Posted by: rcottrill | March 16, 2011

And Can It Be?

Words: Charles Wesley (b. Dec. 18, 1707; d. Mar. 29, 1788)
Music: Sagina, by Thomas Campbell (b. July 27, 1777; d. June 15, 1844)

Wordwise Hymns (and here too)
The Cyber Hymnal

In the hymn And Can It Be? Charles Wesley, like Isaac Watts with his superb hymn When I Survey the Wondrous Cross (written about three decades before), gazes in wonder at the suffering Saviour. Could it be, can it be, that Christ would die for me? (CH-1). Yes, it can! Isaiah, seeing something of the cross with prophetic vision, wrote, “By His stripes we are healed”–healed spiritually, receiving forgiveness of sins and the gift of eternal life (cf. I Pet. 2:24).

But wait a moment. Who inflicted those stripes? Who caused His suffering? In a very real sense, we all did! It was our sin that required the sacrifice of Calvary. That prompts the question Wesley asks, “Died he for me who caused His pain–for me, who Him to death pursued?” Overcome with wonder and worship, he exclaims, “Amazing love! How can it be that Thou, my God, shouldst die for me?”

But that is not the only question raised by the cross. If Christ is Himself deity, the second Person of the triune Godhead, how can He die? “‘Tis mystery all: th’Immortal dies” (CH-2). Even the angels are unable to fathom it, yet we know it’s true. The One who was both with God from all eternity, and who was Himself God (Jn. 1:1), “became flesh and dwelt among us” (vs. 14), here to die as “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (vs. 29). “God…purchased [us] with His own blood” (Acts 20:28).

In CH-3 Charles Wesley describes us as “Adam’s helpless race”–again, a biblical truth. Racism often speaks of different races, but God knows only one, the human race. “He has made from one blood every nation of men to dwell on the face of the earth” (Acts 17:26). And all in the human race are sinners, helpless to save themselves. But “when we were still without strength, in due time, Christ died for the ungodly” (Rom. 5:6; cf. Eph. 2:1-5).

The one point in CH-3 where I believe Wesley steps beyond biblical bounds is in saying that Christ, in His incarnation, “emptied Himself of all but love.” If what is meant by that is that God the Son ceased to be God, when He took on our humanity, then it is wrong. Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase is frequently (and outrageously!) off, but in this case he gets it right with, “He set aside the privileges of deity and took on the status of a slave.” God cannot cease to be God. “God was manifested in the flesh” (I Tim. 3:16). He is ever “our great God and Saviour Jesus Christ” (Tit. 2:13). For further thoughts on this, see the second Wordwise Hymns link provided.

I’ve always believed that stanza CH-4 provides one of the most compelling images of the work of salvation in all our English hymnody. Delivered from spiritual bondage to freedom in Christ, from spiritual darkness to eternal light, the saints proclaim, “He has delivered us from the power of darkness and conveyed us into the kingdom of the Son of His love” (Col. 1:13; cf. Acts 26:18). In Wesley’s words, “My chains fell off, my heart was free, I rose, went forth, and followed Thee.” Hallelujah!

Few hymnals include Wesley’s fifth stanza. It also pushes the subjective experience of the convert too far. “I feel the life His wounds impart; I feel the Saviour in my heart.” No you don’t. We do not feel the new birth, or the Lord’s indwelling, in any common meaning of that term. These are spiritual realities, not perceived by the physical senses. We may experience the impact of God’s salvation on our lives, in various ways. But if we look for some “feeling” to assure us of the work of God we will be constantly frustrated and in doubt.

Stanza CH-6 concludes the hymn with a powerful statement of the believer’s confidence in Christ. And we have this assurance not because of some physical sensation or feeling, but simply because God says it’s so. “This is the testimony: that God has given us eternal life, and this life is in His Son” (I Jn. 5:11). God says it. That settles it!

1) Wesley uses the powerful imagery (in CH-4) of deliverance from prison, to picture God’s salvation. What other images can you think of that help us to understand what the Lord did in saving us?

2) How should we, as Christians, deal with the more difficult and seemingly unexplainable aspects of the saving work of God?

Wordwise Hymns (and here too)
The Cyber Hymnal


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