Appreciating our Wesleyan hymns

Jul 2007    

WE METHODISTS are known as a singing people. The singing of songs and hymns is integral to our liturgy and worship experiences. The Wesley brothers, John and Charles, had a shared theology and together they gave us many theologically profound hymns.

This year, Methodists from all over the world are celebrating the 300th birth anniversary of Charles Wesley. For example, in May, the Methodist School of Music organised the Aldersgate Hymn Festival featuring the hymns of Charles Wesley at Victoria Concert Hall. Come Aug 23 and 24, there will be a “Sweet Singer” performance by Dr S. T. Kimbrough Jr at Kampong Kapor Methodist Church. Bishop Dr Robert Solomon exhorted us to “treasure our Wesleyan hymns” in his Episcopal Letter (May – August 2007).

The following are the six main theological themes of John Wesley as supported by the Wesleyan hymns.

  1. Original Sin

 John Wesley took sin seriously.  There is a great gap between what we are and what God wants us to be. In UMH 346, the title: “Sinners, Turn: Why Will You Die” is repeated three times in the three stanzas:

“Sinners turn: why will you die? God your Maker, asks you why.” “Sinners turn: why will you die? God your Saviour, asks you why.” “Sinners turn: why will you die? God the Holy Spirit, asks you why.”

We are in the state of sin. We are guilty of the sin of omission and the sin of commission.

  1. Prevenient Grace

 This is also called “preparing grace”. This is the grace that goes before us even before we come to know God. God’s grace is already working in all of us. Prevenient grace sets us free to respond to God.

“Come, sinners, to the gospel feast; let every soul be Jesus’ guest. Ye need not one be left behind, for God hath bid all humankind.” (UMH 339, Come, Sinners, to the Gospel Feast, stanza 1).

The Wesleys affirmed that we could exercise our free will despite our fallen nature because of God’s prevenient grace.

We have the free will to receive or resist God’s grace.

“I have long withstood his grace, long provoked him to his face, would not hearken to his calls, grieved him by a thousand falls.” (UMH 355, Depth of Mercy, stanza 2).

  1. Justification by Faith 

 God is the law maker. We have broken the law and come under God’s judgment. Jesus Christ is our Prophet, Priest and King (UMH 302 Christ the Lord is Risen Today). This is the key to Wesley’s Christology. As the prophet, Christ teaches and announces the kingdom of God. The office of the priest reflects Jesus’ atoning death and sacrifice. He is also our risen, glorious king.

“I need not tell thee who I am, my misery and sin declares; thyself hast called me by thy name, look on thy hands and read it there.” (UMH 386, Come, O Thou Traveler Unknown, stanza 2).

Our names are written on God’s hand!

  1. New Birth

 This is what God does in us, making us new people. This is being “born from above” or “born again” (John 3:3).

“ … my chains fell off, my heart was free …” (UMH 363, And Can It Be that I Should Gain, stanza 4 b). “Outcasts of men, to you I call, harlots and publicans and thieves; he spreads his arms to embrace you all.” (UMH 342, Where Shall My Wondering Soul Begin, stanza 4).

This is the all embracing love of God. Who are the outcasts of our society today?

UMH 379 Blow Ye the Trumpet, Blow announces the year of Jubilee. This is the 50th year where all slaves are set free and all debts are cancelled.

  1. Assurance

 The father of John Wesley said to John in his dying moments, “The inward witness (of the Spirit) is the proof, the strongest proof of Christianity.”

“No condemnation now I dread.” (UMH 363, And Can It Be that I Should Gain, stanza 5).

“How can we sinners know, our sins on earth forgiven?” (UMH 372, How Can We Sinners Know, stanza 1). The answer is found as follows: “Our nature’s turned, our mind transformed in all its powers, and both the witnesses are joined, the Spirit of God with ours.” (UMH 372, How Can We Sinners Know, stanza 6).

“The Spirit Himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God.” (Romans 8:16).

  1. Holiness of Heart and Life (Sanctification)

John Wesley said that the essence of Methodism was holiness of heart and life. He also said that the love of God was the root of holiness, that holiness comes from our relationship with God. The goal of Christian faith is what John Wesley called Christian perfection. “Are you going on to perfection?” he would ask.

Wesley was clear that being perfect does not mean never making mistakes. Wesley meant that being perfect was living a life of love. We are to grow in grace, in faith and in love of God and neighbour.

The early Methodists ministered to prisoners who were the most despised people in society then. Often Methodist preachers would ride with condemned prisoners on their way to be hanged, to offer comfort, assurance, companionship and prayers. This was their version of “Dead Man Walking”. Who are some of the most despised people in our society today?

John Wesley embraced both personal holiness and social holiness.

“Finish, then, thy new creation.” (UMH 384, Love Divine, All Loves Excelling, stanza 4).


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