History of Hymns: "By Grace We Have Been Saved"
By C. Michael Hawn
"By Grace We Have Been Saved"
Worship & Song, No. 3110
By grace we have been saved through faith,
and not by keeping law.
God's saints believed by what they heard
and not by what they saw.*
"What's the big deal about grace?" asked a student. The teacher, the Rev. Rusty Edwards, took the question seriously. He said, I "began to write down verses for her, and it started to look like it could be sung, so I made it into a hymn."
Rusty Edwards was born in Dixon, Illinois in 1955. Following graduation from Interlochen Arts Academy and the University of Nebraska, Dr. Edwards taught school at St. Boniface in Elgin, Nebraska. His theological education includes a Master of Divinity degree from Luther Northwestern Seminary (now Luther Seminary), a doctorate in creative ministry from the Graduate Theological Foundation at Notre Dame, Indiana, and a certificate from the Episcopal Theological Seminary of the Southwest.
Following his ordination in 1985, he served Trinity Lutheran Church (ELCA) in Moline, Illinois until 1991. Following service as Senior Pastor at Gloria Dei Lutheran Church in Rockford, Illinois (1991-1998), where he was active in several civic ministries including Habitat for Humanity, he now is Senior Pastor of Christ Lutheran Church in the Atlanta, Georgia, suburb of Marietta.
Rusty Edwards is one of those rare hymn writers who also composes music for congregational song. United Methodists may have sung his folk-like tune ANNUNCIATION, written for Gracia Grindal's Advent hymn, "To a Maid Engaged to Joseph" (The United Methodist Hymnal, 215).
Dr. Edward's hymn, "By Grace We Have Been Saved," is thoroughly grounded in Scripture. The incipit (opening line) of the hymn could easily have been placed in quotation marks as it comes directly from Ephesians 2:8: "For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God" (KJV). By citing this passage, the author is affirming the bedrock Lutheran belief that grace alone is sufficient for our faith and that grace is primarily manifest in the Word and sacraments. The remainder of the first stanza affirms that our belief in God's grace is affirmed in the saints, whose faith was based on "what they heard" and not, save perhaps by St. Thomas, by what they saw.
Stanza two begins with a near quotation of Romans 3:23: "For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God." (KJV). Rather than the law forming a litmus test of our faith, the author affirms that, "Christ has for all fulfilled the law." He then exhorts the singer to "Believe, confess, be saved."
The third stanza affirms God's love for us through Christ's Incarnation and death on the cross, echoing John 3:16. The stanza also reflects Romans 5:8: "But God commendeth his love toward us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us" (KJV).
The fourth stanza encapsulates Romans 6:23, "For the wages of sin is death; but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord." The final stanza encourages the Christian, now set free from sin and at peace with God, to "share the gospel word." True to Scripture, the author cites Romans 10:15, "How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!" (ESV), a quotation based on Isaiah 52:7.
A folksong spirit comes through in many of his compositions or in the tunes he chooses for his texts. "By Grace We Have Been Saved" first appeared in his collection, As Sunshine in a Garden (1999) to the gospel song melody, OH, HOW I LOVE JESUS (The United Methodist Hymnal, No. 170). The traditional refrain from the earlier song follows each of the five original stanzas, providing a joyful response to God's grace in our lives. In Worship & Song, the melody is the dance-like DOVE OF PEACE from "Singing Billy" Walker's The Southern Harmony (1835), a collection from the shape note tunebook tradition. In a different but effective manner, it also coveys the joy found in God's grace.
Dr. Edwards' hymns have been published by thirty denominations in Australia, Canada, China, Japan, New Zealand, Scotland, and the United States. A prolific hymn and tune writer, his collections include The Yes of the Heart: Faith, Hope & Love Songs (Hope, 1993), Grateful Praise: Hymns and Songs by Rusty Edwards (Selah, 1998), As Sunshine to a Garden: Hymns and Songs (Augsburg, 1999), and Each Breath, Every Heartbeat (Abingdon, 2004), and Bidden, Unbidden (Abingdon, 2007). Forthcoming is a collection entitled Uncommon Mercy: Songs from a Dozen Lands containing hymns co-written by songwriters from various countries.
TheRev. Edwards notes that, "my hymns have been sung on every continent including Chapel of the Snows in Antarctica."
*1997 Selah Publishing Co., Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Dr. Hawn is distinguished professor of church music at Perkins School of Theology. He is also director of the seminary's sacred music program.