Stephen D. Doe
The Orthodox Presbyterian Church does not have an official flag or flower or tree, as a state might have, but it seems to me that we do have, by unofficial consent, an "official" hymn.
Through the years that I have been part of the OPC, I have sung "How Sweet and Awful [or, Awesome] Is the Place" at many worship services and other meetings. This hymn is often sung at our general assemblies by a room full of men, many singing it from memory. Why does this hymn by Isaac Watts have such a special place in the life of our denomination?
This is a hymn about the corporate experience of God's people. Far too many hymns emphasize only the individual's new, redeemed relationship to God. Isaac Watts reminds us that Christ loved the church (Eph. 5:25), by using phrases like "all our hearts and all our songs," "each of us cries," "that sweetly drew us in," "else we had still refused," "perished in our sin," "O our God," and "we long to see." Here is the church as a whole, not merely a group of individuals, considering our redemption as God's people.
The Orthodox Presbyterian Church seeks to maintain a strong sense of the corporate nature of our salvation, resisting the individualism of general evangelicalism. We are part of a people, all redeemed by the precious blood of Christ (Acts 20:28).
We are all filled with thanksgiving to God, not only that Christ saves us individually, but also that he is the Savior of the whole body (Eph. 5:23).
This hymn is also a hymn about God's great sovereign salvation:
"Why was I made to hear thy voice,
And enter while there's room,
When thousands make a wretched choice,
And rather starve than come?"
'Twas the same love that spread the feast
That sweetly drew us in;
Else we had still refused to taste,
And perished in our sin.
The OPC is Calvinistic in its theology. We acknowledge that salvation is by God's gracious action, not man's deserving. Isaac Watts wrote about this as well. God sovereignly causes those who are spiritually dead in their sins to hear his voice (Eph. 2:1ff.; Ezek. 37:1ff.). He woos them by his love: "This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins" (1 John 4:10; cf. Deut. 7:7-8).
This is God's covenantal love, which he sets on ungodly rebels (Deut. 7:7-8; Romans 5:6-8), drawing them to Jesus (John 6:37, 39, 44, 65). This hymn is a declaration of thanksgiving to God for drawing us into his family—even though we had neither place nor claim, apart from his giving.
Those men whom I have seen singing this hymn certainly remember that they owe their salvation to God alone. And the Orthodox Presbyterian Church must continue to love and proclaim the gospel of God's great mercy in salvation.
This is a missionary and evangelistic hymn. Watts speaks of the longing of God's people to see him send the gospel far and near:
Pity the nations, O our God,
Constrain the earth to come;
Send thy victorious Word abroad,
And bring the strangers home.
The Orthodox Presbyterian Church was born, in part, out of missionary zeal, through the formation of the Independent Board for Presbyterian Foreign Missions by J. Gresham Machen and others. Even through lean times as a denomination, foreign missionaries have been sent out by the OPC to "bring the strangers home" through the preaching of the gospel on other continents. This is in keeping with Christ's great command to the church to "go" (Matt. 28:19; cf. Acts 1:8). Surely singing this hymn reminds us of the church's missionary task.
Watts also writes of the right desire of God's people to see churches grow as worshipers increase in number. He pictures that as another prayer in the closing verse of his hymn:
We long to see thy churches full,
That all the chosen race
May, with one voice and heart and soul,
Sing thy redeeming grace.
This is not church growth for the sake of growth, but for the glory of God. God should be, and will be, worshiped by a great host of the redeemed (Rev. 7:9). The OPC, though still a relatively small denomination, has been blessed with a significant rate of growth in the past few years. We may be tempted to desire growth for its own sake, but Isaac Watts reminds us that we should desire the elect to be brought in so that they may glorify God. They will sing of God's saving grace as the innumerable host before his throne sings, "Salvation belongs to our God, who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb" (Rev. 7:10). This emphasis on the glory of God in the salvation of sinners is an important balance that the church must retain.
You can see that throughout this hymn, Isaac Watts speaks of the love of God. It is a love that eternally "displays" its choice treasures to God's chosen people. It is a love that both spreads the feast and also draws in sinners (stanza 4). This covenantal love is the hope and comfort of God's people. Every one of us should know that we are called, converted, and kept only by the gracious love of God (John 3:16; Rom. 8:28-39).
The apostle Paul tells us that this love is at the heart of the missionary impulse: "Christ's love compels us... We are therefore Christ's ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ's behalf: Be reconciled to God" (2 Cor. 5:14, 20). The Orthodox Presbyterian Church, being of no account in the eyes of men, needs to praise God for this love and declare the mercy that can be found only in Jesus Christ.
Do the words of Isaac Watts measure up as the "official" hymn of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church? I think so. The OPC must continue to uphold the centrality of the church in God's redemptive purpose. The OPC must remain committed to the biblical gospel of God's saving, sovereign grace. The OPC must not lose her missionary zeal or fall into the trap of wanting growth for any reason other than the glory of God. And the OPC must constantly remember that it is the love of God in Jesus Christ, undeserved but freely given, which is our source of comfort and joy. So open your hymnals to "How Sweet..."—and sing!
Mr. Doe is the pastor of Bethel Reformed OPC in Fredericksburg, VA. He quotes Watts's hymn from the original (1961) edition of Trinity Hymnal (#271). Reprinted from New Horizons, November 1999.