Come Ye Sinner Poor and Needy Words by Joseph Hart
Let not conscience make you linger
Not of fitness fondly dream
All the fitness he requires
Is to feel your need of Him.
Come you weary, heavy laden,
Lost and ruined by the fall;
If you tarry till you’re better
You will never come at all.
When asked which church denomination I grew up in I always answer “Methodist.” While my family spent time going to a Presbyterian church when I was in elementary school my formative experience in the church was at St. Mark’s United Methodist during my junior high and high school years. What first comes to mind when I remember those days is sitting in the balcony with my friends, passing notes during the sermon, and singing hymns.
I don’t know when my love of hymns first began but it certainly stems from those years singing out of the red United Methodist hymnals. I cannot recall ever seeing a freshly printed copy, only frayed corners and loose, brittle bindings with flakes of glue the color of coffee stained teeth slipping out the spine and onto my dress khakis like dandruff; I’m fairly certain they must be printed and distributed in this condition. Each copy had six or seven ribbons of every color which I never used to mark my place but rather served as tassels to braid, keeping my fingers busy as the sounds of preaching drifted in and out of my peripheral hearing.
As an adult I will sing them in church and just “know” words and harmonies that I never set out to memorize. And just as I never set out to commit them to memory, I never intended to love them, but I do all the same. While I prefer to hear them played with modern instrumentation, I would rather sing the old songs over their contemporary counterparts. There are talented songwriters today, but none value the precision of language and the doctrinal fidelity of the old hymn writers. Each song was a sermon, a carefully packaged doctrinal lecture spoken with conviction. They were conceived from the intimacy shared between creature and Creator after hours of prayer, scripture reading, and the road weary wisdom of harsh and adventurous lives. These men and women were preachers, theologians, and poets even though many of them were not officially recognized as such by any institution.
They were also intimately familiar with sin. Take Joseph Hart, the author of Come Ye Sinner Poor and Needy. His story resonates with my own: born in a Christian family and raised to be religious, courting moral virtues for a time, denouncing them, then taking up the standard of self-righteousness once more. All the while he was missing that critical truth, that grace is freely offered by God through Jesus Christ both to relieve men and woman from the consequences of sin and to remove them from its captivity. Hart was either ignoring sin in his life or working feverishly to abolish it on his own, never certain or secure of his standing with God until he heard the full gospel of God.
You can see it in the song lyrics above, the trappings he (and I) must have fallen in to time and again. When he speaks of “fitness” in the first stanza he means righteousness, that he must “clean up his act” so to speak before approaching God to make things right. While this is common thinking among religious peoples, consider this: would you set and cast your own broken bone before making an appointment with a doctor? Of course not, yet that is exactly what every man made religious tradition prescribes.
When Jesus began his ministry in his early thirties he made it a point to mingle with all peoples, not just the religious elite. This infuriated the Pharisees (think “hardcore” religious types) because they viewed such interactions as somehow tarnishing their own delusional perfectionism. During one of his dinners with the “scum and villainy” of Jerusalem, they chastised Jesus. His response was to say “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance” (Luke 5;31, 32). And by claiming he didn’t come for the righteous, he wasn’t letting the Pharisees off the hook either. I’m not sure if sarcasm is the right word to describe his tone, but if when he spoke of “the righteous” you considered yourself in that group, you were missing the point.
“None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God” (Romans 3:10, 11). We all have broken bones that need set. Some of us try to resolve this problem by breaking even more bones and encouraging others to do the same, then calling it “normal” by majority rules while others like the Pharisees, Mr. Hart, and myself try to set the bones on our own and bring the grotesquely inadequate results before the throne of God expecting praise. Instead we are brought back to the E.R. where the bone must once more be broken in order to be set by the actual physician, the one capable of healing the damage properly.
I love the old hymns because in eight brief lines they can remind me of this rich, encouraging truth: that there is no reason to strive and strain against God or to make ourselves fit for him. The gospel of Jesus Christ is this: “that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). And the death of Jesus Christ removes any need we think we may have to rewrite morality to suite our own brokenness or to strive in vain toward making ourselves whole. I listen to and sing the hymns because I am prone to forget, and they were written to remind and reinforce that God loves me and through the blood of Christ forgives me, restores me, and calls me his own, just as I am.
This God is the God We Adore Words by Joseph Hart
How good is the God we adore,
Our faithful, unchangeable Friend,
Whose love is as great as His power,
And knows neither measure nor end.
‘Tis Jesus, the First and the Last,
Whose Spirit shall guide us safe home,
We’ll praise him for all that is past!
And trust Him for all that’s to come.