Text: Brian G. Najapfour Tune: CEDAR TREE L.M.6L., Robert Azkoul; alt. and harm. Michael R. Kearney
Stanza 1 By nature I was dead in sin, A body but no life within, Too dead to see the gospel light, For Satan had destroyed my sight. I had two ears but could not hear The gospel sound that was so clear.
Stanza 2 Depraved was I from birth, indeed, And drawn to sin was I conceived! To Christ, my heart was not inclined, For Satan had ensnared my mind. I had no hunger to be fed By Jesus Christ, the Living Bread.
Stanza 3 Yet by God’s mercy and His love Came new life from His throne above. He gave my blind eyes light to see The gospel truth that set me free. Alive in Christ, who died for me, My heart sings praise to His glory!
Stanza 4 And now the God who reigns above, Made me alive by His great love. He gave me faith to eat the Bread: Amazing grace! Forever fed! Reborn in Christ, who pardoned me; Oh, hallelujah, join with me!
Today our guest contributor is Chris Fenner, Digital Archivist at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He has contributed scholarly articles to The Hymn: A Journal of Congregational Song, has produced new editions of the Psalms, Hymns, and Spiritual Songs of Isaac Watts and Our Own Hymn Book by Charles Spurgeon, and is managing editor of HymnologyArchive.com.
The Wesleys had an enduring friendship and connection with George Whitefield (1714–1770), beginning with their Oxford Holy Club, followed by separate missionary journeys to America, and a call to open-air field preaching in England. During the earlier years of that association, the Wesleys published some of their most enduring poetry, especially in the first edition of Hymns and Sacred Poems (1739). In this collection, Charles Wesley had penned a Christmas hymn with a curious opening line:
Hark how all the welkin rings, “Glory to the King of Kings, Peace on Earth, and mercy mild, God and sinners reconcil’d!”
Joyful all ye nations rise, Join the triumph of the skies, Universal nature say, “Christ the Lord is born today!”
Christ, by highest Heav’n ador’d, Christ, the everlasting Lord, Late in time behold him come, Offspring of a virgin’s womb.
Veil’d in flesh, the Godhead see, Hail th’incarnate Deity! Pleas’d as man with men t’appear, Jesus, our Immanuel here!
Hail the heav’nly Prince of Peace! Hail the Sun of Righteousness! Light and life to all he brings, Ris’n with healing in his wings.
Mild he lays his glory by, Born—that man no more may die, Born—to raise the sons of earth, Born—to give them second birth.
Come, Desire of Nations, come, Fix in us thy humble home, Rise, the woman’s conqu’ring seed, Bruise in us the serpent’s head.
Now display thy saving pow’r, Ruin’d nature now restore, Now in mystic union join Thine to ours, and ours to thine.
Adam’s likeness, Lord, efface, Stamp thy image in its place, Second Adam from above, Reinstate us in thy love.
Let us thee, tho’ lost, regain, Thee, the life, the inner man; O! to all thyself impart, Form’d in each believing heart.
Wesley’s original text thus spanned ten stanzas of four lines. A modern reader might see the words “welkin rings” and immediately gravitate to something from J.R.R. Tolkien, but “welkin” means “sky” or “heavens” — it was a common term in English poetry in that era. Wesley might have been alluding directly to a poem by William Somerville about fox hunting, called “The Chase” (1735):
The welkin rings, Men, Dogs, Hills, Rock, and Woods In the full consort join.
Hymn scholar J.R. Watson explained: “To have altered Somerville’s lines would have been in keeping with Wesley’s habit of appropriating images from other poems and using them to proclaim the gospel. Here the cries of the huntsmen and hounds become the sounds of the multitude of the heavenly host, praising God, and saying, ‘Glory to God in the highest.’”
In the second edition of Hymns and Sacred Poems (1739), Wesley made one minor change to the first line of the fifth stanza, which became “Hail the heaven-born Prince of Peace.”
As clever as Wesley’s allusion to welkin rings might have been, it failed to resonate with some worshipers, including his colleague George Whitefield. In 1753, the same year Whitefield began construction on the Tabernacle church, he compiled his own hymnal, A Collection of Hymns for Social Worship. It included 21 hymns from the Wesleys, including this Christmas hymn, but with a significant alteration:
Hark! the Herald Angels sing Glory to the new-born King!
Whitefield made other alterations as well, including the second stanza, lines 3–4, “Nature rise and worship Him, who is born at Bethlehem,” the fifth stanza, “Light and life around he brings,” the seventh stanza, “Fix in us thy heav’nly home,” the omission of stanzas eight and ten, and a change in the last line of stanza nine, “Work it in us by thy love.”
Whitefield was not the only one who felt compelled to tweak Wesley’s text. Another close colleague of the Wesleys, Martin Madan, had an important hand in shaping the text. Madan had been called into a life of ministry via the preaching of John Wesley, and he was godfather to Charles Wesley’s son Samuel. In 1760, he published A Collection of Psalms and Hymns, including Wesley’s Christmas hymn. Madan borrowed Whitefield’s opening lines but kept the rest of Wesley’s original wording, except in the second stanza, where he introduced the lines “With th’ angelic host proclaim, Christ is born in Bethlehem!”
John Wesley chose not to include this hymn in the career-spanning Collection of Hymns for the Use of the People Called Methodists (1780). A few years later, after being entreated to produce a smaller, more affordable collection, he published A Pocket Hymn Book, first in 1785, then greatly revised in 1787. For the revised edition, he added the Christmas hymn, but he decided to use Madan’s version, which by extension also included Whitefield’s opening lines. Therefore, the last official Wesleyan version of the hymn looked like this:
Hark! the herald angels sing, “Glory to their new-born King; Peace on earth, and mercy mild; God and sinners reconciled.”
Joyful, all ye nations, rise, Join the triumph of the skies, With th’ angelic host proclaim, “Christ is born in Bethlehem.”
Christ, by highest heaven adored, Christ, the everlasting Lord; Late in time behold him come, Offspring of a virgin’s womb;
Veiled in flesh, the Godhead see, Hail th’ incarnate Deity! Pleased as man with men to appear, Jesus our Immanuel here.
Hail, the heaven-born Prince of Peace, Hail, the Sun of Righteousness! Light and life to all he brings, Risen with healing in his wongs;
Mild he lays his glory by, Born that man no more may die, Born to raise the sons of earth, Born to give them second birth.
Come, desire of nations, come, Fix in us thy humble home; Rise, the woman’s conquering seed; Bruise in us the serpent’s head:
Adam’s likeness now efface, Stamp thine image in its place; Second Adam from above, Reinstate us in thy love.
The first stanza of the hymn is essentially a retelling of the story of the angels and the shepherds in Luke 2. The second stanza introduces several ideas. Christ is worshiped by the hosts of heaven, which is seen especially in the book of Revelation. Christ is everlasting, or eternal, an idea expressed in Hebrews 13:8 (“Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever,” ESV). The phrase “late in time” probably refers to the lengthy wait the Jews endured while anticipating their Messiah, and the long absence of any prophet in Israel. The virgin, of course, is Mary, the woman prophesied in Isaiah 7:14. The concept of God-made-flesh can be found in passages such as John 1:14 (“And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us”), not too proud to be seen in human form among sinful people, as in Philippians 2:5–7.
In the third stanza, the name “Prince of Peace” comes from Isaiah 9:6. Both the title “Sun of Righteousness” and the image “Risen with healing in his wings” come from Malachi 4:2. The emphatic repetition of “Born . . .” outlines three reasons for Christ’s presence: (1) to conquer death, (2) to bring resurrection of the dead, and (3) to offer rebirth, the first two of which are described at length in 1 Corinthians 15, the last best expressed in John 3.
Another title, “Desire of nations,” is from Haggai 2:7 (especially in the KJV). The notion that Christ dwells in us, not just with us, is reflected in passages like Galatians 2:20 (“I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me”). The last six lines point back to Eden in various ways. “Rise, the woman’s conquering seed,” etc., refers to the Eden prophecy of Genesis 3:15. The remaining lines about exchanging the image of Adam for the image of Christ, with Christ as the “second Adam,” reflect the ideas found in 1 Corinthians 15:45–49.
The hymn in this form, written by Charles Wesley, altered by George Whitefield and Martin Madan, and canonized by John Wesley, is therefore rich with Scripture. Its endurance as a beloved Christmas tradition is well deserved and likely to last for generations to come.
My friend Bob Azkoul and I met today to sing for the first time the hymn that I wrote entitled “Total Depravity.” Bob composed the tune. I thought his tune fits well with the message of the song. We are still in the process of refining the hymn and its tune. So we welcome your suggestions for improvement.
Here are the words of the hymn:
Words by Brian G. Najapfour
Music by Robert G. Azkoul
By nature I was dead in sin,
A body with no life within.
Too dead to see the gospel light,
For Satan had destroyed my sight.
I had two ears but could not hear
The gospel sound that was so clear.
Depraved was I from birth, indeed,
For, oh, in sin was I conceived!
To Christ, my heart was not inclined,
For Satan had captured my mind.
With no desire to be fed,
By Jesus Christ, the Living Bread.
Yet by God’s mercy and His love,
Came new life from His throne above.
He gave my blind eyes sight to see
The gospel light that set me free.
Reborn in Christ, who died for me,
My heart sings praise to His glory!
And now the God who reigns above,
Made me alive by His great love.
He gave me faith to eat the Bread—
Amazing grace! Forever fed!
Alive in Christ, who pardoned me,
Hallelujah, come sing with me!
Here’s the musical piece (first draft), manually prepared by Bob Azkoul.
This week’s winter storm is definitely the worst one that I’ve ever experienced in the thirteen years that I’ve lived in Michigan. And winter is not yet over; more snow is predicted to come. Consequently, many feel tired of the snow. Many (including myself) cannot wait for the spring. But before the snow melts, let me share some of my reflections on snow.
A view of the front of our house
First, I thank God for giving me the opportunity to live in a place where it snows. When I was in the Philippines, Mexico, and Australia, I met people who have never seen snow in their lifetime, and who want to witness a snowfall. Of course there are countless of other peoples around the globe who would love to see snow, too. Thus, if you live in an area where it snows, thank the Lord for that privilege. Others can only dream of a white Christmas, while you get to experience and enjoy it.
Second, having seen snow with my own eyes, Bible verses that speak of snow become more meaningful to me. For instance, now I can better understand the point that God makes in Isaiah 1:18: “Come now, let us reason together, says the LORD: though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow.”
A view of our street
Third, snow can serve as a reminder to me of how God has forgiven me in Christ, making me even “whiter than snow” (Ps. 51:7). Imagine, God has made me whiter than snow! My fellow Christian, look around at all the snow and think of how God has cleansed you from all your sins through the blood of Jesus Christ. As the hymn writer Robert Lowry (1826–1899) remarks in his well-known hymn “Nothing but the Blood”:
What can wash away my sin? Nothing but the blood of Jesus; What can make me whole again? Nothing but the blood of Jesus.
Oh! precious is the flow That makes me white as snow; No other fount I know, Nothing but the blood of Jesus.
Fourth, as a hymn lover, snow reminds me of some of the hymns that mention snow. Then as I recall these hymns, I sometimes sing them silently in my heart or loudly with my mouth. Snow therefore becomes a means by which God directs my attention to the gospel. Right now as I look at the snow outside, the song that comes into my mind is “There Is Power in the Blood” by Lewis E. Jones (1865–1936):
Would you be whiter, much whiter than snow? There’s power in the blood, power in the blood; Sin stains are lost in its life giving flow. There’s wonderful power in the blood.
There is power, power, wonder working power In the blood of the Lamb; There is power, power, wonder working power In the precious blood of the Lamb.
I confess the older I get, the lesser I appreciate snow. And I admit many times I complain and say, “Snow again! When will it stop snowing? I’m tired of the snow.” Yet, with God’s help I try to discipline my mind to think of how I can use the presence of snow for my spiritual benefit.
Finally, I understand we’ve had a lot of snow. And it’s so easy to have a murmuring spirit toward this cold weather. Someone told a story about a certain minister who “was known for his uplifting prayers in the pulpit. He always found something for which to be grateful. One Sunday morning the weather was so gloomy that one church member thought to himself, ‘Certainly the preacher won’t think of anything for which to thank God on a wretched day like this.’ Much to his surprise, however, [the minister] began by praying, ‘We thank Thee, O God, that it is not always like this.’”
This is my thirteenth winter since I came to Michigan. And as I’ve already noted earlier, this week’s storm is the worst one that I’ve ever seen. But learning from this preacher, in the midst of this cold storm I can still find a reason to thank God. I can say, “Lord, I thank thee that Michigan winters are not always like this past week.”
How is our attitude toward the weather? When it is cold we complain, when it is hot we do the same. Instead of complaining, why don’t we start counting all our blessings in Christ and name them one by one, that we may be overwhelmed by God’s goodness and burst into praise.
When upon life’s billows you are tempest tossed, When you are discouraged, thinking all is lost, Count your many blessings, name them one by one, And it will surprise you what the Lord hath done.
Count your blessings, name them one by one; Count your blessings, see what God hath done.
The Odes of Solomon, considered to be the earliest Christian hymnbook, contains more than forty odes (lyric poems intended to be sung). In this post I will examine one of these odes which is entitled “The Cup of Milk.” This ode is listed as number 19 in The Earliest Christian Hymnbook: The Odes of Solomon (2009) translated by James H. Charlesworth. The text for “The Cup of Milk” as cited in this post is taken from this book.
The Cup of Milk (Ode 19)
Stanza 1 The cup of milk was offered to me. And I drank it in the sweetness of the Lord’s kindness
In the first stanza of Ode 19, the Odist may be thinking of God’s Word when he says “the cup of milk was offered to me.” It is not uncommon for a Jew to refer to God’s Word as milk, as Paul and Peter themselves do in 1 Corinthians 3:2 and 1 Peter 2:2. And by drinking the milk, the Odist is showing the trustworthiness of the Word. We can rely on the Word; we can drink it, for it is God’s Word. However, in the second stanza, the Odist tells us that the cup of milk offered to him is actually the Messiah:
Stanza 2 The Son is the cup. And the Father is He who was milked. And the Holy Spirit is She who milked Him.
Thus, what the Odist is most likely saying is that the Son—who is often portrayed as the Word in the Odes—is “the cup of milk” which he drank (an expression that seems to have been borrowed from the Eucharist). Who offered the cup or the Son to the Odist? From stanzas 2 to 5, we know that the cup of milk (i.e., the Son) came from the breasts of the Father and that it was the Holy Spirit who milked the Father. That is, it was the Holy Spirit who drew the Son out of the Father’s breasts and gave him to the world.
Stanza 3 Because His Breast were full; And it was undesirable that His milk should be released without purpose.
Stanza 4 The Holy Spirit opened Her bosom, And mixed the milk of the two breasts of the Father.
Stanza 5 Then She gave the mixture to the generation without their knowing. And those who have received (it) are in the perfection of the right hand.
So, it was the Holy Spirit who offered the Son to the Odist. And the Odist did not reject this offer; but rather, he received it “in the sweetness of the Lord’s kindness.” His acceptance of the offer only intensifies the claim of scholars that the Odist was “most likely a Jew who came to believe in Jesus’ Messiahship” (Preface, xii). And because he drank the milk, which is another way of saying, because he believed in the Son, he was “in the perfection of the right hand” of God. As the fifth stanza says, “And those who have received (it) are in the perfection of the right hand.” Commenting on the term “right hand,” Richard S. Hess states, “The right hand can be used interchangeably with the hand in poetic texts (Judges 5:26; Psalm 74:11). The hand of God, and especially the right hand, is also understood as a place of salvation, refuge, and protection (Psalm 16:8)” (Baker’s Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology, s.v. “Hand, Right Hand.”). Therefore, having believed in the Son, the Odist is now in the place of salvation, safe and secure. While the name “Jesus” never appears in the entire Odes, no doubt the Son in whom the Odist put his faith was none other than Jesus Christ. And his message that salvation is through faith in the Messiah is consistent with the teaching of the Scriptures.
Based on the above discussion, let’s observe the following points of the ode:
First, the Son, described as the cup of milk, came from the breasts of the Father. The picture that we have here simply teaches the truth that Jesus proceeded from his Father (Jn. 8:42). The imagery also demonstrates the intimate relationship that the Father and Son have with each other. It is fascinating, though, how the Odist depicts the Father in feminine terms as having breasts. James H. Charlesworth thinks that the Odist employs this feminine imagery “most likely to warn against imaging God as a male or a warrior god” (Introduction, xxxiii). In other words, the Odist may want to emphasize God’s loving and gentle character, likening God to a nursing mother who cares for her baby. There is, of course, nothing unusual in the Odist’s use of feminine imagery for God. Some biblical writers have done the same. For instance, in Isaiah 49:15 God is likened to a nursing mother: “Can a woman forget her nursing child, that she should have no compassion on the son of her womb? Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you.”
Second, according to stanza 3, when the Father’s “breasts were full,” the Holy Spirit milked the Father. Notice, it was when the Father’s breasts became full with milk that the Spirit milked the Father. The idea of fullness echoes what Paul has written in Galatians 4:4: “But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman…” The last six stanzas of the ode focus on the virgin who gave birth to the Son. No one can deny that in these stanzas the Odist is thinking of the biblical tradition that Jesus was born of Virgin Mary. Yes, the Odist penned Ode 19 before the formation of the New Testament canon; and thus as Charlesworth asserts, “we should not expect the Odist, as a poet, to quote from these [New Testament] documents. Yet, scholars have rightly perceived traditions preserved in the New Testament are evident in this Hymnbook” (Introduction, xxvii). The tradition that Jesus was born of a Virgin in Ode 19 is a proof of this.
Stanza 6 The womb of the Virgin took (it). And she received conception and gave birth;
Stanza 7 So the Virgin became a mother With great mercies.
Stanza 8 And she labored and bore the Son but without pain, Because it did not occur without purpose.
Stanza 9 And she did not seek a midwife, Because He allowed her to give life.
Stanza 10 She bore with desire as a strong man. And she bore according to the manifestation, And she possessed with great power.
Stanza 11 And she loved with salvation. And she guarded with kindness. And she declared with greatness.
Third, stanza 3 tells us that the releasing of the milk from the Father’s breasts was not without purpose. The Holy Spirit did not take the Son and send him to sinners without purpose. What was the purpose of the giving of the Son to the world? The answer is found in stanza 5—so that those who receive the Son might be saved. And in the Odist’s mind, the Son, the long-awaited Messiah, has already come. Charlesworth mentions that the “beauty of the Odes seems to lie in their spontaneous and joyous affirmation that the long-awaited Messiah has come to God’s people” (Introduction, xvi). As such, the Odes are a means of apologetic response to those who still wait for the first coming of the Messiah.
Finally, Ode 19 clearly acknowledges the existence of the Trinity—the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Yet, interestingly the Odist regards the Holy Spirit as feminine, referring to him with the pronoun “she”: “the Holy Spirit is She who milked Him.” Perceiving the Spirit to be feminine was typical though among “Christians who worshipped in Aramaic and Syriac (Introduction, xxxiii).” The KJV, on the other hand, occasionally uses the pronoun “it” to refer to the Holy Spirit (Jn. 1:32; Rom. 8:16 & 26). That the Spirit is sometimes referred to as neuter does not mean, of course, that he is neuter. Someone puts it this way: “while the Holy Spirit is neither male nor female in His essence, He is properly referred to in the masculine by virtue of His relation to creation and biblical revelation. There is absolutely no biblical basis for viewing the Holy Spirit as the ‘female’ member of the Trinity.” Nevertheless, the Odist’s feminine description of the Holy Spirit may be due to his desire to portray the Spirit as gentle, sweet, compassionate, and caring—traits that have universally been considered as feminine. And if this supposition is true, the Odist should be appreciated for his desire to emphasize the aforementioned traits of the Holy Spirit.
Chris, thank you for editing The Psalms, Hymns, and Spiritual Songs of Isaac Watts. I thought you did an excellent job. I have some questions for you:
1. Can you please tell us more about yourself and the occasion in which you edited this book?
I am the Digital Archivist in the archives office of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary (SBTS). My job in general is to digitize and preserve old media formats (audio and video tapes, LPs, etc.), but my academic research specialty is hymnology. I am also a minister of music at Green Street Baptist Church in Louisville, Kentucky. I have worked at SBTS for eleven years now, starting when I was a graduate student in the worship arts program. I finished that degree in 2011, then completed a Master of Library and Information Science degree from the University of Kentucky in 2017.
In 2016, Matt Boswell, director of Doxology & Theology Press, had been preparing a new edition of hymns by Isaac Watts, and he asked my colleague Esther Crookshank to write a foreword for it. Crookshank shared a draft of the project with me, and upon examining the work, I had several ideas for how it could be improved, so I got in touch with Matt and persuaded him to allow me to help him craft the book into something that would reflect the highest standards of scholarship possible, something that would really stand out from what other publishers had done before.
For the work, I was able to examine digital copies of Watts’ original collections. We included both of his original prefaces (this is really two books in one volume, Hymns and Spiritual Songs with the Psalms of David Imitated). We included all of Watts’ original footnotes for the Psalms, which explain his methodology and theology. We added some detailed indices, with pastors worship leaders in mind. We also included a set of tunes that had never been reproduced in any edition of Watts over the last 250 years. The whole project is a major improvement over any other edition of Watts currently on the market.
2. Who was Isaac Watts and why did he write his hymns?
Isaac Watts was a pastor in the dissenting tradition (Protestant, separate from the Church of England). Watts had some serious concerns about the condition of congregational singing in his time. In Protestant churches, the norm had been to sing only from the Psalms and a few select passages from the New Testament (like the Song of Simeon, for example). If people are only singing from the Old Testament, then they are singing an incomplete theology, and a theology rooted in the Old Covenant. Watts found this unacceptable, for good reason. So for his poetic translations of the Psalms, he wanted to infuse the texts with New Testament ideas, making connections to the work of Christ, as if David had been a New Covenant believer. In this regard, Watts was charting new territory.
Watts also wrote new hymns intended for congregational singing, for similar purposes, because he felt the Psalms weren’t enough for a well-rounded theology. All of this came at a point in time in which Protestants had been debating about whether it was OK to sing hymns in church, because when people start writing their own songs, doctrinal error can creep into the church. People had written hymns and poems before (George Herbert was very well loved in the previous century, for example), but Watts was so good at what he did, that people embraced his hymns and abandoned the strict adherence to the Psalms.
3. What are the key features of his hymns?
In addition to his infusion of New Testament theology in the Psalms, Watts strove to make his texts understandable to the average worshiper by using plain language and avoiding complicated terminology. Even though he wasn’t happy with the pre-existing tradition of Psalm singing, he wrote his hymns in such a way that they could be sung using the old Psalm tunes. This meant most of his texts fit into three different syllabic structures: common meter, long meter, and short meter, with some other exceptions. This is partly why his hymns have endured, because they are easily understandable and singable.
4. What are the weaknesses and strengths of his hymns?
If his hymns have any weaknesses, it would be because the English language has evolved, and the world has evolved, so Watts isn’t able to keep pace with all of the issues and perspectives that worshipers face today. In his day, his language was plain and simple, but in our day, his language can be a little antiquated at times and require some adjustment. His hymn “Jesus shall reign where’er the sun,” for example, is written from the perspective of someone who lived in a time of Colonialism and Imperialism, in which he was able to write about other nations being “barbarous.” Others are written very much from a British perspective and don’t work in other contexts.
5. Of all his hymns, what is your favorite? And why is this one your favorite?
I have a special love for his rendition of Psalm 23, “My shepherd will supply my need,” especially with the American folk tune known as RESIGNATION. It is a very thoughtful and tender paraphrase. In 2015, when my son Garrett died at the sweet age of 5, I sang this at his funeral. Where the psalmist had written “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever,” Watts wrote these beautiful lines:
The sure provisions of my God
Attend me all my days;
O may thy house be mine abode,
And all my work be praise.
There would I find a settled rest,
While others go and come;
No more a stranger or a guest, But like a child at home.
My eyes get watery and my soul burns just thinking about it.
6. What projects are you currently working on?
I recently finished a new edition of Charles Spurgeon’s Our Own Hymn Book for Matt Boswell at Doxology & Theology. It hasn’t yet gone to press, but it is going to be a beautiful, scholarly book, full of great insights into Spurgeon and the hymns that he loved.
This past summer, I launched a new website, HymnologyArchive.com, for the serious hymn lover and scholar, offering a visual history of great hymns, full of the best scholarship that simply isn’t available anywhere else. It’s still new and still growing; I add material almost every day.
Lastly, I am compiling and editing a new collection of essays related to the hymns of Charles Wesley, featuring contributions from many gifted scholars, to be published next year by Biblical Spirituality Press.
In May of 2009 Dr. Joel Beeke and I were in the Philippines to attend a conference on reformed theology in which Dr. Beeke was the speaker. During the Q&A session one of the delegates asked, “Can you be a Calvinist and at the same time proud?” To this question Dr. Beeke initially replied, “To be a Calvinist and proud at the same time is an oxymoron.”
Indeed, a proud Calvinist is a combination of two terms that have opposite meanings. A true Calvinist is one who humbly submits to God’s sovereignty. A proud person is one who places himself above God. A Calvinist prays with the tax collector, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” A proud person prays with the Pharisee, “God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector” (Luke 18:11-13).
I think the aforementioned question arose out of a concern that some of those who have discovered Calvinistic theology have become proud of themselves. What does a proud Calvinist look like?
A proud Calvinist looks down on those who are not Calvinists. He thinks that he is superior to them. And when he refutes their unscriptural doctrines, he does so very sarcastically. He acts like the unbelieving criminal, who railed at Jesus, saying, “Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us! (Luke 23:39). Likewise, when he defends his faith, he does so with harshness and disrespect. This proud Calvinist should learn from Peter: “honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect” (1 Peter 3:15).
A proud Calvinist brags about his collection of reformed books. He gathers books for his self-glorification, rather than for his sanctification and God’s splendor. John Bunyan calls this kind of sin “the pride of the library.” According to Bunyan, this particular sin is committed:
When men secretly please themselves to think it is known what a stock of books they have; or when they take more pleasure in the number of, than the matter contained in their books.
When they buy books rather to make up a number, than to learn to be good and godly men thereby.
When, though they own their books to be good and godly, yet they will not conform thereto.
A proud Calvinist is only concerned with theology (the study of God); he does not care about piety (the practice of godliness). For instance, with great diligence he reads a lot of books on reformed theology but only to increase his knowledge, so that he can show to others how theologically intellectual he is. This proud Calvinist should realize that the Reformers as well as the Puritans did not only write to inform the head (know God) but to touch the heart (love God) and move the hands (serve God). In fact, the very purpose of John Calvin in writing the Institutes, his great theological work, was “solely to transmit certain rudiments by which those who are touched with any zeal for religion might be shaped to true godliness.” In short, Calvin wrote to promote what John Murray called “intelligent piety,” spirituality that is rooted in Scripture. In Calvinism, theology and piety are inseparable. The study of God prompts the practice of godliness.
Are you a proud Calvinist? Does your study of reformed theology produce piety in your Christian life? Does your study make you love Christ more and hate sin more? Pray with Robert Murray M’Cheyne, “Lord, make me as holy as a pardoned sinner can be.” Remember, a true Calvinist is marked by piety not pride, humility not haughtiness.
 John Bunyan, “A Holy Life,” in The Miscellaneous Works of John Bunyan, vol. 9, gen. ed. Roger Sharrock (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1981), 324.
 Bunyan, “A Holy Life,” 324.
 John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. John T. McNeill and trans. Ford Lewis Battles (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1960), 1:9.
One of my favorite hymn writers is the blind hymn writer Fanny J. Crosby (1820-1915) who wrote over 8,000 hymns including “Blessed Assurance” and “To God Be the Glory.”
In her autobiographical book entitled Fanny Crosby’s Life-Story (1903), Crosby narrates the following account in which she expresses her thankfulness to God that, in His providence, she became blind. Crosby was not born blind. At six weeks old she had inflammation in her eyes. The physician, who tried to help her, mistakenly destroyed Crosby’s eyes. Consequently, she became blind for the rest of her life. However, she mentions in her book that if she could meet that physician, she would say, “Thank you, thank you—over and over again—for making me blind, if it was through your agency that it came about!” Why would Crosby do that? Well, in her own words here are two reasons why:
It seemed intended by the blessed Providence of God, that I should be blind all my life; and I thank Him for the dispensation. I was born with a pair of as good eyes as any baby ever owned; but when I was six weeks of age, a slight touch of inflammation came upon them: and they were put under the care of a physician.
What he did to them, or what happened in spite of him, I do not know, but it resulted in their permanent destruction, so far as seeing is concerned; and I was doomed to blindness all the rest of my earthly existence.
I have heard that this physician never ceased expressing his regret at the occurrence; and that it was one of the sorrows of his life. But if I could meet him now, I would say, “Thank you, thank you—over and over again—for making me blind, if it was through your agency that it came about!”
This sounds strangely to you, reader? But I assure you I mean it—every word of it; and if perfect earthly sight were offered me to-morrow, I would not accept it. Did you ever know of a blind person’s talking like this before?
Why would I not have that doctor’s mistake —if mistake it was—remedied? Well, there are many reasons: and I will tell you some of them.
One is, that I know, although it may have been a blunder on the physician’s part, it was no mistake of God’s. I verily believe it was His intention that I should live my days in physical darkness, so as to be better prepared to sing His praises and incite others so to do. I could not have written thousands of hymns—many of which, if you will pardon me for repeating it, are sung all over the world— if I had been hindered by the distractions of seeing all the interesting and beautiful objects that would have been presented to my notice.
Another reason is, that, while I am deprived of many splendid sights (which, as above mentioned, might draw me away from the principal work of my life), I have also been spared the seeing of a great many unpleasant things. The merciful God has put His hand over my eyes, and shut out from me the sight of many instances of cruelty and bitter unkindness and misfortune, that I would not have been able to relieve, and must simply have suffered in seeing. I am content with what I can know of life through the four senses I possess, practically unimpaired, at eighty-three years of age. Hearing, tasting, smelling, and feeling, are still felt, in their fullest degree.
As a technical term, the word cross has a deeper meaning. It represents the gospel of Christ, particularly His atoning death. In fact, sometimes the word cross and the word Christ are used indistinguishably. For example, Paul says in Galatians 6:14, “But far be it from me to boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Now you might say to Paul, “Remember it is not about the cross but about Him on the cross. Don’t boast in the cross but in Christ.” What do you think Paul would say to you? He might say, “I know that. But you seem to have missed my point. I am using the word cross here metonymically.” It is helpful to understand that in Paul’s mind to glory in the cross and to glory in the Lord Jesus Christ are equivalent in meaning. Why? Well, because Paul also writes in 1 Corinthians 1:31, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.”
Observe also that for Paul the preaching of the cross and the preaching of the gospel are one. In 1 Corinthians 1:18 we read, “For the word [or the preaching] of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” According to this verse, the cross is “the power of God,” and according to Romans 1:16, the gospel is “the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes.” Hence, here the cross and the gospel are the same.
What is the gospel? Interestingly, in Mark 1:15 Jesus speaks, “[R]epent and believe in the gospel” and you will be saved. Then when the Philippian Jailer asked Paul and Silas, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” they replied, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved…” (Acts 16:30-31). Notice that Paul and Silas did not say, “Believe in the gospel,” but instead “Believe in the Lord Jesus.” Note also that Jesus says, “[B]elieve in the gospel,” and not “believe in me.” Here then we see that the gospel and Jesus Christ are essentially synonymous. The gospel is Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ is the gospel.
Here’s the key: in the Bible the terms cross, gospel, and Christ are sometimes used interchangeably.
Here are some of my favorite cross-centered hymns:
1. “It Is Well With My Soul” by Horatio Gates Spafford (1828–1888)
My sin, oh, the bliss of this glorious thought!
My sin, not in part but the whole,
Is nailed to the cross, and I bear it no more,
Praise the Lord, praise the Lord, O my soul!
2. “Old Rugged Cross” by George Bennard (1873–1958)
In that old rugged cross, stained with blood so divine,
A wondrous beauty I see,
For ’twas on that old cross Jesus suffered and died,
To pardon and sanctify me.
3. “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross” by Isaac Watts (1674–1748)
When I survey the wondrous cross
On which the Prince of glory died,
My richest gain I count but loss,
And pour contempt on all my pride.
These words are taken from the hymn titled “I Have Decided to Follow Jesus.” But, actually, the words came out of the mouth of the martyr who lived in India many years ago.
More than 150 years ago in a pagan village known for headhunting in northeast India, a family became followers of the Lord Jesus Christ under the ministry of a Welsh missionary. When the village chief had heard about this family’s conversion to Christianity, he asked the father of the home to recant his faith in Christ. With boldness, however, the Christian father responded, “I have decided to follow Jesus.” To force him to forsake Christ, a decree was made to kill his wife and two children. But, by God’s grace, the man proclaimed, “Though no one joins me, still I will follow.” The persecutors murdered his wife, but he remained faithful to his Lord and Savior. Finally, they killed him, but even his death did not shake his faith. In fact, during his execution, the persecutors found him saying, “The cross before me, the world behind me.” Deeply touched by this man’s life, the chief announced, “I too belong to Jesus Christ!” Eventually, the whole pagan village was converted to Christianity.
Sadly, many people do not appreciate “I Have Decided to Follow Jesus” because of its mistaken association with Arminianism. I encourage you therefore to sing this precious hymn with the inspiring story above in mind. In doing so, you will appreciate the original meaning of the song. Thank God for enabling this Christian Indian father to be willing to die for the sake of Christ.
When the time of persecution comes to you, will you be able to sing by God’s grace?
I have decided to follow Jesus,
I have decided to follow Jesus,
I have decided to follow Jesus–
no turning back, no turning back.
The world behind me, the cross before me,
the world behind me, the cross before me,
the world behind me, the cross before me–
no turning back, no turning back.
Though none go with me, I still will follow,
though none go with me, I still will follow,
though none go with me, I still will follow,
no turning back, no turning back.