A few weeks ago I wrote about my ten favorite hymns. Today I'm offering this list of my ten favorite gospel songs. Two quick notes are in order. First, I find it difficult to define what I mean by "gospel song" so I won't even try, and I'm not where exactly how to demarcate between a hymn and a gospel song so I won't worry about that either. Second, this list means nothing particular except that these songs resonate in my own heart. I offer the list with the hope that readers may add their own suggestions. It is good thing to recall the songs that God has used to shape your soul in your own spiritual journey.
I had never heard this song until I was a student at Tennessee Temple University in Chattanooga. Every Sunday night at Highland Park Baptist Church, Dr. J. R. Faulkner began the service with the choir and vast congregation singing this song. I am not a good enough musician to sing parts very well, but it is tremendous fun to be with a group of men singing the bass line.
Wonderful the matchless grace of Jesus,
Deeper than the mighty rolling sea.
Higher than the mountain;
Sparkling like a fountain,
All-sufficient grace for even me.
Broader than the scope of my transgressions, sing it!
Greater far than all my sin and shame, my sin and shame.
O magnify the precious name of Jesus,
Praise his name!
I know this is a children's song, but it is much more than that. When used in a congregation, the slower you sing it, the better. I will never forget the powerful moment when we sang this song very slowly and soulfully at the end of the worship service in September 2004 when I preached on same-sex marriage and our church was picketed by the local gay rights group. Though tensions were running high, when we joined hands at the end of the service and began to sing "Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so," it was as if heaven opened, the whole congregation (which that day included many visitors from many different viewpoints) joined as one, singing, swaying, weeping, and remembering that the greatest truth we know is that Jesus loves us.
No list of favorite gospel songs would be complete without at least one Fanny Crosby song from the 9000 that she wrote during her more than 90 years. This is a wonderful "free grace" song that celebrates God's grace in salvation. I love this line:
The vilest offender who truly believes
That moment from Jesus a pardon receives.
As a side note, this song was not well known in North America until Cliff Barrows used it during the 1954 Billy Graham Crusade in Nashville.
Ethel Waters made this song famous, and now you can hear in soul gospel, Southern gospel, choir anthems, and in various contemporary versions. That speaks to its enduring message and the amazing versatility of the lyrics. I've sung it slow and fast, and in some versions where it was both slow and fast. Our grandchildren will still be singing it 50 years from now.
A powerful song--it might be better called hymn--written by Philip Bliss shortly before his tragic death in a train crash in Ashtabula, Ohio in 1876. He survived the initial impact but died when he went back into the flames in an unsuccessful attempt to rescue his wife. In this song Bliss glories in the death of Christ for sinners.
Guilty, vile, and helpless we;
Spotless Lamb of God was He;
“Full atonement!” can it be?
Hallelujah! What a Savior!
Included for personal reasons. Merrill Dunlop wrote the beautiful melody to Thomas Chisholm's powerful lyrics. For many years (decades, actually) Merrill and Lenore Dunlop lived in Oak Park. I met him early in my ministry at Calvary, when Merrill was already 80 years old. Over the years he wrote me many encouraging notes, and sometimes he and Lenore would slip in for a service (when he wasn't playing the organ at Judson Baptist Church). Merrill told me about hearing Billy Sunday preach in his Chicago crusade in 1918. He also talked about the famous Chicago pastor Paul Rader who was his friend and colleague and also his mentor in many ways. Although this song is not well-known, it deserves to be widely known. When sung with a choir and great congregation backed up by the organ and an orchestra, the last verse becomes a mighty explosion of praise:
Who can number His generation?
Who shall declare all the triumphs of His Cross?
Millions, dead, now live again,
Myriads follow in His train!
Victorious Lord and coming King!
7) At Calvary
Here is a classic Sunday night gospel song. By that I mean this is a song that whenever the music leader calls from favorites from the congregation, someone is bound to say, "At Calvary." In my mind I put it in the same category as "At the Cross" and "Down at the Cross" (either of which could have been included in this list).
Made famous by George Beverly Shea and the Billy Graham crusades, this song never fails to move hearts. Several weeks ago at Pilgrims Rest Baptist Church in Batesville, Mississippi, a hush came over the congregation as Dave Jones sang this just before my final message. Even when it done as a solo, you almost can't help by join in when the singer comes to . . .
Than to be the king of a vast domain
Or be held in sin's dread sway.
I'd rather have Jesus than anything
This world affords today.
Often used as an invitation hymn, it serves well as a choir anthem. One of the most moving versions I have ever heard was a solo version backed up by an acoustic guitar. Works very well when sung a cappella. There is something very plaintive about the chorus:
Jesus paid it all,
All to him I owe.
Sin had left a crimson stain,
He washed it white as snow.
If you know the song, you started singing it right then, didn't you? That's the powerful of a great gospel song.
10) One Day
J. Wilbur Chapman wrote this song in 1908 while on a worldwide preaching tour. The verses take you on a tour of Christ's life:
Verse 1: Virgin Birth
Verse 2: Crucifixion
Verse 3: Burial
Verse 4: Resurrection
Verse 5: Second Coming
The chorus recaps his life again--and includes a reference to the meaning of his burial:
Living, He loved me; dying, He saved me;
Buried, He carried my sins far away;
Rising, He justified freely forever;
One day He’s coming—O glorious day!
Again, here is a song that deserves a choir, an organ, a piano, an orchestra and an enthusiastic congregation to do it justice.