Mark Altrogge had the nerve to mess with “Come Thou Fount.” He lodges a complaint that I’ve heard from many others (including our Aussie intern): “There’s a line in the hymn that bothers me. In our church we sing an updated version that dropped ‘Here I raise mine Ebenezer.’ Basically nobody in our church knows what that means anyway (probably because of my poor instruction). We think it has something to do with Ebenezer Scrooge but we don’t know exactly what.”
But he has a more serious, theological beef with the song. One of the lines says, “Prone to wander, Lord I feel it, prone to leave the God I love.” Altrogge responds, “Though I know believers are tempted to wander and tempted to be unfaithful to Christ at times, I don’t see that Scripture says we are still ‘prone’ to sin and wander.” Rather, “The Bible says believers are ‘prone’ to obey the God they love. Prone to follow Jesus.”
He goes to Ezekiel and these powerful words:
I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules.(Ezekiel 36:25-27)
He explains that although indwelling sin remains, it no longer dominates. Rather, the Holy Spirit causes us to obey God’s statutes and motivates us to obey the Lord. “Yes we once were prone to wander. But Jesus’ death on the cross cured us of that tendency.”
The comments are interesting and Ricky Alcantar nails it in his defense of the hymn as he looks to the context of that verse, showing that the hymnwriter is pointing to a genuine tendency to wander. Within our lives are these opposing desires to honor God and to honor self, to flee from sin and to flee to it. This is the simul justus et peccator of Martin Luther (and the “wretched man that I am” of Romans 7), the fact that we are simultaneously righteous and sinful, sinful in our actions and yet righteous in our standing before God. In good conscience I can continue to sing that I am prone to wander.
Yet I don’t want to take away from Altrogge’s application. As a Calvinist, whose theology of the doctrine of God’s grace begins with Total Depravity, I know that I am prone to tacitly discount God’s grace in my life in favor of declarations of my own wretchedness. I can almost find a strange and ugly kind of delight in my sin, thinking that the more sinful I am, the more my life displays God’s grace. “If he can save a sinner even this awful, then he must be a great God.” And, of course, there is some truth to this. But God also displays his power, his sovereignty, in destroying the grip sin once had on me. God’s grace is shown not only in salvation but also in sanctification. My mother has often remarked that one of the most powerful evidences of God’s grace in a life is when holiness begins to be the natural response to adversity or to being sinned against. I am sure that every Christian can attest to seeing some of this in his own life.
There are many areas in my life where I was once prone to wander, but am now prone to obey. There was a time when a certain sin was almost irresistible to me, where it called and drew me and where I felt almost powerless before it. It drew me in and dominated me far more often than I fled from it. But today that same sin has little hold on me. When I encounter that temptation today, it barely stirs my heart. I am now prone to obey; obedience to God is now my default response. This is not my work! I know myself well enough to know that I could never have loosened this sin’s power over me. This is not some act of the will that has hardened me against it. Rather, this is the work of the Holy Spirit, loosening the grip of that sin, and taking it far down the path of putting it to death completely. I realize that the temptation to give in to this sin will never be gone in this life, but there is no doubt that its power has been reduced dramatically and that my default reaction is no longer toward this sin but away from it. That is a powerful testimony to the grace of God.
In this way, Altrogge is exactly right. By the power of the Holy Spirit, we do gain a new inclination away from disobedience and toward sin. Within us is this constant competition, this constant battle, between two “prones.” We are being renewed, we are being made holy, and over the course of a life, sin’s power is fading as the greater inclination toward holiness overwhelms and overcomes the dying inclination to sin.
For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. Now if I do what I do not want, I agree with the law, that it is good. So now it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me.
So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?
(Romans 7:15-24 ESV)