By Julia H. Johnston
Sin and despair, like the sea waves cold,
Threaten the soul with infinite loss;
Grace that is greater–yes, grace untold–
Points to the Refuge, the mighty Cross.
Dark is the stain that we cannot hide,
What can avail to wash it away?
Look! There is flowing a crimson tide–
Whiter than snow you may be today.
Marvellous, infinite, matchless grace,
Freely bestowed on all who believe!
You that are longing to see His face,
Will you this moment His grace receive?
Grace, grace, God’s grace,
Grace that will pardon and cleanse within;
Grace, grace, God’s grace,
Grace that is greater than all our sin!
The writer of today’sfeatured hymn was Julia H. Johnston who in 1919, at the age of 70. Johnston knew about grace. She saw and experienced it all her life. The daughter of a Presbyterian minister, she served as director of Sunday school in her church for over 40 years. She was also president of the Presbyterian Missionary Society of Peoria for 20 years. From the children in her care to stories from the mission fields, imagine the examples of grace that she would have flooded her world! As a blessing to us, in her “spare time” she wrote over 500 hymns. As you read the following words, ponder the grace bestowed on us sinful people.
In my study and research for this hymn, I was made to think of two words. Mercy and Grace. Let us look closely at these two word and appreciate something from this hymn.
Some definitions: MERCY is not getting what you deserve; and GRACE is getting what you don’t deserve. Grace gives what we do not deserve, i.e., Eternal Life, while Mercy withholds what we do deserve, i.e., Eternal Punishment; but, Mercy goes much deeper, in that it is the Lovingkindness of God. Show me the wonders of your great love, you who save by your right hand those who take refuge in you from their foes. (Psalm 17:7). How priceless is your unfailing love, O God! People take refuge in the shadow of your wings. (36:7).
Mercy is a noun and one of those biblical terms that every believer has heard, many use, but few can properly define. It is compassion or forgiveness shown toward someone whom it is within one’s power to punish or harm: “e.g the boy was begging for mercy”. It is an event to be grateful for, esp. because its occurrence prevents something unpleasant or provides relief from suffering.
Two definitions of mercy: (1) Mercy is the kind, sympathetic, and forgiving treatment of others that works to relieve their distress and cancel their debt when they deserve punishment. Or (2) mercy is compassion combined with forbearance and action.
These two definitions tell us a lot about what mercy is, why it is needed, and how it expresses itself. Mercy is much more than the pang of sympathy you momentarily feel when you walk by the homeless panhandler on the street…Mercy is driven by three character qualities:
Compassion: Compassion is a deep awareness of another’s suffering that leads to a desire to help. Compassion sees beyond one’s own difficulties to care about the difficulties of others.
Forgiveness: Forgiveness pardons a person for an offense without treating him like a criminal or harbouring resentment against him.
Forbearance: Forbearance is patience under provocation. It is willing to stand alongside someone in trouble even though it makes life more difficult.
Mercy looks at the trouble of others and cares, acts, forgives, and persevere. This hymn emphasizes the importance of God’s grace for our salvation.
Comments about the lyrics:
In the first stanza, we are told that God’s grace sent Jesus to die for our sins. The grace of God toward sinful mankind is certainly marvellous: Eph. 2.1-5; Because of God’s grace, we can be saved by the blood of the Lamb: 1 Pet. 1.18-19; This is the result of the fact that yonder on Calvary’s mount, that blood was shed. The original uses the word “spilt” to rhyme with “guilt.” Several hymn books, have changed it to “shed” because some have objected to the word “spilt.” In fact, some hymnbooks changed the entire stanza to read, “Grace that did bring His death in our stead….There where the blood of the Lamb was shed” to keep the rhyme! It has been argued that the word “spilt” implies something accidental, such as spilt milk. But that is not necessarily true. When there is too much rain, sometimes engineers “spill” water out of a reservoir–that is intentional, not accidental. When soldiers go to war and their blood is “spilt” in defence of their country, we do not consider that an accident but a sacrifice. In fact, many dictionaries give one meaning of “spill” with blood as “to shed blood.” Thus, when we say that some one’s blood was spilt, we simply mean that he died, especially for a good cause; and that is exactly what Jesus did for us by God’s grace: Rom. 5.8
In the second stanza, we are told that God’s grace points us to the cross: Sin, with the despair that it brings, is a problem that all responsible human beings must face: Rom. 3.23; The reason sin is dangerous like the sea waves cold is that it threatens the soul with infinite loss, because the wages of sin is death or eternal destruction: Rom. 6.23, 2 Thess. 1.7-9; But grace provides a refuge in the mighty cross of Christ in that through the message of the cross salvation can be obtained: 1 Cor. 1.18-21
In stanza 3, we are told that God’s grace enables us to be washed whiter than snow: Because of sin, we have a dark stain that we cannot hide: Prov. 28.13; Thus, our greatest need is to have our sin washed away so that it might be covered by the grace of God: Acts 22.16, Rom. 4.6-8; And since God’s grace has provided a way to do this through the crimson tide of Jesus’ blood, we can indeed be made whiter than snow: Isa. 1.16-18
In stanza 4, we are told that God’s grace will allow us to see His face This marvellous, infinite, matchless grace is freely bestowed–we do not have to pay for it or earn it on our own; indeed, there is nothing that we can do to pay for it or earn it–it is a free gift from God: Rom. 5.15-17; God, by His grace, has thus made it possible for those now separated from Him by sin to have the hope of seeing His face: Matt. 5.8, 1 Jn. 3.1-3; However, in order to do so, we must receive His grace. The fact that it is free does not mean that there are no conditions attached to it. Thus, we receive God’s grace by meeting the conditions that He has attached to it in faith and obedience. And we need to do so “this moment” (again some hymn books changes this to “obey and”) for we never know when life will end or the Lord will return: 2 Cor. 6.2, Heb. 5.8-9
The chorus continues to extol the grace of God for what it can do for us.The main problem with which mankind has to deal is not economic, political, or social–it is spiritual; it is sin. And the solution to the problem is to look to God for “Grace Greater Than Our Sin.”