When we sing praise to God, we often confess what we, in joy, know of the God we worship: God’s goodness and mercy, his glorious handiwork in creation, his gracious covenant with Abraham, his mighty and loving work in Jesus. We’ve been given knowledge of the Lord’s great acts that we offer back in praise.
And yet, when we consider the mighty works of God, the King who took on flesh, died, and rose again in Jesus, our praise can also recognize the limits of our understanding. In a posture of awe, we can admit that the God we worship is incomprehensible, that even in our knowledge, we are blinded by the mystery of God’s light.
This wonder is at the heart of our faith: The Holy God has taken on our flesh in Jesus Christ, who suffered, died, and rose for our sake. Our words are laughably inadequate in expressing the depths of this mystery, the mystery of God’s covenant faithfulness. Yet, in song, even our incomprehension can bow before the incarnate, crucified, and risen Lord, in awe of the mystery of his extravagant love.
Words of Wonder and Bewilderment
In his hymn “And Can It Be,” Charles Wesley (1707–1788) gives us a song that overflows with this form of praise, exaltation, and wonder. As the writer of thousands of hymns, Wesley displays an exquisite love for language that reflects the extraordinary acumen of his first teacher, his mother Susanna, who took joy in languages, including Latin, Greek, and French along with English. By the time of the writing of this hymn in 1738, the language of Scripture had been shaping Wesley’s imagination for many years. Wesley had even studied the church’s theology formally, leading to ordination in the Church of England in 1735.
And yet his faith and awe burst forth like a waterfall of energy through the lyrics of “And Can It Be,” reflecting the Spirit’s moving in his life anew just three days before his brother John said his heart had been “strangely warmed” in his famous encounter at Aldersgate Street. This hymn expresses old truths being perceived anew, amid surprise and astonishment. Indeed, Wesley’s words of faith are expressed in questions of “unbelief”—of incomprehension, amazement. How could this be true? How could the sacrifice of Christ apply not only to others but to me?
And can it be that I should gain
An int’rest in the Savior’s blood?
Died he for me, who caused his pain?
For me, who him to death pursued?
We do not approach Christ as innocent observers, but as sinners in need of deliverance. How could it be that, in Christ, we who made ourselves enemies of God become his friends?
And then, the song’s repeated underlying question—a vast and cosmic one—a question about the Incarnation and the Cross, about Christmas and Easter:
Amazing love! How can it be
That thou, my God, should die for me?
For many of us, this refrain has become so familiar that we may struggle to see how utterly shocking it is. As Psalm 90 confesses, in contrast to our short mortal lives, “Before the mountains were born or you brought forth the whole world, from everlasting to everlasting you are God” (v. 2). And in the words of the apostle Paul, it is God “who alone is immortal” (1 Tim. 6:16). It would be hard to find a more widespread biblical theme about this fundamental difference between God and creatures: God is everlasting. We are not.
This language of God dying for us sounds strange and may even seem scandalous. And yet, such language (referred to in technical terms as “the communication of properties” in the person of Christ), has an ancient history in the church. It was used not only by various church fathers, but also by John Calvin, Charles and his brother John Wesley, and many others.
A few years ago, a hymnal committee asked for me to act as a theological consultant to address concerns about some songs that they planned to include in the hymnal. “And Can It Be” was on the list. They wondered: How could it be biblical to sing, “That thou, my God, should die for me?” Isn’t it more proper to say that Jesus, our Savior, died? How could it be fitting to ask a question like this in a hymn’s refrain? Although such language has a long Christian pedigree, it’s a good question that brings us right to the heart of Wesley’s hymn.
He Came to Die
Wesley’s words approach the Cross from the standpoint of the Incarnation. While in Holy Week, as we may focus on particular moments in the days before Jesus was crucified, Wesley brings a wide-angle lens to remind us of something profound: that this cross-formed path that Jesus walked was taken up by none other than the Lord of the universe, the one in whom and through whom all things were made (John 1:3; Col. 1:16). Jesus’ cross was not a sideshow or ancillary to his calling. In a very real sense, he came to die.
I don’t mean this in a reductive sense, in a way that downplays the significance of Jesus’ preaching, his miracles, his friendships with sinners, or any other aspect of his ministry. But all of these fit within the larger context of God’s astonishing love in being willing to take on suffering and dying human flesh for our sake. The Cross itself discloses the way in which God’s extravagant love was on display in each moment of Jesus’ ministry.
When Jesus’ disciples discussed how they desired places of honor in the kingdom inaugurated by Jesus, he countered by telling them how his whole life, as the true Messiah and King, is shaped by a cross-formed love: “Whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:43–45).
The Book of Hebrews describes this reality in powerful terms. On the one hand, Jesus is the Son who “is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word. After he had provided purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty in heaven” (1:3). Yet the Son did not disclose his radiant glory and redeeming power from a distance. In his astonishing love, the eternal God took on mortal flesh and blood as his own to save flesh-and-blood mortals like us.
To bridge the alienation that disrupted God’s relation to creation, “he had to be made like them, fully human in every way, in order that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in service to God, and that he might make atonement for the sins of the people” (2:17).
This loving act of God in the Incarnation and the Cross meets us not only in our sin, but also in our dying bodies, our flesh and blood. This is astonishing! Amazing! Indeed, because it was none other than God who took on human flesh in Jesus, he has pioneered the path in and through our most universal fear: death. “He suffered death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone” (2:9).
As church leaders in the fourth and fifth centuries discerned through sermons and debates that resulted in ecumenical creeds at Nicea, Constantinople, and Chalcedon, the Incarnation and the Cross are tightly intertwined. In the words of the fourth-century church father Athanasius, the eternal Word took on flesh because “in no other way would the corruption of human beings be undone except, simply, by dying.”
‘The Depths of Love Divine!’
Charles Wesley’s words are anything but careless and unbiblical. They are deeply theological. But to truly ask the question he poses—“How can it be that thou, my God, should die for me?”—is also personally shocking. It brings us to a place where our words fall short, where even poetry falls short. After the first time through the scandalous refrain, verse 2 circles this mystery with stark beauty:
’Tis mystery all! Th’ Immortal dies!
Who can explore his strange design?
In vain the firstborn seraph tries
To sound the depths of love divine!
’Tis mercy all! Let earth adore,
Let angel minds inquire no more.
Who can explain or understand this astonishing love? The immortal God makes death his own in Jesus? Can the highest of the angels understand this? No. But in wonder, we rightly adore this illuminating mystery: that our expectations of God's kingship are confounded by the Lord who makes the mortal life of a servant his own, who delivers us with a love that is beyond our understanding.
In our day, when we hear the word mystery, some of us think of an ominous type of “hiddenness”—perhaps the government, a political party, or a family member is hiding something from us, and thus there is a “mystery.” But Wesley’s acclamation, “ ’Tis mystery all!” could hardly be further from such a conception. This mystery is not deep darkness but blinding light—a love so great and deep that it is unfathomable. A sovereign King so deeply in love with rebels like us that he makes even death his own to defeat death’s final sting.
In this strange, cross- and resurrection-shaped victory, we discover a brother in our flesh who has pioneered a path through human suffering and even death. In the victory of his cross and resurrection, he secures what we could never grasp ourselves: freedom from slavery to the fear of death which so often holds us captive (Heb. 2:15). This is amazing love that bids our voices to sing. And also leaves us speechless.
J. Todd Billings is the Gordon H. Girod Research Professor of Reformed Theology at Western Theological Seminary in Holland, Michigan. His most recent book is The End of the Christian Life.
This article is part of The Wondrous Cross which features articles and Bible study sessions reflecting on the meaning of Jesus’ death and resurrection. Learn more about this special issue that can be used during Lent, the Easter season, or any time of year at MoreCT.com/Easter.
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