Preaching the Great Hymns of Easter--“When I Survey the Wondrous Cross”

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“Ye monsters of the bubbling deep, Your Master’s praises spout; Up from the sands ye coddlings peep, And wag your tails about.” Believe it or not that was a stanza from a popular hymn at the turn of the 18th century. We can thank Isaac Watts that we do not sing hymns with stanzas like this anymore!

The story goes that one Sunday after church, the eighteen-year-old Isaac complained to his father about the slow, monotonous, way Christians sang in English-speaking churches. At the time, congregational singing was a ponderous affair. A Deacon or Clerk would first read the verse that was going to be sung, followed by the droning of the congregation—usually without benefit of musical instruments. It was called lining-out. Thus the singing of a long psalm could become extremely tedious with every line of every stanza being repeated twice. It was hardly satisfying or spiritually edifying to sing in such a fragmented way.

All they sang were Old Testament psalms, and hymns that young Isaac termed “deplorable.” Isaac’s father, a leading deacon in the church, snapped back, “Well then, young man, why don’t you give us something better to sing?” By the next Sunday, Watts had produced his first hymn. The hymn was such a success with the congregation, that for the next two years, he wrote a new hymn for every Sunday. By the time he died, he had over six hundred hymns to his credit! He truly deserves the title The Father of English Hymnody. One church historian said we ought to instead call him “the liberator of the English hymn.” Not only did he produce superlative examples of his new approach to congregational song, he also opened the way for others to follow. His hymns quickly became popular throughout England, and for American Presbyterians and Congregationalists his psalms and hymns were almost the only songs they sang in their worship.

If Isaac Watts were alive today and we could test his IQ level he would probably register off the charts. At the age of four he was learning Latin and by the age of nine had learned Greek. By the age of 11 he had added French to his list of languages., and by the age of 13 Hebrew. He was also a student of theology and philosophy. Even as a child he had a passion for poetry and rhyming in such mundane things as everyday conversation. It kinda drove family and friends nuts. At one point, his serious minded father, after several warnings, decided to spank the rhyming nonsense out of his son. After the spanking a tearful Isaac replied to his father:

‘Oh father do some pity take,

and I will no more verses make.’

It seems that verse just flowed from Isaac Watts.

Many of the hymns that Watts wrote—including When I Survey the Wondrous Cross—were controversial among the churches of his day. It was the practice of that era to put the Psalms to music, and it was considered blasphemous to sing anything other than the Psalms. The controversy was the “worship war” of that day, and divided congregations just as the “worship wars” of our day are dividing congregations between contemporary and traditional worship styles.

Though Watts also followed the tradition of his day and put many psalms to music, he also believed that one could compose hymns that reflected one’s own thoughts and feelings. These hymns were termed “hymns of human composure” and they stirred up great controversy. Thankfully Watts did not acquiesce to the critics of his day, or we might not have hymns such as “Joy to the World!”, or, “Our Help in Ages Past,” or “Am I a Soldier of the Cross.”

Isaac Watts wrote "When I Survey the Wondrous Cross" in preparation for a communion service in 1707. Originally, the hymn was titled "Crucifixion to the World by the Cross of Christ," following the practice of the day to summarize a hymn's theme in the title. To this day many hymnologists consider "When I Survey the Wondrous Cross" one of the finest Christian hymns ever written, and the very best hymn in the English language. It’s the first known hymn to be written in the first person, introducing a personal religious experience rather than limiting itself to the musical exposition of doctrine. Watt’s hymn-writing reshaped the future of church music, and inaugurated what is considered the golden age of hymn-writing.

Using only 16 lines of verse, he paints a soul-stirring picture of the Savior’s death on the cross coupled with the whole-hearted response of the believer to such amazing love.

The tune that we traditionally sing this hymn to is entitled Hamburg, and was arranged in 1824 by Lowell Mason who is often referred to as The Father of American Church Music. Almost single-handedly, he transformed American church music from the practice of using only auditioned professional chancel choirs to congregational singing accompanied by organ music. He was also largely responsible for introducing music into American public schools, and is considered to be the first important music educator in the United States. Southern Baptists have been singing this hymn ever since it first appeared in the 1850 hymnal The Baptist Psalmody. A few years ago, composer Bruce Greer, a graduate of Baylor University, arranged the verses of Isaac Watt’s hymn to an old Appalachian Folk melody that is becoming increasingly popular.


    • When I survey, the wondrous cross On which the Prince of glory died, My richest gain I count but loss, And pour contempt on all my pride
            1. Watts begins his hymn by encouraging us along with him to survey, the wondrous cross
                1. the word survey means to consider in a comprehensive way
                2. he implies that we need to take more than just a passing glace at the cross
            2. when the sinner makes a detailed and critical inspection of the cross they will wonder with amazement
              • "For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, 20and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross." (Colossians 1:19-20, ESV)
            3. a thousand years before the Messiah was born, the prophet Isaiah had prophesied that a time would come when peace would be proclaimed to those who were far off
              • " ... Peace, peace, to the far and to the near,” says the Lord, “and I will heal him." (Isaiah 57:19, ESV)
                1. this was a reference to the Gentiles and predicted that one day, they too, would be included in God's plan of grace
                2. this is the message that Jesus preached during his public ministry on Earth
                  • "Now after John was arrested, Jesus came into Galilee, proclaiming the gospel of God, 15and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.” (Mark 1:14-15, ESV)
            4. Paul proclaims in Colossians 1:19-20 that through Christ, God has chosen to reconcile men unto Himself
                1. how is He going to do this?
                2. by the cross
                    1. Paul says that God gives us peace ... through the blood of His cross; through Him ...


            1. our Lord Jesus shuts the door in no one's face who would come to him in faith
                1. indeed, according to the Apostle John in the book of Revelation, Jesus stands at the door of sinner’s hearts and knocks, to gain entrance
            2. the blood of Christ opens the way for all who would call upon the name of the Lord
              • "For “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” (Romans 10:13, ESV)
                1. He invites both Jew and Gentile, male and female, bond or free, the mighty or the lowly to accept the peace that God offers
            3. here is the amazing wonder of the cross that we must survey
                1. when we were the enemies of God, Christ dies for us that we might be reconciled to Him
            4. how has God accomplished this work of reconciling us to Himself?
              • "For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility 15by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace," (Ephesians 2:14-15, ESV)
            5. through his death on the cross, Christ abolished the need for the Jewish ceremonial law and its rituals of animal sacrifice
                1. sacrifice and ritual no longer bring a man into right relationship with God
                    1. only a humble faith the pours contempt on all one’s pride will suffice
                      • "But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ." (Philippians 3:7, ESV)


    • Forbid it, Lord, that I should boast, Save in the death of Christ, my God; All the vain things that charm me most, I sacrifice them to His blood
    • "But far be it from me to boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world." (Galatians 6:14, ESV)
            1. the second stanza is both a prayer and a response to the first stanza
            2. in stark contrast to human pride, Watts calls us to look at the cross and see our champion
                1. His name is Jesus, and He is the Christ, the Son of the Living God
            3. the Cross of Christ does not allow for boasting
                1. and if are going to boast, it should only be in the death of Christ, my God
                2. Jeremiah the Prophet shared a similar thought with the Israelites long ago
                  • "Thus says the Lord: “Let not the wise man boast in his wisdom, let not the mighty man boast in his might, let not the rich man boast in his riches, 24but let him who boasts boast in this, that he understands and knows me, that I am the Lord who practices steadfast love, justice, and righteousness in the earth. For in these things I delight, declares the Lord.” (Jeremiah 9:23-24, ESV)


            1. Jesus was very clear about this
                1. he told his disciples and the crowds that only the ‘poor of spirit' will make up the kingdom of God
            2. pride, on the other had, makes us arrogant and in that arrogance we boast of our self-sufficiency seeks independence from God
                1. pride says "I am the master of my own fate."
                2. pride says "I can run my own life."
                3. pride says "I can call my own shots."
                4. pride says "I can go it alone."
            3. but self-sufficiency is self-delusion
                1. you cannot got it alone
                2. you do need guidance in running you life
                3. you cannot always rely on yourself
                4. you can call you own shots, but sooner or later you'll most likely shoot yourself in the foot
            4. God warned the people of Israel about the pitfall of pride
              • “Take care lest you forget the Lord your God by not keeping his commandments and his rules and his statutes, which I command you today, 12lest, when you have eaten and are full and have built good houses and live in them, 13and when your herds and flocks multiply and your silver and gold is multiplied and all that you have is multiplied, 14then your heart be lifted up, and you forget the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery," (Deuteronomy 8:11-14, ESV)
                1. there's nothing like a little prosperity to make a person proud


    • "His mercy extends to those who fear him, from generation to generation. He has performed mighty deeds with his arm; he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts." (Luke 1:50-51, NIV)
    • ILLUS. Augustine says in his work, The City of God that everyone in the world belongs to either one of two cities: You either belong to he City of God, which consists of "all who love God to the despising of self," or you belong to the City of the World, populated by those who "love self to the despising of God." In the end Augustine wrote, there are two kinds of people who will stand before the Lord in the end: Those who say to God, Thy will be done, and those to whom God will say, Thy will be done.
            1. pride is the greatest sin because it is the center of all sins
                1. pride say to God My will be done
            2. Watts writes: All the vain things that charm me most, I sacrifice them to His blood


    • See, from His head, His hands, His feet, Sorrow and love flow mingled down; Did e’er such love and sorrow meet, Or thorns compose so rich a crown?
    • "For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God." (2 Corinthians 5:21, ESV)
    • "For he has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son he loves," (Colossians 1:13, NIV)
            1. salvation is not the casual acceptance of certain religious doctrines
            2. salvation is not the fulfillment of certain religious ritual
            3. in these two passages, the Apostle uses strong and stirring words
                1. he tells the Corinthian Christians that for our sake he made him [Jesus] to be sin
                2. he tells the Colossian Christians that he has rescued us
                    1. most other translations use the word delivered instead of rescued as does the NIV
                    2. delivered is a perfectly fine translation, but rescue gives a better sense what God is doing on our behalf


            1. the word rescue implies three conditions:
                1. First, the word rescue implies the perilous and wretched condition of a person in his or her capture
                    1. imprisonment in ancient times was a dreadful and fearful experience
                    2. dungeons were cold and dank and dark, and conditions so appalling that men often went insane or dies of exposure
                    3. wretched conditions tuned men into wretches
                      • ILLUS. John Newton was absolutely correct when he confessed in the first stanza of his hymn Amazing Grace, How Sweet the Sound, that he was a wretch who needed saving.
                2. Second, the word rescue implies that deliverance is something that must happen to us because we are incapable of delivering ourselves from our captivity
                  • ILLUS. In the Old Testament we have the story where Abraham’s nephew, Lot, and his entire family, have been taken captive by the King of Elam. Word comes to Abraham of his nephew’s capture and he mounts a rescue party. The Bible tells us, “And when Abraham heard that his relative had been taken captive, he armed 300 of his servants and went in pursuit ... “ He ultimately catches up with the king’s raiding party, puts it to route, rescues Lot and returns all the stolen loot to its rightful owners.
                3. that Old Testament narrative paints a picture of man’s spiritual condition outside of a relationship with Christ.
                    1. outside of God’s grace, the lost man is a prisoner of the world, the flesh, and the devil
                    2. in Col. 1:13 we’re told that God in Christ has rescued us
                    3. in Cor. 5:21 we’re told that he who knew no sin was made to become sin for us
                    4. slaves to sin cannot affect their own release–they need rescuing
                4. in our deliverance, we see the third condition of our rescue – it was costly
                    1. we’re not told in the narrative of Lot’s rescue whether-or-not Abraham lost any men in the battle to save his nephew
                    2. we can only imagine that casualties were incurred
                    3. there was a price in rescuing Lot
            2. our Heavenly Father rescued us by sending His Son in the flesh into the world
                    1. First, to die for sinners on the cross
                      • "who gave himself for our sins to rescue us from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father," (Galatians 1:4, NIV)
                1. Second, that He would rise and ascend into heaven, after which He poured out His Spirit into our hearts, calling us, and quickening us, and converting us through our acceptance of His Son
                  • 1 Peter 1:3-4 "Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who according to His great mercy has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, 4 to obtain an inheritance which is imperishable and undefiled and will not fade away, reserved in heaven for you,"
            3. at Calvary sorrow and love flowed from a head crowned with thorns, and when love and sorrow met, grace abounded
                1. what’s our response to this?
                2. Watts tells us in the last verse of his hymn


    • Were the whole realm of nature mine, That were a present far too small; Love so amazing, so divine, Demands my soul, my life, my all
    • "But whatever was to my profit I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. 8What is more, I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ 9and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ—the righteousness that comes from God and is by faith." (Philippians 3:7-9, NIV)
            1. Isaac Watts testifies that if it were his to give as a sacrifice to God for the grace that he found in Christ, the whole realm of nature would not be a fitting gift to offer in return
                1. it would be a present far too small
            2. what he can offer God in return for love so amazing is his life, and his all
              • "Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God—this is your spiritual act of worship. 2Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will." (Romans 12:1-2, NIV)
              • "For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain." (Philippians 1:21, NIV)
            3. Christianity, I’m afraid, has become for many merely a spiritual accessory to the rest of their lives rather than being the driving force that it was meant to be
                1. Isaac Watts understood that life in Christ Demands my soul, my life, my all

Con. Let me close with a poem by Vicky Beeching. She is a young contemporary English, musician, poet and worship leader. She now lives and records in Nashville. Some years ago, she wrote a poem that is especially appropriate as a conclusion to this message

O precious sight, my Savior stands,

Dying for me with outstretched hands.

O precious sight, I love to gaze,

Remembering salvation’s day,

Remembering salvation’s day.

Though my eyes linger on this scene,

May passing time and years not steal

The power with which it impacts me,

The freshness of its mystery,

The freshness of its mystery.

Behold the God-man crucified,

The perfect sinless sacrifice.

As blood ran down those nails and wood,

History was split in two, yes,

History was split in two.

Behold the empty wooden tree,

His body gone, alive and free.

We sing with everlasting joy,

For sin and death have been destroyed, yes,

Sin and death have been destroyed.

May I never lose the wonder,

The wonder of the cross.

May I see it like the first time

Standing as a sinner lost,

Undone by mercy and left speechless,

Watching wide eyed at the cost.

May I never lose the wonder,

The wonder of the cross.

Vicky Beeching (A young contemporary English, musician, poet and worship leader. She now lives and records in Nashville.)

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