Here I come, in the midst of all our Easter joy, and have to be a killjoy. But I won’t apologize for it too much, since, we are, after all, even in the midst of our celebrating the solemnities of our Lord’s resurrection, the church militant – the fighting church. The hymn I admonish all Christians not to sing, and especially confessional Lutherans, is the hymn, “Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing.”
The tune is pretty and very catchy. There is some truth in the words, even beautiful truth. But there is also danger of which we should be aware, and more than that, that we should avoid. It is in our “Lutheran Service Book,” #686, and the stanza I particularly want to warn you all about is stanza 3. It goes like this,
Oh, to grace how great a debtor
Daily I’m constrained to be;
Let that grace now like a fetter
Bind my wand’ring heart to Thee:
Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it;
Prone to leave the God I love.
Here’s my heart, O take and seal it,
Seal it for Thy courts above.
I will try to keep my criticisms simple, but please bear with me!
We are debtors, according to Romans 8:12, “Therefore, brethren, we are debtors—not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh.” We owe everything to God. In some sense it could be said we are debtors to grace. But we are not constrained to be debtors. Constrained means “forced.” Even citing poetic license can’t make this a proper way to speak of how we are debtors. We were not forced to be Christians. We were converted, made alive, not against our will, but with God making the unwilling willing. This is what the Bible teaches. The Church sings to Christ in Psalm 110:3, “Your people shall be volunteers in the day of Your power…” This means we are willing, though not by our natural power. In fact, the context of Romans 8 from which the author of “Come, Thou Fount” draws his debtor language, speaks of God putting into our hearts not “the spirit of bondage again to fear, but … the Spirit of adoption by whom we cry out, ‘Abba, Father.’” (Rom. 8:15)
Calvinists (like the Methodist turned Baptist author of this hymn, Robert Robinson) believe in irresistible grace. They are forced to believe. Lutherans, while holding with the Calvinists that we cannot “by [our] own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ,” do not believe we are coerced to believe. We believe grace can be resisted because grace is offered only and solely through the Word of God (the Gospel).
This is why grace should not be compared to a fetter, a chain or handcuffs. That is the language of slavery to sin, not of being servants of righteousness Robinson’s intent is to give a picture of security, that we will not fall away, but be chained to Christ. Perhaps we could even give it a good construction of being a slave for Christ. But that is not how Paul speaks of his chains in Christ (e.g. Col. 4:3). The Calvinists also believe in the perseverance of the saints, or that those who have truly come to faith in Christ cannot fall away. This is contrary to much of Scripture (Luke 8:13; 1 Tim. 1:19), which clearly teaches that we can fall away from the faith. When we pray for endurance, we pray “Hallowed by Thy name,” which means we ask for God’s Word, and that it would give us faith (Thy kingdom come), and that nothing would hinder God keeping us in his Word and faith until we die (Thy will be done).
The grace of God is not like a fetter or chain binding us because the grace of God is always presented to us in the Word of God, which does not coerce us, but creates and strengthens in repentant hearts the faith which clings to Christ who died and rose to take away our sins. It is as we sing in the hymn (LSB 555:9), “Faith clings to Jesus’ cross alone, And rests in Him unceasing.” The cross here is short for the preaching of the cross. (1 Cor. 1:23)
Robinson makes allusions to original sin and our sinful nature. He speaks of his wandering heart, and then he says something that we would sympathize with, “Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it; / Prone to leave the God I love.” This is simply true. “All we like sheep have gone astray; We have turned, every one, to his own way.” (Is. 53:6) Now, in such a circumstance where God’s Law has shown us our sin, to what should the contrite, repentant, and fearful heart be directed? The rest of Is. 53:6 answers the question, “And the Lord has laid on [Christ] the iniquity of us all.” We should be directed to the forgiveness of sins found in Christ’s suffering and death for us when he bore the sin of the world. We should be directed to the Word, to the Gospel, to our Baptism and the Lord’s Supper, where Christ’s forgiveness is given unconditionally to those who are afraid of their sins.
But what does this hymn do?
“Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it;
Prone to leave the God I love.
Here’s my heart, Lord, take and seal it,
Seal it for Thy courts above.”
Robinson directs us all to imitate him in offering his heart to be sealed by God. Nowhere in Scripture is such language to be found where we offer our hearts to Jesus to be sealed by him. Certainly God speaks of us being sealed by the Spirit (2 Cor. 1:22; Eph. 1:13; 4:30). This sealing is always in the context of both faith and hearing the Gospel, and in the context of the Bible (the analogy of faith), our sealing and anointing happens through Baptism in particular.
When a Christians is burdened down by his sins, he should not be told to offer his heart to God to be sealed. He should instead be pointed back to God’s promises where he was sealed. We were sealed. God did this to us. Even if we fall away, we can return to God’s seal and promise for us in our baptism, in the Gospel that gave us faith in the first place.
There is a sad story about the author of this hymn, Robert Robinson, recounted on cyberhymnal.org. “One day, he encountered a woman who was studying a hymnal, and she asked how he liked the hymn she was humming. In tears, he replied, ‘Madam, I am the poor unhappy man who wrote that hymn many years ago, and I would give a thousand worlds, if I had them, to enjoy the feelings I had then.’”
Feelings are fickle, that is true, but so is the doctrine he claimed gave him such feelings. At the heart of this stanza is what Lutherans in the Smalcald Articles condemn as “enthusiasm,” the belief that the Holy Spirit works apart from the outward, external word. When we sing this hymn, we are training Christ’s sheep to view grace as something that works apart from God’s Word. We are training them to offer their hearts to God to be sealed when they feel their sins, instead of pointing them back to where their hearts were sealed in the Word of Baptism that presents Christ’s death and resurrection for sinners.
The hymn, “Baptized into Your Name Most Holy,” speaks of returning back to our baptism.
My faithful God, You fail me never;
Your promise [in baptism] surely will endure.
O cast me not away forever
If words and deeds become impure.
Have mercy when I come defiled;
Forgive, lift up, restore Your child.
This is also what we sing of in the Lord’s Supper,
“I come, O Savior, to Thy table,
For weak and weary is my soul;
Thou, Bread of Life, alone art able
To satisfy and make me whole:
Lord, may Thy body and Thy blood
Be for my soul the highest good!
“Unworthy though I am, O Savior,
Because I have a sinful heart,
Yet Thou Thy lamb wilt banish never,
For Thou my faithful shepherd art…”
Why would we sing such a dangerous hymn that is fraught with the false doctrine of the Calvinists, who deny the Spirit’s power to sustain our faith in the Gospel and sacraments, and point us to look for a seal of the Holy Spirit apart from His Word, when we have such beautiful hymns as the ones cited above? But I have another stanza that we should have in our next hymnal, when we get rid of this hymn that is even now teaching what we don’t believe and the Bible doesn’t teach. It is a stanza of a hymn well-known and loved by many Lutherans in America, but few know this verse. Dr. C.F.W. Walther quotes the last to lines of it in his great book “Law and Gospel,” and it will serve as a good ending to my plea not to sing “Come, Thou Fount” anymore.
“By grace! Sin, death, and Satan hearken!
I bear my flag of faith in hand
And pass – for doubts my joy can’t darken –
The Red Sea to the Promised Land.
I cling to what my Savior taught
And trust it, whether felt or not.
(from By Grace I’m Saved, Grace Free and Boundless, Evangelical Lutheran Hymnary 226)