O, To Grace, How Great a Debtor

In 1758, Robert Robinson, a one-time barber’s apprentice turned preacher, wrote the words to a hymn that set me on the brink of tears almost every time I sing it.  His immortal hymn, “Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing,” is steeped in personal reflection, from the torment of battling sin to the exultation at the thought of grace; from the sacrifice for atonement, to the need for constant guidance.  There are only a few, perhaps no more than two other hymns that affect me in such a way, because these songs sing my life, my struggles, my hopes and my soul’s deepest desires.

The hymnal I use has only three highly edited verses to this wonderful meditation.  I was surprised to find that Robinson’s original had five verses that focused as much on his own foibles as on the immense goodness of a forgiving God, the counterweight to the burden each must bear.      

Come, Thou Fount of every blessing,

Tune my heart to sing Thy grace;

Streams of mercy, never ceasing,

Call for songs of loudest praise.

Teach me some melodious sonnet,

Sung by flaming tongues above.

Praise the mount! I’m fixed upon it,

Mount of Thy redeeming love.

Sorrowing I shall be in spirit,

Till released from flesh and sin,

Yet from what I do inherit,

Here Thy praises I’ll begin;

Here I raise my Ebenezer;

Here by Thy great help I’ve come;

And I hope, by Thy good pleasure,

Safely to arrive at home.

Jesus sought me when a stranger,

Wandering from the fold of God;

He, to rescue me from danger,

Interposed His precious blood;

How His kindness yet pursues me

Mortal tongue can never tell,

Clothed in flesh, till death shall loose me

I cannot proclaim it well.

O to grace how great a debtor

Daily I’m constrained to be!

Let Thy goodness, like a fetter,

Bind my wandering heart to Thee.

Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it,

Prone to leave the God I love;

Here’s my heart, O take and seal it,

Seal it for Thy courts above.

O that day when freed from sinning,

I shall see Thy lovely face;

Clothed then in blood washed linen

How I’ll sing Thy sovereign grace;

Come, my Lord, no longer tarry,

Take my ransomed soul away;

Send thine angels now to carry

Me to realms of endless day.

What have we missed by allowing such great thoughts to be edited, maybe for nothing more than to fit the space in a hymn book?  In the third stanza of the hymn book used for the past two or three generations by many of the congregations of my tribe, the words have always rung hollow to me, and now I know why:  where the version in Sacred Selections reads, “Never let me wander from thee, Never leave the God I Iove,” Robinson actually wrote of his own weakness.  He wrote, “Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it, Prone to leave the God I love; Here’s my heart, O take and seal it, Seal it for Thy courts above.”  Rather than place the responsibility on God for maintaining the relationship, Robinson recognized he was imperfect, prone to wander.  By freely giving his heart, he would be bound to his God. 

Second, Robinson wrote of his inability to adequately express his wonder and gratitude for the grace he had accepted: “How His kindness yet pursues me, Mortal tongue can never tell. Clothed in flesh, till death shall loose me, I cannot proclaim it well.”  He realized after a brief career of what was once called “dissipation” that God had not given up on him, that his kindness pursued him.  The overwhelming realization of that kindness, that wonderful grace, was more than he could truly explain, at least while trapped within the fleshly bonds of mortality.

Finally, perhaps outside of John Newton’s “Amazing Grace,” Robinson penned the greatest hymn focused on God’s great gift.  From the opening lines, he implores God to give him the ability to sing of his grace.  He says he is daily constrained to be in the debt of grace, and then in the closing stanza, he looks forward to being freed from the constant threat of sinning, to shed his weak flesh and be in God’s presence.  There, he says, “How I’ll sing Thy sovereign grace.”  The grace that he praised from the first verse, to which he was indebted each and every day, would be the subject of his eternal gratitude and praise.

It is that understanding and elemental appreciation of grace that is so lacking in so many today.  For too many among those with whom I have been associated, grace has become little more than a greeting and benediction in Paul’s letters or smugly considered a byword used by those in other denominations to evade the five steps in the plan of salvation.  And yet, it is so important of a concept that Paul spent a large portion of his letter to the Ephesians explaining just how important grace is to salvation, and that a salvation by works would only lead to boasting.      

Eph 2:1  And you were dead in the trespasses and sins 2  in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience—3  among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind.

4  But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, 5  even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved—6  and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, 7  so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. 8  For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, 9  not a result of works, so that no one may boast. 10  For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.

By grace you have been saved.  For by grace you have been saved through faith.  It is the gift of God.  A gift is no gift if it must be earned or bought.  But a gift does require an expression of gratitude, which we can provide in pledging our lives to God’s good purpose: good works.  To helping others.  To righting wrongs. To seeking justice.  To becoming true stewards of a very good creation in need of restoration to its intended state of beauty and equity and perfection.

His children by petition and adoption are allied to that purpose.  We cannot bring back Eden.  But we can model Heaven until all is made new.  That should be worth a few songs of loudest praise.

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