When I Survey the Wondrous Cross

Biblical Authority Devotional: Hymns of Praise, Part 5

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Chuck McKnight, AiG–U.S., discusses the impact Isaac Watts has had on the church concerning the songs we sing.

But God forbid that I should boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world. (Galatians 6:14)

Isaac Watts revolutionized Christian music. In the early days of the Reformation, many hymns were written, such as “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God” by Martin Luther. But within 100 years, the majority of Protestant congregations had limited their singing to mostly Psalms. While he certainly agreed with singing the Psalms, Watts also believed that Christians ought to create original compositions of praise. And so he did, penning over 600 hymns in his lifetime. His tendency to write songs based on personal feelings was quite controversial at the time, and it caused many well-meaning Christians to avoid his music. Yet today he is recognized as the “father of English hymnody.”

Of all his hymns, perhaps the most beautiful expression of praise is “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross.” I’m hardly the first to think this. Theologian Matthew Arnold considered it to be “the greatest hymn in the English language.” Even Charles Wesley, another excellent hymnist and contemporary of Isaac Watts, said that he would trade every song he had written if he could have only written this one.

Watts originally titled the hymn “Crucifixion to the World by the Cross of Christ.” The words elevate God in His holiness while demonstrating the insignificance of all that the world has to offer. The song brings into focus just how much Jesus has done for us and how all else pales in comparison.

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.
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.
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?
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.

Today’s big idea: We need nothing more than what God has already given us.

What to pray: praise God for the amazing, divine love He has shown.


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