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History of Hymns: "How Can We Sinners Know"

By C. Michael Hawn

"How Can We Sinners Know"
by Charles Wesley
The United Methodist Hymnal, No. 372

Charles Wesley

How can we sinners know
our sins on earth forgiven?
How can my gracious Savior show
my name inscribed in heaven?

In the history of Christianity, few people have made more significant contributions to the world of Christian hymnody than Charles Wesley (1707-1788). He composed approximately 9,000 hymns over the course of his life. One cannot understate the importance of Wesley to the art of congregational song. British hymnologist, John Julian, said of Wesley in 1907: “The saying that a really good hymn is as rare an appearance as that of a comet is falsified by the work of Charles Wesley; for hymns, which are really good in every respect, flowed from his pen in quick succession, and death alone stopped the course of the perennial stream.”

Since the earliest days of the Methodism, Charles Wesley’s hymns and poetry have helped communicate and shape the theological underpinnings of the Methodist movement. The hymn “How Can We Sinners Know” has accompanied the Methodist tradition from the beginning, and perfectly embodies a Methodist perspective on how Christians can have assurance of their salvation.

To provide a little background, in 1735 Charles accompanied his brother John on a missionary excursion to the American colony of Georgia. After enduring a somewhat disenchanting and frustrating experience in the colony, Charles returned to England in 1736. However, shortly thereafter he apparently found peace in his soul and began to attack ministry with the incredible vigor and zeal for which the Wesley brothers, the founders of the Methodist movement, are oft remembered.

Originally published in 1749 in the book Hymns and Sacred Poems: In Two Volumes, “How Can We Sinners Know” is among the first hymns and poems that Charles Wesley published. Though originally listed without an official title, it was included in a section referred to as “The Marks of Faith.” As many other hymns of the era, the text originally appeared without any accompanying musical notation or direction.

The original poem consisted of eight eight-line stanzas, but it did not stay that way for long. As some have noted, “There wasn’t a hymn by Charles that John Wesley couldn’t improve.” When John Wesley reprinted his brother’s hymn in the 1780 Collection of Hymns for the Use of the People Called Methodists, he removed stanzas 4 and 5 and changed the meter to make it more “singable.” Over the next 200 years, all hymnals including “How Can We Sinners Know” adopted John Wesley’s edited version.

Though the hymn appears in no less than 116 different hymnals, mostly published in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the hymn so distinctly embodies Wesleyan theology that it appears one can find it reproduced only in Methodist, or Methodist-related hymnals. Indeed, the only recent hymnal to include it is The United Methodist Hymnal (1989).

In true Wesleyan fashion, this hymn emphasizes the importance of God’s grace. In fact, one can use this hymn as an accompaniment to John Wesley’s quintessential theological treatises concerning grace as found in The Scripture Way of Salvation (1765). The hymn starts with an explanation of God’s justifying grace for humanity; accomplished through Christ’s atonement on the cross. If Christians accept Christ and his justifying grace, they have assurance of salvation through an internal witness of the Spirit. In other words, once we receive God’s justifying grace, the Spirit begins to work within us to impart the “meek and lowly heart” of Christ which the “Spirit doth impart.”

Because the Holy Spirit works within us, we undergo a process of sanctification; wherein the Spirit affects “a real as well as a relative change” (John Wesley, Scripture Way of Salvation, 1765). “From the time of our being born again the gradual work of sanctification takes place. We are enabled ‘by the Spirit’ to ‘mortify the deeds of the body,’ of our evil nature; and as we are more and more dead to sin, we are more and more alive to God” (John Wesley, Salvation). When a person’s entire disposition changes through the power of the Holy Spirit, it bears witness to the work of the Spirit within the individual and simultaneously provides the assurance that one has truly received salvation. As a result, the wholly transformed and sanctified Christian can now participate as a witness to God’s grace, along with the witness of the Holy Spirit. As the hymn says:
Our nature’s turned, our mind
transformed in all its powers,
and both the witnesses are joined,
the Spirit of God with ours.

It is interesting to note that earlier versions of the hymn went by the name, “How Can A Sinner Know.” However, editor of The United Methodist Hymnal (1989) decided to alter the lyrics to “How Can We Sinners Know.” One can surmise that Charles Wesley wrote more of a personal theological treatise when he originally penned the poem. However, as a congregational song it makes sense to alter the hymn to articulate a communal activity of reflection.

In summary, “How Can We Sinners Know” stands as a wonderful embodiment of Methodist and Wesleyan theology. Through its lyrics, we are reminded that the Holy Spirit bears witness to the assurance of our salvation by grace, because the Holy Spirit changes us from the inside out.

Guest writer the Rev. Jay A. Henderson, a Master of Divinity student at Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University, is the pastor of Celeste and Kingston United Methodist Churches in Northeast Texas. He studies hymnology with Dr. C. Michael Hawn.

C. Michael Hawn is University Distinguished Professor of Church Music, Perkins School of Theology, SMU.