When I Survey The Cross: Singing With Understanding

By Dennis Abernathy

“When I Survey the Wondrous Cross,” was written by Isaac Watts in 1707 and first appeared in Hymns and Spiritual Songs. Its original title was “Crucifixion to the World by the Cross of Christ.”

Isaac Watts was born on July 17, 1674, in Southhampton, England and was the eldest of nine children. He was a very bright young man. He learned Latin at the age of five, Greek at nine, French at eleven, and Hebrew at thirteen. He began to write verses of good quality when he was very young.

Isaac Watts is frequently referred to as the father of English hymnody. He almost single handedly changed the congregational singing habits of English-speaking churches. One of Watts’ concerns was the deplorable state to which congregational singing had degenerated. The singing consisted of slow, ponderous Psalms, where each line was first read by an appointed deacon and then the congregation would sing it.

Watts once wrote: “The singing of God’s praise is the part of worship most closely related to heaven, but its performance among us is the worst on earth.” Sensing young Watts’ displeasure, his father exclaimed in so many words: “Why don’t you give us something better young man!” Before the evening service began Isaac had written his first hymn. It was well received by the congregation, and he then wrote a new hymn every Sunday for two years.

Watts believed that the New Testament church should sing praise to God in the “language of the New Testament.” Because of his bold departure from the traditional Psalms, Isaac Watts was often considered as a radical of his day. It has been said, “To Watts more than to any other man is due the triumph of the hymn in English worship. All later hymn writers, even when they excel him, are his debtors.”

Isaac Watts died in 1748 at the age of 75. On his monument appears this line, which is really a tribute to his greatness:

“Ages unborn will make his songs the joy and labor of their tongues.”

I. From the first verse we learn that it was on the cross that the “Prince of glory died.”

“When I survey the wondrous cross,

On which the Prince of glory died,

My richest gain I count but loss,

And pour contempt on all my pride.”

1. We need to “Survey” the Cross! “Survey” is defined as “to examine with reference to value; to view with a scrutinizing eye; inspect.” The majority of people never survey the cross. It holds no value to them and hence, it is not the “wondrous cross”! Before you can become a servant of the Lord, you must “survey” the cross. You must see and understand and appreciate its value to your life.

Without the cross there would be no reconciliation (Eph. 2:16; Col. 1:20). Therefore, we are to “glory” in the cross (Gal. 6:14). The cross is the last thing most would want to glory in. After all, it was “to the Jews a stumbling-block, and to the Greeks foolishness” (1 Cor. 1:23). In reality though, the cross exposes what a desperate state we really are in. It exposes how utterly bankrupt we must be to make such suffering necessary.

2. On Which the “Prince of Glory Died. ” Christ is the Prince of glory. He is a Prince in every way. He is the “Prince and Savior” (Acts 5:31). He is “the Prince of the kings of the earth” (Rev. 1:5).

“Prince” in the above passages means: “author, prince or leader, and ruler.” Hence, Christ is our Leader who brought us peace (Isa. 9:6). The Jews killed the author of Life (Acts 3:15). He is Prince (author) and Savior – author of salvation (Heb. 5:8-9). He is the Ruler of the kings of the earth (Rev. 1:5). The poet catches this wonderful truth in the poem entitled: “The Cross”

None ever came as far as He,

None ever bore such agony,

None ever gave as liberally,

As Christ who died for me!

No love so great has e’er been known,

No grace so vast was ever shown,

No blood for sin could e’er atone,

But Christ’s who died for me!

3. My richest gain I count but loss, and pour contempt on all my pride. The cross reveals the folly of human pride. It teaches us to say: “I never knew myself a sinner, nor recognized Christ as my Savior,

“Until upon the cross I saw

My God who died to meet the law

That I had broken, then I say

My sin, and then my Savior.”

We will never be able to see on that old rugged cross “the wonderful glories of God’s great love” until we first see “our own unworthiness” and “pour contempt on all our pride.” Listen to the apostle Paul:

But whatever former things I had that might have been gains to me, I have come to consider as (one combined) loss for Christ’s sake. Yes, furthermore I count everything as loss compared to possession of the priceless privilege – the overwhelming preciousness, the surpassing worth and supreme advantage – of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, and of progressively becoming more deeply and intimately acquainted with Him, or perceiving and recognizing and understanding Him more clearly and fully. For His sake I have lost everything and consider it all to be mere rubbish (refuse, dregs) in order that I may win (gain) Christ, the Anointed One (Phil. 3:7-8, The Amplified Bible).

These former things that could have been counted as gains for Paul consisted of his honors in the Jewish religion. All of these things he counted loss – instead of service to be recorded and worthy of honors, they were rather sins and crimes condemned, and sorrowed for through life. Can we learn this great lesson. All gains out of Christ are losses for Christ! Nothing compares to a life lived in Christ Jesus. For Christ’s sake Paul did lose everything . . . that is the total of his old life’s values. His own family probably regarded him as a disgrace to Judaism. His fellow Pharisees considered him a traitor to the cause. The Jews in general thought of him as a renegade. Oh, yes, he paid the price, but it was well worth it. He lost the Jewish world (the old life with its values) in order to gain Christ Jesus, Lord of all. So did He – and so must we!

II. Verse two teaches us that we should boast or glory only in Christ’s death.

“Forbid it, Lord, that I should boast,

Save in the death of Christ my Lord;

All the vain things that charm me most,

I sacrifice them to His blood.”

People boast in many things. More often than not it is in the wrong things and to our own shame.

1. The Jews boasted in the Law and in their relationship to God (Rom. 2:17,23). They were proud of their relation to the true God, but they were woefully lacking in their adherence to his will.

I hope their condition doesn’t describe many of us today! We say that we have the truth as distinguished from human creeds and doctrines of men. We boast of being in the one body as distinguished from human denominations. And yet, do we often fail to display in our lives the spirit and conduct that should be forthcoming from such a relationship. We must understand that it is not enough to profess respect for God’s word. We must keep it. If we violate God’s word we dishonor God. God is honored when we live in keeping with our profession.

2. Some boast of their great wealth. The Psalmist speaks of “those who trust in their wealth and boast of their great riches” (Psa. 49:6).

3. Some boast in their own works (Eph. 2:8-9). We are not saved by works of our own merit, that we may boast or glory in what we have done. We are saved by works in the sense of doing the works God has appointed. Even here, the merit is not in the work, but it proves our faith in doing what God commands of us. In this sense we are saved by faith and works. No works, no faith! (See Jas. 2:17-81.)

4. We should boast or glory in the Lord and his sacrifice (Rom. 5:6-10). I like the way the New International Version translates those verses. The apostle Paul said: “Therefore as it is written, let him who boasts, boast in the Lord” (1 Cor. 1:31).

I must be willing to sacrifice all for the Lord. It is really sacrifice when we are willing to give up the things which “charm us most.” What are you willing to give in exchange for your soul (Matt. 16:26)? This is a very poignant question when we realize that Christ sacrificed so much for us. This is beautifully captured in the poem entitled:

He Became Sin for Us

“O the mystery of His Mercy!

Unguessed depths of matchless grace,

Christ became that which He hated,

While God turned away His face.

Turned in wrath from His Beloved,

Hanging there upon the tree,

Strangely changed, and strangely bearing

All the sins of you and me.

Angels dared not look upon him,

But averted striken eyes,

Seeing, not the Lord of glory,

But a bleeding sacrifice.

Through the circling, endless ages,

Such a sight had never been;

He, the spotless Lamb of heaven,

Christ the Lord, becoming sin

How we ought to thank the Lord every day we live for taking the punishment for our sins that we might not have to take it. What a blessed sin offering.

III. From verse three we learn of our Lord’s suffering and love.

“See, from his head, His hands, His feet,

Sorrow and love flow mingled down;

Did e’er such love and sorrow meet,

Or thorns compose so rich a crown.”

And, my O my, how our blessed Lord did suffer! Matthew records the following:

From that time Jesus began to show his disciples that He must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things

(Matt. 16:21).

Have you ever really considered what was really included in the “many things”? (Read Psa. 22:8,14-22; Isa. 53.) All of this is horribly unfolded as we read the gospels. He was forsaken of the Father. He was scorned, despised and rejected. He was mocked and taunted and they hurled insults at him. They would shake their heads at him, spit in his face, slap him, hit him with their fists, and flog him. Finally they killed him in the most excruciating way known to man!

Our Lord was truly “familiar with sufferings” and esteemed not. The most precious One to ever walk this earth was pierced, crushed, afflicted and led as a “lamb to slaughter.” He was truly “the man of sorrows.”

But praise be to God, when the blood flowed from those royal arteries, it was sorrow and love mingled and they met as they ran down and dripped to the ground below. Please notice why Jesus suffered. It was because he loved us so much! Because of his great love he “died for our transgressions,” “took our infirmities,” “carried our sorrows,” “was crushed for our iniqiuties,” and “his wounds brought us peace and healing.” He bore our sins in his body on the tree, he was sacrificed for our transgressions. This thought is captured well in the beautiful song: “Hallelujah! What a Savior”

“Man of sorrows, what a name, For the Son of God who came.

Ruined sinners to reclaim! Hallelujah! What a Savior!

Bearing shame and scoffing rude, In my place condemned He stood,

Sealed my pardon with His blood! Hallelujah! What a Savior!

Guilty, vile and helpless we, Spotless Lamb of God was He,

Full atonement! Can it be? Hallelujah! What a Savior!

Lifted up was He to die, It is finished was His cry,

Now in heaven exalted high, Hallelujah! What a Savior!

When He comes our glorious King, All His ransomed home to bring,

Then anew this song we’ll sing, Hallelujah! What a Savior!

They put on his head a rough, sharp crown of thorns the pain racked his head and the rivelets of blood tricked down his face – but thanks be to God that He now wears a glorious crown as King of kings and reigns over his kingdom at the Father’s right hand (see Phil. 2:5,11, New International Version).

‘Twas for You

Be still, and know that I am God.

Where you now tred, I too have trod —

I know your griefs — I have a part,

I know the anguish of your heart.

Did I not walk the toilsome road,

A wanderer, without abode?

Did I not stand in Pilate’s hall,

Though innocent, hear judgment fall?

Did I not hang on yonders tree

At Golgotha, to die for thee?

Was I not spat upon, slapped my face,

Before Pilate did the mob not make their case?

Did they not scorn, mock, reject, with great ado,

Oppress, afflict, and crush, all for you?

Ah, yes, my friend, I’ve journed far,

To break the might of death’s cold bar

‘Twas all for you I paid the price,

For you I made such sacrifice,

But ’twas for you I suffered and bled,

With a crown of thorns upon my head,

Man of sorrows, acquainted with grief,

In my suffering, love and sorrow did twain meet!

IV. The last verse teaches that Christ’s sacrifice demands my all.

“Were the whole realm of nature mine,

That were a present far too small;

Love so amazing, so divine,

Demands my soul, my life, my all.”

Peter said, “Behold, we have left (forsaken) all and followed thee” (Matt. 19:27). The Lord said, “So, likewise, whoever of you does not forsake all that he has cannot be my disciple” (Lk. 14:33). Paul said he had suffered the loss of all things for Christ (Phil. 3:7-8). God demands our all! Are you willing to give it? This begins with the giving of myself to the Lord (2 Cor. 8:5).

It is evident that many do not appreciate God’s great love for they do not reciprocate with their lives. Rather than give all, most give none or very little! Many are glad that Christ gave his all, but they want to give very little! They do not want to even give of their time to come worship. My, my, but how they appreciate his love, so amazing, so divine. How ungrateful can we be? Remember, love gives! “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son” (Jn. 3:16). Do you love the Lord? Are you a Christian? Will you give yourself in obedience to his will?

Guardian of Truth XXXVI: 14, pp. 436-438
July 16, 1992