Posted by: rcottrill | December 2, 2009

Bad People…Good Music

How can bad people produce good music? It’s a relevant question. Because not all wholesome, God-honouring music was produced by born again believers. That may be almost too obvious to state, but it is an important place for us to start. There are even fine hymns, true to Scripture, written by unbelievers. For example, what do you think of the following lyric?

All hail to Thee, Immanuel, we cast our crowns before Thee;
Let every heart obey Thy will, and every voice adore Thee.
In praise to Thee, our Saviour King, the vibrant chords of heaven ring,
And echo back the mighty strain: All hail! All hail! All hail Immanuel!

All hail to Thee, Immanuel, our risen King and Saviour!
Thy foes are vanquished, and Thou art omnipotent forever.
Death, sin and hell no longer reign, and Satan’s pow’r is burst in twain;
Eternal glory to Thy name: All hail! All hail! All hail Immanuel!

D. R. Van Sickle wrote that hymn in 1910. Not only was he an unbeliever at the time, he wrote the song specifically to prove you don’t need to be a Christian to write a hymn! But some years later, by God’s grace, a strange thing happened. Van Sickle was in a church service when the choir sang his hymn, and the Lord used it to bring him under conviction and he got saved!

There are other examples that could be cited, but this one surely makes the point. So, how is it that bad people can make good music? Here are a few thoughts.

The Image of God
One factor is that all human beings still possess something of the image of God in their beings, distorted though it is by sin (cf. Gen. 1:27; 9:6; Jas. 3:8-9). The creativity with which God has gifted man has certainly been hampered and hindered by the fall, but it was not utterly destroyed.

Universal Principles
It is also true that the principles upon which God governs His universe are practical and self-validating. That is, anyone, whether saved or unsaved, can put the force of gravity to the test. And anyone, whether saved or unsaved, may discover that “a soft answer turns away wrath” (Prov. 15:1). Music–and lyrics–built upon God’s universal principles will benefit the hearer, no matter who wrote them.

The Restraint of the Holy Spirit
Another factor is the restraining power of the Holy Spirit working in society, especially through the people of God. Whether they admit it or not, the unsaved are benefited by the sanctifying influence of godly individuals. Much beauty and grace in the arts is due to this purifying impulse. When that is taken away at the coming rapture of the church, a tide of unmitigated evil will sweep across the earth (I Thess. 4:16-17; II Thess. 2:6-12).

In Spite of the Messenger
Finally, God honours the proclamation of His Word. When Scripture is quoted or its truths are framed in song, that truth has a life and power of its own through the Spirit, irrespective of who composed the music (Heb. 4:12).

Years ago, I got to know a famous Canadian agnostic. In his early years, he was an eloquent and effective preacher of the gospel. People were saved under his ministry–including one of my fellow-pastors. But he told me later, quite frankly, that he never believed a word of what he preached. It was all an act, feeding his own ego. And that may be so. But the Spirit of God can work through the Word of God, sometimes in spite of the messenger!

No Excuse
Obviously this does not mean the spiritual condition of the messenger is irrelevant. None of these factors is meant to suggest that it does not matter whether a person is saved or unsaved, carnal or spiritual. These things are of critical importance–certainly to the individual and, in the particular case under discussion, to the music he creates and presents. However, it is demonstrably true that wicked men are capable of doing some good in temporal terms, and of  producing things of lasting value to both saved and unsaved.

By the sovereign grace of God, He sometimes uses unregenerate or unholy instruments, as He did Pharaoh in Egypt (Rom. 9:17), and Cyrus King of Persia (Ezra 1:1-2). But that is no excuse for us to ignore the matter of our own holy walk, or the use of sanctified means and methods in His service. Blessings will be multiplied when we give attention to these things.


  1. Mr. Cottrill,

    I noticed your post on D. R. van Sickle about his salvation after writing “All Hail to Thee, Immanuel.” I am doing some research on him and I was wondering if you had any more information on this event? In particular places on the web. I’ve looked and have only found it on your site and cyberhymnal. Also, do you have any books that you can point me to on van Sickle?
    Thank you.


    • H-m-m.. Well, Mr. Van Sickle remains an elusive character. In his book, Music in Evangelism (Zondervan, 1962, p. 94), author Phil Kerr quotes Charles Gabriel (composer of the tune for All Hail to Thee, Immanuel), as follows: “The author of the words was undecided in his religioius convictions, and declared that he wrote the hymn to prove to himself his ability to write on a theme not wholly acceptable to him. He was afterwards soundly converted, hearing his own song being the source of his final decision.” That’s about all I’ve been able to discover. If you find out more, I’d greatly appreciate you sharing it with me. God bless.

  2. thanks very much sir,,i was just told about (d r van sickle) and wanted goin further on the research and your article has just satisfied what i was actually looking for,,,thanks very much Sir,,defnately your labor of calvary is not in vain,,God bless

    • You’re most welcome. You join a host of some 222,000 visitors (as of this date) from over 190 countries of the world. Our treasure of traditional hymns and gospel songs is appreciated all over the world. Drop by any time. God bless.

  3. Thanks so much for this article. I’m a musician myself so reading this insightful article has helped me in several ways I can’t explain

    From Nigeria

    • Thank you for your encouragement. Drop by the blog any time. New things are added several times a week. God bless.


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