When I Survey the Wondrous Cross
Text: Galatians 6:14
But God forbid that I should boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world.
In Christ Jesus, whose wondrous work of redemption has saved our souls, dear fellow redeemed:
Isaac Watts, an Englishman and the composer of this beautiful hymn, lived from 1674-1748. He is credited with writing over 750 hymns, but this one is one of his most famous and regularly touted as his greatest. Its first line, “When I survey the wondrous cross,” is striking in that the cross—an instrument of cruel torture and execution, is described with the adjective “wondrous.” What occurred on that cross, however, is wondrous—our redemption, which is why the cross—an instrument of torture and execution, has become one of the most popular pieces of jewelry and among the most prominent of home decorations among Christians, for it reminds us that Jesus, “the Prince of Glory” died on a cross on our behalf! Jesus, whom Isaiah identifies as “the Prince of peace” (cf. Is. 9:6) came down from heaven’s glory as God’s promised Christ to restore the peace lost by us through our sin, and having restored that peace returned to the glory of heaven to rule from God’s right hand.
Yes, WHEN I SURVEY THE WONDROUS CROSS on which the Prince of Glory died, Isaac Watts suggests in this first stanza that you and I gain perspective! He suggests that our “richest gain,” whatever that may be, is something we can “count but loss,” and that you and I ought rightfully “pour contempt” on all our pride. This is the spirit illustrated by the apostle Paul in his letter to the Philippians, who writes: “Yet indeed I also count all things loss for the excellence of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them as rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in Him, not having my own righteousness, which is from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which is from God by faith; that I may know Him and the power of His resurrection, and the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to His death, if, by any means, I may attain to the resurrection from the dead” (Phil. 3:8-11). The world loves to boast in what it believes it accomplishes. It struts about with head held high basking in self-congratulation. The world has its “Oscar,” its “Emmy,” and its “Noble Prize,” but apart from faith no one and nothing can please God (cf. Heb. 11:6). Faith recognizes and confesses sin and with humility seeks the mercy and forgiveness of God. That mercy and forgiveness are found in and through the person of Christ, our “Prince of Glory.” And so we join the apostle Paul who says in our text, “God forbid that I should boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ!” Truly, “my richest gain I count for loss and pour contempt on all my pride!”
[Let us sing the next stanza of our hymn.]
“Forbid it, Lord, that I should boast save in the death of Christ, my God.” It is amazing, is it not, that the very God who created us and against whom our first parents and all of their descendants have risen up in rebellion, entered this world to redeem us from that rebellion, by suffering the very penalty we earned and deserve—death. Consequently, absolutely anything in which you and I might take great pride pales in comparison to the grace of God in Christ. Men and women in this world boast regularly of their physical strength or ageless beauty, their intellectual abilities or their financial prowess, their artistic endeavors or their architectural achievements, yet everything that each of us possesses or accomplishes, whether we acknowledge it or not, is a gift from God and flows from the gifts, abilities, and opportunities afforded by God. “In Him we live and move and have our being” (cf. Acts 17:28), believers and unbelievers must confess! Besides that fact, we must acknowledge yet another fact—everything we do or possess is by its very nature temporal and will ultimately fade away. That fact was made evident to me by a simple question I heard asked on the radio just the other day: “How many of us know the names of our great-grandparents?” I consider myself fairly well informed on matters of history, but I could not answer that question. I know my grandparents' names, but not my great-grandparents. How quickly we are and will be forgotten!
Consequently, let us recognize with Isaac Watts that WHEN I SURVEY THE WONDROUS CROSS, I gain humility, and rightfully so! How can I not, when I consider what my Savior-God has done for me? My fame, my fortune, my social standing, my career, my offices, the certificate or plaque on the wall with my name on it, the article in the paper that mentions me, the letters signifying my academic degrees that follow my name—all those things that charm me most in my life…these are all things that I willingly sacrifice, because “the blood of Jesus Christ His Son cleanses us from all sin” (1 Jn. 1:7b).
[Let us sing the next stanza of our hymn.]
WHEN I SURVEY THE WONDROUS CROSS, I, thirdly, gain understanding! Were we to have stood as strangers near the cross and simply watched and listened on that first Good Friday, we would have learned so very much. From what we would have observed, our understanding of the situation would have changed. At first we would simply have seen a squad of soldiers leading three condemned prisoners out for execution. Supposedly justice was about to be served and guilty blood would flow. The very first words we would have heard, however, would have alerted us to the special nature of one of the prisoners. Jesus’ cry, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they do” (Lk. 23:34), would have stood in stark contrast with the curses flowing from the lips of the other two criminals as nails pierced hands and feet. To whom was Jesus referring when He spoke of His “Father,” we no doubt would have asked ourselves? The startling answer to that question, interestingly, would have come from the lips of those who mocked Him. The chief priests, the scribes, and the elders of the Jewish people hurled insults at Jesus, but those insults served an instructive purpose. They cried out in disdain, “He trusted in God; let Him deliver Him now if He will have Him; for He said, ‘I am the Son of God’” (Mt. 27:43). Could this possibly be the Son of God? As the hours passed, His concern for His mother (cf. Jn. 19:25-27); His promise to the thief to His right (cf. Lk. 23:43); His cry, once again to His Father, in the agony of abandonment (cf. Mk. 15:34); His statement that all was finished (cf. Jn. 19:30); the final commitment of His life into His Father’s hands (cf. Lk. 23:46); and in the end a spear-thrust to the heart (cf. Jn. 19:34)—all lead us to the understanding that it was not merely blood and water, but rather “sorrow and love” that flowed “mingled down!”
This new understanding changes the whole picture. It was not the hatred of His own people’s religious leaders, nor the casual indifference to justice on the part of Pontius Pilate that led Jesus to the cross. Rather it was the love of God for our souls meeting the willingness of God’s Son, Jesus, to endure the sorrow in order to experience our gain. Under such circumstances, there was never so rich a crown as that worn by our Savior, who shed His precious blood to bring life, light, and salvation to our souls!
[Let us sing the final stanza of our hymn.]
Paul writes in our text that by Jesus “the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world.” Isaac Watts captures that thought poetically in this final verse, and so WHEN I SURVEY THE WONDROUS CROSS I thereby gain purpose! Forget the fact that all of nature was created by God and so belongs to God already. “Were the whole realm of nature mine.” In other words, if you and I did own the whole world and could deliver it on a silver platter to our Lord, it would still be “a tribute far too small.” There is not enough gold; there are not enough diamonds and other precious gems; there is not enough real estate; there could never be enough corporate offices to even begin to pay God for what Jesus accomplished.
Yet, sadly…it takes so very little for us to become distracted from our faithful service to God. Satan’s lures can be and are, unfortunately, all too successful in turning us aside to sin. Yet the Scriptures tell us that through baptism our Savior God ties us to Christ’s death, His burial, and His resurrection. Through baptism He calls upon us daily to crucify the pleasures of this world and the lusts of our flesh, so that we might arise with Christ in righteousness and unto faithfulness each and every day. As Paul writes in Romans 6: “We were buried with Him through baptism into death, that just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life. For if we have been united together in the likeness of His death, certainly we also shall be in the likeness of His resurrection, knowing this, that our old man was crucified with Him, that the body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves of sin…. Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body, that you should obey it in its lusts. And do not present your members as instruments of unrighteousness to sin, but present yourselves to God as being alive from the dead, and your members as instruments of righteousness to God. For sin shall not have dominion over you, for you are not under law but under grace” (Romans 6:4-6, 12-14).
Consequently, as Isaac Watts concludes: “Love so amazing, so divine, demands my soul, my life, my all!” My dear friends, WHEN YOU AND I SURVEY THE WONDROUS CROSS can we say anything less or anything else? Surely not! Amen.