Mercy Street Church of Christ
Abilene, TX
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Ancient Words Can Change Us

by Leroy Garrett

Last Lord’s day at the Pecan Grove Church of Christ in Greenville we sang a hymn that was new to me. We sang it from a handout since it was not in their hymnal. With the help of a friend I’ve checked five or six hymnals and none of them have it. I found the hymn when I googled but it was a different arrangement from the one we sang, and while the lyrics were similar there were differences. The one we sang was arranged by Gary Moyers. It appears to be a hymn of recent origin, having been copyrighted in 2001 and titled Ancient Words. It was the chorus that I found especially thoughtful.

Ancient words, ever true,
changing me and changing you.
We have come with open hearts,
O let the ancient words impart.

While there are of course weighty ancient words beside those in holy Scripture, it is the Bible that the hymn is referencing. I taught my philosophy students that old Socrates, who dates back to the fourth century B.C., taught the ancient world a life-changing truth — that self-improvement is a moral duty — when he insisted that “The unexamined life is not worth living.” And it was Cicero, first century B.C. Roman statesman, who gave us that pregnant one-liner that serves as the rule for all political action, “The people’s good is the highest good.” We can agree that all truth, from whatever age or author, has its source in God, and has the potential to change human hearts and thus change the world. And truth, ancient or modern, is always classic in that it transcends time and circumstance. Socrates and Cicero speak to our age as well as theirs, if we have ears to hear.

However, like the hymn implies, biblical truth is especially significant in that God is revealing his will to his covenant people. That “God spoke in time past to our fathers through the prophets” and “in these last days he speaks to us through his son” (Hebrews 1:1) is mind-boggling. That God exists is a precious truth, that God has spoken is a glorious fact. God could exist (a truth) and yet be unknown to human kind, but when God speaks (a fact) he reveals himself.

This is why Alexander Campbell held that it is facts that both save us and unite us. A truth, as John Locke taught us, is what is or what exists, while a fact is something done, an act as the word indicates. Facts are acts. God had to act to redeem us, not just exist. Facts are of course also true, but truths are not facts. The good news or the gospel is made up of facts or acts, such as “Christ died for our sins.” But truths lay the ground work for facts. “God is love” is a truth, while “God so loved the world that he gave . . .” is something done, a fact or act.

Our Lord himself found in ancient words the power to change lives. When the Pharisees criticized him for eating with tax collectors and sinners, he pointed them to Micah 6:8, “I desire mercy and not sacrifice.” He told them that if they would “go and learn what this means” they would not be so critical (Matthew 9:13). God places mercy over ritual! I take it that Jesus is telling them that if they will go and do something merciful it will change their thinking. He referenced this passage again in Matthew 12:7 when the Pharisees criticized his disciples for plucking and eating grains of wheat on the sabbath. He told them, in essence, that if they understood what the prophet was saying they would not be judgmental. A single line from an ancient prophet that spoke of mercy could change their lives!

Paul the apostle was likewise influenced by a single line from an ancient prophet. In making his case for the righteousness of God he quoted Habakkuk 2:4, “The just shall live by faith,” in Romans 1:17. This passage also changed the thinking of Martin Luther, who in turn changed the world by way of the Protestant Reformation.

It has been the case throughout the history of the church — ancient words changing those with open hearts. Malcolm Muggeridge, the British cynic turned Christian, said that his life made a u-turn when he was zapped by John 16:33: “In the world you will have tribulation; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world.” C. S. Lewis saw sufficient truth in Psalm 19:14 to change the world: “Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in Your sight, O Lord, my strength and my Redeemer.” Karl Barth, eminent Swiss theologian, saw his name written on Psalm 73:21-24, which he called a “Nevertheless“ passage: “Thus my heart was grieved, and I was vexed in my mind. I was so foolish and ignorant; I was like a beast before You. Nevertheless, I am continually with You; You hold me by my right hand. You will guide me with Your counsel, and afterward receive me to glory.”

The hymn affirms what the church has always proclaimed — sinful people, however depraved, can change. How tragic it would be if there was no answer to our fallenness. However hopeless our situation may seem — an addiction, a broken marriage, a tragic mistake, despair — we can change. We are free to change! What a glorious truth! But the hymn makes it clear that there is one absolute condition for changing — Let us come with open hearts, O ancient words impart. To borrow from a popular mantra, It's the heart, stupid.

There was a preacher who said it well, “We have to get our want-to fixed.”

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