AND CAN IT BE?

Vic Reasoner

Charles Wesley wrote over 9000 hymns. He wrote his first hymn three days after he was saved and averaged one hymn every two days for the rest of his life. R. K. McGregor Wright wrote concerning “And Can It Be,” that it was “a rousing testimony to the wonder and power of God to save helpless sinners in bondage to sin. All Calvinists sing it with gratitude to God for this brother’s wonderful gift of expression and sensitivity to the reality of God’s sovereignty in releasing us from the bondage to our sin nature.”

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.

Wright concluded, “Here we have a truly regenerate Arminian describing his own conversion in fully Calvinistic terms” [No Place for Sovereignty, p. 118]. Yet it is also quite possible that Charles Wesley understood Wesleyan-Arminian theology better than modern Calvinists like Wright.

The imagery of “chains” and “prison” depict the bondage of sin. We cannot save ourselves. Nor do we have any desire for salvation. We are doubly bound both by our personal sins and by the darkness of our natural condition. This reference to our natural state is a reference to total depravity. Wesleyans affirm that man’s affections are alienated, man’s intellect is darkened, and that man’s will is perverted. We have lost the original righteousness in which Adam was created and we are deprived of the Holy Spirit. The Methodist Articles of Religion state

Original sin is the corruption of the nature of every man, that naturally is engendered of the offspring of Adam, whereby man is very far gone from original righteousness, and of his own nature inclined to evil, and that continually.

Thus far, Charles has stated nothing exclusive to Calvinism. Then he describes the prevenient grace through which the natural man is awakened. Notice that while his dungeon flamed with light, at this point in the conversion process, he was awakened, but still imprisoned.

According to Ephesians 5:13-14 the light of the gospel reveals our true condition. But to be awakened to our lost condition is not the same as being delivered from it. In “The Spirit of Bondage and Adoption,” John Wesley explained that the natural man neither fears nor loves God. He commits sin, more or less, day by day, yet is not troubled. But the awakened man fears God and sins unwillingly.

Now he truly desires to break loose from sin, and begins to struggle with it. But though he strive with all his might he cannot conquer; sin is mightier than he. He would fain escape; but he is so fast in prison that he cannot get forth. He resolves against sin, but yet sins on. . . . Such is the freedom of his will — free only to evil. . . . Thus he toils without end, repenting and sinning, and repenting and sinning again, till at length the poor sinful, helpless wretch is even at his wit's end, and can barely groan, "O wretched man that I am, who shall deliver me from the body of this death?"

Yet it is Calvinism which has always asserted that this description from Romans 7:24 depicts Christianity. Calvin wrote in his Institutes of the Christian Religion

Paul takes his example from a regenerated man, that is, himself. He therefore says that he is held bound in miserable bondage, so that he cannot consecrate himself wholly to obedience to the divine law. Hence, he is compelled to exclaim with groaning: “Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body subject to death?” [4.15.12; See also 2.7.5; 3.9.4]

B. B. Warfield defended this view saying, “Though blessed with every spiritual blessing in the heavenlies in Christ, we are still in ourselves just ‘miserable sinners’: ‘miserable sinners’ saved by grace to be sure, but ‘miserable sinners’ still.” James Montgomery Boice also concluded that Romans 7 described the mature Christian.

On the other hand, John Wesley wrote that most who were accounted “good Christians” were contented to live and die in this awakened state, struggling with sin. The Wesleys preached, however, that the new birth brought deliverance from the bondage of sin. This salvation was portrayed by Charles Wesley in the lines

My chains fell off, my heart was free,
I rose went forth, and followed thee.

Charles returned to this theme in “O For a Thousand Tongues”

He breaks the power of canceled sin,
He sets the prisoner free.

While we agree with Calvinists that man is helplessly lost and cannot save himself, it is this freedom from sin that makes this hymn of Charles Wesley sound distinctly different than “fully Calvinistic terms.” Although Wright said he rejoices in this great hymn which expresses the release from bondage to our sin nature, nothing I have ever read in Calvinistic literature suggested any deliverance from the sin nature prior to death.

While I rejoice that Calvinists sing this great hymn, I would also encourage them to preach what they apparently enjoy singing. Since Wright has claimed “And Can It Be” as “fully Calvinistic,” I would also encourage him to incorporate another hymn by Charles Wesley which questions the Calvinistic caricature of God.

Thou can not mock the sons of men,
Invite us to draw nigh,
Offer thy grace to all, and then
Thy grace to most deny!

Fury in god can dwell,
God could an helpless world create,
To thrust them into hell!

Doom them an endless death to die,
From which they could not flee—
No, Lord! Thine inmost bowels cry
Against the dire decree!

Believe who will that human pain,
Pleasing to God can prove:
Let Moloch feast him with the slain,
Our God, we know, is love.

Lord, if indeed, without a bound,
Infinite love Thou art,
The horrible decree confound,
Enlarge thy people’s heart!

Ah! Who is as thy servants blind;
So to misjudge their God!
Scatter the darkness of their mind,
And shed thy love abroad.

Give them conceptions worthy thee,
Give them, in Jesus' face,
Thy merciful design to see,
Thy all-redeeming grace.

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