Come Ye Sinners, Part Two
The Glory of Salvation Set to Song

Continuing where we left off in Part 1, we are thinking about the powerful gospel theology expressed and evoked in the lyrics of Joseph Hart’s hymn, Come, Ye Sinners, Poor and Wretched. We have heard 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 opening stanza: “He is able, He is willing; doubt no more.”

Stanza Two: God’s Free Bounty

“But why,” we wonder, “would he do this?” We learn in the opening of the second stanza that He does this to bring glory to himself through His free bounty. God has a storehouse of goodness and grace in Himself – a bounty! – that second stanza says. So, come and avail yourself of it! It brings God glory when sinners come to avail themselves of the storehouse of His grace. “God’s free bounty glorify!”

“Very well, then,” we say, “but what must I do to avail myself of this free bounty?” When we learn that we must have “true belief and true repentance,” (in order to open that barn-house door, so to speak) we might be inclined to despair. We do not have either true belief or true repentance, or the ability to conjure those things up in and of ourselves. So, how do we gain them? Well, in Himself, God has every grace that brings you nigh, that draws you to Him, He has it in Himself – bounty – but it’s a free bounty that you can have. “Without money, come to Jesus Christ and buy” (again, that line from Isaiah 55:1).

Stanza Three: Not the Righteous, but Sinners

But how can we come? Stanza three identifies the conundrum of the fallen condition. We are “bruised and broken by the fall” to such an extent that it seems we cannot come to repentance and belief, though faith and repentance are precisely what we need to be healed of our bruises.

You may have heard this analogy before: there is a man who cannot afford a new suit to wear to his  upcoming job interview because, after all, he has no job. He has a new opportunity in front of him, but he needs a suit to look presentable and make a good impression at the interview, but he can’t afford a suit, because he has no money…because he presently has no job. And so he’s stuck and doomed to rejection.

We are not unlike that man. We need pardon, to be accepted by Christ and clothed in His righteousness. So how do we get there? Well, it comes by way of true belief and true repentance. But we cannot produce that in ourselves, can we? So we’re stuck and we do nothing at all. Perhaps we will just wait until our situation improves later. But we read immediately about the danger in this type of thinking, again in the third stanza: “If you tarry till you’re better, you will never come at all.”

It turns out that we are dressed precisely as God expects for us to be dressed: not in fine suits, but in filthy rags. There is no need to buy or tailor a suit for ourselves. We have neither money nor materials for such a task. The good news is that Christ Himself will provide it. He will, if you like, give us the job and He’ll also give us the apparel we need to go along with it. “Not the righteous – sinners Jesus came to call.” It is not the healthy that need a physician, Jesus said (Matthew 9:12). It is the sick.

A number of years ago, one of my seminary professors told the story of how the nineteenth century Scottish Presbyterian biblical scholar John “Rabbi” Duncan went through an atheistic period in his youth. He began studies at the University at Aberdeen as an atheist. Rabbi Duncan says that one of his professors convinced him of the existence of God and that it lifted such a weight from his heart that he “danced with joy.” And later, Duncan said that the warrant (the compelling reason) that got hold of him was the point of Hart’s verse here. Duncan said, “It’s by my sin that I get hold of Christ. John Duncan is a sinner. Jesus came for sinners.”[1] Duncan realized the same thing that Hart is driving at in his lyrics: do not say that you will come when you are better, for Jesus did not come for people who are ‘better.’ He came for sinners!

This is the point: what we are given in the gospel is not just moral or ethical (outward) reformation, but wholistic, entire, head-to-toe, body and soul (inward) regeneration. The gospel is not “turn over a new leaf and start again; make resolutions and start again.” The gospel is not “Twelve Steps to Become a Better You.” The gospel is not discovering the inner power to live a new and better life. We are not saved when we join a church, or when we read a book, or as we are nice to our neighbor, but rather in casting ourselves entirely on the mercy of Jesus Christ.

Stanza Four: That Which God Requires, He Provides

And that line of thinking segues nicely into the fourth stanza:

“Let not conscience make you linger, nor of fitness fondly dream;
All the fitness He requireth is to feel your need of Him;

But surely – we erroneously think to ourselves – we must be able to do something to make ourselves worthy of Christ’s salvation? Perhaps since He asks us to feel needy (stanza 4, line 4) we can work up this feeling in ourselves and thereby become fit? But once again, the answer is “no.”

“All the fitness He requireth is to feel [to sense, to apprehend] your need of Him.” And, once again, that very thing He requires – that requirement to sense your need of Christ, to ascertain your own sinfulness, that prick of conviction, that dreadful sense of helplessness and condemnation on account of your sin in the face of a Holy God – the Lord provides it! See how merciful He is? He provides it all!

See that next line: “This he gives you; ‘tis the Spirit’s rising beam.” That’s a nice little piece of imagery, but what does he mean by it? It means much the same thing as what is being conveyed in And Can It Be? by Charles Wesley: “Long my imprisoned spirit lay, fast bound in sin and nature’s night, Thine eye diffused a quickening ray, I woke, and dungeon flamed with light.”

What both hymn-writers describe is the Holy Spirit pressing upon a man’s conscience, convicting him of sin and unrighteousness, and then awakening him to Christ: like a beam of light shot through a pitch-black, piercing darkness to a man’s heart – a spiritual quickening. And then, a glorious spiritual chain reaction takes place. The fact that one feels and knows that he is a sinner is the first light of the Spirit breaking forth in the heart.

Some Musical and Textual Features

Before I conclude this two-part reflection, I would like to return to a little something about the tune. Owen’s melody wonderfully draws out the spiritual state that Hart describes in the lyrics. This works so well at every line, but I was particularly struck by the jump from “rising” to “beam” in “the Spirit’s rising beam” and how the melody inversely plays off the sense of the text with the descending eighth notes in “rising.” Then the melody jumps up and lingers on that whole note, almost connoting a sense of resolve, such as when the Spirit’s effectual calling has finally taken hold of the human heart.

Notice at that third portion of the tune where we repeat a line three times, the melody climbs stepwise, and it’s almost as if it is reflecting the emotional state of the sinner as he’s coming to grasp these truths, being gripped by them:

“Look how much I desperately need! What hope is there for me?”

This [God] gives you… this he gives you… this he gives you…

“I think I get it, I think it I get it; ah, if it’s true, then that means…”

And there’s that “Eureka!” moment at the ritardando, where we slow down as we sing those descending, cascading eighth notes. Like sunlight bursting in on a dark cave, the answer comes: “‘Tis the Spirit’s rising beam!”

How often we are told that so much of the Christian life is “preaching to ourselves” the truths of Scripture, reminding ourselves of what we know to be true, what God’s Word says is true – even if it doesn’t “feel” true in the moment. Rehearsing the promises of God is a vital part of our Christian discipleship. And, in its own way, that is what is happening in this hymn text: we are rehearsing God’s promises and preaching them to ourselves to bolster our soul’s confidence.

And don’t you love the text’s effective use of alliteration?

Come, ye sinnerssick and sore… Jesus ready stands to save you, full of pity joined with pow’r:…

bruised and broken by the fall; if you tarry till you’re better (think how much less effective it would have been if Hart had written “if you wait until your better…”)

…nor of fitness fondly dream; all the fitness he requireth is to feel your need of him.

As two hymnologists comment, “Then beautifully, in the summary final stanza, the alliteration vanishes. The change snaps the reader to attention like a glass of cold water.”[2]

Stanza Five: None But Jesus

If we can do nothing to win Christ’s favor, we have nothing in which to place our hope for salvation but that which Christ gives us. And this is the point of the last stanza. It begins with a description of the ascended Christ interceding on our behalf before God the Father. The text urges us, as do the unified Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments, to venture on Christ alone for our salvation. Throughout the hymn, we are warned against the intrusion of false hopes. The hymn ends fittingly by reminding us that “none but Jesus can do helpless sinners good.”[3]

I hope by meditating on these truths and on the poetic and musical qualities of this hymn, you have come to appreciate it more fully (or perhaps for the first time). May we all sing it with more biblically informed gusto the next time we make use of it!

[1] J. Ligon Duncan, “The Atonement,” Reformed Theological Seminary, January 24, 2023.

[2] Joshua F. Drake and Paul Munson, “Come, Ye Sinners, Poor and Wretched,” Congregational Singing: Reasons & Tools for Traditional Hymnody, January 24, 2023.

[3] Cf. Drake and Munson’s comment along the same lines.