This is an absolutely lovely hymn. The tune to which it is paired in the Trinity Hymnal (Selection No. 472) is called BRYN CALFARIA, which is one of those stirring, minor-key Welsh hymn tunes (of which there are so many). The tune is so full of pathos and is well-suited to the hymn text here. That Welsh tune name, by the way, in English means “Calvary’s Hill”—a very apt name for the tune, especially when it is wedded to this text.
Now, this tune is not the easiest to sing. It’s a little tricky, but I think that a determined congregation could learn and master it after singing through it just a few times. I have a Welsh pastor friend who has said that it is not uncommon for the Welsh to sing tunes like this when they come together at rugby matches. And, as he says, if 50,000 inebriated Welsh sports fans can learn a complex tune and sing it with some cogency, so can an average congregation!
The fundamental underpinning theme of this hymn is that it does not congratulate the sinner on his ability; it recognizes that all the ability belongs to Jesus Christ alone. Notice that the first refrain is, “He is able, He is able, He is willing, doubt no more.” No emphasis falls on the sinner’s power and ability; it’s all on the Savior’s power and ability.
The BRYN CALFARIA tune was originally composed by a Welshman named William Owen. Owen, born in 1813 and lived through 1893, was a publisher of several hymnals using Welsh tunes. He was born in Bethesda in Northern Wales, and he worked in a slave quarry as a young man at the age of ten. That gives us something of the historical context: both awful child labor and slave labor were alive and well at this time in early 1800s Wales.
Owen lived near a church called St. Ann, and he loved to hear the organist playing there. He became a good musician himself and started composing. Some of his tunes at the time were very popular, but the style of these tunes fell out of favor years later. However, this tune has survived partly due to the efforts and interest of Ralph Vaughan Williams — the great English hymn collector, hymn publisher, and composer of symphonies. Vaughan Williams gave us that majestic tune to which we sing “For All the Saints,” for example (SINE NOMINE).
Well, Vaughan Williams took Owen’s BRYN CALFARIA tune and tamed it so as to make it easier for congregations to sing it. He then published his arrangement of the tune in the English Hymnal. He also did an organ prelude on this tune. If you are a classical music lover, you might have heard that organ prelude, and it is a lovely arrangement of this tune. So, it’s thanks to Vaughan Williams (at least in part) that this tune has been preserved in English hymnody.
Well, that’s a little about the tune and its composer (and popular arranger). How about a little bit about the man who wrote the stirring lyrics? Joseph Hart was born about a dozen years before John Newton. John Newton (the former slave-trader-turned-abolitionist who gave us hymns such as “Amazing Grace”) was born in 1725, and Joseph Hart was born in 1712. Hart was converted to Christ under George Whitefield’s ministry in the late 1750s, some ten years after the close of the “Great Awakening” (denominated the “Evangelical Revival” in Britain).
After his conversion, Hart went on to become a pastor and preacher for an independent chapel. He wrote a number of hymns and was later buried in Bunhill Fields in London, which is famous for being the final resting place of the likes of John Owen, John Bunyan, Daniel Defoe, Susannah Wesley (mother of John and Charles), and other notables.
The hymn “Come, Ye Sinners, Poor and Wretched” was first published in 1759 in a collection of English hymns, and the original title given to this hymn was “Come, and welcome to Jesus Christ.” As an aside, that is one of my absolute favorite phrases in the English language. It’s also the title of one of John Bunyan’s little works. Read that book if you can. It expresses his delight and joy in the free and gracious welcome given to sinners by Jesus Christ. Some have suggested that that little book even helped pave the way for the modern missions movement.
Stanza One: Wretched Sinners, Whole Christ
Well, so much for the tune writer and the text writer. How about some observations about the theology of the text? Note, right off the bat, the bleak picture which the hymn asserts about the reality of sinners in our native, sinful condition: “Poor, wretched, weak, wounded, sick, sore.” This flies in the face of how secular culture tends to think about people. This flies in the face of how certain corners of Christianity would like to express things. You likely know of a church or ministry or televangelist that says you should not tell people that they are sinners because it ruins their self-esteem or some other such sentiment. This hymn’s clear statement of the woeful estate of man’s sinfulness would not accord with the mantra that one televangelist likes to say, “Find the inner strength that lies within you.”
Joseph Hart spares no one’s feelings when he surveys the mass of humanity, men and women and boys and girls, and analyzes people in their natural condition apart from Christ. And it is not just that men are merely defective or slightly ill-adapted, or that they just need a little bit of tweaking. No, Hart paints a picture of our condition that aligns with the Holy Scripture: we are poor, wretched sinners.
But right away, consider the good news in that opening stanza: “Jesus ready stands to save you, full of pity, joined with power.” And that’s a marvelous, balanced, biblical portrayal of the Savior. Too often, we present toward one aspect of Jesus’s character at the expense of another. On the one hand, some folks over-emphasize “gentle Jesus, meek and mild,” and they create this distorted image of a ‘sweetsy’ and saccharine Jesus, someone who tends to resemble our grandmother (when she is doting on us) more than anything else.
And true to human nature, people react to that, and they overcorrect. They swing the other way from saccharine Jesus, and they portray a Jesus who is strong, powerful, full of vigor, and tramping out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored. And this Jesus tends to resemble He-Man or Arnold Schwarzenegger more than anything else.
Of course, the truth is that Jesus is indeed strong and mighty, the Lord mighty in battle (Ps. 24:8). Scripture speaks of a Jesus coming on the clouds with an angel host, with a sword in His mouth, with a robe dipped in blood and on His thigh is written “King of Kings and Lord of Lords,” per Revelation 17 and Revelation 19. And at the same time, Jesus is the One who is “gentle and lowly in heart” (Matt. 11:29). He is the one who is the “friend of sinners” (Matt. 11:19), whose “yoke is easy and whose burden is light” (Matt. 11:30), the One in whom we find rest, the One who shall “gather the lambs in His arm, and carry them in His bosom,” (Is. 40:11).
To have a savior that is only kindness, compassion, and pity affords sinners a great deal of sympathy but perhaps no resolution to their conflict against sin. To have a savior that is all strength and power may provide us the power and motivation to face our problem, but so does a military commander. And Jesus did not say, “I am the benevolent dictator,” but rather “I am the Good Shepherd” (Jn. 10:11).
With poetic deft-handedness and theological balance, Joseph Hart portrays both biblical dimensions: “Jesus ready stands to save you, full of pity, joined with power.” Christ has great sympathy for the plight of His people, for the peril of sinners, and He comes with the ability to do something about it!
Warrant for Faith
That’s something that perhaps we do not think about very often, much less sing about: warrant for faith. I had a professor in seminary who remarked that in all of his various years of study, it was not until he had a class at the Free Church College in Edinburgh with Professor Donald Macleod that he heard a discussion on the warrants for faith. That is, why should one come to faith in Jesus Christ? What compelling reason is there?
Why should you put your trust in the Savior? According to Hart, it is because He has pity joined with power, and He is able. And not only is he able to save you, He is willing. He stands ready, glad to save his people. That’s the first line. But Hart doesn’t stop there. And what does he say in the second line as a warrant for faith?
Come, ye needy, come and welcome, God’s free bounty glorify;
True belief and true repentance, every grace that brings you nigh
Without money, without money, without money,
Come to Jesus Christ and buy; come to Jesus Christ and buy.
Hart tells you that God is able, from His bounty, to grant the faith and repentance that you need. What a reminder of what the Bible teaches: you cannot manufacture faith and repentance in yourself. God alone moves men (including you) to repentance. In fact, every grace that you need, God has in Himself and He is uniquely able to bestow it upon you. With a variety of poetic expressions, Hart is simply saying, “Cast yourself upon Christ. Cast yourself entirely upon him; entirely upon his mercy.” And here, the language he evokes is that of Isaiah. He borrows the language from that wonderful line in Isaiah 55:1:
Come, (or as it memorably says in the KJV, “Ho!”) everyone who thirsts,
come to the waters;
and he who has no money,
come, buy and eat!
Come, buy wine and milk
without money and without price.
What Hart does in this hymn is essentially versify the experience of a convert to Christianity. That’s not to say that every single person has the same experience of conversion; there will be variety of experiences of God’s converting grace to and for His people. But what Hart describes might be a fairly typical internal monologue, the back-and-forth questions in the mind of the convert as he’s wrestling with the truth claims of Jesus Christ. A sinner wrestles with his own sense of sin and unworthiness and then considers, “How is it possible that I can turn to Christ and find cleansing and pardon and forgiveness?” The hymn then walks us through those questions and answers. In our former state, wallowing in sin and suffering its consequences, the first question is simply: “Is there help for me?” We hear in the first stanza that “Jesus ready stands to save you, full of pity joined with power.” But can Christ really save us? The answer is given in that same first stanza: “He is able, he is willing; doubt no more.”
There is more to consider in the theology of this wonderful hymn, and we will continue and conclude in part two of our hymn study next time.
 I recommend readers to consider Pastor Art Sartorius’s excellent reflection, “For All the Saints: Christ Reflected in His People.”