Following the success of, What a Beautiful Name, Hillsong Worship delivers yet a new, strong, congregational anthem in Who You Say I Am (written by Ben Fielding and Reuben Morgan). It is singable, memorable, and empowering and offers something uniquely intangible, yet unbelievably important, to a church in the middle of an identity crisis.
If we really believe our worship is transformative and has the power to form our hearts and shape our desires, this song is a must sing.
Now for a preliminary remark. If you’re one who first heard the song and quickly pronounced, “it’s too me-focused,” “there’s no adoration,” or “modern Christian music missed the boat again,” I would respectfully challenge you to reconsider--at least for the remainder of this review.
In all honesty, my own initial reaction to the song wasn’t overwhelmingly positive--I let a few of the critiques above slide...BUT after giving it a chance and diving into a study of the passage that inspired the lyrics, I’m convinced this song is medicine for a people so easily infected by devil’s lies--those lies intentionally directed at each of our identities.
Yes, it uses first person pronouns. And yes, it is simple. But if you will take a moment with me to look into the intent of this song and think through what we, as a community of believers, are accomplishing as we sing it, I think you too will discover the gift Who You Say I Am is to your worship ministry.
It’s no secret that the song’s inspiration comes from John 8. In fact, one of the song’s most repeated lines, “who the son sets free is free indeed” sounds familiar to many church goers, likely because it’s a direct quote from Jesus (John 8:36). What is likely unfamiliar, however, (unless you’re the brilliant Bible geek who memorized all the NIV chapter headings in the gospel of John) is the context in which this quote lies.
John 8 recounts yet another heated conversation between Jesus and Jewish teachers of the law. In it, Jesus claims deity with I am statements like “I am the light of the world, and “before Abraham was, I am,” and straight up calls his Jewish audience children of the devil. No wonder the Jews wanted to kill Jesus!!! (But really, they did. They picked up stones to kill him and Jesus literally has to go hide! No lie, read it for yourself! John 8:59)
When Jesus throws out our one liner, “Who the son sets free is free indeed,” the Jews are immediately confused with his language of freedom. According to Jewish thought, they were free. Even with their history as slaves in Egypt, captives to Babylon, Assyria, Syria, and their current oppression under Rome, the Jews would never have seen themselves as anyone’s slave. Because God was their only King, the Jews could not be reduced to slavery and thus valued their freedom to a passionate end. Even through their physical subjection to other nations, William Barclay describes the freedom the Jewish people valued as an internalized “independence of spirit which meant that they might be slaves in body but never in soul...Even to suggest that they might be regarded as slaves was a deadly insult.” And here comes Jesus, saying it like it is anyway.
The Jews were slaves...to sin.
We’ve heard the “slaves to sin” language before, and even for Jesus’ audience, it wasn’t a new idea. Socrates and the Stoics populated the question, “How can you call a man free when his pleasures rule over him?” It gets at the idea that once we are so ruled by our desires, the desires themselves are in control. Barclay describes it like this, “Sinners are slaves to the habits, the self-indulgences, and the wrong pleasures which have taken hold of them. This is precisely Jesus’ point. No one who sins can ever be said to be free.”
But Jesus isn’t done. After having called into question the freedom and character of his Jewish audience, he takes it one step further and essentially nullifies their prized identity and gold star-- their birthright as children of Abraham.
To us, the connection between slavery and Abraham seems random. But by contrasting a slave and a Father’s child (a son), Jesus’ deals his Jewish audience a weighty threat that would’ve immediately made sense to their easily offensible ears.
You hear their shock and agitation followed by Jesus’ pronouncement in verses 33-35, “They answered him, ‘We are Abraham’s descendants and have never been slaves of anyone. How can you say that we shall be set free?’ Jesus replied, ‘Very truly I tell you, everyone who sins is a slave to sin. Now a slave has no permanent place in the family, but a son belongs to it forever.”
Only sons and daughters--children of the Father--have a place in the Father’s house.
Sidenote: The child’s place in the Father’s house and the entirety of verse 1 (Who am I that the highest king would welcome me? I was lost but he brought me in, oh his love for me) ought also to remind the singer of Luke 15 and the stories of the lost sheep, coin, and son. That in spite of our sin, we are sought after, found, and welcomed into our place in the Father’s house.
The slave can be ejected from the house at any time.
The slave is expendable.
The slave has no permanent place in the house of the Father.
The Jews inhabited their status as children of God based solely on their birthright as children of Abraham. And here, Jesus exposes their faulty living.
By their sin, they made themselves slaves, and their lineage (as children of Abraham) DID.NOT.MATTER. Like a slave, the Jews have no place in the house of the Father. Yikes.
No wonder they’re ticked.
It’s just too bad most of them stopped listening. You know how when you’re already offended you just keep on getting more and more upset? Many of Jesus’ audience held tightly to the posture of offense and missed his invitation of freedom.
Verse 36, “Who the Son sets free, is free indeed.”
Jesus’ invitation of freedom then is the same one he extends to the world today. We can be set free from our slavery and be made sons and daughters of the Father!
It all takes place through the SON--Jesus himself--and his work on the cross.
Jesus is the only way we are set free and can have a place in the Father’s house.
This is what we’re proclaiming when we sing Who You Say I Am.
“In my Father’s house, there’s a place for me. I am a child of God.”
Why your church should sing it
We’ve already seen how the seemingly random and simple lyrics of Who You Say I Am have PROFOUND Scriptural depth.
Simple? At first glance, sure. But part of the appeal of this song is its simplicity. It’s catchy, easy to get the hang of, and even easier to get stuck in your head. Good!
Like the Jews in John 8, how many of us get caught up believing the lies of the devil--especially about who we are and what we’re capable of? We give into doubt, hide behind insecurity, and lack confidence. Regardless of how much we know the devil is a liar and Jesus is the truth, we still struggle to believe the truth about who he says we are.
But when we belong to God, Jesus says, we hear what God says. And he never lies. He tells the truth. He is truth, and we have to believe it.
This why the bridge of this song is such medicine to our identity-conflicted souls. The words are straight shooting arrows lodging the truth of our identity into our all-too-stubborn and forgetful heads.
Yes, we sing, even when we feel alone and forgotten (forsaken), we’re children of God. Even when we feel like everything is against us, we’re children of God.
This song and songs like it serve as a weapon. Who You Say I Am is more than a battle cry—it is a downright military attack on the devil and his enemy forces.
And so, since we’re aware of our tendency towards believing all sorts of lies about ourselves, we have to buckle down to win in the area of our thoughts.
We need songs like these to rewire our brains to actually believe the truth about who we are.
That’s also why I love how Hillsong has arranged this piece musically.
To me, it is reminiscent of a pep talk. It’s a giant crescendo that builds and builds the more we believe it’s true. It’s like a high school football huddle growing louder and louder as momentum builds the more the team believes they can win!
The more we believe what we’re singing, like matras, affirmations, or whatever you’re into, the more likely we are to believe it and act differently because of it. Mantras are repetitive for a reason. They’re simple for a reason. We need it to be.
So, in this case, the more we say, “I am who you say I am,” the more likely we are to believe it!
The song is repetitive for a reason.
It’s simple for a reason.
Because we need it to be.
When we dismiss this song as too repetitive or shallow, it’s also possible that we’re forgetting the implication of our identity as children of God.
Being a child of God doesn’t mean we can sit back and rest in our title (like the Jews were doing).
Being a child of God means we have work to do.
Jesus explains this to the Jews in verses 39-47 when he critiques them! They claimed to be children of Abraham and thus, children of God, but they were not being people of faith as Abraham was. Instead, they were choosing not to believe in Jesus, the Father’s own son, and were therefore doing the works of their father, the devil. Again...yikes.
As children, our aim is to carry out our Father’s desires, love Jesus and belong to God. And when we belong to God (v. 49) we are to actually hear what God says—and this is who he says we are!
“Sure,” you might say, “I can get how the background makes the song ‘deep-er,’ but the average church goer isn’t going to just know that. You had to write a six page essay just to explain it!”
And to you, I’d say, yep. But I’d argue that’s part of the appeal.
What’s beautiful about the song’s simplicity at face value is that regardless of one’s knowledge of John 8 and the biblical background to the lyrics, the song’s themes of freedom and identity are loud and clear.
When our congregations sing it, they are literally proclaiming Jesus’ message of freedom and identity over their lives and situations.
It’s the subconscious reason so many worship leaders already have this repetitive song on repeat. Because we know there is a war being waged on our identities and the lies are encroaching in our minds and our hearts. We need this song.
Our congregations need this song.
The church at large needs this song.
In New Song Cafe’s conversation with Reuben Morgan and Ben Fielding (the songwriters), Fielding calls the song, “a real declaration of identity.” And he’s right--it’s impossible to sing this song without being reminded that you’re a child of God! We no longer have to believe the lies about our identity. We no longer have to be known by any other name or label (addict, thief, cheater, poor, incompetent, slow, failure, not good enough, unwanted) the world wants to give us. No. We are each a child of God; this song helps to remind us of that identity and encourages us to live into it.
Freedom is the reality for anyone whose identity is a child of God. It’s the key idea of Jesus’ pronouncement in John 8, “Who the son sets free, is free indeed.” No matter the extent of the sin in our lives or the grasp it holds over us, Jesus has the power to set us free from it. And as a result, we no longer have to live enslaved, we get to live into our freedom as children of God. Freedom is part of our identity as his sons and daughters.
With lines like “who am I that the highest king would welcome me,” “I was lost,” and “slave to sin,” the song clearly describes our need for a Savior and the Father’s grace in providing Jesus. It contrasts our depravity with Christ’s perfect work of welcoming, finding, and ransoming us. Using language that reminds us of the parable of the lost son and the classic hymn, Amazing Grace, it is another intentional message of Who You Say I Am.
How to Introduce “Who you Say I Am” to your church
At Churchfront, we are firm believers in planning out what you, as a worship leader, are going to say to your congregation whenever you have to say anything! Whether it’s a welcome, an announcement, a prayer, or a moment between songs, your words are pastoral opportunities. That’s why the time spent preparing what you will say is essential in your role as a worship pastor.
Introducing songs, for the first time or the thirtieth time, are perfect teaching opportunities. And remember, these are not mini messages or side sermons, rather, they are invitations to focus deeper on the biblical truths found in the words of the song. Whenever we do this, we are encouraging our congregations to dwell on a specific picture or think about a phrase in a new way. (If you’re looking to grow your skills in speaking to the congregation, check out our Worship Leader School--Speak Between Songs is one of many premium courses available to members.)
When introducing Who You Say I Am to your congregation, consider drawing their attention to one (remember to keep it simple) of the following elements below.
What to include:
The context of John 8
A brief summary of any of the song themes (identity, freedom, grace)
The implications of being a child of God
Contrasting the slave and the son
Ben Fielding’s description of the song as “a declaration of identity”
Questions to answer:
Why does Jesus say “Who the son sets free, is free indeed”?
What does it mean to be a slave to sin? How can we be set free?
Why is it important to know who God says we are?
Why would we sing something so repetitive and simple?
Our next song is one we have sung together before. It comes from John chapter 8 where Jesus is having a heated discussion with the Jewish teachers of the law. In this passage, the Jews’ opinion of who they are differs dramatically from Jesus’ view. They act as if they are free sons and daughters of Abraham, who by birthright have become children of God. But Jesus says to them, “No. You’ve got it all wrong. You’re not free; you are slaves to sin. And because you choose this life of sin over doing the works of the Father, you cannot call yourselves children of Abraham. There is no place for you in the Father’s house.” You can imagine how incredibly angered and offended they are by Jesus’ words. Slaves in ancient Israel were expendable. Only a child of the Father had a permanent place in his house. But, Jesus offers good news to his audience, and he offers good news to us today. There is a way to be set free from the sin that enslaves us. Jesus himself offers our invitation of freedom in verse 38, “Who the Son sets free, is free indeed.” And this is what we sing about in this song. We sing about the freedom we receive and experience through Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, and how as a child of God, we each have a place in the Father’s house. Let’s sing this together.
In a world obsessed with labeling, if we’re not careful, we can begin to believe lies about who we really are. We put so much weight on other voices, we compare, and we forget what the Lord says about our identity. His truth gets drowned out. That’s the exact reason we sing this next song. The many times we declare “I am who you say I am” are an intentional attack on the devil and his lies that seek to define us. It’s an opportunity to rewire our brains to believe the truth about our identity. And we repeat it over and over, like an affirmation, or mantra, simply because we need to get it into our heads! It’s like a football huddle when the players chant louder and louder the more they believe they can go out and win. The more we sing the truth about our identity as spoken over us by our Father God, the more we believe the truth about ourselves. Then we can more fully live into our purpose as children of God and carry out the work of our Father. Let’s declare this together.
Are you singing this song at your church? What thoughts or opinions do you have about it? Let us know in the comments!
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