Would Jesus have the sinner die?
Why hangs he then on yonder tree?
What means that strange expiring cry?
(Sinners he prays for you and me)
“Forgive them, Father, O forgive,
They know not that by me they live!”
Adam descended from above
Our loss of Eden to retrieve,
Great God of universal love,
If all the world in thee may live,
In us a quick’ning Spirit be,
And witness, thou hast died for me!
Dear, loving, all-atoning Lamb,
Thee by thy painful agony,
Thy bloody-sweat, thy grief and shame,
Thy cross and passion on the tree,
Thy precious death, and life, I pray
Take all, take all my sins away!
O let me kiss thy bleeding feet,
And bathe, and wash them with my tears,
The story of thy love repeat
In every drooping sinner’s ears,
That all may hear the quick’ning sound,
If I, ev’n I have mercy found!
O let thy love my heart constrain,
Thy love for every sinner free,
That every fallen soul of man
May taste the grace that found out me,
That all mankind with me may prove
Thy sovereign everlasting love.
These five verses were one of three successive hymns in John Wesley’s Collection of Hymns for the use of the People called Methodists (1780) extracted from an 18-verse hymn by Charles Wesley, first published in Hymns of God’s Everlasting Love (1741). It is a prime example of how Wesley’s evangelical Arminian zeal was firmly rooted in a devotional spirituality shaped by the liturgical calendar and his Anglican heritage. It also contains many characteristic elements of Wesley’s writing, not least the interplay between the individual penitent and the whole of humanity, the prominent use of questions in the opening verse, and the exclamatory final lines of most of the verses.
Apart from its rhetorical questioning, the first verse offers little clue of what is to follow. Successive verses invite the reader to consider Christ’s identity, the physicality of his death, the appropriate devotional response, and the implications for the whole humanity. Aside from affirming the unity of the Trinity, verse two also draws on Christ as the second Adam, before verse three moves to the more familiar Passiontide imagery of the Lamb of God. This verse also begins an exploration of the Christ’s physical suffering, his wounded body becoming an object of devotion in verse four. Wesley takes the story of the sinful woman in Luke 7 and transforms it into a devotional act in response to the salvation offered through Christ’s sacrificial death. The final verse brings the hymn to an end by creating a paradox between the penitent’s heart being constrained by God’s universal love.
Dr Martin Clarke is Lecturer and Director of Teaching in Music at the Open University, and a Methodist Lay Preacher.