"ONWARD, CHRISTIAN SOLDIERS"
"…Endure hardness, as a good soldier of Jesus Christ" (2 Tim. 2.3)
INTRO.: One aspect of the Christian’s life is being a soldier, and a song which emphasizes this fact is "Onward, Christian Soldiers" (# 376 in Hymns for Worship Revised, and #220 in Sacred Selections for the Church). The text was written by Sabine Baring-Gould, who was born at Exeter, England, on Jan. 28, 1834, the oldest son of Edward Baring-Gould, a wealthy English squire. He was educated first in Germany and France, and then at Clare College in Cambridge; the School of St. Barnabas at Pimlico in London; and Hurstpierpoint College in Sussex. In 1864, at the age of thirty, he became an Anglican minister. His first work was with the small St. John’s Church at Horbury Bridge on the Calder River, three miles from Wakefield in Yorkshire. Here he rented a small apartment consisting of a single room on the ground floor, a tiny back kitchen, and a single bedroom above. The bedroom he used for an auditorium on Sunday, and he taught school in the lower room during the week. At night, before retiring, he began his writing career. Shortly after arriving at Horbury Bridge, he was to accompany several boys from his school to a children’s festival in the nearby community of St. Peters.
Baring-Gould knew how mischievous the lads could be on a long march, so he looked for a suitable hymn for them to sing while walking on the way. Finding none, he produced these words in about fifteen minutes to fit an already existing melody. They were first published later that year in the Church Times. Also in 1864, the young bachelor minister saved a mill hand’s daughter, Grace Taylor, from drowning during a flood in the Calder River. He fell in love with her and sent her away to be educated. In 1867, he moved to Dalton, near Thirsk in Yorkshire. The following year, he married Miss Taylor and they moved on to East Mersea in Essex. In 1871, the author showed his marching poem to his good friend, Arthur Seymour Sullivan (1842-1900). Sullivan, who composed the tune (St. Gertrude) that we know while visiting in the home of Mrs. Gertrude Clay-Ker-Seymour, was then a 29-year old organist, but he went on to become a well-known British composer of light operas, the Sullivan of Gilbert and Sullivan. It first appeared in the Musical Times of Dec., 1871, and was then published in the 1872 London hymnbook The Hymnary.
In 1881, at the death of his father, Baring-Gould inherited his fortune and settled in the family mansion at Lew-Trenchard in North Devonshire, England, where he served as minister at his family’s home church. Throughout his life, he continued his writing. For 52 years, he penned a novel each year. In all, he published 85 books on religion, mythology, travel, poetry, folklore, history, biography, fiction, sermons, and theology, as well as books of hymns, including the well known evening song "Now the Day Is Over." His most famous work, the Lives of the Saints, covers fifteen volumes itself. In addition, he edited a quarterly review of art and literature, The Sacristy. The Britsh Museum’s catalogue lists more titles by Sabine Baring-Gould than any other author of his time. And all of this he did in longhand, without a secretary. He died at Lew-Trenchard on Jan. 2, 1924, just a month shy of his ninetieth birthday.
Among hymnbooks published by members of the Lord’s church during the twentieth century for use in churches of Christ, "Onward, Christian Soldiers" appeared in the 1921 Great Songs of the Church (No. 1) and the 1937 Great Songs of the Church No. 2 both edited by E. L. Jorgenson; the 1948 Christian Hymns No. 2 and the 1966 Christian Hymns No. 3 both edited by L. O. Sanderson; the 1963 Abiding Hymns edited by Robert C. Welch; and the 1963 Christian Hymnal edited by J. Nelson Slater. Today, it may be found in the 1971 Songs of the Church, the 1990 Songs of the Church 21st C. Ed., and the 1994 Songs of Faith and Praise all edited by Alton H. Howard; the 1978/1983 Church Gospel Songs and Hymns edited by V. E. Howard; the 1986 Great Songs Revised edited by Forrest M. McCann; and the 1992 Praise for the Lord edited by John P. Wiegand; in addition to Hymns for Worship, Sacred Selections, and the 2007 Sacred Songs of the Church edited by William D. Jeffcoat.
Today, Sabine Baring-Gould is best remembered for this stirring hymn about the spiritual battle with evil.
I. Stanza 1 reminds us that as soldiers of Christ, we are engaged in a warfare for God.
"Onward, Christian soldiers! Marching as to war,
With the cross of Jesus Going on before;
Christ, the royal Master, Leads against the foe;
Forward into battle, See His banners go!"
A. We are told that we must wage a good warfare: 1 Tim. 1.18
B. Christ is our royal Master who leads us against the foe: Rev. 19.11-14
C. Just as soldiers fighting in a war need a banner around which to rally, so as we go forward into battle, we rally round the spiritual
banner of Christ, which is His cross: Ps. 60.4
II. Stanza 2 indicates that this warfare necessarily implies fighting an enemy.
"At the sound of triumph, Satan’s host doth flee;
On then, Christian soldiers, On to victory!
Hell’s foundations quiver At the shout of praise;
Brothers, lift your voices, Loud your anthems raise!"
A. Of course, our great enemy is Satan: 1 Pet. 5.8
B. However, he is not our only enemy, but we must also fight against the principalities and powers of evil in heavenly places that are built on hell’s foundations: Eph. 6.10-12
C. Since the outcome of the war has already been decided, those who are with Christ are assured of victory and can shout their loud anthems of praise at the prospect of winning: Ps. 100.1-2
III. Stanza 3 tells us that waging a good warfare require unity
"Like a mighty army Moves the church of God:
Brothers, we are treading Where the saints have trod;
We are not divided, All one body we:
One in hope and doctrine, One in charity."
A. God’s army is made up of those who are part of the church that Jesus purchased with His blood: Acts 20.28
B. The Lord does not want any division in His ranks: 1 Cor. 1.10
C. Rather, there must be unity in the ranks so that we will all be one body: Eph. 4.4-6
IV. Stanza 4 emphasizes that in our warfare we have continuity with the saints of all ages
"What the saints established that I hold for true.
What the saints believèd, that I believe too.
Long as earth endureth, men the faith will hold,
Kingdoms, nations, empires, in destruction rolled."
A. This stanza, which is almost universally omitted today, might be objected to on the grounds that it seems to be based on the idea of the ecclesiastical authority of history, but if we understand "what the saints established" to refer to those saints who revealed God’s word in the first century by the guidance of the Holy Spirit, and "what the saints believed" to refer to those saints to whom it was revealed, then we can sing the stanza as reminiscent of Paul’s statement to the Galatians about the gospel which the apostles and prophets preached and which the early Christians received: Gal. 1:8-9
B. This is the faith, once for all delivered to the saints that men will hold as long as earth endures: Jude v. 3
C. This is in contrast to the kingdoms, nations, and empires which will be rolled in destruction: Rev. 11:15
V. Stanza 5 points out that in warfare, an army must have a leader
"Crowns and thrones may perish, Kingdoms rise and wane;
But the Church of Jesus constant will remain;
Gates of hell can never ‘Gainst that church prevail;
We have Christ’s own promise, And that cannot fail."
A. The church that Christ established is the kingdom of God that shall never perish: Dan. 2.44
B. Just as the gates of hell can never prevail against this kingdom just as they could not prevent Jesus from establishing His church: Matt. 16.18
C. And we can have assurance in this fact because Christ Himself has promised it, and we can trust His promises: 2 Pet. 1.3-4
VI. Stanza 6 concludes that those who engage in this warfare for Christ have the hope of victory.
"Onward, then, ye people, Join our happy throng;
Blend with us your voices In the triumph song;
Glory, laud, and honor Unto Christ the King;
This through countless ages Men and angels sing."
A. Those who join this happy throng are promised victory: 1 Cor. 15.57
B. Blending their voices with the saints of all ages, they can give glory, laud, and honor to Christ the King: Rev. 5.11-12
C. And having fought the good fight of the faith, they can lay hold of eternal life through the countless ages: 1 Tim. 6.12
CONCL.: The short chorus repeats the stirring words of the first four lines of the opening stanza:
"Onward, Christian soldiers, Marching as to war,
With the cross of Jesus Going on before."
In order that we might fight the good fight of the faith and lay hold on eternal life, the Lord commands us to go "Onward, Christian Soldiers."