The Rich Theology of Christmas Carols


John Stonestreet

Timothy D Padgett

At the risk of falling into the current debate over whether Christians should tone down the language and imagery when it comes to their faith, the Bible presents the Incarnation as an act of War against Satan, sin, and death. 

In fact, the Incarnation is at the center of the larger story of the conflict between good and evil; a battle for a world never fully lost by God but recaptured in the life, death, and resurrection of Christ Jesus. This part of the Christmas story is missing from the 24-hour holiday music stations, most Christmas plays and pageants, and many Christmas Eve sermons. 

Still, at this time of year, there is a source that confronts our culture with the whole Gospel, offering some of the finest Christian teaching ever produced by redeemed Image Bearers. Christmas offers us the amazing opportunity to not only immerse ourselves in these deep Christian truths, but also present them to others. 

I’m talking about Christmas carols, which offer a level of incredible clarity and depth that is so rare. As an example, consider the “Wexford Carol.” 

Good people all, this Christmas time,
Consider well and bear in mind
What our good God for us has done
In sending his beloved son
With Mary holy we should pray,
To God with love this Christmas Day
In Bethlehem upon that morn,
There was a blessed Messiah born 


You get a sense of the rescue mission that was the Incarnation in the traditional English carol, “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen.”

God rest ye merry gentlemen
Let nothing you dismay
Remember Christ our Savior
Was born on Christmas Day
To save us all from Satan’s pow’r
When we were gone astray
Oh tidings of comfort and joy
Comfort and joy
Oh tidings of comfort and joy 


In the haunting beauty of “O Come, O Come Emmanuel,” the coming of Christ is presented in the context of God’s Old Testament promises.

O come, O come, Thou Lord of Might,
Who to Thy tribes, on Sinai’s height,
In ancient times didst give the law,
In cloud, and majesty, and awe.

O come, Thou Rod of Jesse, free
Thine own from Satan’s tyranny;
From depths of hell Thy people save
And give them victory o’er the grave.

And few hymns offer a Christology as rich as “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing,” which, if Wikipedia is to be believed, is the brainchild not only of the great hymn-writer Charles Wesley but also, in part, the great revivalist, George Whitefield.

Veiled in flesh, the Godhead see,

hail the incarnate deity
Pleased as man with men to dwell, Jesus, our Immanuel
Pleased as man with men to dwell, Jesus, our Immanuel

Hail the heaven born Prince of Peace,
hail the sun of Righteousness Light
life to all he brings, ris’n healing in his wings
Christ the highest heaven adored,
Christ the everlasting Lord
Come desire of nations come, fix in us thy humble home
Come desire of nations come, fix in us thy humble home


And, “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day,” describes the hope of how this cosmic battle will eventually turn out.

And in despair I bowed my head: “There is no peace on earth,” I said,
“For hate is strong and mocks the song Of Peace on Earth Good Will toward Men
Then pealed the bells more loud and deep: “God is not dead, nor doth he sleep,
The wrong shall fail, the right prevail, With peace on earth, good will to men

Till, ringing singing, on its way, The world revolved from night to day,
A voice, a chime, a chant sublime, Of peace on earth, good will to men!

These songs, and others, tell the fullness of the Christian story: a world that belongs to God, our lost plight due to sin, our captivity to Satan’s schemes, the working of God through the ages, His promises revealed in the long path of redemption which God worked through the Patriarchs, prophets, and kings, in fulfillment of promises given so long ago; the wonders of the Incarnation, the fear and hope of Mary and Joseph, and the realization and glory of angelic hosts proclaiming their king, and ours.

Each year these hymns remind us that God did not leave us in our broken state, but came and lived among us so that He might die for us. We have in these songs the whole gospel of God.

And, as comforting and instructive as they are to our own hearts, at what other time of the year do otherwise disinterested friends, neighbors, and family members find themselves humming along with theology? What greater opportunity will we have to share the Christ than at a time when our listeners are already hearing its truths every day?

As a colleague once observed to me, Christmas is a moment to emulate the witness of Philip to the Ethiopian. The world around us knows their need. They might hide it under vain pleasures and false narratives, but they also know that things are not quite right. What they need is to hear how things might be made right in Christ Jesus.

Let’s take this opportunity, singing our way through Christmas, to share the joy that has been given to us that this joy may spread to others.


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