PODCAST: Grace Greater Than Our Sin (The History Behind the Hymns #29) with Daniel Whyte III

Welcome to the History Behind the Hymns podcast. This is episode #29.

I am your host, Daniel Whyte III, president of Gospel Light Society International. I am one of many Christians who still loves the old hymns of the faith even more than many modern Christian songs. For the past 33 years, my wife and children and I have sung the old hymns during our family devotion time. Over the years we have used an Independent Baptist hymn book, a National Baptist hymn book, and a Southern Baptist hymn book to sing the old hymns of the faith. And we have sung the old hymns of the faith with traditional Methodist churches online. The old hymns of the faith have been a tremendous source of blessing and encouragement to my heart down through the years. The purpose of this podcast is to encourage you to dust off your old hymn book and experience the power and blessing of well-written hymns based upon sound doctrine for the glory of God that will strengthen your faith.

The History Behind the Hymns passage of Scripture is Romans 5:20 which reads: “Moreover the law entered, that the offence might abound. But where sin abounded, grace did much more abound:”

The History Behind the Hymns quote for today is from Matt Redman. He said: “As a writer of worship songs, I have a hunger to write deep songs of passionate reverence to God. Yet I’m aware I cannot sing before I have seen. All worship is a response to a revelation–it’s only as we breathe in more of the wonders of God that we can breathe out a fuller response to Him….the key to a life of passionate and powerful worship comes from seeing God.”

The quote in connection to today’s hymn is from John Piper. He said: “Grace is not simply leniency when we have sinned. Grace is the enabling gift of God not to sin. Grace is power, not just pardon.”

Our hymn for today is “Grace Greater Than Our Sin” by Julia H. Johnston. It reads:

Marvelous grace of our loving Lord,
Grace that exceeds our sin and our guilt!
Yonder on Calvary’s mount outpoured,
There where the blood of the Lamb was spilled.

Sin and despair, like the sea waves cold,
Threaten the soul with infinite loss;
Grace that is greater, yes, grace untold,
Points to the refuge, the mighty cross.

Dark is the stain that we cannot hide;
What can we do to wash it away?
Look! There is flowing a crimson tide,
Brighter than snow you may be today.

Marvelous, infinite, matchless grace,
Freely bestowed on all who believe!
You that are longing to see His face,
Will you this moment His grace receive?

Grace, grace, God’s grace,
Grace that will pardon and cleanse within;
Grace, grace, God’s grace,
Grace that is greater than all our sin!

Now here is the history behind the hymn, “Grace Greater Than Our Sin”. According to Umcdiscipleship.org:

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the suffrage movement was intensifying in the United States. It was a time when women in many denominations were in the paradoxical position to spread the Good News, but had to remain quiet while doing it. However, there were women hymn writers who decided to ignore this and wrote hymns as social commentary (i.e. hymns pertaining to the Temperance Movement), religious commentary (i.e. hymns reflecting writers’ personal spiritual experiences), and biblical commentary (i.e. hymns reflecting authors’ beliefs on particular passages of scripture).

Julia Harriette Johnston was born in Salineville, Ohio, in 1849 and died in Peoria, Illinois, in 1919. She was the daughter of a Presbyterian minister and authored many books on Christian missions and missionaries along with hundreds of hymns. Eventually, many of Johnston’s hymn texts were published in her books. She was active in her church’s Sunday school and the Presbyterian Missionary Society of Peoria.

Around 1910, Julia H. Johnston penned the words, “Grace Greater Than Our Sin.” This hymn is a commentary on Romans 5, particularly on Romans 5:20b, which says: “But where sin abounded, grace did much more abound.” Considering that many women were forbidden to teach, preach, or pray in “promiscuous” (mixed gender) gatherings, writing a commentary on scripture would also be, most likely, not tolerated. However, the medium of hymn writing was utilized by women like Johnston in order to circumvent societal norms.

The hymn was first paired to the tune MOODY, which was written by Daniel B. Towner around the same time as Johnston’s text. The tune was not given its current name until the hymnal committee for the Baptist Hymnal did so in order to honor the composer, who was a Methodist musician and served as head of the music department at Moody Bible Institute in Chicago, Illinois.

Johnston’s hymn appears in The United Methodist Hymnal in four stanzas. Stanza one connects the singer with the Romans 5:20b passage:

Marvelous grace of our loving Lord,
Grace that exceeds our sin and our guilt!
Yonder on Calvary’s mount outpoured,
There where the blood of the Lamb was spilt.

These words remind the sinner that despite what has happened in the person’s life, God’s grace has wiped away all sin through the death of Jesus.

In stanza two, Johnston uses the poetic device of hypotyposis, in which she uses the imagery of the “sea waves cold” to describe the effects of sin. While the sinner may indeed be drowning in the vast, bleak, cold ocean with no hope in sight, the grace that poured out on the sinner is greater and deeper than anything else and it leads the sinner “to the refuge, the mighty cross.”

Julia Johnston writes in the third stanza:

Dark is the stain that we cannot hide.
What can avail to wash it away?
Look! There is flowing a crimson tide,
Brighter than snow you may be today.

Despite what humans may think can be done, sin cannot be hidden. Johnston then asks a rhetorical question to which she answers with the imperative statement, “Look!” From the blood of the Lamb that is freely poured on the sinner, that person becomes as pure and bright as snow. This stanza is also a reflection of Romans 5:18, which states Christ’s act of righteousness leads to the salvation and life for everyone, despite the act of Adam that caused the fall of creation.

Stanza four is the invitation to the sinner. After three stanzas and the first half of stanza four that describe what sin is (but more importantly, what grace is), Johnston asks the second and final question:

Marvelous, infinite, matchless grace,
Freely bestowed on all who believe!
You that are longing to see his face,
Will you this moment his grace receive?

It does not matter what has happened or what the sinner has done; God’s love is greater and is graciously given to those who believe.

Finally, as is the case with Gospel hymnody, the refrain follows after each stanza and is the most important part of the hymn.

Grace, grace, God’s grace,
Grace that will pardon and cleanse within;
Grace, grace, God’s grace,
Grace that is greater than all our sin!

The word “grace” is sung eight times. After singing the refrain after the stanzas, that number is increased to thirty-two. After adding the instances of grace in the stanzas, that number is changed to thirty-eight.

Julia Johnston’s hymn is appropriate to sing for invitation, Holy Communion, or simply the refrain as a response to the confession. If a person is in a position to discuss this hymn during Sunday school, choir rehearsal, or the service, it may prove helpful to simply ask the people to find how many times the word “grace” appears in the hymn. It will help the congregation to meditate on the text as they are singing it instead of falling into the trap that occurs to many of us—merely regurgitating the text.

In our next episode we will look at the history behind the hymn, “Lead Me, Guide Me” by Doris Akers.

Let’s Pray —

Dear friend, this hymn honors God and the Lord Jesus Christ, if you do not know the Lord Jesus Christ as your Savior, and you want to get to know Him today here’s how.

First, accept the fact that you are a sinner, and that you have broken God’s law. The Bible says in Romans 3:23: “For all have sinned and come short of the glory of God.”

Second, accept the fact that there is a penalty for sin. The Bible states in Romans 6:23: “For the wages of sin is death…”

Third, accept the fact that you are on the road to hell. Jesus Christ said in Matthew 10:28: Also, the Bible states in Revelation 21:8: “But the fearful, and unbelieving, and the abominable, and murderers, and whoremongers and sorcerers, and idolaters, and all liars, shall have their part in the lake which burneth with fire and brimstone: which is the second death.”

Now this is bad news, but here’s the good news. Jesus Christ said in John 3:16: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” Just believe in your heart that Jesus Christ died for your sins, was buried, and rose from the dead by the power of God for you so that you can live eternally with Him. Pray and ask Him to come into your heart today, and He will.

Romans 10:9-13 says, “That if thou shalt confess with thy mouth the Lord Jesus, and shalt believe in thine heart that God hath raised him from the dead, thou shalt be saved. For with the heart man believeth unto righteousness; and with the mouth confession is made unto salvation. For the scripture saith, Whosoever believeth on him shall not be ashamed. For there is no difference between the Jew and the Greek: for the same Lord over all is rich unto all that call upon him. For whosoever shall call upon the name of the Lord shall be saved.” Pray and ask Him to come into your heart and He will.

May God bless you and keep you until we meet again.

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