Hail Sacred Union (a Lost Hymn, Rediscovered)

Hail Sacred Union (a Lost Hymn, Rediscovered)

We are forgetful creatures. We spend most of our time from rut to rut, apathetic toward the magic around us and in us. We exist in a universe spoken into existence out of nothing. Trinitarian beauty is woven into every part creation, and every existing fact testifies to God’s existence and his goodness. Our response?

*Yawn*

For unbelievers, this indifference is understandable. Their default disposition, after all, is to suppress the truth about God—they cannot help it, it is in their DNA to whistle in the dark; no one needs to teach them how to resist the overwhelming revelation in which they are immersed. And of course, there, but for the grace of God, go we. Yet, we could say, there, despite the grace of God, go we still. Because, despite the fact that we have had our eyes opened by grace to recognize God’s activity in the world, we respond to his artistry with slow blinks.

But it’s not just the magic of general revelation that we ignore. As Christians we can absent-mindedly read the words of God in the special revelation of Scripture.

God’s words.

Words, that God has spoken and written. We can read a book authored by God absent-mindedly… (go ahead and read that out loud if the ridiculousness didn’t strike you the first time)

For Christians, these words contain promises of assurance. Promises which belong to us in Christ—they’re our (new) birthrights! Promises like:

“Who shall separate us from the love of Christ?  Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? As it is written, ‘For your sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.’ No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” – Romans 8:35-39

It’s a funny thing, that words like this can become familiar to our ears.

Maybe funny isn’t the right word. Odd, or perplexing, perhaps?

Better yet, tragic.

Yes, let’s go with tragic.

It is tragic that we can read these words, or hear them read, and remain un-phased and indifferent. When I stop to think about my own attitude towards the claims in scripture, I’m embarrassed. How jarring does God’s Word have to be to shake me out of my lethargy?

God: Hell itself cannot separate you from my love, Sam.

Me: *Yawn*

We need to be reminded, not just of what the gospel is, but what it means. We need to regularly be grabbed by the shoulders, shaken, and screamed at: ARE YOU PAYING ATTENTION?!

A good hymn does this. When a good hymnists writes a potent line, he is casting light on the same familiar gospel from an unfamiliar direction, thereby exposing you to shades and contours you had either forgotten about, or had never noticed before. The gospel never changes, but like a diamond which refracts light in a thousand ways, we get to be freshly mesmerized by this never-changing-gospel when it’s presented to us from different angles, and when it’s exposed with light from a different direction. This is what John Kent does for us in his hymn, “‘Twixt Jesus and the Chosen Race” (which we are renaming Hail, Sacred Union).

John Kent was an English hymnist who lived at the turn of the 19th century. This fellow was actually a shipbuilder who wrote hymns as a hobby, and he was relatively unknown even in his own time (despite the fact that his hymns were among Charles Spurgeon’s favorites). As relatively obscure as Kent was during his own lifetime, his obscurity only increased over time; the last hymnal to include Kent’s hymns in them was published in 1872. This is something of a travesty, however, because John Kent is a wordsmith on all accounts, and his songs beautify the gospel better than most.

This particular song was discovered by Pastor Ronni Kurtz, who stumbled upon it while researching Charles Spurgeon for his (other) job. He approached me with the idea of resurrecting this hymn with a new, singable melody, and I was eager to do it. You can listen to it here.

Let’s break down each of these verses a bit more:

Between Jesus and the chosen race

Subsists a bond of sovereign grace

That hell, with its infernal doom 

Shall never dissolve or rend in two

Right out of the gate, Kent drops this breathtaking statement: Jesus and his chosen race (his Church) are bound by grace with a bond that hell itself could never touch. Kent is referring to the doctrine that we at Emmaus are in love with: union with Christ. When are united to Christ by faith, we are united to all of Christ for all of eternity – we “hitch our cart” to a “wagon” that sits at the right hand of God the Father. This is the doctrine Kent intends to examine throughout this wonderful hymn.

This sacred bond, shall never break

Though earth should to her center shake

Rest doubting saint assured of this

For God has pledged his holiness

Now Kent applies this doctrine to the uneasy and tender conscience of the doubting Christian. “God’s very own holiness” Kent assures the doubting saint, “is pledged to this promise: your bond with Christ cannot be broken. His status as a ‘holy God’ is staked on your salvation!”

He swore but once, the deed was done;
‘Twas settled by the great Three in One
Christ was appointed to redeem

All that the Father loved in Him

In this verse, Kent points to the fact that this gospel message—this glorious, unbreakable union between Jesus and his Bride—was a plan conspired in eternity past between the three persons of the Trinity. This intra-Trinitarian agreement is what theologians refer to as the pactum salutis, and it essentially conveys the idea that the gospel is a God-wrought plan from beginning to end. That first line communicates the finality of this divine agreement; Kent is saying, “He swore it, and it was done.” Each member of the Trinity agrees to play a different role to collectively finding their terminus in the salvation of sinners to this glory. In this verse, Kent alludes to the Father’s role (in love, predestining a people in the Son and appointing the Son to redeem them) and the Son’s role (he obeys the Father and redeems those people). In the last verse, Kent will touch on the Spirit’s role.

Hail, sacred union, firm and strong

How great thy grace, how sweet the song

That rebel worms should ever be

One with incarnate Deity

This is the height of the hymn, the natural burst of doxological gratitude that comes with meditating on the doctrine of union with Christ. Kent highlights the contrast between who we are who the God is we are bound to: we are “rebel worms” who become “one with incarnate Deity.” What else could we do but exclaim, “Hail!”?

One in the tomb, one when he rose

One when he triumphed over his foes

One while in heaven he took his seat

While seraphs sung at hell’s defeat

Here is the most explicit definition of union with Christ we find in this hymn. It is in this verse that Kent explains what we have in our union: Christ’s death becomes our death, Christ’s resurrection becomes our resurrection, Christ’s triumph over his enemies, becomes our triumph over his enemies, Christ’s security in heaven becomes our security in heaven. In this single verse, we are reminded of past, present, and future salvation—we have justification, sanctification, and glorifications. All of our sins were nailed to the cross with Christ when we were united to him there, and they were all buried in the grave when he took us there, and we have all been resurrected with him to walk in newness of life by virtue of his resurrection. That’s what our union grants us at our initial conversation. But now that we have been united to Christ in his resurrection, we also get his triumphant life in order to overcome our foes (our own sin, our flesh). In other words, our continued victorious triumph over our sin is a privilege afforded to us in our union with Christ! And lastly, we see highlighted in this verse the reality that our station before the Father is secured by this union as well. In other words, if you are a Christian, your chances of spending eternity in the presence of the Father are as good as Jesus‘.

Blessed by the wisdom and the grace

The eternal love and faithfulness

That’s in the gospel scheme revealed

And is by God his Spirit sealed

In this concluding verse, Kent now explains the third Person’s role in this Triune bond—the Spirit seals and applies all of these glorious truths. Which is to simply affirm the reality that our union with Christ is a spiritual union (that is, a Spirit-ual—Holy Spirit wrought—union). It is the person of the Holy Spirit who does all the binding work we’ve been reveling in up to this point.

 

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