Rev Janice Aiton

When I Survey The Wondrous Cross - Fernando Ortega - YouTube

“When I survey”, “O Sacred Head Surrounded”, “There is a Green Hill”, even “The Old Rugged Cross” Many of our hymns feature this most central image and sign of the Christian faith – The Cross of Christ. Today (14th Sept) is Holy Cross Day. It commemorates the occasion of St Helena, the mother of the Emperor Constantine, discovering the remains of the cross on which Jesus was crucified in Jerusalem. This was in the year 326. There can have been little real evidence, 300 years after the event, that the wooden cross presented to St Helena was actually that upon which Christ died. It is reckoned that the pieces of the “True Cross” distributed around the Roman Empire were so numerous that there would have been enough wood to build the entire Roman navy’s fleet of ships. But if the story of the discovery of the True Cross is somewhat dubious; there can be no doubt whatsoever about the centrality of the cross to the Christian faith.

To help us reflect on the centrality of the Christian cross, I thought we could look closer at the hymn “When I survey the wondrous cross” written by Isaac Watts.

This much-loved and much-sung hymn has been widely acknowledged as one of the finest hymns ever written. Erik Routley, a hymnologist of this century, describes it as ‘the most penetrating of all hymns, the most demand­ing, the most imaginative’. It was originally written by Watts in 1707 as a communion hymn, appearing in the third part of his Hymns and Spiritual Songs, with the title ‘Crucifixion to the World by the Cross of Christ’.

When I Survey the Wondrous Cross - Lyrics, Hymn Meaning and Story

When I survey the wondrous Cross
On which the Prince of Glory died,
My richest Gain I count but Loss,
and pour Contempt on all my Pride.

The hymn begins with an unusual word: ‘Survey’, not ‘behold’ nor ‘perceive’, but ‘survey’. At first glance, it appears a somewhat formal and cold word. But in the Oxford English Dictionary ‘survey’ is defined thus: ‘To take a broad general, or comprehensive view of; to view or examine in its whole extent, to consider or contemplate as a whole’. In asking us, therefore, to ‘survey’ the cross Watts is urging us not to be content with a brief and hasty glance at the crucifixion of Christ, but to look at the full extent of the significance of the Cross, for rightly viewed, it is a place of wonders.

The second line originally was ‘Where the young Prince of Glory dy’d’. Watts changed the original line to the present one when it was pointed out to him that the New Testament puts no particular emphasis on the age of Christ at his death. It is worth remembering that when the hymn was first published Watts himself was a young man of thirty-one. It may have been this that brought home to him the fact that the Prince of glory laid down his life in the bloom and vigour of his manhood. The title ‘Prince of Glory’ that Watts gives to Christ is drawn from 1 Corinthians 2:8, where Christ is described as the ‘Lord of glory’ and where the phrase ‘of glory’ indicates Christ’s natural right to glory.

Lines three and four are obviously taken from Philippians 3:7-9. In the light of the Cross Paul saw that he had to write off as sheer loss his own right­eousness. It simply was not good enough for God. Instead, he had to humble himself and accept by faith God’s gift of righteousness in Christ crucified. A serious, prolonged reflection on the Cross leaves no room for spiritual pride. Properly viewed, the Cross leads to a tremendous humbling.

The Living... — Galatians 6:14 (NKJV) - But God forbid that I...

Forbid it, Lord, that I should boast
Save in the Death of Christ my God;
All the vain things that charm me most,
I sacrifice them to his blood.

This second stanza brings us back to the theme verse that Watts assigned to this hymn: Galatians 6:14.- “May I never boast except in the cross.”

When Paul penned these words, he did so as one whose standards of value had been turned upside down. The world he knew, like Watts’ world and our world, boasted in many things, pursued many things, was charmed by many things. In the light of the Cross, however, their value is either negated or minimized. ‘The Cross enables us to sort out our priorities and rethink our scale of values’.

Watts’ high Christology in this stanza is especially noteworthy. Who is Christ? He is ‘my God’. Watts wrote these words in a day when the intel­lectual and theological climate increasingly regarded the doctrine of Christ’s deity with suspicion and the doctrine of the Trinity was under heavy attack. In this way, the hymn is a means of apologetic response to the intellectual currents of the day and a way of inculcating doctrine in the hearts of the faithful.

PPT - The Wonderful Cross PowerPoint Presentation, free download - ID:3147527

But these words also serve to highlight the wonder and amazement that should be ours as we think about the Cross. That the sinless Son of God was willing to die in order to break the power of this vain world over the human soul — should this not cause profound wonder and awe at the love of Christ and of the One who sent him into this world to save sinners?

See from his Head, his Hands, his Feet,
Sorrow and Love flow mingled down;
Did e’er such Love and Sorrow meet,
Or Thorns compose so rich a Crown?

As we look at the Cross steadily, as we survey it, we see the supreme revelation of God’s heart of love for sinners. ‘See, from his head, his hands, his feet’, it is blood that flowed, but the person who ‘surveys’ the Cross properly sees ‘sorrow and love’. Sorrow, Christ’s sorrow in his death; love, his love for us. ‘Did e’er such love and sorrow meet?’ Watts’ rhetorical question clearly expects a ‘no’ for an answer. Watts looks at the crown of thorns, and sees not the cruel wreath of thorns but a glittering crown encircling Christ’s brow. What is the Cross to the person who views it aright but a revelation of the kingship of Christ over sin and the world, over death and the devil.

When Paul wrote Galatians 6:14, crucifixion was considered so horrible, so loathsome that the Latin word crux (cross) was considered unmentionable in polite Roman society. Even when a person was being condemned to death by crucifixion the sentence used an archaic formula which served as a sort of euphemism: arbori infelici suspendito, ‘hang him on the unlucky tree’. Similarly, the Greek word for ‘cross’, stauros, inspired comparable dread and disgust. Evidently Watts is seeking to recapture something of that shock with the first two lines of this stanza.

Isaac Watts Quote: “Were the whole realm of nature mine, That were a  present far too small: Love so amazing, so divine Demands my soul, my l...”

Were the whole Realm of Nature mine,
That were a Present far too small;
Love so amazing, so divine,
Demands my Soul, my Life, my All.  

This stanza well depicts what lies at the heart of Watts’ evangelicalism — the Cross. But notice, he views the Cross against the vastness of this world, surrounded by the vast distances of the universe. Watts regularly gives his hymns a cosmic background. This vast universe — were it even Watts’ to give — would not be a gift large enough to repay God for what he has given us through the Cross. What Watts does have, though, is his soul — what he is, and his life — what he does, and his all — what he has. God’s total and amazing love demands his total and awe-filled surrender. Finally, we see in this last stanza the keynote of worship: wonder at God’s amazing love and his desire for intimacy with humankind.

On this Holy Cross Day, we give thanks for Christ and the Cross that demonstrated the full extent of his amazing love for us. As we contemplate what this means for us… we listen to the hymn as it is sung…



O God, whom it has pleased to redeem the human race,
through the precious blood of your only begotten Son,
our Lord Jesus Christ: mercifully grant, that we,
who rejoice in the life -giving Cross,
might die to mourn sins and live for righteousness;
through Jesus Christ, our Lord, who lives and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
ever one God, world without end Amen.


St John the Evangelist, Dumfries, is a parish of the Scottish Episcopal Church also serving Methodist parishioners locally.


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