History of Hymns: "Grace Greater Than Our Sin" by Julia H. Johnston
By T. Wes Moore
“Grace Greater Than Our Sin”
by Julia H. Johnston
The United Methodist Hymnal, No. 365
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the suffrage movement was intensifying in the United States. It was a time when women in many denominations were in the paradoxical position to spread the Good News, but had to be remain quiet while doing it. However, there were women hymn writers who decided to ignore this and wrote hymns as social commentary (i.e. hymns pertaining to the Temperance Movement), religious commentary (i.e. hymns reflecting writers’ personal spiritual experiences), and biblical commentary (i.e. hymns reflecting authors’ beliefs on particular passages of scripture).
Julia Harriette Johnston was born in Salineville, Ohio, in 1849 and died in Peoria, Illinois, in 1919. She was the daughter of a Presbyterian minister and authored many books on Christian missions and missionaries along with hundreds of hymns. Eventually, many of Johnston’s hymn texts were published in her books. She was active in her church’s Sunday school and the Presbyterian Missionary Society of Peoria.1
Around 1910, Julia H. Johnston penned the words, "Grace Greater Than Our Sin.” This hymn is a commentary on Romans 5, particularly on Romans 5:20b, which says: “But where sin abounded, grace did much more abound.”2 Considering that many women were forbidden to teach, preach, or pray in "promiscuous" (mixed gender) gatherings, writing a commentary on scripture would also be, most likely, not tolerated. However, the medium of hymn writing was utilized by women like Johnston in order to circumvent societal norms.
The hymn was first paired to the tune MOODY, which was written by Daniel B. Towner around the same time as Johnston’s text. The tune was not given its current name until the hymnal committee for the Baptist Hymnal (1956) did so in order to honor the composer, who was a Methodist musician and served as head of the music department at Moody Bible Institute in Chicago, Illinois.3
Johnston’s hymn appears in The United Methodist Hymnal in four stanzas. Stanza one connects the singer with the Romans 5:20b passage:
Marvelous grace of our loving Lord,
Grace that exceeds our sin and our guilt!
Yonder on Calvary’s mount outpoured,
There where the blood of the Lamb was spilt.
These words remind the sinner that despite what has happened in the person’s life, God’s grace has wiped away all sin through the death of Jesus.
In stanza two, Johnston uses the poetic device of hypotyposis, in which she uses the imagery of the “sea waves cold” to describe the effects of sin. While the sinner may indeed be drowning in the vast, bleak, cold ocean with no hope in sight, the grace that poured out on the sinner is greater and deeper than anything else and it leads the sinner “to the refuge, the mighty cross.”
Julia Johnston writes in the third stanza:
Dark is the stain that we cannot hide.
What can avail to wash it away?
Look! There is flowing a crimson tide,
Brighter than snow you may be today.
Despite what humans may think can be done, sin cannot be hidden. Johnston then asks a rhetorical question to which she answers with the imperative statement, “Look!” From the blood of the Lamb that is freely poured on the sinner, that person becomes as pure and bright as snow. This stanza is also a reflection of Romans 5:18, which states Christ’s act of righteousness leads to the salvation and life for everyone, despite the act of Adam that caused the fall of creation.
Stanza four is the invitation to the sinner. After three stanzas and the first half of stanza four that describe what sin is (but more importantly, what grace is), Johnston asks the second and final question:
Marvelous, infinite, matchless grace,
Freely bestowed on all who believe!
You that are longing to see his face,
Will you this moment his grace receive?
It does not matter what has happened or what the sinner has done; God’s love is greater and is graciously given to those who believe.
Finally, as is the case with Gospel hymnody, the refrain follows after each stanza and is the most important part of the hymn.
Grace, grace, God’s grace,
Grace that will pardon and cleanse within;
Grace, grace, God’s grace,
Grace that is greater than all our sin!
The word “grace” is sung eight times. After singing the refrain after the stanzas, that number is increased to thirty-two. After adding the instances of grace in the stanzas, that number is changed to thirty-eight.
Julia Johnston’s hymn is appropriate to sing for invitation, Holy Communion, or simply the refrain as a response to the confession. If a person is in a position to discuss this hymn during Sunday school, choir rehearsal, or the service, it may prove helpful to simply ask the people to find how many times the word “grace” appears in the hymn. It will help the congregation to meditate on the text as they are singing it instead of falling into the trap that occurs to many of us—merely regurgitating the text.
3 Carlton R. Young. Companion to the United Methodist Hymnal (Nashville, Abingdon Press, 1993), 378-9.
About this month’s guest writer:
T. Wes Moore is a 2009 graduate of the Sacred Music program at Perkins School of Theology in Dallas, Texas and a member of the Hymn Society in the United States and Canada. After four years of full-time music ministry in Shreveport, Louisiana, he returned to seminary to continue discerning his call to ordained ministry in the Presbyterian Church (USA). Currently, he is a first-year student at Union Presbyterian Seminary in Richmond, Virginia.
This article is provided as a collaboration between Discipleship Ministries and The Hymn Society in the U.S. and Canada. For more information about The Hymn Society, visit thehymnsociety.org.