Series introduction: The title of this series comes from I Corinthians 14:15, where Paul said, “I will sing with the spirit, and I will sing with the understanding also.” I want to help you sing hymns with understanding; that is, to understand what you are singing with your mind, so that you can rejoice in what you are singing with your spirit. If you don’t understand something mentally, you cannot sing it spiritually. Understanding is the kindling that fuels worship, and I want to help pile up kindling in your heart.
The first stanza of “When I Survey” moved from high wonder at the cross to low distaste at sin. The second stanza carries on in the vein begun there, and shows how Watts intends to “pour contempt” on his pride.
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.
The singer’s mind can’t help but recall Scripture as the stanza begins, where the apostle Paul said, “God forbid that I should glory, save in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Gal. 6:14). As Paul looks with the eyes of faith upon Christ’s death, he realizes that he has nothing to boast about in himself – all he contributes to his salvation is “the sin that made it necessary,” as Jonathan Edwards wrote. Christ’s death is the fountain of all blessings for the Christian; He purchased salvation, forgiveness, even Heaven itself for us.
Then Watts turns and looks at the earthly pleasures that occupied so much of his time and charmed him so much. Compared with the cross, they now looked small, empty, transient. And are we not charmed – bewitched, delighted – by so many things on earth that really have no eternal value? We cheer passionately for sports teams; we wait impatiently for our favourite TV shows to begin another season. Yet what are these? Only vain, temporary pleasures that will pass away.
So Watts determines to “sacrifice” those vain things “to his blood.” What does he mean? I think he is saying, “I’m going to sever my connection with useless pleasures for Jesus’ sake.” We should be careful here; God does not ask us to forever renounce all the earthly pleasures He has provided us “richly … to enjoy” (I Tim. 6:17); it is not sinful to enjoy a good meal, a refreshing walk, or even a hockey game. But we must be willing to forsake all to follow Him; if His service conflicts with any pleasure, His service must come first.
Watts’s determination is meant to cause us, as we sing, to say, “Yes; may I never boast about anything except the death of my Saviour; I will sacrifice the vain things I love so much to Him.” Are there things in your life about which you are too passionate – to which you give too much of your time and energy and delight? You were made for more than this: you were made to pour your time and energy and delight into loving and serving Jesus – the one who gave Himself for you. And there is far more joy in Him than in any “vain thing” on earth!