Theology in a New Key: “Yet Not I But Through Christ in Me”

My wife and I have become huge fans of City Alight over the past few years. Songs like “Grace,” “Jesus Strong and Kind,” and “Christ Is Mine Forevermore” display the kind of musicianship, theological acumen, and sensitivity to human frailty we have always longed for but only occasionally found. Plus, many of their songs can easily be adapted to even the smallest congregations.

But, for us, one song rises above the rest, for it has been the soundtrack for our spiritual journey over the past three years. It is “Yet not I But Through Christ in Me.”

Savior and Shepherd

The title of this song might be a little clumsy, but its lyrics, melodies, harmonies, and accompaniment are anything but. Presented in a form which reminds one of the creeds of old (each chorus begins with “To this I hold”), “Yet not I But Through Christ in me” is a rousing celebration of Christ. The first verse focuses on who Jesus is to the worshiper, identifying him with the most important themes in Scripture. The third verse invites the worshiper to reframe her or his anxieties about the future in terms of what Christ has already accomplished on the cross, and the final verse leads the worshiper to express her or his confidence in Jesus through a thoroughgoing commitment to him—now and forever.

Perhaps, though, it is the second verse which has been the most meaningful to us. I will talk more about why that is in my next blog. For now, it is enough to say we have become deeply and desperately aware of how much we need a savior—of how much we need a shepherd. In language reminiscent of Psalm 23, “Yet not I But Through Christ in Me” reminds us what we have both in Jesus.

There is no getting around the fact that, sometimes, “the night is dark.” Sometimes, we must “labor on, in weakness and rejoicing.” In those moments—which are often much longer than the word “moment” can communicate—we can feel forsaken. We can feel alone.

But we are not. It is interesting to me how the song deals with this scenario before it turns to the question of sin and redemption (verse three). The cross should settle any questions we have about whether God loves us, but it doesn’t. And that should not surprise us. After all, past professions of love, whether from a spouse or a friend, do little to calm our anxious hearts when we are in the midst of a crisis that threatens to end our time on earth or to sever our ties to the ones we love. We need their love in the present. We need to experience that love, not just contemplate it.

So it is with Christ. We need to experience his love in the present—in the exigencies of our fallenness and frailty. And that is the promise we have in Scripture. Christ is with us. He is leading us. And, yes, he will lead us “through the deepest valley.” But that isn’t something to be feared. It is something to be celebrated.

Not Perfect, But Good

I cannot say enough good things about “Yet not I But Through Christ in Me.” But it isn’t perfect. Indeed, it makes a serious theological misstep in the very first stanza.

What gift of grace is Jesus my redeemer

There is no more for heaven now to give 

Did you catch it? From an atonement point of view, Jesus is all we need. But his atonement is not all God has given us. The Father has also sent us His very own Spirit, and the importance of this gift should not be underestimated. It plays an indispensable role in salvation (Galatians 3:1-4:11), it teaches us what it means to live as followers of Jesus (John 14:26), and it intercedes with God for us when we are in our most desperate need (Romans 8:26-27).

So, why do I point out this misstep? Am I making a mountain out of a molehill? That is certainly not my intent. Rather, it is to remind us no piece of art, whether auditory or visual, can communicate the gospel with perfect precision. Even our most lengthy and thorough systematic theologies fall short of that standard, and what they gain in precision they often lose in power. We don’t have to be uncritical in our consumption of Christian music, and we should not be so when that music is designed to lead us into the presence of God. But we can demonstrate grace, remembering that we, too, have weaknesses and blind spots in our understanding of all that the Triune God has done.

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