Songs God wants to hear: how contemporary songwriters recycle older hymns

[notice]Hugh Wetmore is a songwriter and student of worship trends. He invites you to join the worship conversation by commenting on his monthly column.[/notice]

The intrinsic value of some of the older Hymns is recognised by some contemporary songwriters. They realise that the upcoming generation often considers them old fashioned. They rise to the challenge of recycling them. They do this by writing a contemporary tune, or by adding a refrain, or both. This is commendable, so we say “Thank you, and don’t get tired of doing this again with other quality Hymns” (“Ungadinwa nangomso”).

Rock of Ages
1. Graham Kendrick recycles Rock of Ages. The original author, Augustus Toplady lived in the 18th Century, over 200 years ago. Born in 1740, he died very young at the age of 38. However, he lived long enough to write that classic hymn which captures the essence of the Gospel, and our unmerited response to it. He made one serious mistake. He did not identify “who” this “Rock of Ages” was! Of course, all Christians know it is Jesus! It was only in the 21st Century that Graham Kendrick added a refrain that explicitly names Jesus as that Rock of Ages. That is an improvement on Toplady’s version. To further update the lyrics of the verses, see Jubilate’s revised version in ‘Hymns for Today’s Church’ 444.

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My Rock (my Rock),
My Jesus, my Rock.
My Rock (my Rock),
My Jesus, my Rock.

Simple, but necessary words. And in the process Kendrick gives the current generation the good old hymn in a jeans and T-shirt tune.

Amazing Grace

2. Chris Tomlin has recycled Amazing Grace into contemporary format by adding his refrain:

My chains are gone, I’ve been set free
My God, my Saviour has ransomed me
And like a flood His mercy reigns
Unending love, amazing grace.

The “freedom” theme fits well with the theme of John Newton’s classic hymn. The third line is weird though. Here the metaphor of a “flood” is totally out of place. How does a “flood’ relate to “freedom from chains”? Can your mind imagine a huge mass of water ruling like a king? A “flood” brings chaos and destruction. Yes, maybe some kings and presidents destroy their nations, but God is not like those rulers. Is God’s mercy destructive? Does this bring chaos? We’ve just sung that it brings “freedom”, not destruction. This third line is sheer nonsense. It is unworthy of Chris Tomlin and the Saviour. It is unsuited to being sung by a Christian congregation.

Rather sing instead “I’m free from sin to serve my Lord”. This lyric-line continues the theme of freedom, it identifies the chains as “my sins”, and gives a positive purpose of how to live as a ransomed Christian. This amended line has strong Biblical meaning. This is the reason why God ransomed me by his Grace. “The grace of God … trains us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age” — Titus 2:11,12. Tomlin retains the verses of Newton’s hymn, which ends with expectations of Heaven and this is what Titus 2:13,14 describes. In this way Tomlin’s recycled hymn embraces the integrated message of God’s Word. What more could you ask for?

When I Survey the wondrous cross
3. Chris Tomlin successfully recycles When I Survey the wondrous cross. (See Songs of Fellowship #1606.) When Isaac Watts wrote the stanzas he stimulated profound meditation on the meaning of Christ’s death. Tomlin’s last line emphasises this. His invitation in the third line is appropriate, for it harmonises with the Cross’s demand for “my soul, my life, my all”. Think through the lyrics of Tomlin’s addition:

Oh, the wonderful cross,
Oh, the wonderful cross
bids me come and die and find
that I may truly live.
Oh, the wonderful cross,
Oh, the wonderful cross
All who gather here by grace
draw near and bless Your name.

A small improvement would be in that last line to sing “… bless HIS Name”. The whole hymn is written in the grammatical third person, so to suddenly switch to the second person is incongruous. However this is not serious, even the inspired Psalms make similar switches! (e.g. Ps 13:5,6 and Ps 18:1,3 etc.)

Breathe on me, breath of God
4. David Fellingham has re-worked Edwin Hatch’s vintage hymn Breathe on me, breath of God (SoF 678) in an imaginative way. He doesn’t add a refrain, but takes the meaning of the words and puts them into modern vocabulary, identifies the Holy Spirit by name and creates a more contemporary tune. Listen to it at

Breathe on me, Breathe of God,
and fill my life anew;
that I may love as You love,
and do the works You do.
Holy Spirit, breathe on me.

Breathe on me, Breath of God,
until my heart is pure;
until my will is one with Yours
let holiness and love endure.
Holy Spirit, breathe on me.

And let every part of me
glow with fire divine;
with passion in my life,
Jesus, let Your glory shine.

O for a closer walk with God
5. Keith Getty has adapted that perennial favourite O for a closer walk with God, and given it a new tune. (Compare his modern version SoF 1471 with the original hymn by William Cowper SoF 951) After the second verse, this is Getty’s addition:

A light to be my guide,
the Father’s presence at my side.
In Your will my rest I find.
O for a closer walk with God,
leading to the Lamb.

This blends well with Cowper’s first verse: “….. A light to shine upon the road / that leads me to the Lamb.:

Is it surprising that Getty omits verses 3 and 4 of Cowper’s original? Not really, for he probably doesn’t agree with their theology, that a Christian can have the Holy Spirit. Then drive Him away by “sins which made him mourn” and then cause Him to return. That’s controversial. Some believe that “once saved, always saved”, you can’t lose your salvation. When the Holy Spirit seals you, you are sealed for good – Ephesians 1:13,14. Others believe with Cowper that by persistent sinning the Holy Spirit will be taken away, and you will lose your salvation as stanzas 3 and 4 teach in Matthew 12:31,32 et al.

But it is surprising that Getty omits stanza 5 “The dearest idol I have known, / whate’er that idol be, / help me to tear it from Thy throne / and worship only Thee.” This practical step in walking closer to God has always moved me as I sang it and deserves to be retained/re-scanned, to fit the new musical rhythm.

Hymns are well worth singing! Use the revamped hymns that sustain their usefulness into the contemporary generation. Keep them alive in your church’s repertoire and song lists. They are one of the genres prescribed by the scriptures that will “teach and admonish” people to come to Christ and become more like Him in character. A genre of Christian Song which God wants to hear!


  1. Assie Van der Westhuizen

    So happy to see the Golden Oldies will not be dusted aside!

  2. Assie Van der Westhuizen

    From my side: my sister and I spoke some time ago, both feeling uncomfortable with the opening words of the song “Just a closer walk with Thee”, that we’ve sang so many times in the past; in the light of the infallible Word of God that proclaims us “strong in the Lord”, we would love to see those opening words changed from “I am weak but Thou art strong…” to “I was weak, but now I’m strong”.

  3. When I was a child I tried to enjoy hymns and meditated on them in my QT. I came from a missionary family and my parents loved hymns. Try as hard as I did I couldn’t find any meaning in them for me. When dad was dying 3 y ago he wanted to sing hymns in hospital. I had to learn some quick! What amazing times we had singing hymns together in hospital e.g. “He Lifted Me” and “Oh Love that Wilt not let me go”. When he was in ICU he had a private cubicle. He couldn’t talk to me because of a tube in his mouth but I could sing him 5 hymns in one visiting session! I came away from those visits so uplifted. Sometimes he mouthed the words with me. Then I knew he hadn’t given up on his faith. Hymns came to suddenly have a very special spot in my life. Now I don’t ever get the chance to sing any and I find that a bit sad. My church doesn’t do hymns.