Should we retire “Come, Ye Sinners”?

A friend recently emailed me, asking my thoughts on the last line of the chorus of “Come, Ye Sinners.”

Come, ye sinners, poor and needy,
Weak and wounded, sick and sore;
Jesus ready stands to save you,
Full of pity, love and power.

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.

Ten thousand charms?

We have sung this song for years or decades without really looking at the lyrics. Let’s try to set aside emotional attachment to the lyric for a few minutes, to look at its Biblical validity.

Part 1: Etymology

Etymology is the study of the history of how words and their meanings change over time. It is crucial to understanding the word “charms” and its significance for this lyric.

The word “charm” came into the English language in approximately the 1300s, borrowed from the old French word “charme,” which meant “incantation.” It came into English with a roughly equivalent meaning:

  • incantation
  • magical formula
  • reciting verses of magical power
  • an amulet with magical powers worn to ward off evil spirits

Not until Elizabethan England (1598) was the alternate meaning of “pleasing quality” first used.

According to Merriam-Webster, here, the primary meaning of the word to this day is “the chanting or reciting of a magic spell : incantation / “a practice or expression believed to have magic power.” The secondary meaning is “something worn about the person to ward off evil or ensure good fortune : amulet.” It’s only the tertiary meaning that is the generic usage, “a trait that fascinates, allures, or delights.”

Truth be told, the lyric is actually quite unclear as to which meaning is intended. Does Jesus hold ten thousand spoken magic spells in His arms? Does Jesus hold ten thousand magical amulets in His arms? Does Jesus hold ten thousand traits that fascinate, allure, or delight in His arms?

It is unlikely that the author intended either the first or the second meanings. The third definition doesn’t make linguistic sense, since a trait is a intangible characteristic that cannot be physically held in one’s arms. So Merriam-Webster helpfully offers a fourth and fifth definition:

  • a small ornament worn on a bracelet or chain
  • a fundamental quark that has an electric charge of +2⁄3 and a measured energy of approximately 1.5 GeV; also : the flavor characterizing this particle

It is safe to say that definition 5 would have been unknown, or at least not in common usage, some 150 or 200 years ago. So this leaves the rather absurd fourth definition, that of Jesus holding ten thousand small non-magical ornaments worn on a bracelet or a chain, as the most likely intended meaning.

Can Christians use a word fraught with the two primary meanings this word holds?

Part of the answer must depend upon how serious we as Christians are to take charms, incantations, amulets, and the like.

[EDIT, 3/30/21: Reader Justin Nevins helpfully comments:

While I certainly don’t claim to have any expertise here and am far less qualified to write about it, I did want to offer a bit of nuance that I thought might be helpful as an alternative viewpoint.

I think it is possible the intended meaning of the lyric was the 3rd that you mentioned (“a trait that fascinates, allures, or delights”) but in a slightly less absurd, though maybe still awkward way.

The viewpoint that I think may have been intended is that in Jesus’ arms are found 10,000 traits that fascinate, allure, or delight…but that that these are not literally/physically held by Him, but instead that they are experienced or discovered by His people when we ourselves are held in His embrace.

Now, that said, I still find it confusing, awkward, and less helpful than perhaps saying something far more transparent and not apt to be controversial, but this viewpoint helps me live with it and sing along when I hear it. Take that for what you will.

Thanks for doing the difficult work to consider these sorts of things and write about them!

This is a valid counterpoint and is a fairly persuasive case about the author’s original intent. Changing meanings of words through time are still worth considering, but this is more likely than not what the author of the chorus originally intended.]

Part 2: God’s View of Witchcraft

Thanks to C.S. Lewis and Harry Potter, among others, our culture takes witchcraft lightly. But God does not.

Deuteronomy 10:10-12 states:

There shall not be found among you any one that maketh his son or his daughter to pass through the fire, or that useth divination, or an observer of times, or an enchanter, or a witch. Or a charmer, or a consulter with familiar spirits, or a wizard, or a necromancer. For all that do these things are an abomination unto the LORD: and because of these abominations the LORD thy God doth drive them out from before thee.

Exodus 22:18 is succinct and to the point:

Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live.

There are assorted applications of these principles—or instances of them being disregarded—throughout the rest of the Old Testament. For example, we see Samuel and Josiah, two of the bright spots in Israel’s history, following these commands. Witchcraft and wizardry consist of attempts to apply the power of Satan to natural or supernatural means—and as such, Biblically speaking, there are no good witches. All witches and wizards alike are active combatants in the war against God.

(This, incidentally, is the key issue with what makes Lewis’s writings problematic in this context; he asserted that there could be good magic, using that term for the powers and entities representing Christ / Christianity / the good side. Totally apart from the impact of the premise on the acceptance or toleration of witchcraft in Christian circles today, using the terminology of Satan’s powers to represent the actions of Christ’s powers brings up an entirely separate Scriptural discussion and violation, the practice condemned in Isaiah 5:20: “Woe unto them that call evil good, and good, evil.”)

But, you may ask, is this all Old Testament theology, and as such (you might aver) has no bearing on us today?

First, Jesus fulfilled the ceremonial law. But the moral law—where God states what is right and what is wrong—remains unchanged. What was morally right under the Old Testament remains morally right today, and what was morally wrong remains morally wrong today. As Paul states in Galatians 3, the law was our schoolmaster, to bring us to Christ. If God did not give us a standard for moral right and wrong, we would not know what moral wrong was or that we had committed it, and we would not know that we needed a Savior.

Second, even though what is clearly outlined as a moral wrong in the Old Testament remains a moral wrong, this particular teaching is emphasized in the New Testament. In Galatians 5:19-21, Paul states:

Now the works of the flesh are manifest, which are these; Adultery, fornication, uncleanness, lasciviousness, idolatry, witchcraft, hatred, variance, emulations, wrath, strife, seditions, heresies, envyings, murders, drunkenness, revellings, and such like: of the which I tell you before, as I have also told you in time past, that they which do such things shall not inherit the kingdom of God.

Now, while the New Testament clearly condemns witchcraft, I concede that it contains no commands to kill witches. This is explained simply enough; the portions of the Old Testament containing the law were given to men in civil government leadership positions, and contained a civil law. The family, the church, and the state all have separate jurisdictions, roles, and responsibilities, and capital punishment is the jurisdiction of the state and not of the family or of the church. The New Testament was written to a persecuted minority of individuals/families and church leaders, not civil magistrates; the Christian church had little to no involvement in government until Constantine, centuries later. As such, it rarely touches upon the area of civil law.

However fascinating this side discussion may be, let us return to the key point of the section: God takes witchcraft seriously. So should we.

Part 3: Hymn History

At this juncture in the discussion, one might expect that I have been building up to a conclusion that we should retire the hymn. Perhaps surprisingly, I do not take this viewpoint.

The hymn was written by Joseph Hart and was published in Hymns Composed on Various Subjects in 1759. The original lyrics of the hymn had no reference to “charms”!

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 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, without money,
Come to Jesus Christ and buy.

Come, ye weary, heavy laden,
Bruised and broken by the fall;
If you tarry till you’re better,
You will never come at all;
Not the righteous, not the righteous, not the righteous,
Sinners Jesus came to call.

Let not conscience make you linger,
Nor of fitness fondly dream;
All the fitness He requires
Is to feel your need of Him.
This He gives you, this He gives you, this He gives you,
‘Tis the Spirit’s rising beam

Lo! th’incarnate God, ascended
Pleads the merit of His blood;
Venture on Him, venture wholly;
Let no other trust intrude;
None but Jesus, none but Jesus, none but Jesus,
Can do helpless sinners good.

The industrious editors of Cyber Hymnal have provided a sheet music and midi of the original lyric with a compatible tune.  [EDIT, 6/7/12: Broken link removed.]

About a century after the original publication, an anonymous editor chopped off the last three lines of every verse and added the chorus we know today.

Matthew Smith, leader of the Indelible Grace Music touring band and a songwriter who writes new musical settings to classic hymn texts, provides a worthy analysis of the theological impact of the edits. Here’s an excerpt from the full post that takes the edits made to the fourth verse as a case in point for the whole:

Removing the last two lines and replacing them with that refrain absolutely wrecks the intended meaning. Hart strongly believed (based on this and his other hymns) that it is God who changes the sinner’s heart, and without this move of the Spirit, the sinner is completely unable to even feel his need for Christ. … I think that whoever originally gutted it of its meaning did so because he or she was offended by the truths Hart presented and wanted to put forth a more man-centered, pseudoromantic version instead.

Part 4: Conclusion

God takes witchcraft seriously. We dare not presume to do any less.

In the poorly crafted and anonymously added chorus, the concluding word is an insurmountable problem. Either the author intended the primary or secondary meaning, at which point the chorus must be discarded on theological grounds as heresy, or he meant the tertiary or quaternary meaning, at which point the chorus must be discarded on linguistic grounds as absurd.

Thus, I am not making the case to retire the song. But we certainly should return to the original lyric.

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