Testimony genres, and understanding the lasting power of hymns

Exactly the same spiritual realities happen for each person who becomes a Christian. The Gospel is proclaimed, we repent from sins and believe in Jesus Christ as our Savior and Lord, and then God forgives us of our sins, declares us justified, and adopts us as His children. But in different denominations, cultures, or theological traditions—not to mention different centuries—the ways we share our testimonies of conversion can be strikingly different.

If you hear a testimony in a Lutheran church, it might sound something like this:

I had been involved in a Christian college ministry. They’d read God’s Word and say, ‘What does this mean to us, and how can we keep this as we should?’ I thought Jesus Christ was just a law-giver, and I came to a point of despair. But I read a book by C.F.W. Walther, God’s Yes and God’s No, and that is the book that converted me. It changed my perspective on who God was and what His grace really meant. No longer did I have to keep the law for my salvation, but I was able to trust in God’s grace for me and the work that Jesus had done.

A testimony in an independent Baptist church in the South might include phrases like “the ole devil” and “till I prayed through,” and end with something like this: “I remember the day, at an old-fashioned altar, that God changed this ole boy’s heart!”

A testimony in a charismatic church might sound like this: The pastor said, “You know, I’m not primarily interested in having people join our church. I’m interested in having people discover Jesus Christ, and the abundance and eternal life that comes from people having an eternal relationship with Him. This is what Christianity is all about; it’s not a religion, it’s a relationship with the personal, living Lord. But only you can make the decision to enter into that relationship, by inviting Christ into your heart, and accepting His free gift of eternal life. No clergyman or parent can do it for you. Christianity involves a personal decision to receive Christ in your life. It’s a personal decision you must make for yourself. God has no grandchildren.”

I was sitting at my old wooden desk, reading about the person who wanted to give me eternal life. For years, the Gospel had gone in one ear and out the other as it was read during mass. But now, as I read, each living word, the person of Jesus was coming alive. Finally, at the end of the Gospel of John, I closed my eyes and tried to hold back tears that were welling up. Turning out the light, I sat in a sea of darkened tranquility. And in a whisper, I began to pray: God, it’s been so long since I’ve talked to you. I’m sorry, yet somehow, it’s all different tonight. All my life I felt You were high and holy and unreachable. That’s why I gave up on You. And now I see that all my life, You’ve been waiting for me to realize how much You love me. Oh, Jesus, I want Your love. I will come unto You. Please help me, Jesus, please. And I wept like I hadn’t since I was a little child.

A testimony at a hipster church might be punctuated with sentence fragments like “Because Jesus!” and “But God!” and be described with phrases like “authentic” and “it’s been real.”

And that’s not even to mention testimonies from other centuries. Take Martin Luther’s:

Though I lived as a monk without reproach, I felt that I was a sinner before God with an extremely disturbed conscience. I could not believe that he was placated by my satisfaction. I did not love, yes, I hated the righteous God who punishes sinners, and secretly, if not blasphemously, certainly murmuring greatly, I was angry with God, and said, “As if, indeed, it is not enough, that miserable sinners, eternally lost through original sin, are crushed by every kind of calamity by the law of the decalogue, without having God add pain to pain by the gospel and also by the gospel threatening us with his righteousness and wrath!” Thus I raged with a fierce and troubled conscience. Nevertheless, I beat importunately upon Paul at that place, most ardently desiring to know what St. Paul wanted.

At last, by the mercy of God, meditating day and night, I gave heed to the context of the words, namely, “In it the righteousness of God is revealed, as it is written, ‘He who through faith is righteous shall live.'” There I began to understand that the righteousness of God is that by which the righteous lives by a gift of God, namely by faith. And this is the meaning: the righteousness of God is revealed by the gospel, namely, the passive righteousness with which merciful God justifies us by faith, as it is written, “He who through faith is righteous shall live.” Here I felt that I was altogether born again and had entered paradise itself through open gates. There a totally other face of the entire Scripture showed itself to me. Thereupon I ran through the Scripture from memory. I also found in other terms an analogy, as, the work of God, that is what God does in us, the power of God, with which he makes us wise, the strength of God, the salvation of God, the glory of God.

And I extolled my sweetest word with a love as great as the hatred with which I had before hated the word “righteousness of God.” Thus that place in Paul was for me truly the gate to paradise.

John Calvin:

At first, while I remained so obstinately addicted to the superstitions of the Papacy, that it would have been hard indeed to have pulled me out of so deep a quagmire – by sudden conversion, God subdued my heart to teachableness.

J. Hudson Taylor:

One day, which I shall never forget, when I was about fifteen years old, my dear mother being absent from home some eighty miles away, I had a holiday. I searched through the library for a book to while away time. I selected a gospel tract which looked unattractive, saying, there will be an interesting story at the commencement, and a sermon or moral at the end; I will take the former, and leave the latter for those who like it. I little knew what was going on in the heart of my dear mother. She arose from the dinner-table with an intense yearning for the conversion of her boy, and feeling that, being from home, and having more leisure than she otherwise would, there was a special opportunity afforded her of pleading with God for me. She went to her bedroom, and turned the key in the door, and resolved not to leave the room until her prayers were answered. Hour after hour did that dear mother plead for me, until she could only praise God for the conversion of her son. In the meantime, as I was reading the tract, The Finished Work of Christ, a light was flashed into my soul by the Holy Spirit, that there was nothing to be done, but to fall ‘on my knees and accept this Savior and his salvation, and praise God forevermore. While my mother was praising God in her closet, I was praising Him in the old warehouse where I had retired to read my book. When I met mother at the door on her return with the glad news, she said: ‘I know, my boy; I have been rejoicing for a fortnight in the glad tidings you have to tell me!’

Jackie Brown, a circuit rider in the early 1900s:

It came to him sudden. He had been to a meeting and heard Bobby Brook preach, and he was riding over to Gasper Pyles to get his dinner, when he felt the power moving him and he knowed he was sanctified. He got off of his horse and laid on the flat of his back on the dusty road and slapped his hands and began to holler. A man by the name of Jack Frog was going down the road at the time, and when he saw Jackie Brown, he thought it was some man drunk or crazy. And so he [Jack] taken out around the other side and lit for home and never stopped until he got there. When Jackie Brown got up, he run his hands into his pockets and pulled out his plug of tobacco and thronged it into the woods, and then he done went home to his farm, where he had half an acre of tobacco growing, and he takened a hoe, and hacked it down, and threw it over the fence. He said, if it was not right for him to use tobacco, it was not right for him to grow it and sell it to other people. His neighbors got after him and said that as he was poor, he should have kept the tobacco and marketed it. But he said, The Lord would not let him starve. They say he become a most power fine preacher after he was sanctified.

Different eras, cultures, and theological traditions have vastly different ways of expressing testimonies. Each has its formulas, its phrases that are standard and familiar. (Note that I’m using “formulas” here in a matter-of-fact descriptive sense, not a derogatory sense.) Just like there are literary genres, one could almost say there are testimony genres.

It’s not like all of these genres are created equal. Some are more theologically precise. Some are more heartfelt. Some are more gritty. Many Christians, without even thinking about it or articulating it, don’t have as high a regard for a testimony from another genre as one from their own. It’s altogether too easy to dismiss a testimony from another tradition as, say, less theologically precise. It may very well be, but someone from that tradition would be just as likely to dismiss testimonies from our own tradition as, say, less heartfelt. And perhaps both statements would be true.

Songs from each theological tradition generally reflect the testimony genre of that theological tradition. So in a similar way, it’s altogether too easy to dismiss songs from one tradition as insufficiently precise, songs from another tradition as insufficiently emotional, and songs from a third tradition as insufficiently heartfelt.

But once in a while, we hear a testimony of God working in a miraculously radical (or miraculously ordinary) fashion that is theologically accurate and heartfelt and authentic. These testimonies have a way of deeply moving listeners across theological and cultural divides.

In every generation, countless songs have value to the era, culture, and theological tradition within which they were written. But from each era, there are a few songs that last beyond that era to be passed along to future eras, cultures, and theological traditions. We call them “hymns.” Countless thousands of songs from each era do not survive that era. The hymns that last tend to last because they are theologically accurate and heartfelt and authentic and speak to Christians of many eras, cultures, and theological traditions.

It is a great thing to introduce new songs in every generation. A few from each generation will transcend our generation, culture, and theological tradition, and go on to be future generations’ hymns. But as we introduce new songs, we would be wise to keep singing the songs already recognized as hymns. In all likelihood, if they have spoken to Christians of this many generations already, they’ll also speak to the next generation.