as the capstone.

This really is a mind-blowing passage of Scripture. The God of the universe didn’t just put on flesh to be adorned as a king; He became as the lowest of the low on par with being a slave (that’s probably a more appropriate rendering of “servant” in verse 7). And while we might have a headache trying to think about how Jesus’ “emptying” involved “addition” (becoming a man), the key point from the Apostle Paul is found in verse 5: “Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus.” What kind of mindset? The humility of a slave. 

Theologians call this the “kenosis” passage. There are countless articles and chapters of books devoted to this very issue. But the main point is simply that we as Christians would think and serve like Christ did. 

As you go about your day, keep these words at the forefront of your mind: “Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus.”

Book Review: “Theology That Sticks: The Life-Changing Power of Exceptional Hymns” by Chris Anderson

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Chris Anderson’s suggestion for music pastors/song leaders/worship leaders (there’s quite a spread for what designates the person who leads a given church’s ministry of music) is quite simple: identify great hymns and then sing them. The church is saturated with plenty of Christian songs right now, and while some are less than desirable, many of them are good–but not all of them are “great.” And thus, while Anderson’s advice is incredible straightforward–identify great hymns and then sing them–it also provokes some follow up questions, especially in how to determine what is properly understood to be a “great” hymn. That’s why a bulk of the book takes readers through a grid, which I find to be tremendously helpful.

The first grid (New Testament focused) encourages churches to sing songs that are biblical, doctrinal, “Christian,” Trinitarian, congregational, and unifying. And the second grid surveys themes from the Psalms: sing songs that are inspired, diverse, emotive, experiential, beautiful, and doxological. Not every song will fit every single category, of course. But if a song is selected that fails to meet any of these grid filters, then there’s a good chance that such a song can be left alone.

“Theology That Sticks” is one of the best books I’ve read on music ministry in the local church. Anderson writes with quite a bit of humor, wit, clarity, and theological conviction–but of course, showing much grace to fellow believers who might come from a different theological stripe. This is not a “worship wars” book that uncritically lifts up classic hymns while eschewing any contemporary songs written since the fall of the Soviet Union. But it’s certainly not a “get with the program” and “let’s sing the radio hits” book either. Anderson proposes a very responsible approach that can help both contemporary and traditional churches alike to choose not just good songs to sing for corporate worship, but the very best songs. And then he also offers plenty of extra resources in his appendices, which makes this book almost a 2-for-1 deal, matching doctrinal convictions with practical wisdom from Anderson’s many years of experience.

Disclaimer: I received “Theology That Sticks” as a media review copy from the publisher. All opinions were my own.

Book Review: “Reprobation and God’s Sovereignty” by Peter Sammons

For many years, I have held some the doctrines related to God’s foreordained choice of those who would be saved (or condemned) with a fairly open hand. The Bible is absolutely clear that there is an “elect” group of people appointed unto eternal salvation–this was a choice decided in eternity past. There’s really no contest on that. And really, both Calvinists and Arminians would still agree up to this point. The key difference is over what basis God used to decide whom the elect would be–did He sovereignly choose the elect, wholly of His own will (Calvinism)? Or did He use “prescient” foreknowledge to “choose those that would choose Him”? In seminary, I set out to decide once and for all what my opinions on this matter would be, and in my selected reading I still didn’t settle in on one position wholeheartedly. And now, about 8 years later, I still haven’t fully clenched my hand with a decided position. When I found Peter Sammons’ book, “Reprobation and God’s Sovereignty,” I thought I might have found the clincher on this mysterious and weighty doctrine. Having read the book, I can say that I learned some Reformed nuances that I hadn’t heard before, and thus found some benefit to the book. At the same time, Sammons is transparent as well to remind readers that there is still some room for mystery. And thus, while he makes a fairly compelling case for a Reformed perspective on the doctrine of reprobation, my hands are still open.

Sammons defines “reprobation” as “the eternal, unconditional decree of God for the non-elect” (pg. 47). This term, “unconditional,” especially separates the Calvinist crowd from the Arminian, as it requires that this decree was not based on prior knowledge of what a person would do. Page 141 is what seems so striking to me, as we see the inclusion of mystery to both sides of the argument. Sammons notes, “The compatibilist position realizes that there is an aspect of mystery behind how God’s absolute sovereignty does not destroy human responsibility.” But with an attached footnote, points out, “The Arminian view eventually appeals to mystery as well.” No doubt, there are certainly multiple passage in Scripture that favor the Reformed compatibilist viewpoint, especially Romans 9. But however one looks at this issue, I think it’s safe to allow for some room of graciousness to the other side of this debate, realizing that “The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the things revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may follow all the words of this law” (Deuteronomy 29:29 NIV).

I would encourage readers to pick up a copy of “Reprobation and God’s Sovereignty” to obtain a clear perspective as to what Reformed theology teaches in regards to the doctrine of reprobation. Stylistically, the book was not tremendously captivating or illustrious–it was adapted from a dissertation, and it shows. I recognize the topic isn’t the most cheery of issues, but I would’ve preferred a little more artistry in language (granted, this was from Kregel’s “academic” series). Overall, though, the book does what it advertises, even if there might be some disagreement over the certainty of this mysterious doctrine.

Note: A review copy of this book was provided to me for free by Kregel Academic. All opinions were my own.

The Faith of the Presidents (NEW Book Available!)

Not everyone gets remembered in history books. Those who do, however, have typically lived a life of great influence, whether for good or for ill. In American history, few people have outpaced the presidents in terms of notoriety. And thus, it is crucial to know the details behind these consequential politicians.

Published in 2021, The Faith of the Presidents is an up to date compilation of biographical essays devoted to each president of the United States, from George Washington to Joe Biden. Utilizing primary and secondary sources, John M. Wiley delves into the lives of these presidents on the deepest of levels–unveiling their faith. Not all presidents were religious, and while some laid everything out to be known, some were more reserved in their ponderings about God, the Bible, and the place of religion in the United States. But there is arguably no greater driving force behind America’s presidents than their faith (or lack thereof).

While there are other works that have been composed regarding the religious perspectives of most of America’s presidents, there are no other known books to date that have surveyed all the presidents with the goal of helping Christian readers specifically to spiritually engage with the faith of these presidents. In a way, this book is a cross between a history book and a Christian theology/Christian living genre. The Faith of the Presidents offers thoughtful Christians an opportunity to refine their faith and discerningly learn about the religious views of America’s most powerful statesmen.

Click here to purchase the paperback.

Click here to purchase the Kindle version.

Is an Unaccredited College or Seminary a Viable Option for Theological Education?


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I once received a phone call from a regionally accredited university, whose admissions counselor’s first words were something like this: “First of all, congratulations on achieving such a high GPA.” She then proceeded to ask a question, “Was your college accredited?” I explained that it was nationally accredited (but not regionally accredited). The phone call quickly ended, after I learned that their institution would not accept anyone unless they had a regionally accredited bachelor’s degree–I was applying to their graduate school. This literally infuriated me. How could a university’s admittance process be so narrow-minded in determining which students are equipped to enter one of its programs? Providentially, I applied to another grad school, which had a better program anyway, where I was accepted and will hopefully finish my M.A. this fall. This phone call taught me two valuable lessons. First, a regionally accredited school is not necessarily “better” (in terms of educational quality) than a nationally accredited school. I have compared syllabi and sat in on classes from regionally schools, and rarely do they require more from their students compared to my alma mater. Secondly, though, accreditation can potentially open more doors. The subject for this article, however, is directed not at national or regional accreditation. Instead, the question I am concerned with here would be, “Is an Unaccredited College or Seminary a Viable Option for Theological Education?”

  • Why Would a Theological Institution Not Pursue Accreditation?

I have surveyed probably hundreds of websites from theological institutions, and most of them have a page on accreditation. For schools that are unaccredited, they usually refer to some of these reasons. (1) They avoid accreditation to keep costs low. For a school to obtain or retain their status with an accreditation body, it requires a lot of time and money. Generally, unaccredited schools are much cheaper in tuition rates. (2) They avoid accreditation to separate themselves from the workings of the federal government. Most college students have spent hours filling out FAFSA forms. If they (or their parents) don’t make a lot of money, then might be able to obtain grant money and loans. Students that attend unaccredited schools cannot apply for federal aid (to the best of my knowledge), but then again, costs are also lower there. (3) They avoid accreditation to retain doctrinal autonomy with their faculty members. I have heard this referred to critically as “institutional in-breeding,” but I would also provide an alternative view. Some theological institutions hold to minority views on certain issues, so it can be somewhat difficult to put together professors that agree to certain beliefs that are not mainstream. Also, I think there is a biblical precedent to hiring graduates to become teachers. In Second Timothy 2:2, Paul said to Timothy, “what you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses entrust to faithful men who will be able to teach others also.” Granted, the context here is referring to the local church, but is it too much of a stretch for this to apply to theological institutions?

  • Degree Mills vs. Legitimate Theological Schools

One of the biggest challenges that graduates from unaccredited theological institutions may face is the perception that they earned their degree from a so-called “degree mill.” There are places that, for a small price, can give anyone a degree, even doctorates. In studying logic, students learn of the “guilt by association” fallacy, but unfortunately, many unaccredited schools are unfairly viewed as degree mills. Consider, however, that many college graduates (from accredited institutions even), particularly in fields like music and psychology, have a very difficult time finding a job in their field with just that degree under their belt. I say this because when approaching the issue of accreditation, we should not have this false dichotomy in mind that an accredited degree automatically makes for a great career, while unaccredited degrees make for poor careers. Furthermore, since many graduates of theological institutions will pursue a career with local churches, it should also be noted that even an accredited doctorate will not automatically guarantee a successful ministry. Plenty of pastors with the prefix, “Dr.” before their names have endured intense anguish as leaders of troublesome churches. At the same time, borrowing from the principle noted in my introduction, an accredited degree can open up more options, which may be enough of a reason to stick with an accredited degree path.

  • Why Someone Would Not Pursue an Unaccredited Degree

As I mentioned in the introduction, my bachelor’s degree was nationally accredited (along with a master’s degree from the same institution), and to be honest, I am glad for it. One of the most important reasons for why someone should pursue an accredited degree is so that he/she can have the most possible options for further education. And for those that desire to serve in educational roles career-wise, it would be very challenging to do so with all unaccredited degrees. Still, there are some that have done quite well with an accredited bachelor’s and master’s degree, but an unaccredited doctorate (R.C. Sproul, James White, Tommy Ice, to name a few). They key issue centers on what someone desires to gain from a certain degree

  • Why an Unaccredited Degree is Sometimes a Viable Option for Theological Education

For some people, it would not be a wise decision to pursue an unaccredited degree, such as those that want to teach at an accredited institution or want to be ordained in a denomination that requires certain accreditation standards in their education. But there are a lot of people that would do well to choose an unaccredited degree, as long as the program is rigorous and biblically-centered. In particular, pastors, missionaries, and Christian writers that desire to study the Bible with the instruction of teachers and fellow students can be greatly enriched by numerous unaccredited schools. Just because an institution is unaccredited, it does not necessarily mean that the professors are poor instructors in the Bible. From a personal perspective, I am interested in resuming my D.Min. program at an unaccredited seminary once I complete my M.A. (which is at a regionally accredited school). I don’t expect the D.Min. to help me gain entrance as a professor into an accredited seminary, but I do hope it will help enrich my knowledge of the Bible so that I can be a better writer and teacher. On the other hand, my career goal is to eventually teach history at the college level in accredited institutions, so that is why I am pursuing options for a Ph.D in history at accredited institutions. If I finish my D.Min., I would not consider it a useless degree, and I don’t think others should think that of their degrees from unaccredited schools if they were able to have learned more about God and His Word.

  • Conclusion

The question that some readers may be asking is, “Should I pursue an unaccredited degree?” Hopefully I made it clear that a good percentage of people should pursue a degree from an accredited institution. The most important reason has to do with career options. But there are also valid reasons why someone may want to forego the accredited program and stick with something else. It may be worthwhile to ask yourself, will an unaccredited degree potentially prohibit me from pursuing my career goals? For those that answer with a clear “yes,” then I think an accredited school is preferable. However, for those that are uncertain, it would probably be wise to contact people who are currently working in the career you desire (as well as employers, depending on the field), and ask them if an accredited degree (and specify if it needs to be regionally or nationally accredited) would be needed. If career goals are not hindered by an unaccredited degree, then the next question would be, which institution would best help me study the Bible? It very well may be an accredited school, but I don’t think an unaccredited school should be left out as a possibility. There are also other questions such as finances, flexibility, and doctrinal preferences, which could play a part in a wise decision. Additionally, while options are limited, I have heard of some accredited seminaries accepting graduates of unaccredited colleges into their programs–sometimes with a probationary period to start (this is definitely something to ask a prospective seminary, especially those that may be in the middle of an unaccredited degree). Altogether the choice of attending a theological school is not usually easy. Likewise, much of what I have said here is my opinion, but I have tried to back up my opinions with valid reasoning. I have greatly enjoyed being an advising professor at an unaccredited seminary. Many of the students there have put forward tremendous works of scholarship. And while an unaccredited college or seminary is not the right fit for everyone, I believe it is a viable option for some people.

“The Almighty Has His Own Purposes”: Abraham Lincoln, Religion, and the Emancipation of Slaves



Abraham Lincoln has been remembered, both in his own lifetime and thereafter, by the nickname, “Honest Abe.” His characteristic trustworthiness, nevertheless, has not necessarily permitted historians to easily interpret all aspects of his personal life and political career. One such topic that has been somewhat shrouded in mystery is Abraham Lincoln’s religious views. The prolific American theologian, Reinhold Neibuhr once referred to Lincoln as “unquestionably our most religious president,” who was “superior in depth and purity to those, not only of the political leaders of the day, but of the religious leaders of the era.”[i] On the other hand, a contemporary of Lincoln, William Herndon, attempted to combat the idea that Abraham Lincoln changed his views about believing in a personal God by dismissing the existence of any evidence for such a claim.[ii] However, Wayne C. Temple’s more recent tome, Abraham Lincoln: From Skeptic to Prophet, has compiled scores of evidence to outline the religious views of Abraham, which were by no means static throughout his life, but nonetheless gradually moved away from skepticism and towards a more theistic worldview, heavily grounded in biblical imagery.[iii] By the time of Lincoln’s second inaugural address, Edmund Wilson writes the following:

We are far here from Herndon’s office, closer to Harriet Beecher Stowe. If the need on Lincoln’s part, as a public man, to express himself in phrases congenial to his public may have had some part in inducing him to heighten and personify the formulas of his eighteenth-century deism, if it is true that as the went on and gave rise to more and more disaffection, it became more and more to his interest to invoke the traditional Lord of Hosts, it is nevertheless quite clear that he himself came to see the conflict in a light more and more religious, in more and more Scriptural terms, under a more and more apocalyptic aspect. The vision had imposed itself.[iv]

This research will trace the background of Abraham Lincoln in brief, and then especially focus on the religious transitions that occurred during Lincoln’s presidency. It will be argued that Herndon’s hypothesis of Lincoln’s religious ideals is inconsistent with the available data and that Lincoln was a deeply religious man, despite the uncertain characteristics about some of his specific beliefs.

Yet, the primary purpose of this research is not simply to better ascertain what Lincoln thought about religion. Rather, the core focus will be to demonstrate how his religious views affected the ways in which he dealt with the abolition of slavery, both before and after the Emancipation Proclamation. Many scholars as of late have propagated interpretations that highlight changes during Lincoln’s presidency pertaining to both his religious beliefs and his strategies for emancipating slaves.[v] However, it seems that most historians focus either on Lincoln’s religion or on emancipation, without connecting the two issues. Admittedly, both topics have tremendously rich historiographical backgrounds, thus, an attempt to link the two together in a concise paper is somewhat of a challenging task. At the same time, the available primary source material, along with secondary literature, arguably allows for the interpretation that Lincoln’s religious beliefs played a significant role in how he attempted to carry out his policies in relation to emancipation.

The Religious Background of Abraham Lincoln

Abraham Lincoln experienced both positive and negative aspects of religious activities as he grew up. His own father, Thomas Lincoln, was said to be, “A devout Christian of the Baptist order,” according to fellow church member, Nathaniel Grisby.[vi] His family would attend Little Pigeon Baptist Church throughout his childhood, a congregation that faced many controversies in its day, especially pertaining to the funding of missionaries (an especially strong movement in New England), the doctrine of predestination, and issues of local church autonomy.[vii] It is quite plausible that one of the most serious frustrations Lincoln faced in his Baptist background was the inability of older congregants to speak to him in communicable ways. In Lincoln’s later recollections, he stated:

I remember how when a mere child, I used to get irritated when anybody talked to me in a way I could not understand. I do not think I ever got angry at anything else in my life; but that always disturbed my temper. I can remember going to my little room, after hearing the neighbors talk of an evening with my father, and spending no small part of the night walking up and down trying to make out the exact meaning of their, to me, dark sayings. I could not sleep, although I tried to, when I got on such a hunt for an idea, until I had caught it; and when I thought I had got it I was not satisfied until I had repeated it over and over again; until I had put in language plain enough, so I thought, for any boy I knew to comprehend. This was a kind of passion with me, and it has stuck by me, for I am never easy now when I am handling a thought, till I have bounded it north, and bounded it south, and bounded it east, and bounded it west.[viii]

John F. Cady comments, “The church of his youth had been too void of perspective, too much concerned with futile theological bickerings to be able to contain the inquiring spirit of the young man. Religious considerations seemed to lead into narrower and ever more exclusive channels.”[ix] That very well may be true, though it is also suggested that the unlearned, Calvinistic Baptists from Indiana could not satisfy his curious nature for religious inquiries.[x] At the same time, Lincoln did first encounter, while living in Indiana, a biography on George Washington by Mason Locke Weems, which, “no doubt, influenced his later stand against slavery.”[xi] Notably, Weems was also a Christian minister that unabashedly interpreted aspects of Washington’s life in light of “Providence.”[xii]

In 1831, Lincoln moved to the town of New Salem, Illinois, where he would eventually begin his political career. This six-year stay also seems to be the period of time in which Lincoln became most skeptical about religion, particularly of Christianity. He is believed to have read writings from religious skeptics, such as Thomas Paine’s The Age of Reason and Constantin Volney’s The Ruins.[xiii] According to local legend, Lincoln had even written a manuscript that denied the divine qualities of the Bible, though it was apparently burned.[xiv] A man who met Lincoln in 1834, believed that the Scottish poet, and former Calvinist, “[Robert] Burns helped Lincoln to be an infidel…at least he found in Burns a like thinker & feeler.”[xv] How much of an extended impact these writings had on Lincoln’s life and beliefs is hard to say with precision. Thankfully, for the sake of historical records, once Lincoln moved away from New Salem, he began to write more frequently.

Lincoln moved to the new capital of Springfield, Illinois in 1837. Nearly a decade later, when running for a seat in Congress, his opponent, revivalist preacher, Peter Cartwright, accused Lincoln of being antagonistic towards the Christian faith. Lincoln’s response is tremendously insightful for understanding how his New Salem inquiries of skepticism had since worn off a bit:

A charge having got into circulation in some of the neighborhoods of this District, in substance that I am an open scoffer at Christianity, I have by the advice of some friends concluded to notice the subject in this form. That I am not a member of any Christian Church, is true; but I have never denied the truth of the Scriptures; and I have never spoken with intentional disrespect of religion in general, or of any denomination of Christians in particular.[xvi]

It is clear, therefore, that Lincoln was not hostile to Christians or even certain denominations, but his response also notes the following:

It is true that in early life I was inclined to believe in what I understand is called the “Doctrine of Necessity”—that is, that the human mind is impelled to action, or held in rest by some power, over which the mind itself has no control; and I have sometimes (with one, two or three, but never publicly) tried to maintain this opinion in argument. The habit of arguing thus however, I have, entirely left off for more than five years.[xvii]

The eminent Princeton theologian, Charles Hodge, defines the Doctrine of Necessity to mean, “all events are determined by a blind necessity.” Thus, “This necessity does not arise from the will of an intelligent Being governing all his creatures and all their acts according to their nature, and for purposes of wisdom and goodness; but from a law of sequence to which God (or rather the gods) as well as men is subject.”[xviii] In January 1851, Lincoln received news through his stepbrother that his father was dying. Responding with care and sensitivity, Lincoln’s thoughts derive from Jesus’ “Sermon on the Mount” and are far from full-blown Deism: “Tell him to remember to call upon, and confide in, our great and good, and merciful Maker, who will not turn away from him in any extremity. He notes the fall of a sparrow, and numbers the hairs of our heads; and He will not forget the dying man, who puts his trust in Him.”[xix] Whether or not Lincoln was actually an “orthodox” Christian in terms of believing in certain doctrines such as Trinitarianism, the deity of Jesus Christ, or the divine inspiration of the Bible, is not necessarily the intention of this research. Instead, the focus will be on how Lincoln came to more distinctively understand the doctrine of providence, and precisely how that belief influenced his attitude towards emancipating slaves.

One of the most significant relationships that Lincoln developed while in Illinois, concerning his religious development, was with the pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Springfield, Dr. James Smith.[xx] The distinguishable characteristic between Smith and the Baptists Lincoln had known in his childhood, other than obvious denominational differences, was Smith’s intellectual rigor as a Christian thinker. He had previously been a Deist, and even made a practice to attend camp meeting revivals for the purpose of mocking preachers. However, through the ministry of Rev. James Blackwell, Smith converted to Christianity and became a Presbyterian pastor. Abraham Lincoln thoroughly read Smith’s book, The Christian’s Defense, and has been quoted to have said, “I have been reading a work of Dr. Smith on the evidences of Christianity, and have heard him preach and converse on the subject, and I am now convinced of the truth of the Christian religion.”[xxi] Though he always seems to have been profoundly respectful of and attracted to the Bible, his religious convictions still had plenty of potential for alteration.[xxii] During his service as president, a notable change was undertaken, albeit gradually, in his beliefs of man’s free agency and God’s providence.

Religious Transitions During Lincoln’s Presidency

Andrew R. Murphy says the following about Lincoln’s presidency: “Lincoln knew the Bible well, and it seems clear that he became increasingly comfortable with religious rhetoric as his presidency unfolded (culminating, of course, in the Second Inaugural).”[xxiii] It has been commonly interpreted that Lincoln’s speeches became progressively religious further into his presidency. That might be true, but it should not cause one to think that Lincoln avoided religious rhetoric in the first couple of years in his presidency either. At a speech in Cincinnati, as his first term was about to begin, he proclaimed, “I take your response as the most reliable evidence that it may be so, along with other evidence, trusting that the good sense of the American people, on all sides of all rivers in America, under the Providence of God, who has never deserted us, that we shall again be brethren, forgetting all parties—ignoring all parties.”[xxiv] And in his first inaugural address, Lincoln boasted, “Intelligence, patriotism, Christianity, and a firm reliance on Him, who has never yet forsaken this favored land, are still competent to adjust, in the best way, all our present difficulty.”[xxv] The real significance of Lincoln’s religious transitions during his presidency is not necessarily that he spoke more often in religious terms, but that he changed his foundational view of God’s providence by the summer of 1862, just before the Emancipation Proclamation was given.

Lincoln had moved away from the naturalistic “Doctrine of Necessity” for several years, and at the beginning of his presidency his view of providence might be best understood by the phrase, “divine assistance.” In other words, God was available to intervene in the affairs of mankind, contrasting with the impersonal “Doctrine of Necessity,” but the relationship between “Creator” and “created” was not quite Calvinistic in the sense that the world is to be seen as God’s “glorious theatre” where God’s will surpasses man’s plans.[xxvi] Nicholas Parillo substantiates this claim by stating, “Literary analysis reveals that, even though Lincoln always subscribed to the same technical definition of providence, the role that this concept played in his rhetoric underwent a gradual but dramatic change during his presidency.”[xxvii] Lincoln, in his acceptance letter for the Republican presidential nomination, wrote:

Imploring the assistance of Divine Providence, and with due regard to the views and feelings of all who were represented in the convention; to the rights of all the states, and territories, and people of the nation; to the inviolability of the constitution, and the perpetual union, harmony, and prosperity of all, I am most happy to co-operate for the practical success of the principles declared by the convention.[xxviii]

The words, “the assistance of Divine Providence,” are notable, as they infer that Lincoln believed God would intervene upon the request of the one who seeks aid. To borrow John Calvin’s theatre analogy again, both men and God, according to Lincoln’s understanding of providence, were actors in world events, but the added power of God would give an advantage to those, in particular, who request and rely on his divine assistance.[xxix]

Lincoln addressed Congress in December of 1861, saying, “The struggle of today, is not altogether for today—it is for a vast future also. With a reliance on Providence, all the more firm and earnest, let us proceed in the great task which events have devolved upon us.”[xxx] Lincoln would not have known that the nation’s present “struggle” would eventually yield results such as the deaths of well over 600,000 Americans, or even a more favorable outcome such as the abolition of slavery. His own role in the Civil War seems to have been guided by his evolving understanding of God’s providence. Lincoln never joined a congregation as a member in Washington, D.C., but he did end up attending another Presbyterian church governed by a well-educated clergyman. According to Ronald C. White, Jr., “Lincoln, ever attuned to paradox, appreciated the Presbyterian belief that the sinfulness of human beings did not lead to passivity, because Christian men and women were called to be instruments of divine purpose in society,” and the minister, Phineas Densmore Gurley, was undoubtedly true to his “Old School” Presbyterian roots.[xxxi] And it is plausible that Gurley’s own views on God’s providence rubbed off on the president. Gurley once preached the following message:

I believe this Triune God is in history; I believe He is in all history: I believe His hand and His mercy are exceedingly conspicuous in our national history; and never more so than in the present eventful and perilous crisis: and my confident hope is, that, when the crisis is over, and the Divine purpose in permitting it is fully developed and accomplished, the nations who now predict, if they do not desire, our ruin, will be compelled to say: “the Lord hath done great things for them;” and our simple yet grateful response will be: “the Lord hath done great things for us, whereof we are glad.”[xxxii]

Clearly this is not comparable to a “Doctrine of Necessity,” but neither is it advocating that people do their deeds with “divine assistance.” Rather, Gurley emphasizes the much more Calvinistic approach that speaks of God superseding over the world’s affairs, and the necessity that Christians align their plans with the Almighty’s.

In 1862, Lincoln appears to have altered his own views of providence to closely resemble the teachings of Reverend Gurley. This also happened to be the year that his son, Willie, tragically died.[xxxiii] Furthermore, the U.S. Army had not been nearly as successful as expected, particularly in the Northern Virginia Campaign. Perhaps, then, circumstances also had an effect. On September 13, 1862, he delivered an address in Chicago that could almost be considered a sermon on providence:

I hope it will not be irreverent for me to say that if it is probable that God would reveal his will to others, on a point so connected with my duty, it might be supposed he would reveal it directly to me; for, unless I am more deceived in myself than I often am, it is my earnest desire to know the will of Providence in this matter. And if I can learn what it is I will do it! These are not, however, the days of miracles, and I suppose it will be granted that I am not to expect a direct revelation. I must study the plain physical facts of the case, ascertain what is possible and learn what appears to be wise and right. The subject is difficult, and good men do not agree.[xxxiv]

The “matter” referred to here by Lincoln is emancipation. Clearly, he believed that God was sovereign over the nation’s concerns of the war, and of slavery as well. Lincoln’s struggles centered on his desire to do “the will of Providence,” without having direct revelation on what action to take towards emancipation. Later in his speech, he claimed, “Whatever shall appear to be God’s will I will do.”[xxxv] He no longer held to the “divine assistance” view of providence, in which one decides to act and then hopes for God’s favor. The “theatre” of God would operate as the Almighty willed; Lincoln just hoped to do what was “wise and right,” but obviously with fear and trembling. In a later letter to Albert G. Hodges, Lincoln confessed in retrospect, “I claim not to have controlled events, but confess plainly that events have controlled me.”[xxxvi] The Emancipation Proclamation, then, would become one of the biggest actions undertaken by the president, following his final transformation in his religious ideas pertaining to God’s providence.

In September 1862, the same month in which Lincoln publicly announced the Emancipation Proclamation, the president wrote a private note to assess the situation, which has since been designated, “Meditation on Divine Will.” Lincoln asserted the following evaluation:

The will of God prevails. In great contests each party claims to act in accordance with the will of God. Both may be, and one must be, wrong. God [cannot] be for and against the same thing at the same time. In the present civil war it is quite possible that God’s purpose is something different from the purpose of either party—and yet the human instrumentalities, working just as they do, are of the best adaptation to effect His purpose. I am almost ready to say this is probably true—that God wills this contest, and wills that it shall not end yet. By his mere quiet power, on the minds of the now contestants, He could have either saved or destroyed the Union without a human contest. Yet the contest began. And having begun He could give the final victory to either side any day. Yet the contest proceeds.[xxxvii]

Here, Lincoln makes evident his views on God’s sovereignty and human free agency: all that occurs is under the guiding hand of Providence, but the “human instrumentalities” are still accountable in their actions.[xxxviii] He apparently was ready to make his move towards the Emancipation Proclamation.[xxxix]

A Synthesis of Lincoln’s Religious Views and Evolving Ideas Concerning Emancipation

The transformation of Lincoln’s understanding of providence, starting with the “Doctrine of Necessity,” to a “divine assistance” view, and finally, to a more Calvinistic perspective, created a structure that linked his religious beliefs with his evolving ideas concerning emancipation. Although his plans for dealing with slavery while president changed over time, Lincoln’s distaste for the institution had always been the same. He once stated, “I am naturally anti-slavery. If slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong. I [cannot] remember when I did not so think, and feel.”[xl] Thus, even before his life in the White House, when skeptical of religion or when accepting of it, he was no friend to slavery. However, circumstantial events during his political career in Illinois seemed to have motivated Lincoln towards a more mature understanding of how the nation ought to view slavery. Eric Foner comments that after eyeing the momentous occurrences related to the Kansas-Nebraska Act, and then the violence in Kansas, the events in 1857, such as the Dred Scott decision, the Buchanan administration’s oversight in the enforcement of slavery in Kansas, and his debates with Stephen A. Douglas “would propel Lincoln to address directly questions he had until then touched on only tangentially—the rights and future status of black Americans, and the underlying differences between two societies resting on antagonistic systems of slave and free labor.”[xli] But Foner also writes, “All in all the first sixteen months of Lincoln’s presidency—the period from March 1861 through June 1862—witnessed noteworthy changes in the government’s relationship to slavery,” which included him being the first ever president to submit an abolition plan to Congress, as well ending slavery in Washington, D.C.[xlii]

It should be pointed out by way of reminder that Lincoln’s intellectual framework concerning providence had changed from the time he entered into the presidential office to the Emancipation Proclamation. As noted by Ronald C. White, Jr., “Although his heart had long been tormented by the immorality of slavery, his Enlightenment, precedent-based, Old School head had heretofore tethered him to what he believed to be the Constitution’s prohibition against eliminating slavery where it already existed in the South.”[xliii] Lincoln gave his well-known “A House Divided” speech in 1858, wherein he stated:

“A house divided against itself cannot stand.” I believe this government cannot endure, permanently, half slave and half free. I do not expect the Union to be dissolved; I do not expect the house to fall; but I do expect it will cease to be divided. It will become all one thing, or all the other. Either the opponents of slavery will arrest the further spread of it and place it where the public mind shall rest in the belief that it is in the course of ultimate extinction, or its advocates will push it forward till it shall become alike lawful in all the states, old as well as new, North as well as South.[xliv]

It seems quite likely that Lincoln carried this mindset into his presidency, together with his “divine assistance” view of providence. Whatever that was to occur with slavery, then, was basically contingent upon the actions of Americans, though God could be called upon for added support. In an 1861 speech, Lincoln went on to say, “And having thus chosen our course, without guile and with pure purpose, let us renew our trust in God and go forward without fear and with manly hearts.”[xlv] Throughout the spring of 1862, Lincoln adamantly recommended that emancipation be administered gradually, along with the incentive of compensation.[xlvi] In June, the hopeful William Bernard declared his “earnest desire that [Lincoln] might, under divine guidance, be led to free the slaves and thus save the nation from destruction.” To which Lincoln responded:

[I] had sometime thought that perhaps [I] might be an instrument in God’s hands of accomplishing a great work and [I] certainly was not unwilling to be. Perhaps, however, God’s way of accomplishing the end which the memorialists have in view may be different from theirs. It would be [my] earnest endeavor, with a firm reliance upon the Divine arm, and seeking light from above, to do his duty in the place to which he had been called.[xlvii]

Nicholas Parillo’s interpretation of how Lincoln viewed the war appears to be correct: “the events of the Civil War became, for Lincoln, manifestations of God’s intention for the future of slavery.”[xlviii]

When Lincoln finally issued the Emancipation Proclamation in September of 1862, which was set to be effective starting January of the following year, he apprehensively admitted, “I can only trust in God I have made no mistake.”[xlix] By this time, it would appear that Lincoln’s view of God’s providence had made an impact on his considerations of emancipating slaves. He made a major motion, but Lincoln did not request divine assistance to fulfill his own plans. Instead, Lincoln possessed the hope that he was fulfilling God’s plans. “For Lincoln,” writes Nicholas Parillo, “[E]mancipation served as no holy crusade but merely fulfilled divine providence.”[l] That Lincoln changed his view of providence, as it has been argued in this research, is not necessarily significant in terms of whether or not the Emancipation Proclamation would have ever happened—it seems unlikely that a change in his view of providence would have altered his motivation for emancipating slaves. On the other hand, this analysis does bring to light the intellectual framework for which Lincoln operated as president, and as the “Great Emancipator.” Furthermore, it also appears that his post-1861 view of providence set himself on a spiritual trajectory that would lead to an even more religious-focused presidency.

Two speeches in particular especially highlight Lincoln’s more intense concentration on matters of religion following the Emancipation Proclamation. On a national fast day in 1863, Lincoln presented a jeremiad-like message to his country:

May we not justly fear that the awful calamity of civil war, which now desolates the land, may be but a punishment, inflicted upon us, for our presumptuous sins, to the needful end of our national reformation as a whole people? We have been the recipients of the choicest bounties of Heaven. We have been preserved, these many years, in peace and prosperity. We have grown in numbers, wealth and power, as no other nation has ever grown. But we have forgotten God. We have forgotten the gracious hand which preserved us in peace, and multiplied and enriched and strengthened us; and we have vainly imagined, in the deceitfulness of our hearts, that all these blessings were produced by some superior wisdom and virtue of our own. Intoxicated with unbroken success, we have become too self-sufficient to feel the necessity of redeeming and preserving grace, too proud to pray to the God that made us! It behooves us then, to humble ourselves before the offended Power, to confess our national sins, and to pray for clemency and forgiveness.[li]

Evidently, Lincoln now believed that the Civil War was not merely permitted by God, but that God providentially ordained it for just retribution, a theme he again featured in his Second Inaugural, which is completely saturated with biblical imagery. Although Lincoln had issued the Emancipation Proclamation two years prior, slavery was still not obliterated, and the war carried on ever still. Perhaps what is most striking about this speech is Lincoln’s understanding of providence in relation to the perpetuation of slavery. He stated:

If we shall suppose that American slavery is one of those offenses which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, he now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South this terrible war as the woe due to those by whom the offense came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a living God always ascribe to Him? Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away.[lii]

At the same time, Lincoln went on to say, “Yet, if God wills that it continue…so still it must be said, ‘The judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.’”[liii]


Although deemed the “Great Emancipator” by some, Lincoln merely saw himself as an instrument in God’s created order. Despite his human effort attempts at suppressing the institution of slavery, such as in issuing the Emancipation Proclamation and in persevering through the war, Lincoln’s religious views—particularly that of providence—significantly influenced the ways in which he lived out his role as president. His earlier belief in the “Doctrine of Necessity” was replaced by a “divine assistance” view of providence before his election to Congress in Illinois, only to morph into a more Calvinistic understanding by the middle of his first term as president in 1862. His latest understanding of providence did seem to influence his attitude towards emancipation and even the war as a whole—that actions ought to be made towards ending slavery, but the success for such endeavors was up to God’s providential will. While not everything is clear about Lincoln’s personal religious beliefs, he did not seem to distinguish between the secular and the sacred when it came to how he viewed his role as the country’s president. If his religiously skeptical ideas had stayed with him throughout his life, perhaps his second inaugural address would have declared, “Nature has her own purposes.” If he had remained steeped in the “divine assistance” view of providence, perhaps Lincoln would have stated, “The Almighty will help us in our purposes.” But in the end, Lincoln came to believe, “The Almighty has His own purposes.”[liv]













[i] Quoted in Andrew R. Murphy, “Religion, Civil Religion, and Civil War: Faith and Foreign Affairs in the Lincoln Presidency” The Review of Faith & International Affairs 9:4 (Winter 2011): 21.

[ii] See Edmund Wilson, Patriotic Gore: Studies in the Literature of the American Civil War (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1962), p. 102.

[iii] Wayne C. Temple, Abraham Lincoln: From Skeptic to Prophet (Mahomet, IL: Mayhaven Publishing, 1995).

[iv] Wilson, Patriotic Gore, p. 106.

[v] Having already noted a couple of sources on the transitional views of Lincoln’s religious beliefs, Eric Foner’s text, The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery (New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Company, 2010), is a marvelous resource that provides an overview of Lincoln’s transitional views of emancipation. James Oakes’s The Scorpion’s Sting: Antislavery and the Coming of the Civil War (New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Company, 2014) is also a helpful work, particularly in the way it provides a historical context for how Lincoln eventually found legal confidence to issue the Emancipation Proclamation.

[vi] Ronald C. White, Jr., A. Lincoln: A Biography (New York, NY: Random House, 2009), p. 35.

[vii] See John F. Cady, “The Religious Environment of Lincoln’s Youth” Indiana Magazine of History 37:1 (1941): 16-30.

[viii] Quoted in Charles W. Moores, Abraham Lincoln, Lawyer (Greenfield, IN: Wm. Mitchell Printing Co., 1922), p. 484-485.

[ix] Cady, “The Religious Environment of Lincoln’s Youth,” p. 30.

[x] On the Calvinistic, yet anti-educational origins of Little Pigeon Baptist Church, see Ibid., p. 16-18, 27-30.

[xi] Temple, Abraham Lincoln: from Skeptic to Prophet, p. 11.

[xii] For example, Weems writes, “Where George got his great military talents, is a question which none but the happy believers in a particular Providence can solve: certain it is, his earthly parents had not hand in it.” M.L. Weems, The Life of George Washington; With Curious Anecdotes, Equally Honourable to Himself, and Exemplary to His Young Countrymen (Philadelphia, PA: Lippincott, Grambo & Co., 1800), p. 30.

[xiii] See Foner, The Fiery Trial, p. 35; White, A. Lincoln, p. 54.

[xiv] See Foner, The Fiery Trial, p. 35.

[xv] See White, A. Lincoln, p. 55.

[xvi] Roy Basler, ed., The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1953), 1:382.

[xvii] Ibid.

[xviii] Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1940), 2:280.

[xix] Quoted in White, A. Lincoln, p. 183. Lincoln’s eulogy for Henry Clay further demonstrates his revitalized belief in a God who providentially intervenes in His creation: “Such a man the times have demanded, and such, in the providence of God was given us. But he is gone. Let us strive to deserve, as far as mortals may, the continued care of Divine Providence, trusting that, in future national emergencies, He will not fail to provide us the instruments of safety and security.” Basler, ed., The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, 2:132.

[xx] Biographical material on Dr. James Smith is cited from Temple, Abraham Lincoln: From Skeptic to Prophet, p. 36-48.

[xxi] Quoted in Ibid., p. 40.

[xxii] On Lincoln’s love of the Bible, his “Reply to Loyal Colored People of Baltimore upon Presentation of a Bible” is quite helpful. In it, Lincoln confesses, “In regard to this Great Book, I have but to say, it is the best gift God has given to man. All the good the Saviour gave to the world was communicated through this book. But for it we could not know right from wrong. All things most desirable for man’s welfare, here and hereafter, are to be found portrayed in it.” Basler, ed., The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, 7:542.

[xxiii] Murphy, “Religion, Civil Religion, and Civil War: Faith and Foreign Affairs in the Lincoln Presidency,” p. 22.

[xxiv] Basler, ed., The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, 4:199.

[xxv] Ibid., 4:271.

[xxvi] John Calvin, The Institutes of the Christian Religion, Henry Beveridge, trans., p. 63. [accessed August 8, 2015].

[xxvii] Nicholas Parrillo, “Lincoln’s Calvinist Transformation: Emancipation and War” Civil War History 46:3 (2000): 228.

[xxviii] “To George Ashmun,” in Roy Basler, ed., The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Volume 4.

[xxix] His farewell address to Illinois as he left for the White House supports this interpretation:

A duty devolves upon me which is, perhaps, greater than that which has devolved upon any other man since the days of Washington. He never would have succeeded except for the aid of Divine Providence, upon which he at all times relied. I feel that I cannot succeed without the same Divine aid which sustained him, and on the same Almighty Being I place my reliance for support, and I hope you, my friends, will all pray that I may receive that Divine assistance without which I cannot succeed, but with which success is certain. (Ibid., 4:190)


[xxx] Ibid., 5:53.

[xxxi] White, Jr., A. Lincoln, p. 404.

[xxxii] P.D. Gurley, Man’s Projects and God’s Results. A Sermon: Preached by the Rev. P.D. Gurley, D.C., on Thursday, August 6, 1863, Being the Day of National Thanksgiving, Praise and Prayer (Washington, D.C.: Wm. Ballantyne, 1863), p. 5.

[xxxiii] Wayne Temple comments, “Religion appears to have become much more important to Abraham Lincoln following Willie’s death.” And he further writes that according to one witness, Lincoln stated, “When my [Willie] died, the severest trial of my life, I was not a Christian.” Though later, when asked if he was a Christian, the president said, “I hope I am a Christian.” Therefore, it does seem that Willie’s death impacted the religious outlook of the president, and it happened to coincide while the Lincoln family was under the pastoral care of Reverend Gurley. See Temple, Abraham Lincoln: From Skeptic to Prophet, p. 191-192.

[xxxiv] Basler, ed., The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, 5:420.

[xxxv] Ibid., 5:425.

[xxxvi] Ibid., 7:282.

[xxxvii] Ibid., 5:403-404.

[xxxviii] It might be tempting to assert that Lincoln had reverted to fatalism. But as Ronald C. White, Jr., explains:

The content of this private reflection illuminates how far Lincoln had traveled on his journey from fatalism to providence. The modern suggestion that fatalism and providence are part of a continuum would have surprised Protestant theologians in the nineteenth century. The two constellations of ideas had different origins and different outcomes. In fatalism, events unfolded according to certain laws of nature. In 1859, Francis Wharton, author of A Treatise on Theism and Modern Skeptical Theories, described fatalism as ‘a distinct scheme of unbelief’…Wharton contrasted fatalism with the God of Christianity known by ‘his watchful care and love.’” (A. Lincoln, p. 625.)


[xxxix] It is difficult to know with certainty whether or not the “Mediation on Divine Will” was composed prior to the official date of the Emancipation Proclamation, September 22, 1862. Basler, the editor of The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, makes a case that September 2, 1862 is a preferable date, rather than September 30, the date interposed in Nicolay and Hay’s Complete Works. Basler, ed., The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, 5:404. Whatever the case, his address in Chicago on September 13, 1862, makes it clear that Lincoln’s new view on providence had certainly been established prior the Emancipation Proclamation.

[xl] Ibid., 7:281.

[xli] Foner, The Fiery Trial, p. 91.

[xlii] Ibid., p. 204-205.

[xliii] White, Jr., A. Lincoln, p. 495.

[xliv] William Benton, pub., The Annals of America: Volume 9, 1858-1865: The Crisis of the Union (Chicago, IL: Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc., 1968), p. 1.

[xlv] Ibid., p. 274.

[xlvi] His recommendation was “that the United States ought to cooperate with any state which may adopt gradual abolishment of slavery, giving to such state pecuniary aid, to be used by such state, in its discretion, to compensate for the inconveniences, public and private, produced by such change of system.” Ibid., p. 328.

[xlvii] Basler, ed., The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, 5:279.

[xlviii] Parillo, “Lincoln’s Calvinist Transformation: Emancipation and War,” p. 242.

[xlix] Quoted in Ibid., p. 244.

[l] Ibid., p. 243.

[li] Basler, ed., The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, 6:155-156.

[lii] Benton, pub., The Annals of America, p. 556.

[liii] Ibid.

[liv] Ibid.

Applications of Sound Doctrine in Music Ministry



Music is one of God’s most unique creations in the world. Similar to a language, it can be written down or performed, and then transferred from person to person. But like the precision qualities in mathematics, each note, chord, and key can be structurally and definitively measured. Similar to painting, it is a “fine art” that allows each individual to possess and even refine his/her own skills to produce beautiful masterpieces. Yet, like the natural sciences, all of beauty is truly derived from the handwork of God Himself. As the psalmist reflects, “When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, what is man that you are mindful of him, and the son of man that you care for him?” (Psalm 8:3-4). God is worthy of worship and praise, so much that music and singing ought to be directed to His glory, particularly in local churches. But as it has been described already, music is mysteriously complex and seemingly paradoxical. It is no real surprise, then, that music is an oft-debated subject in local churches. The two issues main issues up for discussion are usually the following: (1) Whether content in the songs are theologically sound (2) Whether the style is appropriate. In reality, both of these issues are doctrinal questions. For in truth, the question we are asking is, “How should we then worship”?[1] If Christians are to provide answers to these questions, then there is only one place to go: the Holy Scriptures. Upon establishing biblical principles and guidelines for music ministry, several contemporary challenges will also be addressed in order to arrive at appropriate conclusions about sound doctrine in music ministry. In this topic, as well in all aspects of “life and godliness,” God’s Word proves sufficient (2 Peter 1:3).


Applications from the Old Testament on Sound Doctrine in Music Ministry

            One of the most obvious difficulties of applying Old Testament teaching to ecclesiastical music ministry (at least among Dispensationalists) is in the fact that the nation of Israel is distinct from the Church. But an additional challenge is in synthesizing the vast amount of material to arrive at certain conclusions. Still, despite not being able to cover the Old Testament teachings exhaustively, there are some general principles that will be addressed. The starting point is by observing where the Bible introduces music, and that is in the book of Genesis. But before evaluating the earliest mention of music, it would be helpful to go back to the story of creation. Genesis 1:31 states, “And God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good.” A doctrine of creation leads one to recognize that God made all things, including that which can be utilized for creating music, “good.” Milo Thompson notes, “[A]ll musicians work with the same principles of music that God designed, such as melody, harmony, rhythm, major and minor keys, and pitch.”[2] Now, the major dilemma for theologians and ministers is in deciphering how the introduction of sin affects the nature and outworking of music. Ironically, the first musician ever mentioned in the Scriptures was a man in the line of Cain named Jubal (Genesis 4:21). It is possible to conjecture that Jubal, considering his family heritage, did not use His music to glorify God, but that cannot be verified. Nevertheless, the Old Testament does give examples of music being used in ungodly ways: (1) Israel’s worshiping of the golden calf (2) Israel’s drunken feasts (3) Music for bowing down to King Nebuchadnezzar.[3] There does not appear to be any indication that the music is inherently wrong, but rather that it is used in a way that promotes a rebellion against God. Thus, in applying the Old Testament to music ministry, it is conclusive to denounce that music has the potential to be wielded for ungodly purposes.

Although music can be used for purposes that are detestable to God, it can also be used for magnificent intentions, namely, to praise and glorify the Lord. First, the Pentateuch and historical books will be observed. Upon praising the Lord for Israel’s safe exodus, Miriam proclaimed, “Sing to the Lord, for he has triumphed gloriously; the horse and his rider he has thrown into the sea” (Exodus 15:21). In Deuteronomy 31:19-22, God commands Moses: “[W]rite this song and teach it to the people of Israel. Put it in their mouths, that this song may be a witness for me against the people of Israel.” Verse 21 states why this song was important: “And when many evils and troubles have come upon them, this song shall confront them as a witness (for it will live unforgotten in the mouths of their offspring). For I know what they are inclined to do even today, before I have brought them into the land that I swore to give.” First Samuel 16:14-23 describes how David’s music calmed King Saul’s soul, but in First Chronicles 15:16-29 it was David who commanded music to be played—not for his own pleasure, but for worshiping the Lord. And in the following chapter (1 Chronicles 16:8-36), a magnificent song by David is recorded, which is followed by a call of “Amen!” by the people (vs. 36). A final passage to consider from these narrative books is Second Chronicles 20:27-29:

Then they returned, every man of Judah and Jerusalem, and Jehoshaphat at their head, returning to Jerusalem with joy, for the Lord had made them rejoice over their enemies. They came to Jerusalem with harps and lyres and trumpets, to the house of the Lord. And the fear of God came on all the kingdoms of the countries when they heard that the Lord had fought against the enemies of Israel.

In these passages, music composed of both singing and instrumentation is used in a variety of contexts, but all place a high focus on the Lord’s power and mighty acts. Oftentimes music was a response to God’s work in a situation, but other times it was catechetical or even therapeutic. Drawing from the lyrics that are recorded in Scripture, the utmost emphasis is placed on truth. Therefore, one can apply these Old Testament texts to music ministry, committing one’s self to producing music that is beautiful, God-centered, responsive (to what God has done), based on truth, and is profitable for teaching multiple generations.

The next section of Scripture, the poetic books, is simply too vast in content to cover even half of what can be potentially applied to sound doctrine in music ministry. However, some foundational principles will be drawn out. James E. Smith notes the following concerning the book of Job: “The Book of Job contains examples of almost every kind of literature which appears in the Old Testament. The author has incorporated (1) laments (e.g., ch. 3), (2) complaints (e.g., chs. 6–7), (3) hymns (e.g., 9:4–10), (4) proverbs (e.g., 5:2), and (5) rhetorical questions (e.g., 4:7) in abundance.”[4] While this observation is not primarily concerned about music ministry in a local church, one can see how poetry (and inferentially, songs) can be used to express a variety of emotions and statements. The next book, Psalms, is inherently applicable to music ministry. Perhaps the subtitle for the book, The Psalms, edited by Schmutzer and Howard Jr., describes this book most effectively: “Language for All Seasons of the Soul.”[5] Although differentiating between the types of psalms is a debated issue among scholars, Roger Ellsworth submits the following categories: “wisdom, confidence, individual laments, communal laments, pilgrimage, individual thanksgiving, communal thanksgiving, general praise, descriptive praise, imprecatory, indirectly messianic, explicitly messianic, enthronement.”[6] With prayer and great consideration, a church should think discerningly how to implement both the categories of these songs and even the biblical psalms themselves in congregational worship. Proverbs, though less focus on music and song, has a particularly relevant passage. Proverbs 25:20 states, “Whoever sings songs to a heavy heart is like one who takes off a garment on a cold day, and like vinegar on soda.” Thus, one must show wisdom and concern during the occasions of which music is played. To play celebratory music in the presence of one who is depressed and heavy-hearted can lead to a volatile response. A church, therefore, must keep music in proper perspective—it must use wisdom. Ecclesiastes and Song of Solomon are both valuable books, as are all of the Scriptural books, but what has been noted already in the poetic books is sufficient for music ministry application. All in all, while the poetic books are certainly beneficial for the type and content of music for church ministry, possibly the greatest application from this section of the Old Testament pertains to the utilization of wisdom. Not every dilemma that a church encounters in music ministry has an explicit imperative in Scripture, but the poetic books are filled with treasures of wisdom that will be an incalculable resource for any church, both to its leaders and laymen.

The prophetic books likewise provide application for sound doctrine in music ministry. The book of Isaiah is filled with allusions to music, singing, and the like. One of the chief reasons for music is worshipping the Lord for His salvation, usually in an eschatological context (e.g., Isaiah 12:2, 42:10, 51:3 [see also Jeremiah 30:19]). Walter Kaiser Jr. provides an exceptionally insightful look into the book of Lamentations: “Lamentations as a biblical form of communal lament encourages that every detail should be systematically (if not alphabetically) reviewed. Repeat the story—five times over if necessary. After all, evil is not inexhaustible; it is finite and it does not have an end (‘z’)—just as the alphabet has not only a beginning, but also a sure end as well.”[7] Another musically focused book is Habakkuk, which concludes as being addressed to the “choirmaster: with stringed instruments” (Habakkuk 3:19). Habakkuk and many other prophetic books once again testify that music is an important part of life. Ultimately, it can be used for godly or ungodly purposes. Although the book of Zephaniah is an unfamiliar book to most Christians, Zephaniah 3:17 declares an astounding truth about God: “The Lord your God is in your midst, a mighty one who will save; he will rejoice over you with gladness; he will quiet you by his love; he will exult over you with loud singing” (emphasis added). Since God rejoices over His people, then surely His people ought to sing for joy.

Applications from the New Testament on Sound Doctrine in Music Ministry

            The Old Testament actually has more references to music than the New Testament, but that does not discount the importance of the books of Matthew through Revelation. Rather, since the New Testament is often more direct in imperatives to the institution of the Church—revealed as a mystery in the present dispensation (Ephesians 3:2-3)—it is even easier to draw ecclesiastical conclusions for how local churches ought to operate in the twenty-first century. Overall, three passages will be observed in order to understand what the New Testament has to say concerning sound doctrine in music ministry: Ephesians 5:18-19, Colossians 3:16, and the Revelation texts (Revelation 5:9, 14:2-3, and 15:3-4).

The first text, Ephesians 5:18-19, Paul starts with a warning: do not be made drunk with wine. Paul refers to this kind of living as ἀσωτία, which gives “the idea of profligate or licentious living that is wasteful. In this verse the literal sense of incorrigibility seems best, for a drunken man acts abnormally. Rather than controlling himself, the wine controls him.”[8] The contrasted lifestyle that Paul exhorts the Ephesians to live is in being “filled with the Spirit.” Paul provides a picture for how the church can know they are spirit-filled, in that they would be communicating (λαλοῦντες) to one another in “ψαλμοῖς” (psalms), “ὕμνοις” (hymns), and “ᾠδαῖς πνευματικαῖς” (spiritual songs). Harold Hoehner notes, “Much discussion has surrounded these words and it is difficult to make a sharp distinction.”[9] Thus, one must use caution in making dramatic exegetical claims. However, it is plain to see that Christians are to be so influenced by the Holy Spirit that their response to God in congregational gatherings is in worshiping the Lord (τῷ κυρίῳ) through singing and instrumentation.[10] There is both a responsibility to encourage one another in music, but to also keep the focus on God: to the Father, in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, and with the filling of the Holy Spirit.

The next passage, Colossians 3:16, repeats just about the same message of Ephesians 5:18-19, though there is an additional emphasis on how the music itself influences the church. Paul instructs the Colossians for the “word of Christ” to dwell in them “abundantly/richly.” The next phrase appears to clarify what this means, as the text also says, “ἐν πάσῃ σοφίᾳ διδάσκοντες καὶ νουθετοῦντες ἑαυτούς” (in all wisdom, teaching and admonishing them). As what was surveyed in the poetic books, wisdom is necessary in how one uses music. And it would seem to follow that if a song is teaching and admonishing others, then it is congruent with wisdom. Furthermore, since the “word of Christ” is to be richly dwelling in believers, then a New Testament church should be especially sensitive to songs that promote Christ-centered themes. And finally, music should be sung with “χάριτι” (ESV: “thankfulness”; lit.: “in grace”) “in your hearts to God.” As much of the rest of the Scriptures have declared, music should be made as a response to who God is and what He has done. A thankful heart is an excellent description for any Christian.

The final passages in Revelation are a bit different in terms of who is singing and how they apply to the church, but they are important to consider, nonetheless. Revelation 5:9 tells of the “four living creatures” and “twenty-four elders” who sang to Christ, the slain Lamb who was able to open the seals of the scroll, and who ransomed people for God by His own blood, making them priests and citizens of a kingdom to God. The two themes of praising God for what He has done and in Christ-centeredness are especially noticeable. Revelation 14:2-3 speaks of a remarkable event when the 144,000 on earth heard a “new song” coming from the heavens, performed by singers and harpists. There is a bit of mystery surrounding the meaning of this verse, but one cannot deny the glorious nature of the music itself. Finally, Revelation 15:3-4 mentions an amazing song performed by seven angels. As Walvoord notes, “These may be two separate songs, the first referring to God’s faithfulness to Israel and the second referring to their present situation in the Great Tribulation.”[11] After all the text states that there are two songs: “the song of Moses” and “the song of the Lamb.” Overall, both the faithfulness of the Lord and the work of Christ are especially highlighted.


After taking into account the different passages presented in this research, there are several principles one can derive from the Scriptures for promoting sound doctrine in a local church’s music ministry. (1) Music was created by God as a “good” gift, but with the entrance of sin into the world, it can be used for either godly or ungodly purposes. (2) Music should be played and sung as a response to what God has done, including the magnification of His faithfulness. (3) Music should teach others. (4) Music must be grounded in truth. (5) Music can (and should) be an expression of worship by a Spirit-filled Christian. (6) Music, that is, its lyrics, should be cognizant of the work of Christ. (7) Music should be performed with a thankful heart to God. (8) Music should be demonstrated as beautifully and skillfully as one is able.[12] (9) Music should be used with great wisdom. If a church seeks to operate under these nine principles, then it would most assuredly be applying sound doctrine to music ministry.

In order to produce a vivid picture of what applying these principles would look like in a local church—and to further substantiate the claim that sound doctrine is necessary for a healthy music ministry—two contemporary issues will be addressed in light of the nine principles that have been presented. The first “case study” pertains to the selection of new music for congregational worship (which would likewise be relevant for special music, choir specials, etc.). By filtering music through these nine principles, one will possibly find their selections a bit limited based on the content itself (e.g., if the song presents content that is not clear or downright false, if the song is focused man-focused instead of God-centered, etc.). Meanwhile, the pastor or music leader must also use wisdom on the style and instrumentation of the song. Would the song promote exhortation and help teach the congregation, or would it be a distraction by the difficulty or unfamiliarity of the genre/style? Certainly, each situation possesses peculiar nuances that are distinct from one another, but the importance of wisdom and care should never be downplayed.

The second example considers the challenges of a multi-generational and/or multi-cultural church, especially as musical style/genre is concerned. When it comes to content, usually a pastor or music leader (if he has had at least a decent amount of theological training) can easily discern between biblical and unbiblical lyrics. Unfortunately, many congregations do not even get this primary foundation of music right. But once the content is deemed as being sound in theology, the style/genre should also be considered with great concern. The ninth principle is that wisdom is a necessity when it comes to music selections. Many churches are divided over what is acceptable in church music, mostly in terms of style. Oftentimes, churches “reconcile” this dilemma by offering two different services, a contemporary and traditional. But this is a far cry from obeying biblical commands to be unified.[13] Therefore, some alienate the “traditional”-minded individuals (usually of older generations) by intentionally incorporating music that suits the contemporary crowd. Whereas the opposite occurs in some churches, where the “traditional” members do not even attempt to listen to what the younger and/or contemporary generations have to say. The key in these types of situations where potentially volatile outcomes seem to be on the horizon is for the church leaders to use wisdom. For example, is it really worth it to cause an outrage by introducing drums and electric guitars to a congregation that is predominantly uncomfortable with these instruments? Perhaps it would be much wiser to introduce a contemporary song, but to retain a more “traditional” genre of instrumentation. In all honesty, it is impossible to please every church member. But by incorporating these nine biblical principles, which includes selecting songs by using wisdom, a church will be on a much more stable foundation than by simply acting within the methodology of tradition or preference.

This research has submitted principles that have repeated by many other Christians, such as having music that is glorifying to God and that emphasizes truth (see the nine principles above). But perhaps the most unique contribution to the conversation of music ministry and sound doctrine is in the regard for wisdom. One way that a church can utilize wisdom is through obtaining that wisdom, first and foremost, by studying the book of Proverbs. The starting point is to “fear the Lord” (Proverbs 1:6), and if a congregation can arrive at this standard, then wisdom is at least able to be dispersed to its members. Likewise, if one fears the Lord, humility would naturally follow—a much-needed characteristic among all Christians, especially when in the midst of a controversy. Subsequently, if a church is wise, then the rest of the principles that have been considered will also be priorities. It is important to also notice that these principles are grounded in sound doctrine. Thus, in order for a church to be truly faithful to God and His Word, it must do two things: (1) It must first understand these marvelous doctrines (2) It must also practice the implications of these doctrines. And in all things, a church ought to use wisdom so that God would receive glory.


[1] This phrase was admittedly influenced by Francis Schaeffer’s How Should We Then Live? (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 1983).

[2] Milo Thompson, “An Old Testament View of the Ministry of Music,” JMAT 3:1 (Spring 1999), 9.

[3] Exodus 15:15-25, Isaiah 5:11-12, Daniel 3:5-15; see also Ibid., 10.

[4] James E. Smith, The Wisdom Literature and Psalms, Old Testament Survey Series (Joplin, MO: College Press Pub. Co., 1996), Job.

[5] Andrew J. Schmutzer and David M. Howard Jr., The Psalms: Language for All Seasons of the Soul (Chicago, IL: Moody, 2013).

[6] Roger Ellsworth, Opening Up Psalms, Opening Up Commentary (Leominster: Day One Publications, 2006), 19.

[7] Kaiser, “The Laments of Lamentations” in The Psalms, 131.

[8] Harold W. Hoehner, “Ephesians” in The Bible Knowledge Commentary: An Exposition of the Scriptures, ed. J. F. Walvoord and R. B. Zuck (Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1985), Eph 5:18.

[9] Harold Hoehner, Ephesians: An Exegetical Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2002), 708.

[10] See Ibid. on the strong probability that “psalms” refer to string-playing (and possibly with singing as well).

[11] John F. Walvoord, “Revelation” in The Bible Knowledge Commentary: An Exposition of the Scriptures, ed. J. F. Walvoord and R. B. Zuck (Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1985), Re 15:3–4.

[12] This latter point was not explained very deeply in the research presented, but as Psalm 33:3 declares, a Christian should “Sing to him a new song; play skillfully on the strings, with loud shouts” (emphasis added). One might assume that only a uniquely gifted musician should be allowed to participate in congregational worship—after all, music is supposed to be played “skillfully.” But it would probably be better to understand this imperative as being proportionate to the musician. In other words, every musician ought to play with the intention of using one’s own gifts to the utmost of his/her ability.

[13] See, for example, First Corinthians 1:10, Ephesians 4:3, and First Peter 3:8.

A Synthetic Overview of the Bible


At the time of this writing, the well-achieved online company,, announced a new program that will enable all who enlist at a price of $9.99 per month to gain access to over 600,000 eBooks and thousands of audiobooks. Undoubtedly, stories have captured the minds and hearts of billions of people in all of world history, and it does not look like people will be avoiding them any time soon. Christians, then, have the magnificent blessing of being part of a religion that has arguably the most awe-inspiring (and wholly factual) story that has ever been recorded, that is, the Holy Bible. And the way in which one understands the Bible as a whole is likewise important. Although many people despise doctrines and those who are dogmatic in their beliefs (sadly, even Christians fall in this category), Dorothy Sayers once wrote, “[T]he dogma is the drama.”[1] Indeed, the Bible presents the greatest story ever told, but one can become easily bewildered by the sheer magnitude of the Bible’s length. Thankfully, many proficient Bible scholars, pastors, theologians, and even ordinary laymen have made great attempts to systematize the Bible, that is, divide the Bible into sections in order to make the whole more understandable and cohesive to contemporary audiences. This research will attempt to further develop previous writers’ ideas (exegeted from the Bible, of course) with the goal of producing a cogent, biblical, lucid, and sufficient synthetic overview of the Bible.

Necessary Presuppositions for a Synthetic Overview of the Bible

            As Charles Ryrie notes, “Consciously or unconsciously everyone operates on the basis of some presuppositions.”[2] Within this research, certain presuppositions are present in the attempt to formulate a synthetic overview of the Bible. First of all, the beliefs that the Bible is inspired, inerrant, infallible, and sufficient are all steadfastly insisted. Without a high view of Scripture, one is left without an ample basis. Secondly, the presupposition of “Sola Scriptura” is also urged. Michael Horton clarifies that this Latin phrase means “by Scripture alone,” and that “Ultimate authority always resides outside the self and even outside the church, as both are always hearers of the Word and receivers of its judgment and justification.”[3] Thirdly, this research presupposes that God has revealed His Word progressively, or to use the technical term, “progressive revelation.” Paul Enns explains, “God did not reveal all truth about Himself at one time but revealed Himself ‘piecemeal,’ portion by portion to different people throughout history (cf. Heb. 1:1).”[4] Fourthly (and this presupposition separates the author of this research from other conservative, theological perspectives), the practice of a consistent hermeneutic that is literal (that is, plain and normal), grammatical, and historically concerned is crucial. When something is obviously figurative, then a literal interpretation of that text would be to explain that which is figurative to mean something figurative. Otherwise, one should interpret the Scriptures in the most natural sense that the author intended. Finally, the presupposition is affirmed that God’s purpose for all of His creation is intrinsically doxological—glorifying to God. Christopher Cone has argued rather proficiently for this truth: “The major works of God revealed in Scripture all serve the doxological purpose.”[5] Therefore, upon presupposing these five beliefs, one can readily discern a synthetic overview of the Bible that is true to the pages of the Word of God.

Options for a Synthetic Overview of the Bible

            When one attempts to organize the Bible in a systematic, divisional manner, there are essentially two options to choose from: canonical or chronological. If one chooses to work in a method pertaining to the first (canonical), then there the major emphasis would seem to be on manner of synthesizing according to the way in which the Bible is canonized. Thus, the first “dispensation” in that framework would begin in Genesis 1 with the creation of the world. The canonical approach would seem to be more of a “biblical theology” focused methodology (i.e. a book by book and author by author approach). However, if one chooses the latter option (chronological), then the dimension of focus is in “systematic theology,” meaning that, the theologian does not necessarily establish the system moving from Genesis to Revelation, but draws from various books of the Bible to produce a biblical overview that is consistent with the progression of time since eternity past. For example, one would not look to Genesis 1:1 on the teaching of election, but to a passage such as Ephesians 1 or Romans 8, which is much later in the unfolding of progressive revelation. Ultimately, while both methods of formulating a synthetic overview of the Bible are helpful, the canonical method of systematization is somewhat limited. Yet, that might also be due to the inherent definitions of what constitutes a dispensation. Charles Ryrie, who holds to a canonical perspective, believes “A dispensation is from God’s viewpoint an economy; from man’s, and in relation to progressive revelation, a stage in it.”[6] In other words, man has a responsibility in that dispensation, and oftentimes, there will be judgment for man’s failure.[7] This, of course, is limited in some instances, such as in election where man was not responsible for the sovereign choices of God. Therefore, how one ends up in producing a synthetic overview of the Bible is most likely a result of his definition of a dispensation.

To be more specific in the systematization of a biblical overview, there are two main views to consider[8]: Covenant Theology and Dispensationalism. Now, it should be noted that both positions believe there are “dispensations” in the Bible, but where the two differ is in the distinction between Israel and the Church. Such a difference results in distinguishable systems and differing dispensations. Covenant Theology views the Bible in light of two or three theological covenants: the covenant of works and the covenant of grace (the third being the covenant of redemption). Michael Horton, an unabashed supporter of Covenant Theology, has provided widely accepted definitions that will be used in this research. Horton refers to the covenant of works as the “covenant of creation” (or covenant of nature) and states that this was a “covenant between the triune Lord and humanity in Adam, with Adam as its covenant representative (federal head). With disobedience, Adam (and humanity whom he represented) would die (Gen. 2:15-17; Rom. 5:12-18).”[9] After Adam and Eve sinned, there was allegedly a proposed covenant of grace defined like so:

[It was] between the triune God and Christ with the church, with Christ as its head and mediator. It began with God’s promise of salvation to Adam and Eve and continued through the family of faith leading from Seth to Noah and on to Abraham and Sarah all the way to the new covenant as inaugurated by Christ’s death. In this covenant, God promises to be our God and to make believers and their children his own redeemed family, with Christ—the Last Adam—as its federal representative, head, and mediator. It is the historical unfolding of the eternal plan of God in the covenant of redemption.[10]

Some proponents of Covenant Theology, Horton included, hold to a third covenant, the covenant of redemption, which holds the following: “[This] covenant [was] entered into by the persons of the Trinity in the councils of eternity, with the Son mediating its benefits to the elect. This covenant is the basis for all of God’s purposes in nature and history, and it is the foundation and efficacy of the covenant of grace.”[11] It should also be noted that some covenant theologians even maintain that there are dispensations within the framework of the covenant of works and grace. For example, Charles Hodge proposes four dispensations: (1) Adam to Abraham (2) Abraham to Moses (3) Moses to Christ (4) The Gospel Dispensation.[12] One can, therefore, be a covenant theologian who professes that there are biblical dispensations without being a “Dispensationalist,” which would include Charles Hodge and others. The main distinction, then, pertains to how one views the relationship between Israel and the Church. Covenant Theologians often see the Church as the fulfillment of what national Israel could not complete, whereas Dispensationalists staunchly argue that God will indeed fulfill all of His unconditional covenants made with Israel (Abrahamic, Land [Palestinian], Davidic, and New Covenant).

Upon exegeting the Scriptures, and utilizing a literal, grammatical, and historical hermeneutic, Dispensationalists still differ between one another as to the exact number of dispensations, but this is due in large part to the way in which a dispensation is defined. The Greek word “oikonomia” means “house-law,” and connotes an idea of economy or management.[13] Most importantly, it is a biblical term, and it is sometimes translated as dispensation (KJV).[14] Furthermore, a necessary distinction to be made is that a dispensation is not simply a period of time (though it requires time), but that there are operations at work between God and man. Another facet to consider is the actual purpose of each dispensation. Different writers have emphasized different foci such as the progression towards the Kingdom of God, salvation, and doxology as the goal of each dispensation. Since everything was created for God’s glory (Revelation 4:11), one can reasonably assume that dispensations are also doxological in their supreme intent, even though the Kingdom of God and salvation are very important as well. Overall, then, one’s definition of “dispensation” will greatly influence how one organizes and identifies the dispensations.

A solution to the various dispensational schemes resides in the meaning the word dispensation, allowing room for two types of dispensations. Dispensationalists are well aware of the “two parties” involved in most dispensations (God and man), as Ryrie notes in his overview of the characteristics of a dispensation: “Basically there are two parties: the one whose authority it is to delegate duties, and the one whose responsibility it is to carry out these charges.”[15] However, Louw and Nida simplify the definition of “oikonomia” as meaning “a plan which involves a set of arrangements.”[16] While it is true that the biblical inclusions of the word “oikonomia” usually speak of God giving man a responsibility, in the case of eternity past, God was the sole “administrator.” He essentially gave Himself the stewardship of saving those whom He elected. Whereas, in the case of, say, the dispensation of “Innocence,”[17] God is the administrator, but Adam and Eve were the stewards. Therefore, this research proposes that it is acceptable to differentiate between a bilateral and unilateral dispensation. One should not think that a bilateral dispensation is left up to chance, for in both types of dispensations God is sovereign and will see to it that His plan (as administrator) is carried out. However, the unilateral dispensations actually form bookends, and they are comprised of eternity past and eternity future.[18] Since the biblical inclusions of “oikonomia” only reference the bilateral dispensations, one would do well to consider the proposition of the two types of dispensations with humility. But it is nevertheless an honest attempt to make sense of Scriptural data in order to formulate a synthetic overview of the Bible.


            Now that the necessary presuppositions have been discussed, along with a comparison of potential viewpoints for arranging a synthetic overview of the Bible, it is finally time to briefly include the proposed dispensations in this research:

  • (1) Unilateral – Eternity Past[19]
  • (2) Bilateral – Innocence (Garden of Eden)[20]
  • (3) Bilateral – Conscience[21]
  • (4) Bilateral – Human Government[22]
  • (5) Bilateral – Promise[23]
  • (6) Bilateral – The Law (Kingdom in Sight)[24]
  • (7) Bilateral – The Church (Kingdom Delayed, but Not Lost)[25]
  • (8) Bilateral – The Tribulation (Purification)[26]
  • (9) Bilateral – The Kingdom[27]
  • (10) Unilateral – Eternity Future[28]

To be clear, all of these dispensations are under the sovereign will of God, nothing will thwart God’s plan (Daniel 4:35). But at the same time, a significant amount of responsibility has been given to humanity. It is hard to fathom what eternity will be like, especially since sin among those who dwell with God will no longer be a possibility (as is the case from dispensations 2-9). But we can trust this glorified future with confidence because it is promised in God’s Word. This (hope for a world unadulterated by sin) and other great theological treasures can be found in one’s attempt to produce a synthetic overview of the Bible. Indeed, such a study is not mere information; it can lead to transformation as well.




[1] Dorothy Sayers, Creed or Chaos (New York, NY: Harcourt & Brace, 1949), 3.

[2] Charles Ryrie, Basic Theology (Chicago, IL: Moody, 1999), 16.

[3] Michael Horton, The Christian Faith (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2011), 187, 194.

[4] Paul Enns, The Moody Handbook of Theology (Chicago, IL: Moody, 1989), 20.

[5] Christopher Cone, Prolegomena on Biblical Hermeneutics and Method. 2nd edition. (Hurst, TX: Tyndale Seminary Press, 2012), 16.

[6] Charles Ryrie, Dispensationalism: Revised and Expanded (Chicago, IL: Moody, 2007), 36.

[7] Ibid., 44-45.

[8] Other views that have a strong following of adherents include New Covenant Theology and Progressive Dispensationalism. Due to brevity, this research will not be able to include these latter two positions.

[9] Horton, The Christian Faith, 992.

[10] Ibid., 992-993.

[11] Ibid., 993.

[12] Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1946), 2:373-377.

[13] Cone, Prolegomena on Biblical Hermeneutics and Method, 297. It should likewise be noted that the Latin word “dispensatio” is the linguistic base for the later English term dispensation.

[14] See especially Ephesians 1:10, 3:2; Colossians 1:25.

[15] Ryrie, Dispensationalism, 30.

[16] Johannes P. Louw and Eugene Albert Nida, Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament: Based on Semantic Domains. electronic ed. of the 2nd edition. (New York, NY: United Bible Societies, 1996), 1:357.

[17] See Appendix, “The Traditional ‘Canonical’ View,” dispensation 1.

[18] It should also be noted the unilateral dispensation of “Eternity Past” is still being fulfilled, though certain facets have been accomplished (i.e. the death of Christ, the salvation of many of the elect). One could reasonably argue that both unilateral dispensations (Eternity Past and Eternity Future) are one long dispensation that never really ends, whereas the bilateral dispensations all come to a point of completion.

[19] See John 17:24; Romans 8-9; Ephesians 1:4; 1 Peter 1:20. Most of the dispensations’ biblical support comes from Cone, Prolegomena on Biblical Hermeneutics and Method, 331, but with some adaptation.

[20] See Genesis 1:1-3:6.

[21] See Genesis 3:7-8:14.

[22] See Genesis 8:15-11:9.

[23] See Genesis 11:10-Exodus 18:27.

[24] See Exodus 19:1-Acts 1:26.

[25] See Acts 2:1-Revelation 3:22.

[26] See Revelation 4:1-19:10.

[27] See Revelation 19:11-20:6.

[28] See Revelation 20:7-22:21.

An Analysis of the Sacrificial System and Its Relationship to Salvation



It is no secret to Bible-believing Christians that Jesus Christ’s death on the cross was a substitutionary sacrifice efficacious for the forgiveness of those who believe on Him (John 3:16, 1 Corinthians 15:3-4, 1 John 2:2, etc.). That one would link the death of Christ on the cross as sufficient for his/her personal salvation is a fairly basic doctrine of Christianity. One doctrinal matter that may seem foreign to Christians, especially in the 21st century, is the Old Testament sacrificial system. Such a doctrine poses a serious question, therefore: “What was the relationship between the sacrificial system and one’s salvation?[1]” The Bible is abundantly clear in that salvation is by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone, but such dogmas may seem somewhat out of place when considering Old Testament ceremonial sacrifices. Therefore, to determine the meaning of the sacrificial system and its place within soteriology, it is necessary to analyze what the Scriptures teach and come to a satisfying theological conclusion.

Biblical Observations of the Old Testament Sacrificial System

            Even before the sacrificial “system” was developed with commands and specifications under the Mosaic Law, sacrifices were a part of life. The very first sacrifice was actually instated by God Himself, covering Adam and Eve with animal skins to hide their shame resulting from sin (Genesis 3:21). There are other instances between Eden and the Mosaic Law (Genesis 4, 6, 12, etc.), but the main concern of this paper is to focus on the latter’s sacrificial system and the theological conclusions that can be drawn in relation to soteriology.

According to John Swann, “Levitical sacrifices were carefully regimented according to the guidelines of the covenant, and they were the exclusive purview of the priests.”[2] Under the Law, the types of sacrifices included the following: burnt offerings, grain (or “meal”) offerings, peace offerings, sin offerings, and guilt (or “trespass”) offerings. While each type of sacrifice held its own distinct importance, there are general principles that can be seen. A few examples would include the quality of the sacrifice, the location of where these sacrifices would need to be made, and the idea of substitution.[3] These descriptions, of course, do not answer the question of how sacrifices are related to one’s salvation, but they do provide an overview of “what” a believer under the dispensation of the Law was instructed to follow.

Synthesizing the Sacrificial System With Biblical Soteriology

That participating in these sacrifices would bring salvation was never a purpose for the Law as a whole, or in the sacrificial system specifically. F.F. Bruce writes,

The blood of slaughtered animals under the old order did possess a certain efficacy, but it was an outward efficacy for the removal of ceremonial pollution…. They could restore [the believer] to formal communion with God and with his fellow-worshippers…. Just how the blood of sacrificed animals or the ashes of a red heifer effected a ceremonial cleansing our author does not explain; it was sufficient for him, and no doubt for his readers, that the Old Testament ascribed this efficacy to them.[4]

Bruce’s words are in complete harmony with Hebrews 10:1-2, which states, “For since the law has but a shadow of the good things to come instead of the true form of these realities, it can never, by the same sacrifices that are continually offered every year, make perfect those who draw near.” Verse four confirms that “it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins.” Speaking more generally on the Mosaic Law (but including the Old Testament sacrifices), Paul says in Romans 3:20, “For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight.” Therefore, it is abundantly clear what the Old Testament sacrifices did not do, namely, bring salvation to the one who participates in them.

The next answer to obtain is what the Old Testament sacrifices did do. Bruce already alluded to it in the above quotation, but Walvoord also helps in this discussion. He says,

Such sacrificial blood could never cleanse the conscience or save the soul (Heb 10:1–2), so God repeatedly sent prophets to call his people to love and obey their God from the heart. Apart from such genuine faith, all the ceremonially “kosher” animals in the whole world would avail nothing in the spiritual realm (Ps 50:7–15; Isa 1:12–20; Amos 4:4–5; 5:20–27; Hos 5:6; Mic 6:6–8; Jer 6:20; 7:21–23). It was not to be either faith or sacrifices; rather, it was to be both faith and sacrifices (cf. Ps 51:19).”[5]

The call to Israel was to obey God in the sacrifices in order to be “ceremonially clean.”[6] Walvoord explains that during sacrifices, “What happened was temporal, finite, external, and legal—not eternal, infinite, internal, and soteriological. Nevertheless, what happened was personally and immediately significant, not simply symbolic and/or prophetic.”[7] The uncleanness of those who sacrificed was covered, but ceremonial cleanness was not sufficient for salvation.[8]

Furthermore, Jerry Hullinger clarifies that “the foundational rationale of the Mosaic sacrificial system is the presence of the divine glory. The Mosaic system was instituted in Leviticus subsequent to the descent of the Shekinah in Exodus. Because of the communicability of uncleanness, the purity of God’s presence needed to be protected.”[9] Overall, then, the sacrificial system was not instituted to bring salvation; it was apparently two-fold: for pronouncing worshippers ceremonially clean and to provide a way that God’s presence would be able to dwell with Israel. “[T]he animal offerings of the Old Testament and the offering of Christ were instituted for different purposes, each efficacious on its own respective level.”[10] Therefore, the sacrificial system’s relationship to salvation is only associated insofar that it foreshadows an even greater sacrifice, namely, the Lamb who was slain to take away the sins of the world.

[1] The term “salvation” will appear several times in this research. In each instance, salvation is not referring to a temporary deliverance (one sense of the word) but to the reconciling, converting, regenerating, and justifying work of God in a believer’s life – spiritual salvation.

[2] John T. Swann, “Sacrifice in the Old Testament” in The Lexham Bible Dictionary, ed. John D. Barry and Lazarus Wentz (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2012).

[3] Ibid.

[4] F.F. Bruce, The Epistle to the Hebrews (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1964), 201, 204.

[5] John Walvoord, “Christ’s Atonement and Animal Sacrifices in Israel,” GTJ 6:2 (Fall 1985), 210. Italics added.

[6] F.F. Bruce, The Epistle to the Hebrew, 201, 204.

[7] John Walvoord, “Christ’s Atonement and Animal Sacrifices in Israel,” GTJ 6:2 (Fall 1985), 209.

[8] Romans 3:25 makes the clear statement that God “passed over” former sins (not just ceremonial uncleanness) in His forbearance, but that Jesus’ death provided the means for salvation.

[9] Jerry Hullinger, “The Divine Presence, Uncleanness, and Ezekiel’s Millennial Sacrifices,” BSAC 163:652 (Oct 2006). See also especially Leviticus 16:16, 19.

[10] Jerry Hullinger, “Two Atonement Realms: Reconciling Sacrifice In Ezekiel And Hebrews,” JODT 11:32 (2007).