KEITH W. WARD
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency
Research Triangle Park, NC
Wonderful grace of Jesus, greater than all my sin;
How shall my tongue describe it, where shall its praise begin?
Taking away my burden, setting my spirit free,
For the wonderful grace of Jesus reaches me!
Wonderful grace of Jesus, reaching to all the lost,
By it I have been pardoned, saved to the uttermost;
Chains have been torn asunder, giving me liberty,
For the wonderful grace of Jesus reaches me!
Wonderful grace of Jesus, reaching the most defiled,
By its transforming power, making him God’s dear child.
Purchasing peace and heaven for all eternity;
And the wonderful grace of Jesus reaches me!
REFRAIN: Wonderful the matchless grace of Jesus,
Deeper than the mighty rolling sea;
Higher than the mountain, sparkling like a fountain,
All-sufficient grace for even me;
Broader than the scope of my transgressions,
Greater far than all my sin and shame;
O magnify the precious name of Jesus, praise His name!
—Haldor Lillenas (1885-1959)
“Wonderful Grace of Jesus”—the very title proclaims from the outset and at the beginning of each stanza that this hymn by Haldor Lillenas is a hymn of grace. First introduced in 1918, this song has become a favorite across denominational lines in the Church today. Its upbeat, bouncy meter and somewhat unusual refrain, which splits into two parts, with the melody alternating between the bass/tenor and alto/soprano parts, endear the tune to many. However, as is often the case, the strong doctrinal message carried by the words of the hymn are often obscured in the enthusiasm for the music. In fact, the author himself, in his autobiography, cautions against distorting the words of the hymn by performing it at too rapid a tempo.1
Haldor Lillenas was born in Norway in 1855, but his family emigrated to America when he was a young child.2 He was trained at Deets Pacific Bible College in Los Angeles, and became a pastor in the Church of the Nazarene. He received his musical training through personal study and correspondence courses. Eventually, Lillenas would obtain more renown through his musical endeavors than through his pastoral ministry. In 1925, while pastor of the First Church of the Nazarene in Indianapolis, he founded the Lillenas Publishing Company, which was later purchased by the Nazarene Publishing House, and became its music division. Over his lifetime Lillenas wrote more than 4,000 hymn texts and tunes, many of which are still in use today both by the Nazarene and by other denominations.
While at first glance “Wonderful Grace of Jesus” may seem to be simply a general song of praise to God for His grace, several of its phrases make it clear that the author understands not just the term but the substance of the grace of God. In the first stanza and the chorus, the surpassing nature of God’s grace is set forth with the phrases “greater than all my sin” and “Broader than the scope of my transgressions, greater far than all my sin and shame” (Rom 5:20). It is grace, Lillenas proclaims, that takes away the burden of sin and liberates the captive soul.
In the second stanza, Lillenas demonstrates his understanding of the extent of God’s grace. Not covering just a favored few, the grace of God reaches to “all the lost.” People may choose to reject grace, but God extends the offer of salvation freely to all (Titus 2:11). Also in this stanza, and again in the chorus, the sufficiency of grace is described. Lillenas says he has been “saved to the uttermost” by an “all-sufficient grace.” Lillenas’s view of salvation by grace is not one of meeting God halfway, with both parties contributing to the transaction (Titus 3:5; Eph 2:8). His words here indicate an understanding that when Christ completed His work on the cross, salvation was finished (John 19:30), leaving nothing for man to do but accept the gift of grace and be completely saved.
The third stanza touches on another hallmark of the doctrine of grace—that regardless of the magnitude of one’s sin, God’s grace is available and is sufficient for salvation even to “the most defiled.” This is reminiscent of Fanny Crosby’s words in “To God be the Glory”3 when she wrote “The vilest offender who truly believes, that moment from Jesus a pardon receives.”
The words of this third stanza may strike some as inconsistent with Lillenas’s Nazarene theology. While members of GES generally recognize that ultimate sanctification will occur only in the presence of the Lord in Heaven, Nazarene theology teaches a doctrine of “entire sanctification,” in which the believer can and should obtain complete sanctification in this life.4 Connected to this doctrine is the Nazarene teaching that apostasy in the life of a believer can result in the loss of salvation. Thus, for the Nazarene, there is no true doctrine of eternal security, as promulgated by GES. This makes Lillenas’s words in the third stanza even more interesting, when he writes “Purchasing peace and heaven for all eternity,” and even in the second stanza where he tells us that we have been “saved to the uttermost” (italics added). While these words may have meant something quite different to Lillenas, they seem equally applicable to our understanding of God’s grace in salvation, sanctification, and security.
“Wonderful Grace of Jesus” combines doctrinal truth with a buoyant melody and serves as a good vehicle for teaching the doctrine of grace. It touches on the availability, sufficiency, and efficacy of the salvation offered by grace through faith in Christ, and so carries an appropriate message for believer and unbeliever alike. Though we should be aware that Lillenas’s own theology may not line up completely with that of most GES readers , his words do carry the Gospel of grace, making this hymn worthy of the category “Hymn of Grace.”
1Paul G. Hammond, “Wonderful Grace of Jesus,” in Handbook to The Baptist Hymnal (Nashville: Convention Press, 1992), 277-78.
2Hammond, “Lillenas, Haldor,” Ibid., 387.
3Reviewed in JOTGES (Spring 96), 97-99.
4Manual (1993-1997), Church of the Nazarene, (Kansas City: Nazarene Publishing House, 1993), 26-45.