Preaching the Pastor’s Favorite Hymns—“And Can It Be”
I was first introduced to this hymn 10-12 years ago at a Bible Conference I attended in the St. Peters, MO. I immediately fell in love with it—not because it’s such a catchy little tune, because it’s not—but because the words the words of this hymn come as near as any hymn I’ve ever sung of expressing my awe and wonder at the grace of God. The words, as you can see, are by Charles Wesley.
Charles Wesley’s was experiencing a crisis of body and soul in the early months of 1738. He had been sick in body as well as in spirit. He has developed Pleurisy and for a time friends and family despaired for his life. Peter Bohler, one of those friends, and a Moravian brother, would be instrumental in Charles’s conversion. Bohler had visited Charles in his sickness at Oxford, but Wesley was somewhat offended when the honest German just shook his head at learning that Charles’s hope of salvation rested upon "his best endeavors." After Charles had regained his health, Bohler visited him again, in London, and Wesley began seriously to consider the doctrine of justification by faith alone. In late May, Charles came to faith in Christ, Jesus. His brother, John Wesley, writes of his brothers conversion: “My brother had a long and particular conversation with Peter Boehler. And it now pleased God to open his eyes; so that he also saw clearly, what was the nature of that one true living faith, whereby alone 'through grace' we are saved.” Just a few days later, John Wesley, himself, would be converted.
Of his conversion, Charles would write in his Journal: “At midnight I gave myself up to Christ: assured I was safe, sleeping or waking. I had continued experience of his power to overcome all temptation; and confessed, with joy and surprise, that he was able to do exceedingly abundantly for me, above what I can ask or think.”
A few days later, his journal reported that he had begun writing the hymn, "And Can It Be." It was a vivid testimony of his new-found faith in Christ, and the third stanza in particular, expresses his awe and amazement at the saving grace of God. This hymn would be just one of the 4000 plus hymns that Charles Wesley would write during his lifetime.
The tune we sing Wesley’s hymn to is called Sagina, and was written by Thomas Campbell of whom we know absolutely nothing.
"And Can It Be" was first published in John Wesley's Psalms and Hymns in 1738. The 1991 edition of our hymnal was the first Southern Baptist hymnal to contain the tune.
I. STANZA 1 Focuses on Christ's Blood
- "And can it be that I should gain An interest in the Savior'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, should die for me?”
A. THE INDIFFERENCE OF THE SINNER
- Wesley begins with a self-incriminating confession
- outside of the irresistible calling of God in the sinner’s life, the sinner is uninterested in the things of God and unable of coming to Christ
- Wesley opens his hymn with a rhetorical question: And can it be that I should gain An interest in the Savior’s blood?
- the answer to the question is “No” Wesley and every other lost person has no interest in the Savior’s blood
- the Scriptures repeatedly affirm the corruption and degeneracy of man’s nature
- "as it is written: “None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one.” “Their throat is an open grave; they use their tongues to deceive.” “The venom of asps is under their lips.” “Their mouth is full of curses and bitterness.” “Their feet are swift to shed blood; in their paths are ruin and misery, and the way of peace they have not known.” “There is no fear of God before their eyes.” Now we know that whatever the law says it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be stopped, and the whole world may be held accountable to God." (Romans 3:10-19, ESV)
- because of that spiritual and moral corruption, no one seeks for God
- if you’re a believer, it’s only because God was first seeking you, called you and redeemed you by His grace
- we’ve been taught for generations that there is so much good in the worst of us that man is not so bad off after all
- when we measure men by man, we can always find someone who is lower than we are on the moral or ethical scale, and the comparison gives us a feeling of self-satisfaction
- but the Scriptures do not measure men by man; they measure men by God’s holy law which demands all our ways, and thoughts to be perfect holy as God is holy
- the creature is measured by the Creator and is found to be wanting
- outside of God’s drawing grace, “No”
- "No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him. And I will raise him up on the last day." (John 6:44, ESV)
B. THE INCOMPARABLE SACRIFICE OF JESUS
- the next phrase in the first stanza moves us to consider the work of Jesus on Calvary
- "In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace," (Ephesians 1:7, ESV)
- Wesley understands that his sin caused our Lord’s pain—Died He for me, who caused His pain—for me, who Him to death pursued?
- Wesley’s sin, and my sin, and your sin put Jesus on the cross
- "but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men. For consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God. And because of him you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption, so that, as it is written, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.” (1 Corinthians 1:24-31, ESV)
- in my own life, I can look back and recall how God was drawing me to faith even while I was fleeing from Him
- theologians call it irresistible grace
- ILLUS. Francis Thompson in his poem “The Hound of Heaven” compares himself to a fugitive and refers to God as “The Divine Pursuer.” For many years Thompson was an opium addict who wandered the streets of London. He tried to flee from God, but God was like a bloodhound on his trail relentlessly pursuing him unto death.
- irresistible grace does not mean that God drags the sinner into the Kingdom kicking and screaming
- irresistible grace does mean that God moves and works in such a way in the sinner’s life as to make the loving offering of His grace something the sinner cannot reject forever
C. THE INCREDULOUS LOVE OF GOD
- you can hear how incredulous Wesley is about experiencing the grace of God
- again he asks a rhetorical question: “How can it be, That Thou, my God, should die for me?”
- there’s only one answer “Amazing love!”
- "and from Jesus Christ the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of kings on earth. To him who loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood" (Revelation 1:5, ESV)
II. STANZA 2 Focuses on Christ's Grace
- "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!"
- in this stanza we find the echo of the Apostle Paul’s doxology to Christ found in the Letter to the Philippians
- "Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross." (Philippians 2:5-8, ESV)
A. CHRIST LEFT HIS THRONE
- "He left His Father's throne above, So free, so infinite His grace;
- here is the mystery of the incarnation—that God would become flesh and dwell among us
- the prologue to John’s gospel opens with a look into eternity past when Christ was on His throne, next to the Father, high and lifted up
- “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not understood it.” (John 1:1–5, NIV84)
- “The true light that gives light to every man was coming into the world. He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him. He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him. Yet to all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God— children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God. The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.” (John 1:9–14, NIV84)
- in the dictionary, became normally refers to a person or thing that ceases to be what he was before
- when the wife of Lot becomes a pillar of salt, she ceases to be the wife of Lot
- but when Lot becomes the father of Moab and Ammon, he remains Lot
- that’s the idea in verse 14—the Word becomes flesh but remains the Word even God
- and he does so that, through His life and death, he might offers sinners infinite grace, and that grace would be free to all who receive it
B. CHRIST HUMBLED HIMSELF
- "Emptied Himself of all but love, And bled for Adam's helpless race;”
- ILLUS. One of the finest stories I ever heard about John Wesley (who was Charles Wesley’s brother) concerned an incident when he was about to cross a brook over which was a very narrow foot-bridge, just wide enough for one person. As he was starting over, he met a liberal preacher of that day. This preacher swelled up and said, “I never give way to a fool.” John Wesley looked at him for a moment, smiled, and began to back off, saying, “I always do.”
- it is difficult to take that humble place
- we often find it difficult to humble ourselves
- humility is not our default position
- but our Lord humbled Himself
- from the infinite glory of eternal delight in the very presence of his Father, the Word was willing to descend into this realm of misery, to pitch His tent for a while among sinful men
- for thirty-three years, the second person of the godhead would veil himself in flesh, and reveal the truth about His nature to a small and selected group of men
- after the humbling of the incarnation, Jesus continued to humble Himself
- He humbled himself by entering the human race and becoming like us
- He humbled himself and became obedient to earthly parents
- He humbled himself and became carpenter—an ordinary workman
- He humbled himself and willingly took my lashing, my beating, my humiliation that I rightly deserved, but which he did not, so that I might be healed
- He humbled himself and endured the cross, despising its shame
- He willingly bled for Adam’s helpless race of whom I am part
C. CHRIST DID IT FOR ME
- 'Tis mercy all, immense and free; For, O my God, it found out me!"
- "Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! 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, 4to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you," (1 Peter 1:3-4, ESV)
- again, we hear in Wesley’s hymn the author’s utter amazement over the extent of God’s infinite, matchless grace
- that grace is immense
- that grace if free
- that grace is a result of God’s mercy toward sinners
- and it found Wesley out in May 20 of 1738
III. STANZA 3 Focuses on Christ's Freedom
- "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."
- in this third stanza we catch a glimpse of the inner spiritual struggle that Wesley was experiencing in his life
- ILLUS. He was the son of a clergyman. His parents were pious and godly people and they both encouraged him to enter the ministry. While at Oxford, he and his brother John and several friends began a methodical study of the Scripture and sought to apply them to their lives. This group was jeered and ridiculed with the nickname methodists! He was ordained an Anglian Priest, went as a missionary to Georgia in the American Colonies where he profoundly failed. He came home to England and began pastoring a church. Yet in all of this he has no peace, because Wesley has only a head-knowledge of Jesus and not a heart-knowledge.
A. SIN IMPRISONS US
- "Long my imprisoned spirit lay, Fast bound in sin and nature's night;
- in sin, we are imprisoned and bound as slaves
- "Do you not know that if you present yourselves to anyone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin, which leads to death, or of obedience, which leads to righteousness?" (Romans 6:16, ESV)
- ILLUS. Samson’s life as example. Samson was fast bound by his sin. And before the light of truth shined upon us, so were we.
B. THE SPIRIT’S ILLUMINATION AWAKENS US
- Thine eye diffused a quickening ray; I woke, the dungeon flamed with light.
- here is the moment of Wesley’s conversion
- ILLUS. “At midnight I gave myself up to Christ: assured I was safe, sleeping or waking. I had continued experience of his power to overcome all temptation; and confessed, with joy and surprise, that he was able to do exceedingly abundantly for me, above what I can ask or think.”
- "But blessed are your eyes, for they see, and your ears, for they hear. 17For truly, I say to you, many prophets and righteous people longed to see what you see, and did not see it, and to hear what you hear, and did not hear it." (Matthew 13:16-17, ESV)
- "And he said to them, “O foolish ones, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! 26Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?” 27And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself. 28So they drew near to the village to which they were going. He acted as if he were going farther, 29but they urged him strongly, saying, “Stay with us, for it is toward evening and the day is now far spent.” So he went in to stay with them. 30When he was at table with them, he took the bread and blessed and broke it and gave it to them. 31And their eyes were opened, and they recognized him. And he vanished from their sight. 32They said to each other, “Did not our hearts burn within us while he talked to us on the road, while he opened to us the Scriptures?” (Luke 24:25-32, ESV)
- "But, as it is written, “What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man imagined, what God has prepared for those who love him”— 10these things God has revealed to us through the Spirit. For the Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God. 11For who knows a person’s thoughts except the spirit of that person, which is in him? So also no one comprehends the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God. 12Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might understand the things freely given us by God. 13And we impart this in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual truths to those who are spiritual." (1 Corinthians 2:9-13, ESV)
C. GRACE FREES US
- "My chains fell off, my heart was free; I rose, went forth, and followed Thee."
- "For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery." (Galatians 5:1, ESV)
IV. STANZA 4 Focuses on Christ's Crown
- "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 th'eternal throne, And claim the crown, through Christ my own."
A. A NEW ASSURANCE
- to those who come to Christ on His terms and receive pardon, there is no condemnation
- "There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus." (Romans 8:1, ESV)
B. A NEW ATTIRE
- "The one who conquers will be clothed thus in white garments, and I will never blot his name out of the book of life. I will confess his name before my Father and before his angels." (Revelation 3:5, ESV)
C. A NEW CROWN
- "For I am already being poured out as a drink offering, and the time of my departure has come. 7I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. 8Henceforth there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will award to me on that Day, and not only to me but also to all who have loved his appearing." (2 Timothy 4:6-8, ESV)
Four times the chorus rings out Amazing love! how can it be That Thous, my God, should die for me! As we approach the Easter Season, this chorus reminds us of the greatest event in history—That God the Son became flesh to become a ransom for many? Are you one of the many?