Home Worship Planning History of Hymns History of Hymns: “And Can It Be That I Should Gain”

History of Hymns: “And Can It Be That I Should Gain”

Charles Wesley

"And Can It Be That I Should Gain," by Charles Wesley;
The United Methodist Hymnal, No. 363

And can it be that I should gain
An interest in the Savior's blood!
Died he for me? who caused his pain!
For me? who him to death pursued?
Amazing love! How can it be
That thou, my God, shouldst die for me?

“And Can It Be That I Should Gain” is perhaps one of the most joyfully poignant hymns penned by Charles Wesley (1707-1788). On Whitsunday (Pentecost), May 21, 1738, three days before his brother John experienced his heart “strangely warmed,’ Charles was convalescing in the home of John Bray, a poor mechanic, when he heard a voice saying, “In the name of Jesus of Nazareth, arise, and believe, and thou shalt be healed of all thy infirmities.” The voice was most likely Mr. Bray’s sister who felt commanded to say these words in a dream.

Anglican hymn writer Timothy Dudley-Smith, notes that the following then happened:

Charles got out of bed and opening his Bible read from the Psalms: “He have put a new song in my mouth, even praise unto our God,” followed by the first verse of Isaiah 40, “Comfort ye, comfort ye my people, saith your God.” He wrote in his journal, “I have found myself at peace with God, and rejoiced in the hope of love Christ” (Dudley-Smith, 1987, 1).

The statement from Mr. Bray’s sister sparked within Charles a conviction like he had never felt before. Moved and convicted in spirit, Charles wrestled with these words until he came to rest in his faith, knowing that it is by faith we are saved (Ephesians 2:8).

Soon after this conversion experience, he wrote two hymns in celebration of the "amazing love" he had come to know: "And Can It Be that I Should Gain" and "Where Shall My Wondering Soul Begin?" (United Methodist Hymnal, 342)

There has been some debate as to which hymn was written first, but most current scholarship accepts the latter as the first hymn written by Charles after his conversion experience. No matter its place in the chronology of Wesley's output, "And Can It Be" has been and remains one of his most remarkable hymns, expressing like no other the rapturous joy of receiving salvation.

The text of the hymn is fairly straightforward. Wesley opens with an exclamation, "And can it be that I should gain an interest in my Savior's blood!" These words are followed by a rhetorical question, "Died he for me — who caused his pain?" Both are typical of Charles's poetic style.

The imagery he uses for each stanza is poignant and, particularly in the case of stanza four, is reminiscent of both Peter's and Paul's miraculous release from prison as told in Acts 12 and 16, respectively. The first stanza expresses wonder and amazement at the redemptive act of God and his offering of free grace to all, even those "who caused his pain." This wonder is further emphasized by the repeated phrase "For me" in lines three and four.

The second stanza continues this sense of awe with its opening line, "'Tis mystery all: th' Immortal dies!" Here, Charles captures the paradox of the Paschal Mystery (the redemptive death and resurrection of Christ), saying that even the chief of the angels cannot fathom the depth of this love divine. In stanza three, Wesley speaks of the incarnation, echoing Philippians 2:6-8 in lines three and four, "Emptied himself of all but Love, and bled for Adam's helpless race."

Stanza four compares humanity's newfound freedom from sin to that of Peter's miraculous release from prison. Wesley borrows a line from a popular story of romantic fiction from his day, Eloisa to Abelard, by Alexander Pope (1688-1744), "Thine eye diffused a quickening ray," to symbolize God's love and power coming down to release the captives (The Canterbury Dictionary).

In stanza five, Wesley speaks of the present justification we now have in Christ and our future glorification in the life to come. The first line, "No condemnation now I dread," alludes to Romans 8:1 (NIV), "Therefore there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus."*

The hymn first appeared in John Wesley's 1739 hymnal, Hymns and Sacred Poems. Since its first publication, it has been included in most Methodist hymnals and in the hymnals of many other Protestant denominations.

Aside from the omission by John of the original fifth stanza in his 1780 hymnal, the hymn has remained in its original form. This missing stanza speaks of personal assurance of salvation. Perhaps Wesley omitted it because of its overly personal tone and its relatively small contribution to the overall theme and structure of the hymn. Its personal character may be most appropriate in some more evangelical settings, but is of little consequence to the general worshiping community.

*Verses marked NIV are from the New International Version (NIV) Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

For further reading:

“And Can It Be That I Should Gain.” Hymnary.org, https://hymnary.org/text/and_can_it_be_that_i_should_gain

Dudley-Smith, Timothy. A Flame of Love: A Personal Choice of Charles Wesley’s Verse. London: Triangle SPCK, 1987.

Timothy Dudley-Smith. "And can it be that I should gain." The Canterbury Dictionary of Hymnology. Canterbury Press, accessed May 29, 2018, http://www.hymnology.co.uk/a/and-can-it-be-that-i-should-gain.

Young, Carlton R. “And Can It Be That I Should Gain.” Companion to the United Methodist Hymnal. Abingdon Press, 1993.

DeAndre Johnson is a master of sacred music graduate, MSM ’09, of Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University, studying hymnology with Dr. C. Michael Hawn. He now serves Christ Church Sugar Land (United Methodist) in Sugar Land, Texas, as Pastor of Music and Worship Life.

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