“Sing Praise to God, the Highest Good” This text was written by Johann J Schütz. He was born in Germany in 1640, studied law and eventually became a town councellor in Frankfurt and published a selection of his hymns in 1675. Although originally a Lutheran, his tendencies toward Pietism and religious mysticism eventually resulted in his becoming a Separatist.
In the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, Pietism made great inroads within the Lutheran Church and, originating in Germany, spread soon to other Protestant countries, most notable of which is England. Pietism, a theological movement, is not to be confused with piety, the condition of being pious. Pietism stressed inner faith, individualism, the visible “fruits of the spirit,” and even mysticism as opposed to the more objective elements of Christianity such as Word and Sacrament. Within the Lutheran Church, theologians reacted against what they perceived to be “dry orthodoxy”—preaching and teaching that was correct but without emotional fervor. Whereas the hymns of the Reformation were always composed in terms of the objective second or third person (“A mighty fortress is our God”), hymns influenced by Pietism generally are set within the more subjective first person (“I know my faith is founded.”) Pietism tended to disregard doctrinal differences and instead focused on faith as emotion. (This is the difference between orthodoxy—“right praise”—and orthokardia—“heartfelt praise.”) Certainly this tension is still evident today, and both an intellectual understanding and a type of emotional faith are valuable to a Christian.
This hymn is an example of Pietist hymnody, although it does not employ first person as we might expect. Yet, it is not as doctrinally-focused as, say, a Reformation hymn would be (“All who believe and are baptized.”) Instead of objectively teaching doctrine, this hymn expresses a personal doxology from the singer to God. (“To God all praise and glory!”) We sing praise because, in the words of stanza one, “the God of love understood our need for His salvation,” echoing the entire chapter of I John 4. The third stanza reveals humanity’s “distress” from which we implore God “in mercy, hear us.” (Psalm 143.) This continues with an awareness that salvation comes only from Christ—“Our Saviour saw our helplessness and came with peace to cheer us.” This is certainly a doctrinal statement, but is really about as doctrinal as a Pietist writer can get without becoming controversial. The final stanza, rather interestingly, places worship in the context of the Christian believer as opposed to worship as evangelism (which is not a scriptural concept.) “All who confess Christ’s holy name, give God the praise and glory. Let all who know His pow’r proclaim aloud the wondrous story. Cast every idol from its throne for God is God, and he alone. . .” Minimally, we know from this stanza that the hymn is addressed only to Christians. Whether the writer of the hymn thinks that only Christians can actually praise God (which is not an unreasonable assumption) is not the issue. This hymn is meant to assist in the sanctified praise of the redeemed. Yet, this and every stanza concludes with the short doxological refrain, “To God all praise and glory!” This hymn cannot be accused of the decadence of much “Christian” music these days. Yes, there is much emotionalism, but this emotion is based on the reality of Christ’s work for and with us. Much like the writers of the psalms, these objective facts result in our wanting to express our heartfelt praise in this doxology!