Journal of the Grace Evangelical Society, Autumn 1991—Volume 4:2
A Hymn of Grace
Not What These Hands Have Done
Frances A. Mosher*
Not what these hands have done
Can save this guilty soul;
Not what this toiling flesh has borne,
Can make my spirit whole.
Not what I feel or do,
Can give me peace with God;
Not all my prayers, or sighs, or tears,
Can ease my awful load.
Thy work alone, my Saviour,
Can ease this weight of sin;
Thy blood alone, O Lamb of God,
Can give me peace within.
Thy love to me, O God,
Not mine, O Lord, to Thee,
Can rid me of this dark unrest,
And set my spirit free.
No other work save Thine,
No meaner blood will do;
No strength save that which is divine,
Can bear me safely through.
Thy grace alone, O God,
To me can pardon speak;
Thy power alone, O Son of God,
Can this sore bondage break.
I bless the Christ of God,
I rest on love divine;
And with unfaltering lip and heart
I call the Saviour mine.
Horatius Bonar (1808-1889)
Christians convinced of the truth of salvation by grace through faith frequently focus on the point of salvation—the once-for-all transaction in which grace through faith in Christ alone forever removes the believer from the power of sin and death and objectively assures his eternal life as a redeemed child of God. "Not What These Hands Have Done" leaves no doubt that its author, Horatius Bonar, held a scripturally sound view of this transaction. The first stanza's declaration that the works of our hands and the toils of our flesh cannot save us has scriptural basis in Titus 3:5 and Rom 4:5. Bonar further asserts in the third, fifth, and sixth stanzas that God's grace by way of Christ's blood atonement provides our only deliverance from sin, a view supported by 1 John 1:7 and Eph 2:8.
However, some phrases in the hymn seem to address spiritual issues beyond the initial point of salvation. The third stanza's references to being eased of "this weight of sin" and receiving "peace within," and the fourth stanza's mention of being rid of "this dark unrest" may speak less of the settled fact of the author's salvation than of his present experience and enjoyment of it. This, too, he proclaims, is by grace, rather than by fleshly effort. Passages such as Gal 5:22 and Phil 4:7 support the concept that, just as he could not be saved through legalism, neither can the Christian experience God's peace and joy after salvation through adherence to legalistic systems.
This is one of the more than one hundred of Bonar's hymns still in use. Bonar was born in Edinburgh, Scotland. He became a minister in the Church of Scotland, but later joined the Free Church and became Moderator of the General Assembly. Besides publishing several volumes of religious verse, he also edited two religious periodicals: Border Watch and Journal of Prophecy.1
The traditional musical setting for "Not What These Hands Have Done" is a hymn tune by James MeGranahan (1840-1907). Those who read the "Hymn of Grace" feature in the Spring 1991 issue of JOTGES may be interested to know that McGranahan assisted Ira Sankey in publishing several volumes of Gospel Hymns following Philip Bliss's death in 1876.2 In McGranahan's setting, the third stanza is used as a refrain repeated after each of the other stanzas. A more recent setting of the lyrics is the hymn tune "Aurora," composed by Norman Johnson in 1979.
1Phil Kerr, Music in Evangelism (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1962), 192.
2William Jensen Reynolds, A Survey of Christian Hymnody (Chicago: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, Inc., 1963), 106.