At the cross I don't bow my knee

This is part of a great song At The Cross from the 2006 Hillsong album Mighty to Save:

At the cross I bow my knee
Where Your blood was shed for me
There’s no greater love than this
You have overcome the grave
Your glory fills the highest place
What can separate me now?

Or is it so great? I like the music, as we sang it in my church last night. But what about the words?

I am not thinking so much about the strange last line: separate me from what? After all, well taught Christians will immediately spot that this is an allusion to Romans 8:38-39 and “from the love of God” is implied.

The issue I have is with the first line that I quoted, “At the cross I bow my knee”. No, I don’t. I bow my knee only to God, and he is not on the cross. As the angel said to Mary (Matthew 28:6), “He is not here; he has risen”. OK, that was about the empty tomb, but surely it is all the more true of the cross: Jesus is no longer hanging on it, he is alive!

Protestant Christians give this as their reason for displaying empty crosses in their churches, rather than the crucifixes more typically used by Roman Catholics. But the cross is still given the central place in most church buildings, whereas the resurrection and the coming of the Holy Spirit are so often ignored in our church decoration.

The problem is that the Protestants have taken away from the image not the cross but Jesus! I am not actually advocating putting statues or pictures of Jesus in our churches, but there is a striking contrast here with the more typically Eastern Orthodox depictions of the living and reigning Jesus, such as Christ Pantocrator.

The danger with giving too much prominence to the empty cross is that it becomes an idol, something which we worship in place of the living God. It is not just a matter of the cross as a physical object or a symbol. In many branches of evangelicalism the cross, or what happened on it, is given so much prominence relative to the other events of salvation history that it becomes something of an idol in our thinking. Indeed surely it is this kind of thinking that lies behind the prominence we give to this symbol in our church buildings.

The bronze snake which Moses made in the wilderness was a great means of God’s deliverance (Numbers 21:8-9), and prefigured the cross itself (John 3:14). Nevertheless King Hezekiah had to destroy it because it had become an idol, an object of worship in itself (2 Kings 18:4). If the cross of Jesus has become an object of worship in itself, something which we bow down before rather than worshipping God, it too needs to be put in its proper place. If we bow down before the cross in a church building, it should only be because we recognise that God, the risen Jesus, is there.

0 thoughts on “At the cross I don't bow my knee

  1. For me this is simply about being drawn to the cross where Jesus our Lord was crucified and where our sin is swallowed up. Jesus said himself that when he was lifted up on the cross he would draw all men to himself. I worship HIM there as the song expresses. I don’t think it is advocating worshipping a piece of wood.

  2. Mike, maybe I am not being entirely fair to the song which is I am sure intended as worship of Jesus, the “You” of these lines. But it does draw attention to the real danger of people worshipping that piece of wood.

  3. The theme for Spring Harvest many years ago was “Back to the Cross”. In recent years I have tended to question the charicature Protestant view that a cross should always be displayed empty. Jesus hung there for me, the veil of the temple was rent while he was on there. The CDs are shut in the living room with the cats for the night, so I can’t check whether it is in Maunder’s “Olivet to Calvary” or Stainer’s “Crucifixion” that we have the glorious chorus “From the throne of the cross”. Calvary is the route to the empty tomb, the ascension and Pentecost.

    I have not yet come across this particular song. Like Mike I am clear I worship Jesus who hung on the cross, not the object per se. But posts like this are a useful reminder of the importance of keeping our core beliefs and understandings under scrutiny. Thank you.

  4. Good points. I think we can over analyse songs though. So many worship songs that we sing have bits we could pick out and say are strange or maybe even wrong.
    ‘You give and take away, blessed be your name’. theology that Job actually repented of. Do we really believe that in all situations God gives and takes away? Does he take away the child of a family through murder?
    ‘Forever I’ll love you, forever I’ll stand’. Will you really love God forever?
    They may not be absolute truths but when sung with a humble heart they make sense. I’m not a calvinist whatsoever but I’ll still sing ‘you give and take away’ because I believe God is God and can do what he likes and I surrender to Him even though I know he doesn’t have children murdered for his glory. ‘Forever I’ll love you, forever I’ll stand’ I’m actually not a fan of the song ‘shout to the lord’ as my church kills it, but I’ll sing that line as an earnest prayer. I want to love him forever and I declare it as a prayer.
    At the cross I bow my knee; I’ll sing it but I know what I’m singing about and if I was to sing it while I was leading worship I’d explain the meaning of it as is so important to do in so many worship songs where people have no idea what they’re singing about!

  5. Colin, the manger is also the route to the cross, the empty tomb, the ascension and Pentecost. So why not take our symbol from the very start? Why, apart from tradition, do you want the cross to be the central symbol more important than all these others?

    Ferg, I agree that many songs have weaknesses when analysed too closely. I know some songwriters have theological advisers who check their songs before publication. I would not want to take my doctrine from any songs, but far too many Christians do. Yes, it is good for worship leaders to explain the meaning of songs – as long as they get it right: I remember hearing an explanation “Blessed be your name” which was theologically far worse than the line you highlighted. And yes, I believe I will love God forever, in eternity.

  6. I think you are being too pedantic Peter.

    I see where you are coming from, but I don’t see the big issue.

    I mean: look at this one dimensional hymn!

    When I survey the wondrous cross
    On which the Prince of glory died,
    My richest gain I count but loss,
    And pour contempt on all my pride.

    Forbid it, Lord, that I should boast,
    Save in the death of Christ my God!
    All the vain things that charm me most,
    I sacrifice them to His blood.

    See from His head, His hands, His feet,
    Sorrow and love flow mingled down!
    Did e’er such love and sorrow meet,
    Or thorns compose so rich a crown?

    Were the whole realm of nature mine,
    That were a present far too small;
    Love so amazing, so divine,
    Demands my soul, my life, my all.

    No mention of the manger. No mention of the empty tomb. No mention of the ascension. No mention of pentecost.

    I think you need to be a little careful with your criteria!

    I see the cross in many ways as the centre point of Jesus ministry, hence it is given a certain focus and status.

    I think people have such a deep sense of the cross representing the very heart of the gospel, the ransom paid, sin atoned for (whatever mechanism you believe took place!) etc etc

    Although I would agree that the resurrection is sometimes second fiddle to the cross and has to be part of the same focus: which is why an empty cross says both. He died here, he rose again.

  7. Peter
    Thanks for your feedback. Of course you are right that if there was no manger there would be no cross. Equally if there was no cross, empty tomb etc, the manger would loose most of its purpose.

    I would agree that the dominance of the cross is embedded in at least Protestant tradition. An example of this is the charater of the Communion service in the Book of Common Prayer. The modern CoE prayers of consecration do draw more heavily on the incarnation, Christ’s ministry on earth and our eternal destiny. For the benefit of other readers of this blog I am not seeking to offer or imply any view on what a Communion service should look like; it is just an observation on CoE liturgical development.

    However we should rightly ask if there is any basis for that apparent tradition. What I would suggest is that the NT Epistles seem to directly say much more about the economy of the cross and resurrection, than the incarnation and birth. I cannot be dogmatic, but maybe that is why the Fathers of the Reformation came to give it so much emphasis. You or others may feel otherwise, but I guess I find that significant.

    Again none of this denies the fact that Jesus is our focus for worship. And our growth in discipleship needs to take on the whole story of God’s revelation among us, from Genesis to Revelation and what he says to us today.

    I am sure we could all find questionable bits in many worship songs, and traditional hymns. No doubt if 10 of us examined a set of songs we would have 10 different lists! And again I state that it is right that we examine our traditions periodically. They should be as subject to discernment and testing just as much as should any new movement, and to the same standards.

  8. Blue, “When I Survey” is a great hymn for suitable occasions, if properly balanced with songs focusing on other aspects of salvation history. It asks me to “survey” the cross but not to bow down before it. That is the basic difference. And there are probably other songs that make the same mistake, I just mentioned the one which I had heard the day before.

    Colin, I accept that the epistles focus on the death and resurrection of Jesus – not just the death of course. But the gospels focus on the life and teaching of Jesus, of course ending with his death and resurrection. So it is hard to argue from the biblical revelation as a whole that one is more important than the others.

    I guess one good reason for the cross being the most widely used Christian symbol is that it is so easy to draw and recognise!

  9. Well, I’m glad someone else has said it. It has concerned me for some years that evangelical theology has come to focus unhealthily on the cross, as if it is a holy talisman, rather than just being grateful for what was done there and getting on with living in resurrection life. If the Father turned away from the cross and darkened the sky to hide what was done, is a focus on the cross actually what He wants? The cross was not used as a Christian symbol until Constantine usurped the headship of the church from Christ, which suggests to me that its use does not come from an apostolic, or even necessarily a holy origin. Huge numbers seem to enter the kingdom, believing the doorpost to be the cross, rather than Christ himself being the door, then cling to their doorpost as if letting go to walk beyond it would be heresy. The centrality of the cross has become used as an excuse for resisting the Holy Spirit’s personal development plan, as in “I have the cross brother, that’s all I need. Nothing further is needed.” No surprise that God does not confirm this form of gospel with signs following then.

  10. Duncan, well said.

    “The centrality of the cross has become used as an excuse for resisting the Holy Spirit’s personal development plan, as in “I have the cross brother, that’s all I need. Nothing further is needed.” No surprise that God does not confirm this form of gospel with signs following then.”

  11. Oh, my God! You judge so much, you think too much. Do you ever have time to feel? To live? I like your security words. And your about page.

  12. Cheers, thanks for your comment, but you really don’t know much about me. Especially in recent weeks I have been living a lot, feeling a lot, thinking rather little except about some immediate issues, and judging very little. There was a special reason why I noted a particular problem with the lyrics of this song. I am not in fact the kind of person who usually searches for such details. Perhaps you should read more of my blog to find out more about how I think.

  13. So I googled “can there be so much emphasis on the cross that we worship the cross” and found this site – I was looking because I am a worship leader and am considering doing Jeremy Riddle’s Sweetly broken. I have a problem with a few lines and probably will edit them if we ever do them.
    the first lines of the verse:
    “To the cross I look
    To the cross I cling
    Of it’s suffering I do drink
    Of it’s work I do sing”

    He goes on and says “for on it my saviour…” which defends what he says but to me it’s too much – to look at the cross ok but to cling to it and drink it’s suffering? sing of it’s work? It’s a beautiful song but the first verse just does not sit well.

    the second verse ends with:
    “Now through the cross I’m reconciled”

    I’m sorry – I may b reconciled by what happened on the cross but I am only reconciled in Jesus not through a or the cross.

    My 2 cents.

  14. Timo, thanks for this. I think I agree with you.

    Of course the idea of Christians clinging to the cross is an old one, being found in “Rock of Ages” and “The Old Rugged Cross”, as well as in more recent songs by Tim Hughes and Paul Baloche.

    I guess the real issue is with the balance. If it is clear in the context that clinging to the cross means trusting in Jesus’ sacrificial death, then I have no problem with the imagery. But if there is any suggestion that the cross as an object is literally to be clung to, bowed down before etc, then that is idolatry.

    I’m not sure about Jeremy Riddle’s song. I wouldn’t like to condemn it as wrong or evil. But I probably wouldn’t choose it myself.

  15. I am Nigerian, and my command of English is ‘good’ (laughs). So, please correct my tenses where necessary.

    In my church – the Church of Nigeria, Anglican Communion – bowing before/to the cross is a tradition (well, the church is one with many traditions). I am on this mission to draw the attention of church leaders and worshipers to this danger of making the cross the central issue. Why? Please read with me Deuteronomy 4:15-20 (NIV):

    “You saw no form of any kind the day the LORD spoke to you at Horeb out of the fire. Therefore watch yourselves very carefully, so that you do not become corrupt and make for yourselves an idol, an image of any shape, whether formed like a man or a woman, or like any animal on earth or any bird that flies in the air, or like any creature that moves along the ground or any fish in the waters below. And when you look up to the sky and see the sun, the moon and the stars—all the heavenly array—do not be enticed into bowing down to them and worshiping things the LORD your God has apportioned to all the nations under heaven. But as for you, the LORD took you and brought you out of the iron-smelting furnace, out of Egypt, to be the people of his inheritance, as you now are.”

    What is the Lord’s point here? No one is ALLOWED to depict the ALMIGHTY God as anything. There is real danger of IDOLATRY in using images, objects, etc, as justifiable representations of God. Such is the nature of idolatry.

    If you add this to the Israelites experience with the bronze snake that King Hezekiah had to destroy, then there is no place for objects and things in worship of God.

  16. Thank you, Jude. You make a good point – worshipping the cross is certainly wrong. And your English is not at all bad, better than many of my British and North American commenters.

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