Home History of Hymns: "Come, Sinners, to the Gospel Feast"

History of Hymns: "Come, Sinners, to the Gospel Feast"

“Come, Sinners, to the Gospel Feast”
Charles Wesley
UM Hymnal, Nos. 339 & 616

Come, sinners, to the gospel feast;
let every soul be Jesus’ guest.
Ye need not one be left behind,
for God hath bid all humankind.

Food is a big deal in our society, but even more important are the spiritual “meals” that we share. One often hears phrases such as, “They are hungry for the gospel,” and as Jesus said, “It is written: ‘Man cannot live on bread alone.’” (Matt. 4:4)

We are reminded that truth, as well as sustenance, is found in the gospel. Charles Wesley’s hymn, “Come, Sinners, to the Gospel Feast” is an invitation to that table and a reiteration of that truth.

Charles Wesley

The younger brother of Methodism’s founder, John Wesley, Charles (1707-1788) wrote 6,500 hymns, and preached as an itinerant minister of the Church of England. To put this in perspective, if we assume that he wrote hymns from the time he started school up to his death, it averages out to 97 per year, or one hymn every three to four days. Wesley wrote many of the most important Methodist hymns, 41 of which remain in the latest edition of the UM Hymnal (1989).

His hymns were examples of fine poetry married to a rich, biblically based theology. Wesley scholar Ernest Rattenbury once observed that “a skillful man, if the Bible were lost, might extract much of it from Charles Wesley’s hymns.”

Our hymn first appeared in 24 stanzas in Hymns for Those That Seek and Those That Have Redemption in the Blood of Jesus Christ (1747). Nine stanzas were later chosen for the Wesleys’ famous Collection of Hymns for the People Called Methodists (1780). In the 1980s the Wesley Consultation of the Hymnal Revision Committee decided to make two hymns out of the original one; the other hymn is found at No. 616 in the UM Hymnal.

“Come, Sinner, to the Gospel Feast” makes an important theological statement. Our participation in church is more than a weekly obligation or chore. Perhaps we can view church as a family meal where all are welcome. The first stanza bids us to “let every soul be Jesus’ guest,” and adds, “Ye need not one be left behind.” It is this joyful message of welcome that as parishioners we should seek and embrace, and as ministers we should promote and foster in our churches.

The gospel feast is also a feast of salvation: “Come and partake the gospel feast, / be saved from sin, in Jesus rest.” When we participate in the Eucharist, we are reminded of the sacrifice our Savior made for us. The Eucharist should be as inclusive as the gospel demands that the ministries of the church be. Just as we tell others of the good news, we should be eager to share both the food we eat and the truth we cherish.

Another interesting aspect of this hymn is its urgency, as Wesley sounds an eschatological note: “This is the time, no more delay! This is the Lord’s accepted day.”

However, there is another way to see this—perhaps even simultaneously—as a call of eagerness: “Come to the feast, be saved from sin.” Why should we not be excited and a little emphatic to share the gospel? There is a sense of urgency and excitement in this hymn that can influence how we live and share the gospel in our lives.

Wesley also likens the gospel feast to a place where one finds relief: “Come, all ye souls by sin oppressed, / ye restless wanderers after rest.” What catharsis can be found in the joyful sharing of food and conversation with others! We are social creatures who love sharing our lives over a meal with those we care about. We should be able to pass on the gospel to those who are hungry for it, as easily as we pass the sweet potatoes to our neighbor at the table.

Mr. Hensley, a Master of Sacred Music student at Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University, studies hymnology with Dr. C. Michael Hawn.