Last weekend I travelled down to High Leigh for a residential weekend with my fellow curates in the Chelmsford Diocese. On Friday evening we sang ‘And can it be’, one of my favourite hymns and one of Charles Wesley’s finest (in my opinion). The hymn tells the story of salvation from a first person perspective – it’s written in a very personal style. Like In Christ alone you could spend hours dissecting every verse of the song, but let’s focus on one for now:
Long my imprisoned spirit lay,
Fast bound in sin and nature’s night;
Thine eye diffused a quickening ray—
I woke, the dungeon flamed with light;
My chains fell off, my heart was free,
I rose, went forth, and followed Thee.
Long my imprisoned spirit lay
What do those first two lines mean – “Long my imprisoned spirit lay / Fast bound in sin and nature’s night”? The answer that the Bible gives us that we are held captive by sin. This is what Paul is at pains to demonstrate in his letter to the Romans, throughout the first part of the letter. As he says in Romans 3:23, “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God”. But it’s even more than that: some people say that sin is simply a bad example – we sin because we see other people sin. In other words, there is nothing intrinsically sinful about us – we can choose to do good or evil, and sometimes we choose what is wrong, but basically human beings start out from a neutral perspective.
But the Bible goes further in describing our fallen condition: we don’t start out from a neutral place. There is something inherently sinful about our very nature. This is what Paul says a bit further on in the letter, Romans 6:16-18:
Don’t you know that when you offer yourselves to someone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one you obey – whether you are slaves to sin, which leads to death, or to obedience, which leads to righteousness? But thanks be to God that, though you used to be slaves to sin, you have come to obey from your heart the pattern of teaching that has now claimed your allegiance. You have been set free from sin and have become slaves to righteousness.
We don’t start out from neutral: we are either slaves to sin, or slaves to righteousness. There is no middle ground. Paul is not the only one to use this language – Jesus says in John 8:34, “Very truly I tell you, everyone who sins is a slave to sin.” John says, “If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us” (1 John 1:8). The point is, we are all held captive by sin: there is no way out by ourselves. All of us are, by nature, “fast bound” in sin.
Thine eye diffused a quick’ning ray
And that’s why we need God to step in, as the next line of the hymn goes: “Thine eye diffused a quick’ning ray”. Quickening is a word we don’t use very much these days, but in this sense it means “to give or restore life to”. Although we couldn’t escape slavery to sin by ourselves, nonetheless God stepped in to our situation and made us alive. Paul puts it like this:
As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins, in which you used to live when you followed the ways of this world and of the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient. All of us also lived among them at one time, gratifying the cravings of our flesh and following its desires and thoughts. Like the rest, we were by nature deserving of wrath. But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions – it is by grace you have been saved. Ephesians 2:1-5
Paul describes the state of slavery to sin here as being ‘dead’. Those who are without Christ are “dead in transgressions and sins”. I’m not a doctor, but I do know that one thing dead bodies do not do is come back to life again by themselves! A dead body cannot raise itself. As with our physical bodies, so we who are spiritually dead cannot raise ourselves: but God “who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions“. Salvation is not of our own doing, but from God. He is the one who looks upon our helpless state, and makes us alive – even when we were still dead.
We didn’t make the first move towards God. Because of our sin, we would never make the first move to God – we are so sinful that we would never have chosen Him. Paul is clear that the one who makes the first move is not us, but God: “For he chose us in [Christ] before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight. In love he predestined us for adoption to sonship through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will.” John puts it like this: “This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins” (1 John 4:10).
Without God making the first move towards us, without him sending that “quick’ning ray”, we are dead in our transgressions and sins. But God, who is rich in mercy, makes the first move towards us, he brings us from death to life by his sovereign choice and power.
As I am an Anglican, I think it’s always helpful to look to the 39 Articles to see how Cranmer and our reformation forebears put it. This is what Article X “Of free-will” says:
THE condition of Man after the fall of Adam is such, that he cannot turn and prepare himself, by his own natural strength and good works, to faith, and calling upon God: Wherefore we have no power to do good works pleasant and acceptable to God, without the grace of God by Christ preventing us, that we may have a good will, and working with us, when we have that good will.
This is standard reformation theology, following Augustine. It is impossible to please God without faith (Hebrews 11:6).
My chains fell off
And so we come to the end of the verse: “My chains fell off, my heart was free / I rose, went forth, and followed Thee”. This describes the response to God, once He has made that first move and stepped in. To continue the quote from Jesus I mentioned earlier, “if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed” (John 8:36). Once God has set us free, we take up our cross and follow Christ – putting to death our flesh with its passions and desires, and seeking to love God and love our neighbour as we walk in step with the Spirit.
Christians have been set free from slavery to sin. That does not mean that Christians do not sin, of course – but that the curse has been lifted. It is no longer our master. Jesus is our master, and his righteousness. And one day we know that the work which God has begun in us will be completed – we will be completely free from sin! This is a great promise for those who are struggling.
May God himself, the God of peace, sanctify you through and through. May your whole spirit, soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. The one who calls you is faithful, and he will do it. 1 Thessalonians 5:23-24
A brief note on free will and predestination…
I appreciate that I haven’t really touched on the thorny subject of predestination in this post. My aim is to return to it in a future post, as it’s a huge topic of which this is only a small part.
However, I think it’s worth reflecting on the words of the 39 Articles here, and with this I will close. Article XVII, Of predestination and election:
As the godly consideration of Predestination, and our Election in Christ, is full of sweet, pleasant, and unspeakable comfort to godly persons, and such as feel in themselves the working of the Spirit of Christ, mortifying the works of the flesh, and their earthly members, and drawing up their mind to high and heavenly things, as well because it doth greatly establish and confirm their faith of eternal Salvation to be enjoyed through Christ, as because it doth fervently kindle their love towards God … we must receive God’s promises in such wise, as they be generally set forth to us in holy Scripture: and, in our doings, that Will of God is to be followed, which we have expressly declared unto us in the Word of God.
This is part of my “Hymnology” blog series.