The Theology of "Away in a Manger"
A memo for the Third Sunday in Advent
No matter how carefully our pastors may teach us Biblical Truth from the pulpit, they can succeed only to extent that their preaching may overwhelm competing un-Biblical messages that come to us through other media, including our liturgy and hymns.
A problem arises when the lyrics of a well known hymn like "Away in a Manger", which cannot be avoided at this time of year, does not receive careful attention. Specifically, let's look at the verse that says: "Bless all the dear children in thy tender care, And fit (prepare) us for heaven, to live with Thee there."
Now compare the hymn with John 14:1-3 which says "Let not your heart be troubled: ye believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father's house are many mansions: if it were not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again, and receive you unto myself; that where I am, there ye may be also."
While Scripture says that Christ is presently preparing heaven for us, the hymn says that He is presently preparing us for heaven. That's a huge difference. Scripture wants us to believe that we are fully prepared for heaven by virtue of our repentance and belief in His completed saving work of suffering and resurrection. The hymn by contrast says that we are unprepared for heaven apart from our further rehabilitation.
To be fair, not all hymnals make the same mistake with "Away in a Manger". In fact it seems the errant lyric (the 4th and last verse typically) is a modern addition to a traditional lullaby of only two verses. The 1940 Hymnal (Episcopalian) does not have the verse at all. Some Reformed Baptist hymnals have the lyric but carefully change it to say "... and take us to heaven to live with Thee there." There's nothing wrong with that theology. Christ is coming again, and will take us to live with Him in heaven. Better still, the lyric might say "... and fit for us heaven to live with thee there." This would give the full sense of John 14.
So who is teaching this salvation-by-works "process theology?" The list is not short unfortunately. The good news is that my collection of hymnals and printed song lyrics is limited. It includes:
- The 1982 Episcopalian hymnal... no surprise there!
- Virtually every modern Methodist, Baptist, Pentecostal, Lutheran, Roman Catholic and Evangelical hymnal.
- Many professional "Gospel" singers like Bill Gaither.
Now here's a surprise;
The list of churches that get it wrong includes all Reformed churches that use the "Trinity Hymnal" (most of them). In other words, during Advent the typical Reformed churchman is getting mixed messages in the pew. From the pulpit he hears that a Christian's inheritance (salvation) is incorruptible, preserved in heaven until His return; but when he picks up his hymnal he confesses that a Christian's fittedness for heaven is incomplete. What confusion!
Yes, it is true that Christians have a duty to prepare "the way of the Lord" even as John the Baptist did before Christ's first incarnation. But this is not a duty to purify ourselves (justification) more than Christ has already made us pure. Christ alone is able to make a man pure, and we are saved only by His work in doing so. "Prepare the Way of the Lord" refers instead to the duty of Christian ministers to be witnesses (heralds) of His coming, that sinful men through such witnesses might turn and believe (John 1:7). John the Baptist does not prepare FOR Christ's coming (as if he is unprepared), but rather he prepares THE WAY for His coming.
While God understands and forgives our foolishness and error, He desires us to turn away from it. As Anglicans we should therefore give thanks for our well vetted liturgy which other Reformed Christians do not have. For example, the "Collect for the Third Sunday in Advent" says, "Grant that the ministers and stewards of thy mysteries may likewise so prepare and make ready thy way, by turning the hearts of the disobedient to the wisdom of the just [repentance and faith], that at thy second coming to judge the world we may be found an acceptable people in thy sight..."
May we be careful as we prepare the way for His coming to herald the Truth.