Posted by: rcottrill | July 29, 2011

Come, Ye Sinners, Poor and Wretched

Words: Joseph Hart (b. _____, 1712; d. May 24, 1768)
Music: Bryn Califaria, by William Owen (b. Dec. 12, 1813; d. July 20, 1893)

Wordwise Hymns
The Cyber Hymnal

There is a great lesson being taught, all through the events recorded in the Word of God. That we human beings need God to be all that God intends us to be–to live fulfilling and meaningful lives. And that the path of sinful independence is the path to eternal ruin, while the path of faith and obedience is one of eternal blessing. One of the reasons there are so many examples of this in the Scriptures is that we are so slow to learn! Sometimes, only the painful consequences of our sin will motivate us to turn to God for help.

The life of David provides an example. Israel’s greatest king, he is described as a man after God’s own heart (Acts 13:22). Yet he was far from perfect. The Bible starkly records how he lusted after a married women named Bathsheba. He not only committed adultery with her, but had her husband Uriah killed, so he could legitimately take her as his wife. David thought he had covered up his sin, but of course, God knew–and David knew that God knew.

For months, he felt absolutelywretched. He said later, “When I kept silent, my bones grew old through my groaning all the day long. For day and night Your hand was heavy upon me; My vitality was turned into the drought of summer. Selah [Think of that!]” (Ps. 32:3-4). It was only when he turned to God in repentance that he found relief. “I acknowledged my sin to You, and my iniquity I have not hidden. I said, ‘I will confess my transgressions to the Lord,’ and You forgave the iniquity of my sin. Selah [Think of that!]” (vs. 5).

Of course, there are other things besides sin that bring pain and trouble into our lives. Sometimes, it may be struggles and sorrows we face simply because we live in an imperfect and fallen world. Other times, the burdens of faithful service for Christ may be involved. But whatever it is, the Lord invites us to come to Him for needed grace and mercy (Heb. 4:16). “Come to Me, all you who labour and are heavy laded,” the Lord says, “and I will give you rest” (Matt. 11:28).

Over two hundred and fifty years ago, Joseph Hart wrote a wonderful hymn about that–another that we should sing more often. It was two years after his conversion to Christ, but he seems to have remembered well his struggles of soul in former times. His song issues the Lord’s invitation to those who are “poor and wretched” sinners, those who are “weak and wounded, sick and sore.” The invitation is for those who are “needy,” those who are “weary [and] heavy laden,” and “bruised and broken by the fall.”

Along the way, in his great hymn, Mr. Hart speaks with great clarity about the deliverance found in Christ. The Lord not only feels sorry for the sufferer, but He has the ability to do something about his plight. He “ready stands to save you, full of pity joined with power.” The hymn also emphasizes that salvation is a gift of God’s grace. It is offered “without money” or cost of any kind, because the Lord has already paid our debt (cf. Isa. 55:1-2; I Jn. 2:2).

In CH-3 comes this insight: “If you tarry till you’re better, you will never come at all.” That strikes at the root of a common misconception: that we are responsible to somehow patch ourselves up, and improve ourselves to the point where God will accept us. But no amount of self-reformation can remove the condemnation that hangs over us, as guilty sinners. We must come just as we are, warts and all.

It is only through coming to Christ in faith that we are saved (Rom. 3:23; Jn. 3:16, 18). “Not the righteous; sinners Jesus came to call,” says Hart. And compare the words of Christ, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners, to repentance” (Mk. 2:17).

Lo! th’incarnate God, ascended,
Pleads the merit of His blood;
Venture on Him, venture wholly;
Let no other trust intrude;
None but Jesus, none but Jesus, none but Jesus,
Can do helpless sinners good;
Can do helpless sinners good.

1) Why is it that people feel the Lord should accept them for their efforts to reform and do good deeds? And why is this inadequate?

2) What is your own experience with coming to Christ, and the result?

Wordwise Hymns
The Cyber Hymnal


  1. Hi, Robert,

    I have never heard that hymn in that particular way, nor have I ever heard the tune Bryn Calfaria by William Owen. In the 1991 Baptist Hymnal that my church uses hymn #323 is “Come, Ye Sinners, Poor and Needy”, which uses the first 4 lines of each verse and then substitutes a refrain for the last 3 lines of the verse. The refrain is:

    I will arise and go to Jesus,
    He will embrace me in His arms;
    In the arms of my dear Savior,
    O there are ten thousand charms.

    Also, verse 4 of this hymn is completely different from verse 4 of the version in the CyberHymnal.

    The tune is called Restoration and it comes from Walker’s “Southern Harmony”. The words are credited to Joseph Hart, while the refrain is credited to that extraordinary writer … Anonymous.

    What can you tell me about when and why the change to Hart’s and Owen’s original hymn occurred?

    Thanks very much!

    Robert Woodman

    • Thanks for your excellent question Robert. This particular hymn has undergone more changes than most, in the 250 years since it was created. The original was written by Joseph Hart, and published in 1759, in seven six-line stanzas. He called it, Come, and Welcome, to Jesus Christ.

      R. Conyers dropped the fourth stanza, and made other changes, publishing the revised version in 1774. Two years later, Augustus Toplady (author of Rock of Ages) published it with more changes still. Sometimes, hymnals at the time, published two different versions of the song. More changes came, over the years, until there were more than twenty different versions, though Conyers and Toplady are responsible for the most commonly accepted ones. The refrain found in some versions comes from an anonymous nineteenth century hymn beginning, “Far, far away from my loving Father,” about the prodigal son in Jesus’ parable.

      The Cyber Hymnal gives us two different versions of the hymn, one with, and one without the refrain: Come, Ye Sinners, Poor and Wretched, and Come, Ye Sinners, Poor and Needy (plus the refrain).

      The most common change made to this fine hymn over the years concerns the opening line. Hymn editors seem averse to us pointing out the “wretched” condition of lost, hell-bound sinners–though John Newton, in Amazing Grace, freely admits that the Lord “saved a wretch like me.” To be wretched, according to the dictionary, is to be miserable, dejected, distressed, afflicted, woeful, woebegone, forlorn, unhappy. To my mind, that is an appropriate description of those outside of Christ. But here are some of the attempts to soften the blow:

      Come, ye sinners, heavy laden…
      Come, ye sinners, sad and weary…
      Come, to Jesus, O my brothers…
      Come, ye weary, heavy laden…
      Come, ye sinners, poor and needy…

      The last of these is the most common change used today, though some hymnals have the courage to buck the trend and keep Hart’s original. It seems not to have occurred to the tinkerers that to call someone a “sinner” will be even more offensive to the pride of one in rebellion against the Lord! But that is what we are, in the sight of a holy God, and we need to know it. Authors Nutter and Tillet state, in their Annotated Edition of the Methodist Hymnal (1911) that thousands have been convicted and turned to Christ by the clear message of this song.

  2. We included the “poor and needy” version from Cyberhymnal (verses 1-4 and 6) when we compiled our hymn book a few years ago. It quickly became one of the best-loved in the book. I wasn’t aware that it was a modified version, but I have no regrets about using the version we have. It’s a phenomenal hymn in both versions.

    I love that line, “If you tarry till you’re better, you will never come at all.” Also, the one that says, “Sinner, will this not suffice?”

    • Thanks for your comments. I agree that both versions of the hymn in use today are excellent. (Almost two different hymns!) And I the line you quote caught my attention too. Reminiscent of Charlotte Elliott’s hymn “Just as I Am.” God bless.

  3. Your first question is a good one and one we ought to ponder. For it is the setpoint of the proud human heart to believe that we can come to God as we are, or through our own good works and He will or must accept us. It is inconceivable to proud humans that God does not want our “good” works or that they have no merit. Mankind wants a hand in their own salvation. We are like spiritual toddlers: “I do it myself!!!!”
    But the scriptures tell us that our good works are like filthy rags to God. We cannot earn salvation because by the works of the law no one is declared righteous. Romans 3:20; Galatians 2:16

    Praise God that He had mercy on my soul 21 years ago. He caused me to understand His grace towards sinners. That by faith in the death, burial and resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ I could be saved. Not according to my works, but because of His own mercy and grace. Salvation is the gift of God, not of works, so that no one may boast. Ephesians 2:8-9


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