Then Sings My Soul: When I Survey the Wondrous Cross

A prominent figure once complained about the impact of music upon our young people. He said, “This new music is promoting the moral degeneracy of our adolescents.” We might think this statement was made by someone within the past fifty years, but it’s actually a quote of the ancient Greek philosopher Plato.

Without question, music has a profound impact on human beings. Music continues to shape and add color to the most important moments of our lives. Spouses have favorite songs that conjure up happy memories of courtship. Certain compositions are immediately associated with specific holidays or other special occasions. Music can be used to change or reflect different moods. Even King Solomon enjoyed listening to David play his harp. It helped him find peace when he was angry or depressed. Music still has that effect on people today, especially spiritual music.

The Bible urges us, “Sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs to God with thankful hearts” (Colossians 3:16 NLT). For nearly two thousand year now, Christians have been doing just that. And the hymns that we sing help shape and color our worship experience. They help draw us into to God’s presence. We often experience His majesty through music. While there will always be new spiritual songs and hymns being written, I think it’s important that we not forget the old ones.

So, over the next several weeks, I’d like to reacquaint you with some of the greatest hymns of the church—and not just the music, but the message behind the melody. Last Sunday we looked at Amazing Grace, both the song and the story behind it. This Sunday, I’d like to familiarize you with another great hymn—When I Survey the Wondrous Cross.

This song is thought, by many, to be the greatest hymn ever written. Its author, Isaac Watts, was born in 1674 in Southampton England, during a time when the Catholic Church was militantly opposing reformationists. Isaac’s father was imprisoned because of his dissenting views and affiliation with a congregational church.

Young Isaac Watts followed in his father’s footsteps and was something of a savant, learning Latin at the age of five, Greek at nine, French at eleven and Hebrew at thirteen.  When he discovered his penchant for music, he changed the experience of worshippers for centuries to come.

You see, up until this point in church history, the singing consisted of slow, ponderous Psalms in which each line was first read by an appointed deacon and was followed by the droning of the congregation. The songs were about God and his greatness, but they were always written from an impersonal third-person point of view.

Isaac Watts began writing hymns that were based on his own personal feelings, which were very controversial in his day. When I Survey the Wondrous Cross is an example of this type of hymn written by Watts.  It’s the first known hymn to be written in the first person. It was all about his own personal relationship with God and his experience at the foot of the cross.

The first verse sings to us about the majesty of the cross.




The cross—can you turn any direction without seeing one? Perched atop a steeple. Carved into a graveyard headstone. Engraved in a ring or suspended on a chain. When Isaac Watts contemplated the cross, he saw something majestic—something wondrous. And so, he writes, “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.”

Over the centuries the cross has become a wondrous symbol of faith, hope, and love. It wasn’t always like that, though. During the turbulent times of Roman tyranny, the cross was merely a symbol of death and oppression. Death by crucifixion was normally reserved for only the vilest offenders—rebels or insurrectionists. It is even written in the Scriptures, “Cursed is everyone who is hung on a tree” (Galatians 3:13 NLT). Why then would this tool of torture come to symbolize faith in a loving God?

The symbols of other religions are more upbeat: the six-pointed star of David, the crescent moon of Islam, a lotus blossom for Buddhism—yet a cross for Christianity. An instrument of execution. Could you imagine wearing a tiny electric chair around your neck? Or a hanging a gold-plated hangman’s noose on your wall? Yet we do so with the cross. Some even make the sign of the cross as they pray. Can you imagine making the sign of, say, a guillotine? Instead of a touch on the forehead, it would be a karate chop to the neck! Doesn’t quit feel the same.

So why the cross?

The answer isn’t found in the cross itself, but in the Prince of glory who died upon it. The cross was something murderous until Jesus touched it and made it majestic. Jesus wasn’t just another criminal or degenerate who deserved execution by crucifixion. Jesus was holiness in human flesh. He was glory and goodness incarnate. The Bible says, “The Son radiates God’s own glory and expresses the very character of God, and he sustains everything by the mighty power of his command. When he had cleansed us from our sins, he sat down in the place of honor at the right hand of the majestic God in heaven” (Hebrews 1:3 NLT).

If you were to stand beneath the cross that Friday afternoon and touch the velvety dirt, you would find it moist with the blood of God. Jesus—the Prince of Glory—forever changed the way the world would view the cross. No longer a tool of torture or an instrument of execution; the cross is a means of salvation.

That brings us to the next verse of Isaac Watts hymn and the mystery of the cross.




The words of “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross” tell a wonderful story.  They tell of the paradoxical beauty of sacrifice.  They tell a story of pain and suffering woven together with joy and love. Isaac Watts describes the mystery of the cross like this: “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?”

Isaac describes the cross as the intersection, meeting place of love and sorrow—suffering and salvation. And that’s what it is. You can even see it in the design. One beam horizontal—the other vertical. One reaches out—like God’s love. The other reaches up—as does God’s holiness. One represents the width of his love; the other reflects the heights of his holiness. The cross is the intersection. The cross is where God forgave his children without lowering his standards.

How could he do that? The Bible puts it this way: “For God made Christ, who never sinned, to be the offering for our sin, so that we could be made right with God through Christ” (2 Corinthians 5:21 NLT). This is the mystery and the paradox of the cross—by His death, we live. Through his wounds, we are healed.

One of my favorite newspaper comic strips is B.C. by Johnny Hart. He drew one, years ago, that shows Wiley sitting under a tree writing a poem titled The Suffering Prince. He writes, “Picture yourself tied to a tree, condemned for the sins of eternity. Then picture a spear, parting the air, seeking your heart to end your despair. Suddenly—a knight in armor of white, stands in the gap betwixt you and its flight. And shedding his armor of God for you—bears the lance that runs him through. His heart has been pierced that yours may beat, and the blood of his corpse washes your feet. Picture yourself in raiment white, cleansed by the blood of the lifeless knight. Never to mourn the Prince who was downed, for he is not lost! It is you who are found.”

And do you know why Jesus took the cross for us? Of course, you do. He did it because he loves us. The Bible says, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son…” (John 3:16). Could you do that? Would you do that? Would you offer the life of your child for someone else? I wouldn’t. There are those for whom I would give my life. But ask me to make a list of those for whom I would kill my daughter? I don’t even need a pencil. The sheet will be blank. The list has no names.

But God’s list contains the names of every person who ever lived. That’s the scope of his love. And that’s the reason for the cross. He loves the world.

Aren’t you glad John 3:16 doesn’t read: “For God so loved the rich…” Or, “For God so loved the famous…” Or, “For God so loved the thin…” It doesn’t say God so loved the sober or the saintly or the perfect or the pretty or the young or the old. No, when we read John 3:16, we simply read, “For God so loved the world.”

And that includes you and me.

I can only imagine the sorrow God must have felt the moment Jesus died, but if there were any tears of sorrow, they were mixed with love—sorrow and love flowing mingled down. That, finally, brings us to the last verse of this beautiful hymn and the mandate of the cross.




As Isaac Watts imagined himself standing there in the shadow of the cross, witnessing the majesty and mystery of it all, he must have asked himself, “What do I do? What can I do? Where do I go from here?” And he summarized the demands of the cross like this: “Were the whole realm of nature mine, that were an offering far too small; love so amazing so divine, demands my soul, my life, my all.”

Jesus demanded as much when he said, “If any of you wants to be my follower, you must turn from your selfish ways, take up your cross daily, and follow me” (Luke 9:23 NLT). In Jesus day, no one carried a cross unless they expect to die on it. When he calls us to deny ourselves and carry our cross daily; he’s telling us to die to ourselves and live for him. Paul understood that when he said, “My old self has been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me. So I live in this earthly body by trusting in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Galatians 2:20).

Several years ago, Chris Tomlin was working on staff as a worship minister in east Texas and wanted to find a way to revive this hymn for a new generation, so that they could claim it as their own just as their parents and grandparents had. So he tinkered with it a little bit and added a chorus with these words:

Oh the wonderful cross, Oh the wonderful cross

Bids me come, and die, and find

That I may truly live.

That’s the mandate of the cross. It bids us to come and die. It demands my soul, my life, my all. The first opportunity Chris had to lead his version of the song was at a Passion Conference in Memphis. Forty thousand college students sat in clusters on grassy mounds around the stage, as Chris Tomlin and Matt Redman lead worship together. And as they led The Wonderful Cross for the first time, thousands of people began to stand and sing with them, lifting their hands and voices toward heaven. And about half way through the song, these two young men begin walking toward the stage carrying a ten-foot-tall cross. They started at the back of the crowd, so they have a long way to go and as they walk people begin to follow after them. Once they reach the front, they turned the cross upright and plant it right there in the grass. Dozens of students started to swarm the spot, falling on their knees at the foot of the cross. Tears streamed down their faces, as they surveyed the wondrous cross, as they poured contempt on all their pride, and realized what the cross demanded of them. Thousands of students gave their hearts and lives to Jesus that day.

Today, the cross still bids us to come and die and find that we may truly live.




Isaac Watts, and his hymn “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross” helped to shape the future of church music as we know it.  I think he would have been proud to know that Chris Tomlin is continuing his tradition. Over the next few weeks, there are many more brilliant hymns for us to delve into.




In the meantime, as we stand and sing this wonderful hymn, I want to invite you to survey the wondrous cross for yourself. As always, you have a choice. You can choose to go your own way and live your own life, if you wish. But when you see love so amazing, so divine, how can your heart remain untouched? How can we offer anything less than our souls, our lives, and our all? If you’re ready to come to cross, and give your heart and life to Jesus—please talk with me as we stand and sing.

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