Hymn of the Month, March 2015
Researched and written by Shelby Breedlove and Rev. Nicholas Davelaar
Many of the hymns we sing are gems of wisdom, guidance, and admonition, drawn from God’s Word and set to music so that the word of Christ might dwell in us richly. Let’s take some time to dig into another of these this month, “And Can It Be That I Should Gain.”
This magnificent hymn owes much of its power to the wonderful, exultant melody SAGINA, which was composed by Thomas Campbell, a wandering, well-known Scottish poet of the early 1800s. His poetry was good enough to merit his burial in Poet's Corner of Westminster Abbey in London.
Lyricist Charles Wesley was the youngest son and 18th child of Samuel and Susanna Wesley. He was the greatest hymn-writer of the Wesley family, and may well be the greatest hymn-writer of all ages. He published an estimated 5000 to 6500 hymns. They vary in quality, of course, but a remarkable number rise to the highest degree of excellence, such as “Christ the Lord is Risen Today,” “Hark the Herald Angels Sing,” and “O For a Thousand Tongues to Sing.”
Charles and his brother John were both ordained ministers of the Anglican Church, but founded a holy group at Oxford called “The Methodists” because of their methods of rising early for strict Bible study. Caught in the trap of legalism, they embarked on a “mission trip” to the American colony of Georgia in 1735. The trip proved disastrous, and Charles came home in 1736, broken and ill. Moravian Peter Bohlar urged Charles to look more deeply at the state of his soul and taught him about true evangelical Christianity.
In May of 1738, ill once again, Charles read Martin Luther's commentary on Galatians and was convicted. He wrote in his journal, “At midnight I gave myself to Christ, assured that I was safe, whether sleeping or waking. I had the continual experience of His power to overcome all temptation, and I confessed with joy and surprise that He was able to do exceedingly abundantly for me above what I can ask or think.”
He also journaled, “I now found myself at peace with God, and rejoiced in hope of loving Christ. I saw that by faith I stood.” Two days later he began writing a hymn that many believe to be “And Can It Be,” also known as “Amazing Love.” The words of the hymn, especially verse four, bear this theory out.
History taken from sonsandhymns.org (http://bit.ly/1JZeiug), thegospelcoalition.org (http://bit.ly/17FOiCq), covlife.org (http://bit.ly/1EVRcxZ), Wikipedia (http://bit.ly/18xRSjj), hymnary.org (http://bit.ly/1EzwwOs), tanbible.com (http://bit.ly/1BN540c), hymnswelove.blogspot.com (http://bit.ly/1DlGgHC).
“And Can It Be That I Should Gain” is a theologically rich hymn. Yet, in spite of that, we can summarize it with one word, a one-word question: really? From beginning to end, this hymn leads us in marveling at God’s love for us through Jesus Christ his Son. It leads us in thinking about and expressing dumbfounded joy in what Jesus has done for us, even if it has been years since we first believed in him. “How can it be,” we ask at the end of each verse, “that thou, my God, shouldst die for me?”
And can it be that I should gain
An int’rest in the Savior’s blood?
Died he for me, who caused His pain?
For me, who him to death pursued?
Amazing love! How can it be
That thou, my God, shouldst die for me?
This hymn opens by putting a series of questions on our lips. In each of these three questions we ask if it is really true that Jesus Christ died for us personally. Can it be that I should gain an interest in the Savior’s blood? Died he for me? For me?
The answer is yes. We know that from the Bible. In fact, these questions flow from Scripture itself. For instance, the idea that we by faith gain an interest in the Savior’s blood comes straight from verses such as Heb 3:14, which testifies that “we have come to share in Christ.” Likewise, we conclude from verses such as Is 53:5 that he died for me, who caused his pain. In other words, the questions we ask in this first verse flow from amazement, not ignorance or doubt. Having heard the promises of God’s Word, we stand in awe, and sing with joy, Amazing love!
’Tis mystery all! Th’Immortal dies:
Who can explore his strange design?
In vain the firstborn seraph tries
To sound the depths of love divine.
’Tis mercy all! Let earth adore,
Let angel minds inquire no more.
We continue to express our amazement in the next verse. The immortal Son of God died: who can fully comprehend that? It doesn’t make sense to our finite minds. Peter demonstrated that in Matt 16:21, and the two disciples on the road to Emmaus did the same in Luke 24:20-21. In the end, all we can do is say with Paul, “Oh the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways” (Rom 11:33)! And we’re in good company; in vain the firstborn seraph also tries to sound the depths of love divine. As Peter explained in 1 Pet 1:12, the angels themselves long to understand fully what God has done and is doing.
Consequently, once again we marvel. We declare with gratitude, ‘Tis mercy all!, and together with the psalmist call upon the angels and all creation to bless the Lord (Ps 103:20-22).
He left his Father’s throne above
(So free, so infinite his grace!),
Humbled himself (so great his love!),
And bled for all his chosen race.
’Tis mercy all, immense and free;
For, O my God, it found out me.
As noted, we cannot fully comprehend how the immortal Son of God could die, but that’s not to suggest we know nothing. For both his glory and our joy, God has revealed what his Son did for us and for our salvation. In particular, on the basis of Phil 2:6-8, we know—and thus in this verse sing with joy—that the Son of God left his Father’s throne above, humbled himself, and bled for all his chosen race.
Consequently, once again we declare with gratitude, ‘Tis mercy all! And what mercy it is! With Charles Wesley and all who believe in Jesus Christ, it is our delight not only to profess that God’s mercy is immense and free, but also that it found out me.
What does it mean that God’s mercy found out me? Given his theological beliefs, Wesley was perhaps alluding to the teaching of passages such as Luke 19:10, where we hear Jesus say that he explain that he “came to seek and to save the lost.” We, however, might also point to passages such as John 6:44, where Jesus stated, “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him.” God’s mercy hasn’t merely found us out to offer us salvation, but has truly found us out to draw us to the Son! ‘Tis mercy all!
Long my imprisoned spirit lay
Fast bound in sin and nature’s night;
Thine eye diffused a quick’ning ray;
I woke, the dungeon flamed with light;
My chains fell off, my heart was free;
I rose, went forth, and followed thee.
In this verse we sing of our joyous experience of God’s mercy finding us. Following Wesley’s lead, we liken what happened to us to Peter’s miraculous rescue from prison in Acts 12. Like Peter, we were fast bound until God intervened, but in our case God sent his Son to deliver us from sin and nature’s night, or as Col 1:13 puts it, “the domain of darkness.” The Son’s light (see John 1:4-5) filled our dungeon, and we went free. What amazing love!
No condemnation now I dread;
Jesus, and all in Him, is mine!
Alive in Him, my living Head,
And clothed in righteousness divine,
Bold I approach th’eternal throne,
And claim the crown, through Christ, my own.
We finish this hymn with an eye toward the future. Since “there is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Rom 8:1), we say with confidence, No condemnation now I dread. Why? Because we know from Rom 8:32 that Jesus, and all in Him, is mine! We are alive in him (Col 2:13), our living head (Col 1:18), and clothed in his righteousness (1 Cor 1:30). Consequently, bold we approach the eternal throne every day of our lives on earth (Heb 4:16), and will one day claim the crown that awaits us, through Christ, our one and only Savior (2 Tim 4:8). Indeed, what amazing love!