“May I never boast of anything except the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world.” Galatians 6:14
Saint Paul declared that the only thing in which he would wish to boast was in the cross of Jesus Christ; it is a wish that would have been shared by Isaac Watts, the writer of When I survey the wondrous cross.
Isaac Watts was born in Southampton in 1674. He grew up in a deeply religious household, where there was a refusal to accept the teachings and practice of the Church of England. Watts’ father was a Nonconformist who had twice been sent to prison for his religious views. Watts attended King Edward VI School, learning Latin, Greek and Hebrew and from an early age showed great proficiency for poetry.
A local doctor and other friends assumed that Watts would seek a university education and be ordained in the Church of England. This was not for Watts, a Nonconformist. His Nonconformity meant he was unable to go to either Oxford or Cambridge, strict Church of England establishments, so in 1690 went to a Nonconformist academy at Stoke Newington, (which is now part of the East End of London, but in those times was much more rural). The academy was under the direction of Thomas Rowe, the pastor of an Independent congregation, and Watts assisted with the ministry. At the age of 20 he left the Academy and spent two years at home; it was during this period, between the ages of 20 and 22 that he wrote the bulk of his Hymns and Spiritual Songs, it was a collection that included When I survey the wondrous cross. The hymns were published a decade later in 1707-1709.
Watts took up a post as a tutor to a family at Stoke Newington, time which gave him the opportunity for intense study. He was ordained in 1702, but his health was never robust. In 1712, he suffered serious illness and was taken in by the Abney family, who had houses in Stoke Newington and in Hertfordshire, and he lived with them for the rest of his life—some thirty-six more years. The beautiful grounds of the Abney’s house in Stoke Newington, where Watts lived from 1736 until his death in 1748, led down to an island heronry where Watts was said to have found inspiration for many of his books and hymns.
By any modern standards, Watts’ was an extraordinary life, he seems to have been able to spend most of it in study. To have had patrons like the Abneys, who enabled him to spend thirty-six years in reading and writing, would be a dream for many modern researchers and academics. Watts was a polymath, a man of encyclopaedic knowledge and learning. A man of firm evangelical Christian faith, he was also a man who valued progress and learning.
Evangelical Christians in the 21st Century, endangered by the lure of Fundamentalism, can learn from Watts. As well as being a religious writer, he was also a philosopher. He wrote a textbook on logic that was published in 1724, it had the catchy title Logic, or The Right Use of Reason in the Enquiry After Truth With a Variety of Rules to Guard Against Error in the Affairs of Religion and Human Life, as well as in the Sciences. Perhaps not a bestseller, the book did, however, run through twenty editions, becoming a standard text at Oxford and Cambridge Universities in England as well as at Harvard and Yale in the United States.
The hymns of Isaac Watts are not the hymns of a man who has retreated from the world, but the hymns of a man who has sought to engage fully with the world, a man as at home in the realms of philosophy and science as in the world of theology. This is so important. The rise of Fundamentalism, the Christians of the religious Right, the Moslems of the Islamist movements, the Secularists of the Dawkins variety, threaten to divide the world up into opposing factions, to set us at odds with each other. There are Christians who would despise the exercise of human reason that Watts showed in writing his book on logic.
Watts was a true evangelical, one who sought to bring Good News of Jesus to the world, to the world as it was, with all its complexity and contradictions, and not to the world as he might have preferred it to be.
When we look at When I survey the wondrous cross, its themes are expressed in three words from the first verse, cross, count and contempt.
“When I survey the wondrous cross,” writes Isaac Watts. The idea of the cross as wondrous would have been troubling. This is the very point that Saint Paul was trying to make when he wrote to the Christians at Corinth, “we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles.” The word we translate as “stumbling block” also translates as “scandal.” Christians in the first centuries were not troubled by being scandalous. They were on the edge of society. When they were excluded from the Jewish synagogues near the end of the First Century, they became a radical and underground group. They faced a series of persecutions because of their refusal to deny Jesus, but the Christian Gospel was so strong that no persecution was ever going to be successful.
We have become embarrassed at the cross. We prefer softer images for our faith. Why think such a hideous symbol is wondrous?Because it tells of the full extent of God’s love for us. Whatever language we might use to theologise those awful hours in Jerusalem, the Cross brings us back to the physical reality of what Jesus endured for us.
Is the cross wondrous for us?
“My richest gain I count but loss”, writes Isaac Watts. Did Jesus’ followers count all their gains as “but loss?” Certainly not, the church became influential, it became powerful, it became rich. If the church had been fully committed to the Jesus who hung on the “wondrous cross,” then history would have been very different. A church that had remained focused on the cross would have become a church that was very different from the church we know. It is hard to imagine that Jesus would have recognized much that went on in his name, perhaps he would still recognize little of what happens in his name.
The cross is very troubling for the church. The cross is “I” crossed out, it is every gain counted as loss. The cross contradicts all of our ambitions, it contradicts all our ideas about church hierarchy, it opposes all power and influence. Look at the churches and ask how church life reflects the cross.
Do we count our gain as but loss?
“And pour contempt on all my pride,” writes Isaac Watts. Christians should never have self-contempt, the story of Jesus is the story of God’s love for each of us, we cannot see ourselves as being other than of infinite worth. But there is a difference between ourselves and our pride, Pride is a very 21st Century temptation, to seek what we think creates the best image for us. What does the cosmetics advertisement say, “Because I’m worth it?” Much of our advertising industry, from selling motor cars to selling toothpaste, rests on our sense of pride. Our lives become more and more self-centred, our sense of self-worth becomes absorbed by our sense of pride.
Pride might come before a fall, it certainly comes before living life as a follower of Jesus. Think how much of our life is governed by pride; what we buy, how we live, to whom we speak. If pride is a problem for individuals, it is an even greater problem for churches. Just look at how churches regard those who do not belong to them
Are we prepared to pour contempt on all our pride?
In the concluding lines of the hymn, Isaac Watts describes what our faith demands of us, “love so amazing, so divine, demands my soul, my life, my all.” What do his words ask of us?