And Can It Be That I Should Gain

Free Grace
Charles Wesley, 1738
Addressed to God
And can it be that I should gain
   an int’rest in the Savior’s blood?Lev. 17:11; Luke 22:20; Rom. 5:9
Died he for me, who caused his pain?Rom. 5:10; 8:7; Heb. 12:3
   For me, who him to death pursued?
Amazing love! How can it be
that thou, my God, shouldst die for me?Acts 20:28 (see WCF 8.7)
’Tis myst’ry all! Th’Immortal dies:John 12:34; Rev. 1:18
   who can explore his strange design?Rom. 11:33–34
In vain the first-born seraph tries1 Pet. 1:12
   to sound the depths of love divine.
’Tis mercy all! Let earth adore,Eph. 2:4
let angel minds inquire no more.
He left his Father’s throne above
   (so free, so infinite his grace!),
humbled himself (so great his love!),Phil. 2:8
   and bled for all his chosen race.1 Pet. 2:9
’Tis mercy all, immense and free;
for, O my God, it found out me.Luke 19:10
Long my imprisoned spirit layIs. 42:7; Zech. 9:11; Gal. 3:22–23
   fast bound in sin and nature’s night;Is. 61:1; 1 Cor. 2:14
thine eye diffused a quick’ning ray;Ps. 36:9; Ps. 80; Prov. 16:15; John 8:12
   I woke, the dungeon flamed with light;Acts 12:6–9
my chains fell off, my heart was free;
I rose, went forth, and followed thee.
No condemnation now I dread;Rom. 8:1
   Jesus, and all in him, is mine!Song 2:16; Eph. 1:3; Phil. 3:8
Alive in him, my living Head,Rom. 6:11; Col. 2:19
   and clothed in righteousness divine,Is. 61:10; Zech. 3:4; Eph. 6:14
bold I approach th’eternal throne,Heb. 4:16
and claim the crown, through Christ, my own.2 Tim. 4:8

“Great indeed, we confess, is the mystery of godliness” (1 Tim. 3:16). Since God has revealed wonderful things about his plan of salvation, it is our privilege as believers to treasure them up and to ponder them in our hearts. We wonder at the eternal agreement of the Trinity in the covenant of redemption; we wonder at God’s foreknowledge, election, justification, adoption, sanctification, and glorification of his saints; we wonder at how he providentially ordered history to prepare for the Messiah’s work; we wonder at how the benefits of that work were communicated unto the elect of all ages; we wonder at how the Son of God was manifested in the flesh, vindicated by the Spirit, seen by angels, proclaimed among the nations, believed on in the world, and taken up in glory. The list goes on and on. But, because we see in a mirror dimly, it must be admitted that all these wonders remain, to some extent, abstractions for us in this life. Experientially, the most amazing thing about salvation is that it is for me.

“God has appointed for me another offspring instead of Abel,” declared Eve (Gen. 4:25, alluding back to the gospel in 3:15). The aged mother of Isaac declared, “God has made laughter for me” (Gen. 21:6). Similarly, Jacob: “I am not worthy of the least of all the deeds of steadfast love and all the faithfulness that you have shown to your servant” (Gen. 32:10). And so it is with all the saints, from David (2 Sam. 7:18) to Mary (Luke 1:48–49) to Paul (1 Tim. 1:15) to us. We are struck by the personal nature of salvation not because we are individualistic or egotistic but because, of all the elements in the story of salvation, the one we have witnessed most directly is our own unworthiness.

In this hymn I, the Christian convert, humbly muse before God over how preposterous it is—humanly speaking—that he should go to such lengths to save me. The syntax reflects my bewilderment, beginning as it does with a coordinating conjunction (what does the “and” coordinate?) then stumbling over the prepositional phrase “for me,” uttered three times in the first stanza, including its closing rhyme. One gauge of mercy’s immensity and freeness is that it “found out me” (stanza 3). In stanza 4 the poet, writing just days after his own conversion in May 1738, vividly describes it using metaphors of liberation from prison and “quickening” (that is, the giving of life). Such articulate testimony emboldens. Even as it helps the unconverted to imagine the possibility of conversion, it reminds the converted of how foolish it would be to fall back into fear when God’s grace has proven itself so lavish. “What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?” (Rom. 8:31–32)

Wesley’s poetry in its exuberance (the first three stanzas are riddled with interjections) could easily overpower a tune any less colorful than itself. SAGINA is the most vocally challenging of the tunes discussed on this website. It is long, it is melismatic, it is rhythmically unpredictable, it lacks melodic repetition, it includes sustained high notes, and it contains so many leaps that at too fast a tempo one could yodel to it. And yet, in our experience, wherever there is the motivation to learn it (usually among those still enthusiastic about their own conversions and who still find grace mysterious) congregations enjoy success. For all its difficulty, SAGINA is congregationally conceived: the sense of the tune is carried by the congregation, not the accompaniment, and ordinary people can sing it.

The first two lines perform a melodic somersault as the poem contemplates facts that turn human notions of justice on their head. The first four syllables of the second line reproduce the general contour of the last four syllables of the first line, but upside down. Similarly, just as the first four syllables of the first line rose in scalar ascent from “do,” so the last four syllables of the second line fall in scalar descent to what is nearly a new “do” (the C-sharp in the alto makes the music flirt with a new tonal center). Thus the second line is, loosely speaking, both the inversion and the retrograde of the first line, and we end the second line in a place that is simultaneously like and unlike where we began.


The pitch D and its corresponding harmony, having asserted themselves so decisively at the end of line 2, linger in line 3 only to be dislodged in line 4 by the first appearance of a C chord (the very harmony that will support the climax in line 8). In this way line 4 prepares for an authentic cadence on the tune’s real “do” at the exact midpoint of the tune, where the cadence from the end of line 2 reappears, transposed to the home key.

Line 5 picks up the pace at the awestruck question “How can it be?” After recalling the downward C–to–E jump from line 1, we proceed to sing the five pitches with which line 2 ended, but in half the time (two syllables instead of four, in the space of five quarter-notes instead of ten). Line 6 is all fast notes, melismas, and ascent. Then the refrain in lines 7–8 spreads its wings in sustained ascent over polyphonic motion in the lower voices (imagine a folk version of the strategy Handel employed at “King of Kings and Lord of Lords” in the Hallelujah Chorus).

Best of all, however, is the first note of line 5. There could be no clearer setting of the fifth stanza’s “bold I approach th’eternal throne” than this high half-note, resounding as it does on the downbeat to make the most of the poem’s metrical irregularity here. “Such is the confidence that we have through Christ toward God” (2 Cor. 3:4).