Hymn of the Month, June 2017
Researched and written by Rev. Nicholas Davelaar and Randy Zacher
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, “By Grace I Am an Heir of Heaven.”
This month’s hymn was penned by another of the lesser known contributors to our hymnal. Christian Ludwig Scheidt was born in 1709 in what is today Germany. The son of a mayor, he received a good education, eventually studying at universities in Altorf and Strasbourg (both in France). Upon graduation, he taught for two years, and then returned to school himself, studying theology at the University of Halle and philosophy at the University of Gottingen (both in what is today Germany). He received his doctorate degree at Gottingen and then spent the rest of his time in the world of academia, initially as a professor and later as a librarian and archivist.
Scheidt wrote “By Grace I Am an Heir of Heaven” a few years after graduating from Gottingen. Though he is known for his lack of creativity, he evidently had at least one spurt of creativity during his lifetime, in which he wrote this hymn. It expresses well his faith in Jesus Christ, faith that would be severely tried in the decades that followed. He and his wife had eight children, but all of them died young. To add insult to injury, soon after the death of their eighth child Scheidt discovered that his wife was intimate with his personal attendant. After three years of attempting to reconcile, they divorced. Scheidt remarried, but died three years later, in 1761, after a lengthy and severe illness.
Herman Brueckner (1866-1942) is the one who translated Scheidt’s hymn into English. Brueckner was an Iowa-born pastor who served in Illinois, Michigan, Kentucky, and Wisconsin before joining the faculty of Hebron College in Nebraska. He translated many hymns, but few of them are still published.
The final contributor to this month’s hymn—Georg Neumark (1621-1681)—composed this tune for his own hymn “If Thou But Suffer God to Guide Thee” (Trinity Hymnal 670). This tune’s sober, yearning character suits Scheidt’s words well.
Sources: Hymnary.org, de.wikisource.org, and nak-gesangbuch.de.
Even after our initial repentance and profession of Christ, our everyday failures and temptations often make us wonder if we really are saved. To make matters worse, people such as feel-good preachers leave us feeling guilty for feeling this way, which only adds to our guilt and doubt. What shall we do? Is there hope for us? There’s no question about it: we fail and struggle even after being born again. And given the standards of our perfect and all-powerful Creator, we can't help but be humbled and even tremble. However, much as a carrot compels the donkey to do his work when dangled before him, this month's hymn drives us to search out and consider the truth about the loving grace of God. As is evident already from its title, “By Grace I Am an Heir of Heaven” is about the unfathomable grace of God toward us, sinners who look to Jesus as Lord and Savior. It leads us to sing of a deeper and richer grace than any of us have the right to expect, and so drives us into God’s Word to see if this grace we are singing of is for real.
By grace I am an heir of heaven:
Why doubt this, O my trembling heart?
If what the Scriptures promise clearly
Is true and firm in ev'ry part,
This also must be truth divine:
By grace a crown of life is thine.
Are we truly heirs of heaven? Does this crown of life truly belong to each of us who trusts in Jesus Christ? Yes! As the apostle Paul explained in Ephesians 1:4-7, God “chose us in [Christ] before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love he predestined us for adoption to himself as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace, with which he has blessed us in the Beloved. In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace….” Later Paul adds in verse 11, “In him we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to the purpose of him who works all things according to the counsel of his will….” The Scriptures indeed testify—and clearly so!—that we who believe in Jesus Christ are heirs of heaven by grace that is deeper and richer than even this hymn expresses. God the Father chose us before the foundations of the world! He predestined us to be adopted as his children through Jesus! It’s not for nothing that Paul regularly interrupts himself mid-sentence to praise the glory of God’s grace!
Every person who trusts in Jesus Christ can rightly say, “By grace I am an heir of heaven. Even as I am right now, by God’s grace I truly am an heir of heaven.” It all seems so simple. Too simple. Surely, we naturally think, there must be something I have to do. Verse 2 has the answer to that.
By grace alone shall I inherit
That blissful home beyond the skies.
Works count for naught, the Lord incarnate
Hath won for me the heav'nly prize.
Salvation by His death He wrought,
His grace alone my pardon bought.
What must we do to earn God’s favor? In this verse rejoice that it is ours not merely by grace, but by grace alone. Is such rejoicing reasonable? Reaching again for our Bibles, we hear Paul state at the beginning of Ephesians 2:8, “For by grace you have been saved through faith.” We're saved by grace alone, through faith. Ah, we think to ourselves, finally something tangible, something we can and must do! We must have faith! That’s how we earn God’s favor, right? Wrong. As we read on in Ephesians 2:8 and into verse 9, we hear him explain, “And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.” Even faith is not of ourselves—it is the gift of God. No works of ours can earn salvation. Our right relationship with God is a gracious gift, from beginning to end, a gracious gift bestowed on us in and through his Son, the Lord Jesus Christ. We are totally dependent upon Him. Indeed, "In him we live and move and have our being,” even more than we will ever understand (Acts 17:28).
All that, however, is not to suggest in any way that it really doesn’t matter whether or not we believe in Jesus Christ and follow him as Lord and Savior. We are totally dependent on God, but at the same time Scripture makes it very clear that we must believe in Jesus Christ. John 3:18 reads, “Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God.”
Do you believe? Do you believe in the Son of God, trusting not in your works, but in his death for salvation and his grace for your pardon?
By grace! These precious words remember
When sorely by thy sins oppressed,
When Satan comes to vex thy spirit,
When troubled conscience sighs for rest;
What reason cannot comprehend,
God doth to thee by grace extend.
Have you ever been mocked or shamed in front of others because of your faith in Jesus? It was shortly after Pentecost when the apostles were preaching and performing the same kinds of miracles as Jesus and the high priest had them arrested. Our Lord had other plans and miraculously procured their escape. They then immediately returned to the temple and continued to preach until they were detained again. This time they were publicly beaten, and yet rejoiced at being counted worthy to suffer shame for his name!
That example is what commonly comes to mind when we think of suffering as Christians or experiencing the attacks by Satan. Satan, however, has many ways to attack the heirs of heaven. His most difficult attack may well be fooling us into doubting God’s grace for us given our on-going failings and struggles. Those attacks often become more aggressive as believers grow and mature in faith. Thus, given all we’ve sung up to this point, we now encourage ourselves to remember these precious words: by grace! As the apostle John wrote in his letter, “My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous” (1 John 2:1). Do not despair: even though our reason cannot comprehend it, God extends grace to believers who oppressed by their sins, vexed by Satan, and troubled in their conscience.
By grace! Be this in death my comfort;
Despite my fears, 'tis well with me.
I know my sin in all its greatness,
But also Him who sets me free.
My heart to naught but joy gives place
Since I am saved by grace, by grace.
Look at Peter who denied Christ three times on his way to the cross and yet to the point of great anguish and tears was mercifully asked three times by the resurrected Christ, "Do you love me?” (John 21:15-17). He humbly, shamefully, tearfully replied, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you” (John 21:15). Peter was a man who knew his sin in all its greatness, but it was his privilege and joy to refer later to God as “the God of all grace” (1 Pet 5:10) and speak of how, “according to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you…” (1 Pet 1:3-4). Peter knew what comfort God’s grace was. God’s grace had truly set him free and led him to “rejoice with joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory,” together with the readers of his first letter (1 Pet 1:8). To the end of his life, his comfort, his joy was that he was saved by grace. Is that your comfort, your joy?