Hymn Guide: And Can It Be

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Charles Wesley was an Anglican Priest and itinerant preacher who wrote around 6500 hymns in his life. One of the first and best was “And Can It Be.” Likely written shortly after his evangelical conversion in May 1738, it reflects a personal relationship with Jesus through the experience of spiritual rebirth.

Charles published “And Can It Be” in a 1739 volume, Hymns and Sacred Poems, which also included poetry and translations by his brother John. Adopted first by the Methodist movement that the Wesleys led, the hymn gradually became common in almost all hymnals, albeit not in The Hymnal 1982. It should go without saying that any new Anglican hymnal really must include this hymn, not only as we see a reunion with some of our Methodist brethren, but also because it is one of the great hymns of the church catholic.

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The hymn is typically sung to SAGINA, by Thomas Campbell, which features a refrain of the last two lines:

Amazing love! How can it be
That thou, my God, shouldst die for me?

Scholars have sometimes criticized the tune: Routley calls it “calamitous,” and Westermeyer observes that its “leaps are wide and untamed, and repetitions get out of control.” Nevertheless, congregations who know it generally sing it with energy and delight. There are also more recent versions set to new music (for example, see the GLAD A Capella version in the video below).

Verse by Verse

The hymn begins with a motivating question: “And can it be that I should gain / an interest in my Savior’s blood?” This represents the perspective of someone who believes abstractly in the truths of the Christian faith but wonders if they can be applied to his life personally, especially given his own sin. Thus the first verse continues with a series of questions.

And can it be, that I should gain
An interest in my Saviour’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?

The tone of these questions is not so much incredulity as it is earnest seeking after a reality that feels almost too good to be true. Notice the individuality of each question, which asks if Christ’s sacrifice can really be for me, a sinner.

The second verse offers a cautionary note in pursuing this question, declaring that it is “mystery all”:

‘Tis mystery all: the Immortal dies!
Who can explore his strange design?
In vain the first-born seraph tries
To sound the depths of love divine.
Tis mercy all! Let earth adore,
Let angel minds enquire no more.

The paradox of God dying is indeed a “strange design” into which, as 1 Peter states, even “angels long to look” (1 Peter 1:12). Wesley suggests that the angels cannot understand, but he does not end the hymn there; evidently, the human mind is better able to grasp this mystery!

The third verse is where this hymn becomes especially beautiful and profound:

He left his Father’s throne above –
So free, so infinite his grace –
Emptied himself of all but love
And bled for Adam’s helpless race
Tis mercy all, immense and free
For, O my God, it found out me!

This is essentially a poetic paraphrase of Philippians 2, of the eternal Son not holding onto his divine standing in heaven but instead taking the form of a man in order to die on the cross (Philippians 2:5-11). Theologians call this the Son’s “kenosis,” the Greek word that means emptying.

Wesley captures the idea with a brilliant line, one of the best in all Christian poetry, that Jesus “emptied himself of all but love.” Wesley understands that though Jesus emptied himself in his incarnation and passion, it was precisely his incarnation and passion that revealed love as the character of God.

Armed with this understanding of God, in the fourth verse, Wesley applies God’s love and free grace to himself:

Long my imprisoned spirit lay
Fast bound in sin and nature’s night
Thine eye diffused a quickening ray –
I woke, the dungeon flamed with light
My chains fell off, my heart was free
I rose, went forth, and followed thee

This verse feels the most intensely autobiographical, coming shortly after Wesley’s conversion experience. But it also works as a conversion narrative, in general terms, for anyone who sings the hymn with a deep awareness of the bondage of sin and the true hope of the gospel. It draws on the imagery of Acts 16, where Paul and Silas are imprisoned, only to sing hymns and have their chains fall off and to convert their jailor. And all this happens in Philippi, with the same people to whom Paul would write of Christ’s kenosis.

The final verse offers a declarative answer to the hymn’s initial question and a triumphant conclusion to the thought process as a whole:

No condemnation now I dread;
Jesus and all in him is mine!
Alive in him, my living Head,
And clothed in righteousness divine,
Bold I approach the eternal throne,
And claim the crown, through Christ, my own.

The key source here is Romans 8, which gives a strong sense of forgiveness and assurance of salvation: “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:1). Where the hymn began with hesitance, now the singer is “bold” to “approach the eternal throne.” In the end, the hymn is still personal, but it is no longer individual. Through God’s mysterious grace, “Christ” has become “my own.”

On Video

The first video is a virtual choir from Nigeria, directed by Anglican conductor Chibuike N. Onyesoh. The second offers a setting of the hymn to a different tune, sung by the GLAD a cappella group.

Cover image: Statue of Charles Wesley in Bristol, UK. Photo by Mike Wise on Flikr (Creative Commons).

Author

Peter Johnston

The Ven. Dr. Peter Johnston is the Ministry President of Anglican Compass. He is a priest and archdeacon in the Anglican Diocese of All Nations and the rector of Trinity Lafayette. He lives with his wife, Carla, and their seven children near Lafayette, Louisiana.

View more from Peter Johnston

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