Perhaps the Best Contemporary Worship Song Ever Written

by Joseph Franks

In a day and age when most traditional churches exclusively sang psalms, Isaac Watts (1647-1748) became a fervent contemporary writer of hymns. As the story goes, when as a young man he complained to his father about the monotonous way Christians sung in worship, his father, a leading deacon in the congregation, retorted, “Well then young man, why don’t you give us something better?” Thus, a lion was uncaged. While Watts maintained a great love and dedication for the sacred text, church tradition, order and excellence, he was internally driven to assist the traditional church in singing newer songs of worship. HIs passion was to explicitly address the person, work, passion, beauty, sufficiency and loving care of Jesus Christ in his own modern language and style. Ultimately, by the time of his death in 1748, Watts had become the most prolific writer of contemporary hymns (more than 750). Due to his faithful and zealous efforts, this church father went down in history as the “Father of English Hymnody.”

Many of his hymns, which are now very traditional, have richly blessed the church. Perhaps none has been so beloved as his famous song written to assist men and women in preparing for the table of the Lord, “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross.” This hymn was based on the doctrine found in Galatians 6:14, “But far be it from me to boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world.”

Let us now take a moment and be improved by the formerly contemporary artist who has so graced the modern church with his now ancient and traditional hymn. These words were penned in 1707. The most popular tune, found in most of our hymnals or on our Propresenter presentations, was penned much later, in 1790.

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.

We are sinful wretches who followed the leadership of Lucifer in rebelling against our Creator. He was the Prince of Glory. He was the Beloved of the Father. He was the Wonderful Counselor, the Mighty God, the Everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace. He was the Alpha and the Omega. He was the King of kings and Lord of lords, and yet he died for you and for me. Oh, how can we be proud and arrogant in light of the fact that the Prince of Glory humbled himself and was humbled due to our odious transgressions? We look upon Christ and the cross and we are to be humbled.

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.

What is important to us? Too often it is possessions, promotions, pleasures, popularity, and other things that stoke our pride. What is important to the Father? Beyond a shadow of a doubt, it is his Son, and yet there is more. Weak and wounded sinners are also affectionately knitted to the heart of the Father. Therefore, because God so loved the world, he gave his only begotten Son. Look at how we are so treasured by the Godhead. Look at how valued we are by him. Oh, how can we focus on the vain things of this earth when Jesus Christ stands in our midst?

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?

How can we doubt the tender mercy and love of God? Crown in his skull, nails in his hands and feet, blood and sweat flowing down his lacerated back, tongue swelling, lungs bursting, and yet he stayed on the cross. Such pain! Such sorrow! And we will say it again, he stayed on the cross. Why? Because this was the place where sorrow and love met. He proved his commitment for our good by substituting a crown of gold for a crown of thorns. He who had heaven, took hell, that we might be found perfect and complete in and with him.

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.

What wondrous love is this! Oh, How can we serve our Lord and Savior today? If we had the world, that would be too small and pitiful a tribute to him. We only have our heart, our actions, and our possessions. The best of what we can offer is not sufficient, however, this is all we have. Therefore, today we will give him our pathetic all, and the interesting thing is he will be delighted to accept our offering. Today, we will celebrate the amazing love of our Divine Lover by offering to him our soul, our life … our all.

Finally, thank you Mr. Watts, for writing the best contemporary worship song of your day. And while we are giving thanks, let us also offer a word of gratitude to our older church fathers. Thank you church fathers for not running off this worship leader who dared glorified God by writing new contemporary songs for the improvement of Christ’s congregation.

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