Of all the hymns that immediately come to mind as iconic “Lord’s Supper” hymns, two of the perhaps three that I think of were written by Isaac Watts. The non-Watts hymn that comes to mind is Bliss’ “Hallelujah, What a Savior!” One of Watts’ hymns, “Alas, and Did My Savior Bleed?”, was written about previously. The other, and the object of our consideration at this time, is “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross.” For some years, this has been a staple hymn of mine for use in preparation for the Lord’s Supper. The text examines our reaction to the thought of Jesus dying on the cross. This hymn’s reputation is such that Charles Wesley, one of the other giants of English hymnody, is reputed to have said that he would have given up all his other hymns to have written this one.
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.
The first verse borrows the language of Philippians 3, particularly the idea of counting all things of loss in view of the greater prize of knowing Christ, and “the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to His death” (3.10). When we think back to Jesus dying on the cross—the very Prince of glory and Son of God—whatever we might have in this life pales in comparison.
The cross is indeed a “wondrous” thing, in that it evokes wonder at its paradox. Jesus, the Prince of glory, died for us. The sinless for the sinful. How does such a thing happen? The very thought was perplexing to many in the first century, and still is. If Jesus emptied Himself and laid aside whatever pride might have been rightfully His (Phil 2.5–8), what right do we have to hold onto our pride? What right do we to put stock in our own achievements and status?
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.
As we move to verse two, we are reminded of Paul’s declaration in Galatians 6.14, “But may it never be that I would boast, except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world.” This plays on the closing thought of the previous verse, that I pour contempt on all my pride. Of what am I proud? Am I proud of my accomplishments on the job? Of a family that I’ve raised and supported? Of the work that I believe I have done for the Lord? (remember the Pharisee’s prayer in Luke 18?) Do those things matter more to us than the fact that Christ died for us?
In the context of Paul’s statement in Galatians, he was dealing with the issue of circumcision and keeping the Law of Moses. The fact is that no one could boast in those things because their value was invalidated by an inability to keep them perfectly. Paul noted in the preceding verse, “For those who are circumcised do not even keep the Law themselves, but they desire to have you circumcised so that they may boast in your flesh.”
As we recognize that Christ is the only thing worth boasting about (consider Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 2.2), we need to recognize also that there are a lot of empty things in this life that distract us from Christ. The world’s pleasures seek to draw us away. As Paul wrote, we must be crucified to the world. We must be dead to those things. That is the essence of self-denial. We sacrifice them to His blood in that His blood and our union in the likeness of His death (Romans 6) is the means by which we become dead to them. As Chisholm said in the hymn, “A New Creature,” “Satan may call, the world may entreat me; There is no voice that answers within.”
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?
Here, Watts draws us to a description of Jesus upon the cross. The mention of Jesus’ head, hands and feet are from the thorns and nails that were pressed and hammered into His body. The idea of sorrow and love flowing mingled down is a play on the blood and water that flowed from Jesus’ side after His death. This further conveys the paradox of the cross. On one hand, we have Jesus’ personal sorrow in dying. This was displayed perhaps most clearly in Gethsemane prior to His arrest. On the other hand, we have the love of God that sent Jesus to this earth and, ultimately, to the cross. The love mentioned in Romans 5 that caused Jesus to die for us even while we were enemies to God. Thus, the “sorrow and love flow mingled down”…to us.
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.
The fourth verse encapsulates the ultimate reaction of the one who comprehends the enormity of what happened at the cross. We are reminded of parables like the pearl of great price, wherein the person in the parable sold all that they had in order to obtain the pearl. But the reality is that even if we could do that, and even if we could claim ownership over all of creation, such would be an insufficient gift to repay what was done for us. Indeed, the love shown on the cross demands the only thing that is truly ours to give: ourselves.
Paul tells us in Romans 12.1, to “present [our] bodies a living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God, which is [our] spiritual service of worship.” Jesus tells us to love the Lord our God with all of our heart, soul, mind and strength. If Christ gave Himself for us, can we give any less than ourselves to Him?