Songwriting Analysis: “All I Have Is Christ” by Jordan Kauflin/ Na Band

by Bobby Gilles

in Songwriting/Hymn Workshop

Jordan Kauflin’s “All I Have Is Christ” (from the Na Band’s Looked Upon record) is one of my favorite modern hymns. Let’s see what we can learn from it as songwriters, in terms of theology, story development, rhyme, meter and other poetic devices. Hear it in this live performance video, taken at the Next 2009 conference:

The song is three verses in Common Meter Double (8 lines per verse, with 8 syllables on odd lines, six syllables on even lines) and a simple unmetered refrain.

Let’s break the mechanics down, verse by verse. Read the first verse:

I once was lost in darkest night
Yet thought I knew the way.
The sin that promised joy and life
Had led me to the grave.
I had no hope that You would own
A rebel to Your will.
And if You had not loved me first
I would refuse You still.

Cover art for "Looked Upon" by the Na Band

Cover art for "Looked Upon" by the Na Band

From the opening words “I once … ” we know this will be a story, in first-person narration. Sometimes commentators criticize worship songwriters for “I” songs rather than the corporate “we” but this doesn’t hold up biblically (see the Book of Psalms, for instance). The Church doesn’t need to choose between “I” and “we” songs.

But if you’re writing in first person, make sure you’re writing a universal theme so that every person singing can “own” it. In this case, the Bible teaches that we are all lost, dead in our sins, having rebelled against God. So this is a universal situation.

Countless hymn writers have presented the same story. What keeps this from being cliched? Two things:

  1. Jordan Kauflin uses slant rhyme (sometimes called “imperfect rhyme, because the vowels rhyme but the consonants do not) on all even lines but the perfect “will/still” in 6 & 8, and either slant rhyme or no rhyme on odd lines. The slant rhymes and Common Meter are enough to hold the song together while at the same time giving him more word choices than if he forced perfect rhyme on every alternating line (ABAB rhyme scheme). (“HUH?” you ask. If Kauflin believed he had to find a perfect rhyme for “night,” and every subsequent end rhyme, it would have severely limited his options and possibly forced the song in cliched paths).
  2. After setting the scene in the first four lines, he uses the next four to say something that isn’t expressed in the majority of “I once was lost in sin” ballads: “And if You had not loved me first/ I would refuse You still.” This, of course, is straight from the Bible. Remember that although our worship songs are occasions for speaking heart-responses to God, but we are called to think and speak biblically. We are putting words in the mouths of God’s people, who will often remember more of our lyrics than their pastors’ sermons.

He also gives us some internal rhymes in (and across) the lines which help to make up for the lack of perfect end rhymes: “darkest/promised,” “lost/thought,” “no/hope/own,” You/refused.” Let’s scan the second verse for more poetic devices:

But as I ran my hell-bound race
Indifferent to the cost
You looked upon my helpless state
And led me to the cross.
And I beheld God’s love displayed
You suffered in my place
You bore the wrath reserved for me
Now all I know is grace.

Woman raising hands in praise during Christian worship service at Sojourn Community Church

"All I Have Is Christ" is the theme of a Christian's praise. Image courtesy Sarah Horrar

Again, the only perfect end rhymes are lines 6 and 8. But we get some good consonance with the “H” sound in “hell-bound/ helpless/ beheld” which also advances the story. We were hell-bound and helpless until we beheld the cross.

Kauflin drives the story with strong, simple action verbs: ran, looked, led, beheld, suffered, bore, know. The story has advanced and reached its climax at the cross. As singers, we’ve covered a lot of ground, admitting our total depravity and utter dependence on Christ’s sacrifice for our salvation. And Christ has come through, suffering and bearing God’s wrath. So now we shout:

(REFRAIN) Hallelujah! All I have is Christ
Hallelujah! Jesus is my life

Why do many hymns have such simple refrains? Because after covering all the ground that hymn verses typically cover, we need to “breathe” so to speak — to take stock of all the theological depth and sweeping story line, then belt out our exclamation. A lyrically dense chorus wouldn’t do here. We find this same principle in Paul’s epistles — a sudden burst of praise, confession or petition after verse upon verse of deep theology.

So where does “All I Have Is Christ” go for the third verse, after having seen our salvation achieved in the second?

Now, Lord, I would be Yours alone
And live so all might see
The strength to follow Your commands
Could never come from me.
Oh Father, use my ransomed life
In any way You choose.
And let my song forever be
My only boast is You.

© 2008 Sovereign Grace Praise (BMI), by Jordan Kauflin

No end rhyme at all in the odd lines (which isn’t unusual: we find as many “ABCB” rhymed songs as “ABAB”). “See/me” offers a perfect rhyme in lines 2 & 4, while we get a slant pattern again in 6 & 8 (“choose/you”).

The first two verses recounted our desperate condition and Christ’s outrageous solution — the amazing grace that saves such wretches. This third verse is our response. But it is a different response than many hymns and praise songs that cover this path. Rather than a vow to work for the Lord, to live right, to make up for lost time or begin following Christ’s example, it is a further admission:

The strength to follow Your commands could never come from me

followed by the sentiment “Use me as You’d choose, Lord,” and “Always remind me that I can’t boast of anything I might do — I can only boast in You.” This is hardy Bible theology. Having begun in grace, we are not then made perfect in works — it’s all grace. The song acknowledges that God doesn’t merely turn us around; He carries us.

See how each verse builds upon what comes before? If you have two verses doing the same thing, you don’t need one of them. Here we get three verses covering new ground, each earning its spot in the song.

Note: “Slant Rhyme” actually occurs when either the consonants or vowels rhyme, but not both. In the instances cited for “All I Have Is Christ,” the vowels rhyme.  But “stars/song” could be called “Slant Rhyme,” just as much as, say, the “will/still” in one of our examples above.


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