Hymns and the Depravity of Man

Hymns are a treasure trove of doctrinal truth. Singing hymns is a wonderful way to teach doctrine and to augment the teaching and preaching ministry of the church. Those who lead the church in singing do well to explore and mine this trove for its rich gems.

Consider the doctrine of the depravity of man. If you were teaching a congregation about the effects of sin, the extent of sin, or the heinousness of sin, several passages of Scripture might come to mind: Romans 3:9–20; Ephesians 2:1–3, Jeremiah 17:9, to name a few. But what hymns could you sing to help the church remember and rightly respond to this truth? Well-written lyrics can make doctrine memorable, winsome, and profoundly personal. What would you choose to underscore the teaching of God’s Word?

One good choice would be the hymn by Basil Manly, Jr. that I highlighted in my last post, entitled “Lord, I Deserve Thy Deepest Wrath.” In verses 1 and 2 Manly expresses the depth of his sin and blindness, and his plea to God for mercy.

Lord, I Deserve Thy Deepest Wrath (Basil Manly, Jr., 1850)

1. Lord, I deserve Thy deepest wrath,

Ungrateful, faithless I have been;

No terrors have my soul deterred,

Nor goodness wooed me from my sin

2. My heart is vile, my mind depraved,

My flesh rebels against Thy will;

I am polluted in thy sight,

Yet, Lord, have mercy on me still!

Another choice might be Isaac Watts’ hymn, “Alas and Did My Savior Bleed?” In this hymn Watts uses the graphic, but biblical word “worm” (Psalm 22:6, Isaiah 41:14) to describe his lowly state before God.

Alas and Did My Savior Bleed (Isaac Watts, 1707)

Alas! and did my Savior bleed?

And did my Sovereign die?

Would He devote that sacred head

For such a worm as I?

[Trinity Hymnal—Baptist edition, 1995 #195]

This hymn has gone through some changes in various hymnals and demonstrates the distaste that some have toward confessing their depravity in song. In an early issue of The Founders Journal Mark Coppenger described “The Ascent of Lost Man in Southern Baptist Preaching.” Man has seen a similar rise in some modern hymnody.

The last line of the verse from Watts’ hymn was changed in the Baptist Hymnal (1956) #94 to the still-accurate but less-demeaning “for sinners such as I?” In Hymns for Today’s Church (1987) #124 the ascent was higher to “for such a one as I?” And in Hymns for the Family of God (1976) #95 “for someone such as I?”

There are many excellent examples of lyrics that vividly portray the depth of our sin. Here are a few of my choices:

Amazing Grace, How Sweet the Sound (John Newton, 1725–1807)

1. Amazing grace! How sweet the sound,

That saved a wretch like me!

I once was lost, but now am found,

Was blind, but now I see.

[Psalms, Hymns and Spiritual Songs, 2004 (Founders Press) #28]

Approach, My Soul, the Mercy Seat (John Newton, 1779)

3. Bowed down beneath a load of sin,

By Satan sorely pressed,

By war without, and fears within,

I come to Thee for rest.

[Trinity Hymnal—Baptist edition, 1995 #423]

How Sad Our State by Nature Is! (Isaac Watts, 1707)

1. How sad our state by nature is!

Our sin, how deep it stains!

And Satan binds our captive minds,

Fast in his slavish chains.

6. A guilty, weak, and helpless worm,

On Thy kind arms I fall:

Be Thou my strength and righteousness,

My Jesus and my all.

[Psalms, Hymns and Spiritual Songs, 2004 (Founders Press) #20]

Not the Malicious, Nor Profane (Isaac Watts, 1709)

1. Not the malicious, nor profane,

The wanton, nor the proud,

Nor thieves, nor slanderers, shall obtain

The kingdom of our God.

2. Surprising grace! And such were we,

By nature and by sin!

Heirs of immortal misery,

Unholy and unclean.

[Psalms, Hymns and Spiritual Songs, 2004 (Founders Press) #50]

God, Be Merciful to Me (Psalm 51) from The Psalter, 1912

2. My transgressions I confess,

Grief and guilt my soul oppress;

I have sinned against Thy grace

And provoked Thee to Thy face;

I confess Thy judgment just,

Speechless, I Thy mercy trust.

3. I am evil, born in sin;

Thou desirest truth within.

Thou alone my Savior art,

Teach Thy wisdom to my heart;

Make me pure, Thy grace bestow,

Wash me whiter than the snow.

[Psalms, Hymns and Spiritual Songs, 2004 (Founders Press) #5]

Stricken, Smitten and Afflicted (Thomas Kelly, 1804)

3. Ye who think of sin but lightly

Nor suppose the evil great

Here may view its nature rightly,

Here its guilt may estimate.

Mark the Sacrifice appointed,

See who bears the awful load;

‘Tis the Word, the Lord’s Anointed,

Son of Man and Son of God.

[Trinity Hymnal—Baptist edition, 1995 #192]

Jesus Lover of My Soul (Charles Wesley, 1740)

3. Thou, O Christ, art all I want;

More than all in Thee I find:

Raise the fallen, cheer the faint,

Heal the sick, and lead the blind.

Just and holy is Thy Name;

I am all unrighteousness;

False and full of sin I am,

Thou art full of truth and grace.

[Trinity Hymnal—Baptist edition, 1995 #427]

I Need Thee Precious Jesus (Fredrick Whitfield, 1855)

1. I need Thee, precious Jesus,

For I am full of sin;

My soul is dark and guilty,

My heart is dead within.

I need the cleansing fountain

Where I can always flee,

The blood of Christ most precious,

The sinner’s perfect plea.

[Trinity Hymnal—Baptist edition, 1995 #419]

Fountain of Never-Ceasing Grace (Augustus Toplady 1740–1778)

3a. As all, when Adam sinned alone,

In his transgression died,

So by the righteousness of one

Are sinners justified.

[Trinity Hymnal—Baptist edition, 1995 #440]

Rock of Ages, Cleft for Me (Augustus Toplady 1740–1778)

3. Nothing in my hand I bring,

Simply to the cross I cling;

Naked come to Thee for dress,

Helpless, look to Thee for grace;

Foul I to the Fountain fly;

Wash me, Savior, or I die.

[Trinity Hymnal—Baptist edition, 1995 #421]

And two newer songs:

All I Have Is Christ (Jordan Kauflin, ©2008 Sovereign Grace Praise)

1. I once was lost in darkest night

Yet thought I knew the way,

The sin that promised joy and life

Had led me to the grave.

I had no hope that You would own

A rebel to Your will,

And it You had not loved me first,

I would refuse You still.

O Great God (Bob Kauflin, ©2006 Sovereign Grace Music)

2. I was blinded by my sin,

Had no ears to hear Your voice,

Did not know Your love within,

Had no taste for heaven’s joys.

Then Your Spirit gave me life,

Opened up Your Word to me

Through the gospel of Your Son

Gave me endless hope and peace.

These are only a few examples that focus on the depravity of man; many more could be added. What psalms, hymns and spiritual songs would you include as your top choices?