And when Jesus heard it, he said to them, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.” ~Mark 2:17
The 18th Century was an exciting, yet turbulent time in the history of the church. While God was saving countless sinners through the preaching of some spiritual giants, Christian unity was fracturing along doctrinal lines. At times the vitriol was so potent that it seemed the divide between Calvinists and Arminians was greater than that between Christians and Pagans. The story of hymnist Joseph Hart and his hymn “Come, Ye Sinners” gives us a fascinating glimpse into this period, demonstrating the serious consequences of ideas.
In the late 1730’s, Revivalism was in full swing in England and the American colonies, led by dynamic preachers George Whitefield and John Wesley. Though the two had been partners—Whitefield actually left his congregation in Wesley’s care when he left for an evangelistic mission to America—Wesley began to condemn Whitefield’s Calvinistic teachings. Their followers began to split into camps of “Free Grace” vs. “Free Will”, leading to a bitter showdown between Whitefield and the man he had once called his “spiritual father in Christ.”
Whitefield believed that Wesley’s teaching of Universal Redemption cheapened God’s grace by placing salvation in the hands of the free will of sinners. Wesley believed that Whitefield’s teaching of Sovereign Election turned the God of love into a deity of hate, and would lead Christians into antinomianism. The sparks that flew between the two ignited into flames when Wesley preached one of his most passionately Arminian sermons, provocatively entitled “Free Grace” (playing on Whitefield’s own terminology). You can read the full text of this sermon here, and Whitefield’s famous reply here.
Enter Joseph Hart.
Raised in a devout Christian home, Hart wandered far from Christ. He later wrote that he had become a “monstrous sinner” and a “bold-faced rebel” in his youth, but he still wrestled with thoughts about his eternal future. He came to call himself a Calvinist, and began to enthusiastically follow the career of George Whitefield.
Unlike Whitefield—or John Calvin, for that matter—Hart did believe that the doctrine of predestination essentially provided a license to sin, and so he became a proud Antinomian. So when Wesley preached his “Free Grace” sermon on Romans 8:32, Hart penned his own response, titled “The Unreasonableness of Religion.”
Some biographies have called this an “anti-Christian pamphlet,” but that’s not really the case. Rather, Hart contrasted Wesley’s “reason”—by which he meant that man’s unregenerate reason cannot fathom the concept of free grace and must instead devise some means of earning salvation—with true “religion” that attributes salvation to God alone. Had he stopped there, this tract would have been along the lines of Whitefield’s arguments against Wesley. But Hart went on to say that because God’s grace “infallibly saves sinners,” there is no need for the elect to ever demonstrate good works. He even went as far as saying that believers’ sins “do not destroy but often increase their comfort even here.” Where Whitefield was gracious in his response to Wesley, Hart was vicious.
Eventually, Hart’s depravity caught up with him, and led him into depression. He wandered from church to church, looking for peace, but finding that “everything served only to condemn me.” Fittingly, God’s grace found and finally saved Joseph Hart while he visited a Moravian chapel—a Protestant group known for their commitment to the unity of believers.
Hart became truly repentant of his earlier sins, including his antinomianism. He wrote a letter of apology to John Wesley, who had also become reconciled with his friend George Whitefield, though they retained their theological differences. Hart became one of the most revered hymnists of his day, and had over 20,000 people attend his funeral… where he was buried alongside the likes of Isaac Watts, John Bunyan, and John Wesley’s own mother in Bunhill Fields, a little cemetery across the road from Wesley’s house and chapel.
Here are three versions of Hart’s most famous hymn, “Come Ye Sinners”, starting with a great recording from Cambridge’s album Grace Comes Home:
Matthew Smith from Indelible Grace composed a new melody using Joseph Hart’s original lyrics:
Come, ye sinners, poor and wretched,
Weak and wounded, sick and sore;
Jesus, ready, stands to save you,
Full of pity, joined with power.
He is able, He is able;
He is willing; doubt no more.
Come, ye needy, come and welcome;
God’s free bounty glorify;
True belief and true repentance,
Every grace that brings us nigh,
Without money, without money,
Come to Jesus Christ and buy.
Let not conscience make you linger,
Nor of fitness fondly dream;
All the fitness He requireth
Is to feel your need of Him:
This He gives you, this He gives you,
’Tis the Spirit’s rising beam.
Come, ye weary, heavy laden,
Lost and ruined by the fall;
If you tarry till you’re better,
You will never come at all:
Not the righteous, not the righteous,
Sinners Jesus came to call.
I will arise and go to Jesus,
He will embrace me in His arms.
In the arms of my dear Savior,
O there are ten thousand charms.
Given the turbulence of the period in which this hymn (originally titled “Come and Welcome, to Jesus Christ“) was composed, it comes as no surprise that it is one of the most altered hymns ever published. More than 20 different versions of its lyrics have appeared in hymnals. Most replace the final two lines of each stanza with the chorus added anonymously after the author’s death.
Much like Hart’s own life, this hymn has found itself in the middle of the ongoing debate between Calvinists and Arminians. Some assert that the changes rob the original lyrics of their emphasis on God’s sovereignty (“He is able”, “This He gives you”) moving the emphasis to man’s response (“I will arise”).
However, according to at least one biography, these lyrics are based on Hart’s own emotional response to a particularly powerful Whitefield sermon, when he wrote, “I will arise and go to my Father.” Either way, I don’t find anything particularly “Arminian” about the disputed chorus. After all, good Calvinists like Whitefield agree with good Arminians like Wesley that the gospel demands a response.
God’s sovereignty and man’s responsibility are both clearly taught in Scripture, and are thus not in conflict. It is when one is emphasized to the exclusion of the other that we run into difficulty. Hyper-Calvinism and Pelagianism are both serious errors! Yet between those extremes lies a great deal of unity.
Both Whitefield and Wesley would have rejoiced at the words of “Come Ye Sinners”, with its invitation to “true belief and true repentance.” Both would have celebrated with any sinner who, like Hart himself, realized that all that is required for salvation is “to feel your need of Him.” Both would have implored the spiritually needy to “without money, come to Jesus Christ and buy,” echoing the words of Isaiah 55. And both understood that “if you tarry till you’re better, you will never come at all.”
The gospel is a message to the poor and the wretched, the weary and heavy-laden, the weak and the wounded. It is a message of hope, from a God who both willing and able to save those who acknowledge their need, and their insufficiency. It is the message that “Jesus ready stands to save you, filled with pity joined with power.”
And while we Christians will continue to have our differences as to exactly how God saves sinners, anyone who has been given a new heart and can shout that “salvation belongs to our God” (Revelation 7:10) will cheerfully sing this hymn with the glad hope that God’s grace continues to draw the lost!
“Pharasaic zeel and Antinomian security are the two engines of Satan, with which he grinds the church in all ages, as betwixt the upper and the nether millstone. The space between them is much narrower and harder to find than most men imagine. It is a path which the vulture’s eye hath not seen; and none can show it us but the Holy Ghost.”
~ Joseph Hart