I was recently taking a trip down a musical Amnesia Lane, listening once again to the collected works of Keith Green (The Ministry Years vols. 1-2, 1978-1982). Keith Green’s music has always been among my favorite despite the fact that he was so overtly non-Reformed (although he was very overtly Christian, which really is more important anyhow). Yet my deep admiration for Keith Green is (I suspect) something akin to that of the admiration I’ve heard that George Whitefield, the great English Calvinist itinerant evangelist and “open air” preacher throughout the 13 American colonies during the First “Great Awakening”, possessed toward John Wesley, his English Arminian/Methodist counterpart whose itinerant open air preaching in England was powerfully blessed to effect a large-scale revival there. I’ve heard it said that, despite Whitefield’s well-documented disagreement with Wesley on the doctrines of God’s sovereign and unconditional grace (and his many attempts to lovingly persuade Wesley to embrace them), he still loved and admired Wesley deeply. I once heard it said that Whitefield, when asked by a zealous young Calvinist student and admirer concerning whether he anticipated seeing Wesley in heaven, responded in the negative (much to the proud young Calvinist’s Pharisaical delight). But he continued on by offering the addendum that his anticipated inability to see Wesley would not be due to Wesley’s absence there, but rather because Wesley would be so close to the throne of God that he (Whitefield) would not be able to see Wesley from his own position so far back.
Don’t misunderstand me. I have some definite points of theological and practical disagreement with Green, and there are some things he said in a couple of his songs that make me cringe a bit. He had zeal a-plenty, but sometimes perhaps with too little understanding. At least in a few of his songs, his demeanor seems da-meaner than I feel it should be, almost proud and borderline arrogant toward spiritual peaons (like me) who merely live ordinary work-a-day lives in “secular” vocations and who(he seems to suggest) don’t really get on board with the sold-out and fully-devoted life of radical faith and discipleship with Jesus (not that I personally buy such a distinction). I think for example of his song Jesus Commands Us to Go, in which he basically seems to insinuate that Jesus commands almost all of his people today to go out into formal mission work, so much so that “it should be the exception if we stay.” Because of his improper hermeneutic (in which he takes Jesus’ statements to his first disciples who were living/working in a different context than ours and applies them directly to us individually today in a strict one-to-one correlation), he ends up equating staying at home and supporting missionaries through means of dedicated monetary giving and prayer to be the exception (a lesser call of sorts), as if throwing more and more numbers of missionaries at the lost world is the real solution to reaching them. I think it likely that after the initial mass exodus of believers from Jerusalem during the Sauline persecutions, most believers settled in local communities and endeavored to live quiet lives in godliness, supporting missionaries like Paul and Silas, Barnabas and John Mark. But for Keith, it seems to be quantity over quality (Maybe a more balanced approach would be better).
Still, Keith’s music is, for the very most part, just Scripturally-saturated and full of zealous passion and love for the things of the Lord. As one who believes that our theological formulations and theologi-speak in preaching/teaching (and even in our lay conversations around our dinner tables) should sound more overtly Scriptural in language and form, I welcome Keith’s approach to music. For example, in I Don’t Want to Fall Away From You, Keith speaks very honestly about the whole subject of (the very real possibility of ) apostasy for a child of God and His prayer for God’s preserving grace to persevere until the end unto final salvation/vindication/justification at the last judgment. Such a song may make high/hyper-Calvinists nervous – after all, don’t we know that the “elect” can never really fall away from the faith and that those darned “Arminian-sounding” apostasy passages in the Bible are merely hypothetical? Still, there’s no question that he speaks the language of apostasy just like the Scriptures do, as well as acknowledging the reality of the final judgment according to our deeds (2 Cor 5:10; listen also to the end of his marvelous musical re-enactment of Matthew 25:31ff in The Sheep and the Goats.). Yet, if you listen to Grace by Which I’m Saved or You Put This Love in My Heart or Draw Me, you’d almost believe that Keith had a decidedly Calvinistic bent. Furthermore, though he speaks strongly of a working/fruit-bearing faith, he clearly affirms the reality of the imputed righteousness of Christ as our only covering, hope, and status before God in songs like When I Hear the Praises Start (although admittedly even in this song he goes on to affirm that imputed righteousness is vitally linked to righteous living). He is just so comfortable using both Calvinistic-sounding and Arminian-sounding language (like the Scriptures do in various places), without any apparent thought of contradiction. He is certainly scripturally literate and informed, even if he’s perhaps not so theologically precise and systematic. He’s like Bunyan, he bleeds Bib-line.
Furthermore, The Ministry Years volumes shine through with many of the classic and enduring praise songs which Keith left to the church as a legacy. Whether it be The Easter Song (“Hear the bells ringing…”) or There is a Redeemer or Create in Me a Clean Heart or How Majestic is Thy Name, those of us who remember the early days of CCM (back when it still meant Contemporary Christian Music instead of Contemporary Carnal/Compromising/Crummy Music) can’t help but enjoy Keith’s passionate praise and worship style. Also, Keith had an almost prophetic message and manner which challenges our often petty notions of comfortable Christianity (and the Lord surely knows that we need it). Songs like Asleep in the Light, A Million Starving People, If You Love the Lord, The Sheep and the Goats, Make My Life a Prayer to You, I Pledge My Head to Heaven, My Eyes are Dry, To Obey is Better than Sacrifice, and Go to the Hungry Ones call us afresh to a type of Christianity (actually the only real type – James 1:27) that measures itself not in the high-resolution precision of its theological formulations -- though theological formulations are by no means irrelevant or unnecessary -- but rather in the abundance and reality of its love for God, the brethren, and the lost (and that love being not in word only, but in deed and in truth).
A couple of other short points are in order here also. Keith was a masterful story-teller. A number of his songs are really just very memorable re-tellings (with a certain amount of creative license) of Bible stories. The Victor (on Jesus’ passion/resurrection), The Prodigal Son Suite, On the Road to Jericho (Good Samaritan), The Sheep and the Goats, and So You Wanna Go Back to Egypt are all songs that really bring the stories alive in very tangible ways. I also appreciate the fact that Keith was unashamed to so often speak of the hope of Christ’s second coming – both to comfort the afflicted and to afflict the comfortable. I didn’t actually count the number of times in which that theme was prominent, but it was quite a few. Granted that Keith was somewhat a product of his times and held (uncritically) to the common hermeneutic that simply takes the imminence statements in the New Testament with respect to the Second Coming and applies them directly to us as the terminal generation without regard to how they would have been heard or understand by the original audience (along with implications thereof), he nevertheless rightly focused on the future hope of Christ’s second coming as a primary driving motif in his songs. We Reformed, in our Biblically-justified rejection of Dispensationalism, have so very often relegated the doctrine of the Second Coming to the area of a tenet of the faith to be affirmed but with very little practical “ooomph” to it "where the rubber meets the road." . In the NT, the 2nd Coming was a (or more likely “the”) primary driving reason used by the apostles to motivate the believers to fear, holiness, hope, faith, love, and watchfulness. It’s not too much of a stretch to say that NT ethics really depends on a vital doctrine of the second coming of Christ and the final judgment (contra the hyper-preterist types). Keith rightly and repeatedly focuses believers back to the parousia as “our blessed hope.”
I could go on with more , but I’ll stop here. I’ve not yet read Keith’s biography, No Compromise, but I hope to do so soon. He may not have been as Reformed as I’d personally like him to have been, but I’d take Keith Green over just about any musician or any music that you will hear on most “Christian” music radio stations these days.