I love both old and new worship songs. We sing old songs and we sing a lot of new songs in our worship. We do old and new on purpose. I love the Gettys, and I love Bernard of Clairvaux; I love Isaac Watts, and I love Fernando Ortega. I love Charles Wesley, and I love Sovereign Grace Music. You get the point. But one thing I am convinced of is that a hymnal is one of our best friends for private and family worship.
When our kids were little it was a ritual: who would have the privilege of passing out the hymnals? Sometimes fights would break out, but then we would sing “Blest be the tie that binds.” Hymns have memorable qualities to them, and we should know hundreds of them. Yes, hundreds. That’s not to say that all hymns are great, some are real stinkers. But overall, a hymn gives you memorable words to memorable tunes.
Everyone who knows the hymns will differ on their top twenty, but I think these are mine (they might change if I picked again tomorrow). My suggestion in giving this list is not to create a hymnal canon, but to encourage you to think about giving the gifts of these nearly immortal songs to your children. My plea is for parents to teach their kids the hymns.
A Mighty Fortress
This was the battle hymn of the Reformation, written by Martin Luther, and is filled with robust theology set to a bold, manly tune.
This is one of the most famous hymns ever written. It was composed by “the old slave-trader” John Newton. It is a hymn of the heart.
And Can it Be
Charles Wesley was a hymn-writing machine, but this one is one of his best. The revised version (same tune) in the Trinity Hymnal improves on Wesley’s theology. It is a hymn of the triumphant love of God in Christ.
Be Thou My Vision
This is a great Celtic hymn, probably going back to the 8th century. It is a joyful celebration of what God and Christ are to the believer as he runs the race and fights the fight.
Come Thou Almighty King
This is one of those magnificent Trinitarian hymns that is a glorious prayer, a true invocation in song.
Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing
This is one of my favorites, written by the troubled Baptist pastor, Robert Robinson (1735-1790). The song expresses longing and honest reflection on the weakness of the human heart and power of remaining sin and the glory of our redemption.
How Firm a Foundation
Reported to be Robert E. Lee’s favorite hymn, this is one of those that has comforted millions with its powerful words of confidence.
The Church’s One Foundation
Great truth about the Church and the head of the Church, Jesus Christ. It is worthy of mediation and great familiarity.
Great is Thy Faithfulness
This is simply one that a Christian should know by heart. It celebrates the faithfulness of God, in good times and bad.
Holy, Holy, Holy
Again, another Trinitarian hymn, and also one that is filled with praise and adoration. It is the song of heaven! (Isa. 6:3; Rev. 4:8).
How Great Thou Art
Although this is a newer hymn (1949), it is such a powerful declaration of praise. I know a man who was born again while singing this hymn in church one Lord’s Day.
It is Well
If hymns were a mountain, this is perhaps the peak of Mount Everest. It is full of soul-comforting Gospel truth and is sung in the dark nights and sunrises of the soul. The story of Horatio Spafford writing this hymn is legendary. It never, ever, gets old.
Man of Sorrows, What a Name
Philip Bliss captured Christ-centered truth with the suffering, death, resurrection, and return of Jesus in this hymn. Its melody is stirring.
My Jesus I Love Thee
The believer’s journey with Jesus all the way to death is beautifully captured in this hymn. It has been one of my favorites for over 30 years.
O Sacred Head
This gem is from Bernard of Clairvaux from the 11the century. It centers on the suffering and death of Jesus. It ends with, “Lord let me never, never outlive my love for Thee.”
Rock of Ages
Whether the old tune or the new, Augustus Toplady’s hymn is hard to beat. There are so many theologically pristine lines in this Christo-centric hymn.
There is a Fountain Filled with Blood
William Cowper was a friend of John Newton’s. He knew deep depression. But he also had deep faith, and this, with God Moves in a Mysterious Way, are two of the best-known hymns in the English-speaking world. This hymn is a feast of the redeeming work of Christ.
When I Survey the Wondrous Cross
Isaac Watts was a hymn-writing wonder (I was going to say, “rock star”). He wrote over 7,000 hymns. This is my favorite Watts hymn (and I have many). This was J. Gresham Machen’s favorite, and for good reason. Perhaps no hymn captures the glory of the cross quite like this one.
How Sweet and Awesome is the Place
Here is another Watts hymn and I add it because it celebrates the doctrines of grace and evangelistic zeal. It is not as well known as some of his others, but those who have used the Trinity Hymnal know it well.
O For a Thousand Tongues
Another Wesley hymn, and one that should be sung regularly. Wesley masterfully puts together this paeon of praise. The lines throb with the Gospel.
There are so many good new songs, new hymns. The Church should always be singing new songs, but we should never neglect the old ones!
Come up with your own list. Sing them in your devotions, in family worship, and corporate worship. The hymns are our friends, which are always quick to take us right to Christ.