August 30, 2016. Today we’ll be taking a look at “To Live Is Christ” by Sidewalk Prophets which currently sits at #4 on KLove’s Top 10 Songs.
This song is built around a line in Paul’s letter to the Philippians. What I really like about this song is that it reminded me of this passage of scripture. What bothers me is that it spends all of its time in lofty hypothetical narrative rather than tease out what Paul was saying in his letter. So this song could have been awesome. As it stands, I think it’s only as useful as its hearer is familiar with the first chapter of Philippians. So, we’ll dive into the text so that from here on out whenever you hear this song play on the radio, you should be all set to meditate on God’s Word directly, rather than the disjointed, vague (and slightly mystical) lines of this song.
Lyrics (via KLove)
If I rise, let me rise on You
Not on all my successes
My esteem or my pursuits
If I lose, let me lose my life
Cause if I belong to Jesus
The flesh is crucified
For me to live is Christ
For me to live is Christ
For me to live is Christ
To die is gain
If I grow, let me grow in You
Wilt the seeds of wanting more
Ripping pride out by the roots
If I’m still, let me hear You speak
Not the tone of my transgressions
But the song of the redeemed
My great desire is to be with You
But this is the place You chose for me
This is the place You chose for me
To lift my cross and give everything
This is the time You gave to me
This is the time You gave to me
I’ll never be the same
I’ll never be the same
For me to live is Christ
To die is gain
© 2015 Dayspring Music Publishing, LLC, Run Run Milo, Pencil Prophet Publishing (BMI) / Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC, Not Just Another Song Publishing (SESAC) (All rights on behalf of itself and Not Just Another Song Publishing adm. by Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC)
Written by: Ben McDonald / Dave Frey / Casey Brown / Jonathan Smith
Verse 1. The first verse is vague. There is no clear doctrine being described or supported here, just lofty hypothetical, which serves a form of verbal piety, but doesn’t seem to have an anchor. The closest we get to a Gospel nugget is the line Cause if I belong to Jesus, but it’s in the hypothetical. What does it mean to belong to Jesus? You need to rightly understand the answer to that question for this to serve any comfort. There is a connection being made to having the flesh crucified, but there’s not real meaning and there is no clear order of statements or anchor for faith so what might be presented for the assurance of salvation may also be turned as a weapon of doubt. If I point you to the Word of God and the waters of your Baptism, your assurance is in the fact that God’s Word has declared you washed, baptized into the death and resurrection of Christ, sealed by the Holy Spirit with the Promise of Salvation to be revealed at the Last Day. I realize there is no way to say all of that in a single verse of this song, I’m just being thorough for the purpose of this medium. The lines in the song don’t present a clear anchor in baptism, or in the Promise of Salvation through Faith in God’s Word, none of that. It’s merely a hanging “if”. Now, for those of you fully assured of your salvation, you might take the next line as encouragement… until the next time you are convicted of sin and have to ask the other side of this if. There’s the doubt that needs an object of faith that lies external to ourselves, a faith on the external Word of God, not our own “perfection”. There are concerns present in most evangelical songs, the concern of where vaguely alluding to the Gospel in some way might go wonky, so that rather than lead the hearer to Christ, it simply points the hearer to himself and his emotions and abilities. Granted, lines 2+3 seem to downplay the importance of our own abilities, but only hypothetically. The song isn’t saying my actions have no value, he’s saying “let me be lifted up by You not by my successes, my esteem, or pursuits”. What does that mean? The listener has nearly free rein to give those lines meaning, which is a weakness, not a strength with regards to communicating Truth.
While we’ve looked only at concerns in some of the wording, overall the first verse is disjointed from the passage in Philippians being invoked by the chorus. The hypotheticals in the first verse are not connected to the context of Philippians.
Chorus. For me to live is Christ, To die is gain. I’m not sure the repetition here is helpful. However, this line comes from the opening chapter in the Apostle Paul’s letter to the saints in Philipi. So let’s look at that chapter and focus on it before continuing through the song.
Philippians 1 (ESV)
1 Paul and Timothy, servants of Christ Jesus, To all the saints in Christ Jesus who are at Philippi, with the overseers and deacons:
2 Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
3-11 I thank my God in all my remembrance of you, always in every prayer of mine for you all making my prayer with joy, because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now. And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ. It is right for me to feel this way about you all, because I hold you in my heart, for you are all partakers with me of grace, both in my imprisonment and in the defense and confirmation of the gospel. For God is my witness, how I yearn for you all with the affection of Christ Jesus. And it is my prayer that your love may abound more and more, with knowledge and all discernment, so that you may approve what is excellent, and so be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God.
Paul is writing to the Church in Philippi, all the saints with the overseers and deacons. There is a bad habit in popular evangelicalism to read scripture through our American hyper-individualism. While we do have individual responsibilities within the Body of Christ, these Epistles are primarily written to the Body of Christ, not just the hands or the feet. We are all connected by the body and blood of Christ, the Gospel of Jesus Christ. This is how Paul is talking to this church body, their partnership in the gospel, they are all partakers with Paul in his imprisonment and in the defense and confirmation of the gospel. We are all one body, united in the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
12-14 I want you to know, brothers, that what has happened to me has really served to advance the gospel, so that it has become known throughout the whole imperial guard and to all the rest that my imprisonment is for Christ. And most of the brothers, having become confident in the Lord by my imprisonment, are much more bold to speak the word without fear.
Here, Paul is instructing the church in how to properly view the trials of this life through the lens of the Gospel. This isn’t prosperity teaching nor is it some obnoxious “power of positive confession” nonsense, this is faith in the Gospel framing a proper worldview. Paul’s imprisonment is for Christ and for the sake of His Gospel. Paul is encouraging the Philippians in this Truth.
15-26 Some indeed preach Christ from envy and rivalry, but others from good will. The latter do it out of love, knowing that I am put here for the defense of the gospel. The former proclaim Christ out of selfish ambition, not sincerely but thinking to afflict me in my imprisonment.What then? Only that in every way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is proclaimed, and in that I rejoice. Yes, and I will rejoice, for I know that through your prayers and the help of the Spirit of Jesus Christ this will turn out for my deliverance,as it is my eager expectation and hope that I will not be at all ashamed, but that with full courage now as always Christ will be honored in my body, whether by life or by death. For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain. If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me. Yet which I shall choose I cannot tell. I am hard pressed between the two. My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better. But to remain in the flesh is more necessary on your account. Convinced of this, I know that I will remain and continue with you all, for your progress and joy in the faith, so that in me you may have ample cause to glory in Christ Jesus, because of my coming to you again.
So, the first part of this section is often misused to silence any who would rebuke false teachers or seek to mark them publicly. I’ve highlighted the important phrases which highlight the key to rightly understanding the left and right limits of Paul’s statement here. Christ is being preached, Christ is being proclaimed. As long as Christ is being preached, Paul doesn’t care if those doing so are harboring some sort of ill will toward Paul, personally. It’s like saying, “yeah, I know that guy doesn’t like me, my personality, or the way I talk… but he is preaching and proclaiming Christ (rightly, is implied) so I can rejoice in the preaching of Christ and I don’t care that he’s doing it to spite me or anything”. Whenever Christ isn’t being preached rightly, Paul isn’t rejoicing in that nonsense… he’s quite aggressive, just read the letter to Galatians.
Now, noticed the line in the middle of the above passage which is where the chorus of the song is pulled. Paul goes on to explain what he means. He’s in prison, and is legitimately torn between wanting to be put to death so that he can be with Christ, but also wanting to remain so that he might be able to visit the church in Phillipi to encourage them in the LORD. He has even come to the conclusion that since his continued presence on this earth will serve the preaching of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, he’s certain he will not die in prison at this time. This is why I consider the first verse to be disjointed from this context. Could it be forced into this context? Possibly by hyper spiritualizing some of the words, but that’s doing a lot of manipulation of meaning by the listener not a natural flow of communication from the songwriter. Let’s close out the chapter and move on to the rest of the song.
27-30 Only let your manner of life be worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that whether I come and see you or am absent, I may hear of you that you are standing firm in one spirit, with one mind striving side by side for the faith of the gospel, and not frightened in anything by your opponents. This is a clear sign to them of their destruction, but of your salvation, and that from God. For it has been granted to you that for the sake of Christ you should not only believe in him but also suffer for his sake, engaged in the same conflict that you saw I had and now hear that I still have.
This encouragement is to the plural “you”, all the saints in Phillipi with their overseers and deacons. Is Paul saying each and every person will be put in jail? Not necessarily, but he is saying that the church body will suffer, and a body that is united in the Gospel of Jesus Christ will share in that suffering as one body, not a loose collection of individuals.
Verse 2. I really don’t like this verse at all. It seems to be dancing around the primary fruit of the Christian Life, repentance. How does God rip out pride from us by the roots? God the Holy Spirit convicts us of sin through the preaching of the Law. How does God wilt the seeds of greed? God the Holy Spirit convicts us of sin through the preaching of the Law. How do we tone down the sound of our transgressions? Believe in the Word of God, Repent, and Be forgiven in Jesus’ Name. Those who have been Redeemed by the Grace of God through Faith in Jesus Christ sing the song of the Redeemed. How does God speak to us? Through His Written Word, not through mysticism (silent prayer, visions, goosebumps, dreams, omens, divination, horoscopes, astrology, numerology, etc). Can God speak to us directly? Yes. Is that where God promised to meet us (direct revelation)? No. He has promised to be found in His Word, so that is where we ought always to seek Him.
Verse 3 / Bridge. Now this verse/bridge seems properly tied to the Chorus and to our Philippians text. So, I like it. It’s still vague and open-ended, but in a useful way because there is no mysticism or vaulty hypothetical… it’s left open-ended a bit so that we who are in Christ can claim this Gospel mindset for ourselves. We, the Church, are exactly where God has placed us, and that as long as we live we have an opportunity to be partakers in the Gospel of Jesus Christ, through the preaching and enduring persecution for the sake of the Gospel.
If we can focus on the instruction of the Apostle Paul in Philippians 1, we can rightly enjoy the chorus and the bridge (or last verse) of this song. The other two verses are throw-away verses, really. So this song lands in the upper level of the middle-ground. Please remember that the final disposition of the song (Approved/Disapproved) is not the main focus of these DiM posts, the point is to go through the exercise of evaluating the lyric of what is being put forward as “Christian” music. We are looking for proclamation of Christ in all that bears the label “Christian”. When we find it, we rejoice. When we don’t, we lament.
2 Thessalonians 3:16 (ESV) Now may the Lord of peace himself give you peace at all times in every way. The Lord be with you all.
In Christ Jesus,
One thought on “DiM | “To Live Is Christ” by Sidewalk Prophets”
Thanks for this biblical approach to explaining this song. This morning I was reading Philippians 1 when I thought about the chorus of this song. Then, I started asking myself why we sing and hear that song so much if it didn’t really explain Paul’s struggle with choosing life on earth or life in heaven. I also began questioning the message of the remaining lyrics because I couldn’t remember them having a strong association to the chorus as it related to Philippians 1. Now, I have an appreciation for the song, but not without having studied the bible first.