derek webb calls his biggest hit “theologically narrow”

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Monday, October 15th, 2012

derek webb calls his biggest hit “theologically narrow”

derek webb thankful

my humble little blog serves as a repository of snapshots of my life at any given time. i’m glad to have it. of course, the yin to that yang is that i’m also slightly horrified every so often when i look back and see something that i so strongly believed at a sepcific time and i, well, don’t so much now (to say the least). fortunately, it’s only on display for the few thousand unique visitors each month that stumble upon this blog.

i can’t imagine what it’s like to have spent 20+ years sharing my theologies and bearing my soul to hundreds of thousands (or millions?) of people. that’s exactly what derek webb has done since he began writing songs as a part of the grassroots christian band caedmon’s call and continued for nearly a decade as a solo artist. so does derek, like myself, ever look back with any contrition about past songs or specific lyrics.

well, in a recent interview with, that very question was posed to derek. i found his response particularly interesting and worthwhile. here’s the video (the entire clip is worth watching, but the part i’ll primarily comment on begins around the 4:00 mark):

the primary song in question is thankful from caedmon’s call’s 1999 commercial and critical breakthrough, 40 acres. as derek points out, it’s the biggest commercial hit that he’s ever had and says it’s his “most pointed and most theological song” (lyrics). so it’s that much more significant for him to call out that particular song.

more than just being a hit song, though, my interest was particularly piqued by him talking about it because it’s a song that—in spite of it being a really great song—i deeply disagree with theologically.

increasingly, over the years, one of my most deeply held theological positions is the inherent goodness of people. without going into all the biblical minutiae, i believe that god made people good and the fall didn’t fundamentally change that. people aren’t inherently wicked. we are not totally depraved. webb doesn’t stop, though, at just total depravity. thankful could be an anthem for all the TULIP-believing neo-calvinists.

to be clear, derek doesn’t recant the particulars of the theologies. whereas i’d love to have heard that, what he says is probably more commendable. as hard as it is to say, “my belief was wrong,” it’s just as difficult to have enough self-reflection to say, “the manner in which i lived out and engaged my beliefs with others was wrong”. theological arrogance is less about one’s particular beliefs and more about the posture in which one posits or lives out those beliefs.

certainly, the message hits home for me. this blog has been built largely on parsing through my beliefs, often in ways that are very forthright and unapologetic. much like my belief in inherent goodness, one of my increasingly important values over the past several years has been theological humility. so, i’ve become much more aware and sensitive to the manner in which i “pick fights” regarding theology. to this point, webb’s final sentence is a critical line to remember:

“i had a lot of fight in me in those early years. and i think i was fighting the wrong fights. and therefore i think i was writing the wrong songs.”

may we all have this level of self-reflection. and may we all spend our time writing the right songs.


  1. Neilio says:

    Hey Ryan,

    Let me preface this by saying that I’m not trying to pick a fight, merely trying to understand where you’re coming from.

    You say that you believe in the inherent goodness of people. I’ve got two questions:

    1. What do you base this belief on? (Specific passages of scripture, life observations, experience, etc…)

    2. How does this belief impact your view of sin and salvation?

  2. Ryan says:

    I was particularly curious about this question myself. In those early records, the lyrical voice of derek differed so much from Aaron Tate (Caedmon’s non-touring songwriter). I would have expected his answer to be pointed more toward some of those songs, which – while very great in their own right – are completely different from what he is doing today.

    Given such an easy (potential) scapegoat, it’s great to see him take aim at himself and his own biggest “hit”.

  3. Caroline says:

    Love it! Great thoughts; great blog. Thanks for sharing!

  4. Rod Montgomery says:

    Ryan, thanks for posting the video with Derek’s full answer. I admit the sensational title of this post brought me to your blog, but I think Derek makes a more general point than whether total depravity or innate goodness exists in man. It’s not about whether he’s changed his position on that particular theological point or whether he would today agree with your view, but rather about love and unity despite diversity of perspective… and the resulting art. It takes a good bit of wisdom and humility to admit that, at the time in his life during which that song was written, he was using those phrases as a litmus test to determine whether they were on his “theological team.” FWIW, I’m thankful that he is “not interested in that conversation, framed that way, any more.”

  5. Diane Prokop says:

    I don’t want to speak for you, Ryan Byrd, but since we both share the “inherent goodness” stance, I’ll throw in my two cents in response to “Neilio”-
    Cent #1) is from Genesis 1:27 and 3:22- God made humans “in His image” and declared them “good” and after the fall declared them to now have “the knowledge of both good and evil”
    Summary- God created us with goodness in us (like Himself), yet,after the fall, we were cursed to know both good and evil. We know too much, therefore, we now choose (this is what we call free will).
    Cent #2) Romans 4, specifically vs. 4 “God waits for us to change and His kindness leads us to change.” If we were utterly depraved, God couldn’t expect this of humanity. The argument would be that if man is good then it is only by God’s grace that we are good. That view doesn’t jive with this passage- it’s clearly our responsibility to choose good. Which means we are capable of choosing good because we have goodness in us already.
    (I won’t go on about how even non-Christians want to do good…)
    Just like Derek, I have written a few “wrong songs”, but one reason I respect Derek is that he openly admits his cursed state without negating God’s goodness inherent in us all. I also agree with Derek that there are greater things to “argue” over. These two views don’t change your salvation status, just your outlook on the Christian walk. I like to think that the “inherent goodness” view is more balanced, encouraging us to be who God created us to be, yet I see the danger in forgetting what we are saved from. The “inherently evil” stance includes people who are impressively impassioned and grateful for God’s grace. But the TULIP stance also can get caught up in feeling so sorry for sin that they are no earthly good. Let us love one another, though, for love is not against the Law! And may God bless us all in our choices(?)/efforts(?) to do good!

  6. DP says:

    Regarding Diane’s cent #2:

    “It’s clearly our responsibility to choose good, thus it means we are capable of choosing good because it in us already.”

    First off, there is nothing like what you posted in Romans 4. I even Googled the “Romans 4” passage and there are no hits from anywhere in any translation. The closest thing I could find was Romans 2:4 which states: “Don’t you see how wonderfully kind, tolerant, and patient God is with you? Does this mean nothing to you? Can’t you see that his kindness is intended to turn you from your sin?”

    I will give you the benefit of the doubt and assume that you didn’t mean to misquote Scripture… but you fundamentally changed the meaning of that verse with your translation of it.

    Despite the fact that what you quoted is not in Scripture at all, I would still like to take time to point out an obvious second explanation. Just one chapter earlier, the epistle affirms Old Testament literature and states that NO MAN seeks God and that none is righteous.

    The problem is that we have two truths to reconcile. Man chooses God… yet elsewhere Scripture states that man cannot.

    You cannot reconcile the both of these thoughts if man is the “causal agent” in the redemptive process. In other words, Scripture reveals that man is dead in his sins and whose mind is set on the flesh [Rom 8:3-11]. He cannot be the 1st cause in redemption. It doesn’t make sense that a being that is revealed to be dead in sins and NOT spiritual… could make a spiritual decision. That view cannot be supported from Scripture and (frankly) it just doesn’t make sense.

    God – who is full of light and truth – is a Spirit and can be the first cause! He makes man alive… now that man is alive to God, he can now choose God. Thus, God is the causal agent in redemption – which I must say isn’t too hard to believe. It was His plan after all. God causes man to be alive, then man chooses.

    Because both truths are in Scripture, we must reconcile them. Only one makes sense.

  7. Mike says:

    One of the biggest problems in the discussion of humanity’s goodness or lack thereof is that it is presented wrong. It is very true that humans were created good. When humanity fell, did we become evil or bad? No, but… Humanity is inherently good, but is now in a state of being marred. Our desire to do good deeds points to this inherent goodness, but even our best behavior is insufficient to win us salvation. In fact, even our best behaviors are marred and colored by our sinfulness so that they are wickedness in comparison to the true goodness of God. It is by the grace of God that sin has not utterly destroyed us already. In all reality it does not matter if you were totally depraved or were only so little depraved that it approached true righteousness. In comparison to God’s infinite righteousness and perfection there is no functional difference that could win you any merit before God. Only total surrender, accepting the total helplessness of your condition, and letting God make you righteous, can remove the brokenness of the Fall and put you where you can enter the real presence of God. All this argument of choice or determinism is smoke and mirrors to distract from the real message.

  8. Jim says:

    How sad for Derek. I don’t really see that he has grown up at all. His lyrical content was much better when he talked about things that actually mattered and he wasn’t so vague.

    God has a name it is specific, he has a plan for the world, its all over the Bible. This might not be cool or sexy but its something that anyone who follows Jesus should be known for.

  9. Bill B says:

    I have to say that the song “Thankful” troubles me, as well. I was raised in a faith tradition which taught that people are wretched sinners, incapable of doing anything good. It took me most of my near fifty years to UNlearn this teaching. I am NOT defined by my ‘sins’. Yes, I have many failings, but God does NOT see me (or anyone) as “a wretched sinner incapable of doing anything good”. God sees me/us as his/her child.

  10. […] Derek Webb reflects on twenty years of songwriting and the ways he, his faith, and his songwriting have evolved. Even if you aren’t interested in him or his music, his reflections are instructive. […]

  11. […] 2. derek webb calls his biggest hit “theologically narrow” […]

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