For it is by grace you have been saved...

Monday, March 9, 2009

Reclaiming the Amazing in Grace

I collect antique hymnals. Strange habit, maybe. Not really even sure how I got started. But over the years I’ve collected almost 250 of them; 116 over 100 years old; several over 150 years old; the oldest 178 years old.

In fact, that oldest is one of my favorites: Village Hymns for Social Worship by Asahel Nettleton. Designed as a “supplement to the hymns and psalms of Dr. Watts” in includes several of Isaac Watts’ songs as well as those of other well known poets/hymn writers like John Newton, William Cowper, Anne Steele, Phillip Doddridge, and Samuel Stennett.

One of the most notable aspects of these songs, at least in my mind, is that these writers seemed much more aware of the depth of our sin and the amazing nature of grace than we often are today. (In fact, in the subject index in the back, there is even a category for “Depravity”!) We’ve been so infected by the humanist philosophies that have dominated for the last couple generations, that our awe of grace has suffered.

The average person today sees himself as basically good, or at least better than the next guy. And the church’s message has been watered down to nothing more than “God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life.” To which this already self-confident person will respond: “Isn’t that nice; of course God would love me, I’m such a loveable person. And how nice that he wants to give me His wonderful plan (which no doubt includes my comfort and happiness at its core.)” Is it any wonder our churches are full of shallow professlings?

Grace isn’t all that amazing when it’s just a minor fix-it added to an otherwise good life. Grace is only truly amazing when we comprehend the holiness of God, the depravity of man, and the overpowering awe of realizing what Jesus has done to bridge that gap.

The hymn writers of days gone by grasped this. And so in one small attempt to try and recapture the amazing nature of grace, I offer just a few lines from these giants of church music. I hope you enjoy, but more importantly, I hope you can appreciate anew that sense of awe at the grace of our Sovereign God.

Samuel Stennett
Prostrate, dear Jesus, at thy feet
A guilty rebel lies;
And upwards to the mercy-seat
Presumes to lift his eyes.

Oh, let not justice frown me hence;
Stay, stay the vengeful storm:
Forbid it, that omnipotence
Should crush a feeble worm.

If tears of sorrow would suffice
To pay the debt I owe,
Tears should from both my weeping eyes
In ceaseless currents flow.

But no such sacrifice I plead
To expiate my guilt;
No tears, but those which though has shed,
No blood, but thou has spilt.

William Cowper
Had I a throne above the rest,
Where angels and archangels dwell,
One sin, unslain within my breast,
Would make that heav’n as dark as hell.

The prisoner, sent to breathe fresh air
And bless’d with liberty again,
Would mourn were he condemn’d to wear
One link of all his former chain.

But Oh! no foe invades the bliss,
When glory crowns the Christian’s head;
One view of Jesus as he is,
Will strike all sin for ever dead.

Isaac Watts
Where shall we sinner hide our heads
Can rocks or mountains save?
Or shall we wrap us in the shades
Of midnight and the grave?

Is there no shelter from the eye
Of an avenging God?
Jesus, to thy dear wounds we fly,
Bedew us with thy blood.

Those guardian drops our souls secure,
And wash away our sins;
Eternal justice frowns no more,
And conscience smiles within.

Anne Steele
And will the Lord thus condescend
To visit sinful worms?
Thus at the door shall mercy stand
In all her winning forms?

Surprising grace! – and shall my heart
Unmov’d and cold remain?
Has this hard rock no tender part?
Must mercy plead in vain?

And from that king of grace songs, the author of Amazing Grace himself…
John Newton
Now may the Lord reveal his face,
And teach our stamm’ring tongues
To make his sov’reign, reigning grace,
The subject of our songs!

Grace reigns to pardon crimson sins,
To melt the hardest hearts;
And, from the work it once begins,
Tit never more departs.

‘Twas grace that call’d our souls at first,
By grace thus far we’re come,
And grace will help us through the worst,
And lead us safely home.

Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God. (Rom 5:2, ESV)

In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace. (Ephesians 1:7, ESV)

even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ--by grace you have been saved—(Ephesians 2:5, ESV)


Frances Clements said...

These songs are good. They remind me of a sermon our preacher did recently. It was about the fact that we were dead (not just sick, but rotting) before the Holy Spirit's work in our hearts.

As a side note, the vocabulary is much more grown up in these songs. I find that refreshing.

Anonymous said...

It's certainly an improvement on the "7-11" songs so popular in today's worship services. lol