Thanks to our good friend, Revd Grant Brockhouse, here’s a chance to learn more about one of the classic hymns that we all know:
And Can it Be….?
I was asked some months ago to comment on this, one of the most meaningful hymns in our repertoire. It is an incredibly personal hymn having been written by Charles Wesley in 1838 just after his personal conversion to Christ. This hymn is indeed an antidote to those who think that state religion or simply attending church is enough to turn away God’s wrath and to enter heaven. I put it like that for many of us have been brought up in the Christian Faith and have attended services of worship but the incredulity of the salvation wrought by Jesus Christ through his crucifixion hasn’t reached far into our very beings. That was how it was for Charles Wesley (1707-1788) who had been ordained an Anglican priest in 1735 and was a faithful pastor and minister in his chaplaincy work in the then colonies in America. Yet it was only after he read St Paul’s Letter to the Galatians 2:20 ‘The Son of God who loved me, and gave himself for me’ and had read Martin Luther’s commentary on it that he understood the necessity to have a personal faith in Jesus. Some of us don’t particularly like the question posed to us by Evangelicals ‘Have you made Jesus your personal Saviour?’ simply because it is too intimate when discussing our faith. Yet that is what Charles Wesley desired of himself and others. His brother, John, who has been considered the founder of Methodism, became converted in the same way only three years later! Today’s hymn was one of Charles’ first hymns (he wrote over 6,000!) and emphasises the joy and peace which the two brothers discovered in their understanding of their personal salvation in Christ.
And can it be that I should gain
An interest in the Saviour’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?
So right from the onset, Charles Wesley identifies himself with the sin of humanity (referring again in verse 3 with Adam’s sin). This is a very Pauline doctrine. St Paul emphasised the incredible notion that Christ died for each one of us and that salvation has been achieved through his sacrificial blood on the cross. Wesley titled his hymn ‘Free Grace’ because he realised that forgiveness and love from God did not have to be worked at but were the free gifts of God Ephesians 2:8. Wesley was a Biblical scholar and wrote and preached extensively on the Scriptures throughout his ministry. In verse 2 he brings to mind the fact that Jesus, though divine, was still subject to death. This was the incredible mystery of Christian theology, that not even angels, not even the most senior of the angels or seraphs, could comprehend this wonderful and wondrous belief. For Wesley this was the underlying understanding of 1 Peter 1:10-12.
‘Tis mystery all! th’Immortal dies:
Who can explore his strange design?
In vain the first-born seraph tries
To sound the depths of love divine!
‘‘Tis mercy all! Let earth adore,
Let angel minds inquire no more.
Verse 3 returns to St Paul with the reference to possibly one of the earliest Christian hymns of the first century viz. Philippians 2:5-11. Theologians call this ‘the Kenotic Theory’ i.e. that God in Christ emptied (Greek kenosis) himself not of his divinity, but in the glories and power of divinity, in the Incarnation. Wesley saw himself, as a member of ‘Adam’s helpless race’, being saved through the blood, the sacrificial death of Christ on the cross. How incredible this was to him, that Christ was concerned, that He loved, that He ‘found out’ even him!
He left his Father’s throne above
So free, so infinite his grace;
Emptied himself of all but love,
And bled for Adam’s helpless race;
‘Tis mercy all, immense and free;
For, O my God, it found out me!
Verse 4 pictures St Peter languishing in prison and miraculously being rescued and released by an angel of God Acts 12:6-9. This is the crux of the whole hymn. For no longer is it just Peter in prison, Wesley recognised that he too was imprisoned and bound by his sins from which he needed release. Thankfully, though, he ‘saw the light’ and was freed from his sins by the blood of Christ. Thus he was enabled to move on in his life, recognising his disciple-ship under Christ. Wesley may also have had in mind the release from prison of St Paul in Acts 16.
Long my imprisoned spirit lay
Fast bound in sin and nature’s night;
Thine eye diffused a quickening ray –
I woke, the dungeon flamed with light;
My chains fell off, my heart was free,
I rose, went forth, and followed thee.
The third and fourth lines of this verse were possibly taken from Alexander Pope’s 1717 poem ‘Eloisa to Abelard’:
Thy eye diffus’d a reconciling ray,
And gleams of glory brighten’d all the day.
The fifth and final verse of the hymn recognises the consequences of that release and forgiveness from sin which so excited Wesley. No longer was he condemned by his sin (Romans 8:1) Furthermore I can do no better than to repeat what Frank Colquhoun wrote in his book ‘Sing to the Lord’. ‘Jesus, and all in him, is mine’ (see, 1 Corinthians 3:22,23). And what does that all include? The new life in Christ (Ephesians 2:4,5); the righteousness of God through faith (Philippians 3:9), free access to the throne of grace (Hebrews 4:16), and the crown of glory hereafter (2 Timothy 4:8).’ 1
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 the eternal throne,
And claim the crown, through Christ, my own.
Apparently, Charles’ brother, John, on his death bed, was asked what his faith had meant to him. He replied ‘Bold, I approach the eternal throne, And claim the crown, through Christ, my own.’ I pray that we, too, may be encouraged to repeat those lines, not only as we approach death, but even now, daily!
1. Sing to the Lord, a fresh look at great hymns of praise. Frank Colquhoun 1988 p. 32