In the summer of 2017, my father died rather suddenly. It became my responsibility both to design the funeral service and preach the sermon. My father and I had never had a conversation about his funeral. The closest we came was, when sitting with him in the hospital, he told me rather tearfully that he wanted his funeral to glorify God. Three days later he was dead.
I set to work by first trying to select appropriate hymns. But how does one select hymns for the funeral of a father? I tried to do the very thing he told me he wanted, to keep God’s glory as the uppermost concern. In that case, the church has left to us many hymns that are rich in theological depth and devotional warmth. Among the hymns I selected was What Wondrous Love is This. It has long been one of my favorite hymns both for its comforting lyrics and beautiful melody.
So many of our great hymns are made all the more profound by knowing about the lives of the writers. We think of John Newton and Amazing Grace or William Cowper and God Moves in a Mysterious Way. Unfortunately, the author of What Wondrous Love is This is unknown. It was published for the first time in 1811 in a Methodist hymnal entitled A General Selection of the Newest and Most Admired Hymns and Spiritual Songs. That same year it was published in the Baptist hymnal Hymns and Spiritual Songs. Though there are six stanzas in the final version, the hymn is typically published in four stanzas.
The traditional Appalachian melody (taken from an Old English ballad) has a mournful quality to it that is, perhaps ironically, quite fitting. Ironically because it is, after all, a hymn about the wondrous love of Christ. But it also speaks to our “sinking down” into sin, being under the “righteous frown” of God, and the certainty of death. We enter this fallen world as sinners at enmity with God. But the love of Christ meets us in such a way as to break through the sin and sorrow with the final word of hope.
The Astounding Love of Christ
“What wondrous love is this, O my soul, O my soul!”
The opening lyric of the hymn is not a question but a declaration. “What wondrous love it this!” is voiced twice in the hymn. It is the reaction of one who, beholding how long and wide and high and deep is the love of Christ, calls forth others to witness the wonder of it all. Jesus preached the love of God for the whole world (Jn. 3:16). The Apostle Paul prayed that we would be rooted and grounded in the love of Christ which surpasses knowledge (Eph. 3:18-19). And the Apostle John declared that God is love (1 Jn. 4:8). Jesus, the eternal Son, is more than love alone but He is never less. His love is never abstracted from His holiness and justice as though it were a mere component part. Jesus acts in love because He is love. “And God demonstrated His love for us in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:8).
The Sacrificial Love of Christ
“When I was sinking down beneath God’s righteous frown, Christ laid aside His crown, for my soul.”
The second stanza points to the sinful state of humanity outside of Christ and the sacrifice required to pay our ransom. Apart from Christ we are in Adam. That is we have inherited a sinful nature making us enemies of God. Who wants to think of themselves as an enemy of God? But that is the natural state of mankind in a fallen world. And because of that we are under the righteous sentence of God’s judgment. And who can save us from this body of death but the One who laid aside his crown to be one of us? Though Jesus was very God of very God, he “did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, He humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Phil. 2:6-8).
Years ago, while doing sermon preparation in a coffee shop, I met a man recently paroled after serving time in prison for drug trafficking. While in prison he heard the gospel and was converted. Seeing my Bible he asked what I was studying. I told him that I was preparing a sermon for the Sunday before Easter. He smiled and said, “I love the word propitiation.” I was struck by his words. Never before had anyone said that to me. He explained that while in prison he had become a voracious reader of Reformed theology and had learned to love the doctrine of Christ’s substitutionary atonement. This man justly sentenced in the courts had learned of the God who put forth His own son as a propitiation on his behalf (Rom. 3:23-25).
The Universal Love Christ
“While millions join the theme, I will sing, I will sing.”
The love of Christ does not belong to any one nation or people. Christ is not a regional Savior. Indeed, He shed His love abroad for all the peoples of the world. In His everlasting covenant with Abraham, God promised that He would make from his seed a mighty and innumerable nation. That Seed was Jesus Christ who has purchased men from all the peoples of the world. During the final week of his life, a multitude of both Jews and Greeks flocked to Jesus as He entered Jerusalem on that final Passover. Observing this, the Pharisees lamented, “The whole world has gone after Him” (Jn. 12:19). Indeed, it has.
The Death-Defeating Love of Christ
“And when from death I’m free, I’ll sing on, I’ll sing on”
More than anything, it is this final stanza which prompted me to include the hymn in the funeral service for my father. There is a disconcerting finality to any death, but especially so to the death of a family member. Our tragic mortality never feels so real as when a parent or spouse or child dies. Losing my father left me feeling untethered. Part of my self-understanding had always been that I was this particular man’s son. Now he was gone with very little time to prepare. And nothing can fix this untethered-ness. Nothing can repair the loss that death deals out in cruel doses. Nothing, that is, except resurrection and the death-defeating love of Christ.
In the wake of His friend’s death, Jesus declared of Himself, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die” (Jn. 11:25-26). For the Christian, resurrection is such a sure and defining reality that Jesus can speak of believers never dying.
The melody of this wonderful hymn does not have a clear resolution. It seems to want to go on and on. And perhaps that is no accident, for there is no end to the wondrous love of Christ for His people. There will be no end to the delight of the redeemed as they sing before the throne of God and of the Lamb.
“And when from death I’m free, I’ll sing and joyful be, and through eternity I’ll sing on, I’ll sing on…”