Bach and the Bible

Each year during the fall, Judy and I have the privilege of living in Watertown, Wisconsin where I teach on the faculty of Maranatha Baptist Seminary. One of the “perks” of being here is the opportunity to enjoy some fine cultural events.

A few weeks ago we attended a concert on the campus. Philip Gingery is an accomplished tenor who serves as minister of music at Bible Baptist Church in West Chester, Pennsylvania. He sang a series of solos for tenor by J. S. Bach, accompanied by a nine-member chamber ensemble. He performed the music in German, but the printed program gave a translation.

Bach wrote a comment in the margin of his Bible beside 2 Chronicles 5:13. That passage describes the music at the dedication of Solomon’s temple. The glory of God filled the temple on that occasion, and Bach commented: “At a reverent performance of music, God is always at hand with his gracious presence.”[1]

We heard “a reverent performance of music” that evening. The last four selections were from a single Bach cantata. In this composition Bach clearly described the Gospel, and his lyrics reflect his spiritual perception of biblical truth. I noted a parallel between the biblical language of Romans 3 and Bach’s musical setting.

Paul the Apostle described the sinfulness of every one of us when he wrote: “As it is written: ‘There is none righteous, no, not one; There is none who understands; There is none who seeks after God. They have all turned aside; They have together become unprofitable; There is none who does good, no, not one’” (Romans 3:10-12).

Bach evidenced his biblical understanding of sin and his need for salvation when he wrote:

 I, wretched man, I the slave of sin
I go before the face of God
With fear and trembling to judgment.
He is just, I am unjust,
I wretched man, I the slave of sin!

Bach further echoed Paul’s language, saying: “I have acted against God.  I have not followed His prescribed path.”

In the same passage in Romans, the apostle described the way of salvation: “Being justified freely by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God set forth as a propitiation by His blood, through faith, to demonstrate His righteousness, because in His forbearance God had passed over the sins that were previously committed, to demonstrate at the present time His righteousness, that He might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus” (Romans 3:24-26).

Please note how Bach understood this biblical gospel:

Have mercy!
Let my tears soften You;
Let them reach Your heart:
For the sake of Jesus Christ, let Your jealous anger be calmed!
Have mercy!

Bach also understood the biblical truth that Christ became his substitute and ours by His death. By faith in Christ he claimed God’s grace because Jesus paid for sin:

Have mercy!
Nevertheless I take comfort,
I do not want to stand before the tribunal for judgment
And I would rather go before the throne of mercy to my Father.
I present to Him His Son, His suffering, His redemption
Which He has paid for my guilt.
He has paid enough and I pray to Him for patience as I now repent of my sin.
In this way God takes me into His grace.

Paul the apostle concluded that people are saved by faith in Christ: “Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith apart from the deeds of the law” (Romans 3:28).

Bach gave testimony of his own personal faith in Christ with these words:

Though I have abandoned you I give myself back to You.
Your Son has settled our accounts through His anguish and His death.
I do not deny my guilt,
But Your grace and mercy are far greater than the sin which holds me.

God declares us righteous when we come to Him by faith in Christ (Romans 3:26). God’s promise is: “For ‘whoever calls on the name of the LORD shall be saved’” (Romans 10:13).

Have you placed your faith in Christ?  If you haven’t, please do it today.

Fred Moritz