At the Cross

gospel song written by Isaac Watts
commentary by:
P.B. Mistretta III

In 1983, I was invited to attend an annual Ministers meeting of the southern district of Louisiana for this Pentecostal denomination.   The speaker was the District Superintendent, who was an elderly man.  At the time, he had to be at least in his seventies.  His message was on the comparison between the natural circumcision of the flesh under the Law, with the circumcision of the heart that happens when one is saved.  Towards the end of his message, he sang the chorus of  “At the Cross,” with a sweet smile on his face.   As a young man, I can remember how impressed I was with this man of God’s message, and I even made the comment of how much I enjoyed it to my then Pastor.

The message of the blood and cross of Christ is a lost message today in many of our modern churches.  The modern church has left the message of its fathers and is preaching “another gospel.”  Even for the few who are holding to a semblance of the gospel, in many cases it has been watered down to where it does not have the power to make the believer free.  Much of what you see preached on television in the name of Christ, can be spoken of by a psychologist and not by a minister of the Gospel.  A visit to many churches today and you will hear “upbeat” music, and a “fun” word, but little if any Gospel teaching or preaching. 

It is time that we go back to the “old paths” and rediscover the simple message of the blood and cross of Christ.  Our “forefathers” had this message.  The enemy has used time to dilute and pollute it.  But God has promised to have a glorious church in these last days.  He is revealing his Word to those who would have “ears to hear.”  Let us go back in time now, to revisit an old-time gospel song and rediscover the message that it has been sending out for hundreds of years.

Isaac Watts (1674 – 1748) wrote the song, “Alas! and Did My Savior Bleed?”  This was the song that they were singing during an altar call in the year 1850, when Fanny Crosby was touched by God while praying.  She then went on to write thousands of Christian hymns, and was known as the famous blind “Hymn Writer.”   Later on, in about the year 1900, a chorus was added, and it was called  “At the Cross.”

“At the Cross” is one of the most honored hymns in all of Christianity.  It is one of, if not my favorite gospel song.  It speaks of God’s wonderful love plan for mankind’s only hope and redemption.  It has such glorious and deep meaning that one can write volumes on this one song alone.  I pray, that in my few words, I will do this great song justice, and somehow shed some gospel light on what the writer was trying to say when he penned the words of this precious gospel song so long ago.

 

Vs. 1      Alas, and did my Savior bleed?  And did my Sovereign die?  Would he devote that sacred head for such a worm as I?

“And I will put enmity between thee and the woman, and between thy seed and her seed; it shall bruise thy head, and thou shalt bruise his heel.  (Genesis 3: 17)

“But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed.  (Isaiah 53: 5)

“Of which salvation the prophets have enquired and searched diligently, who prophesied of the grace that should come unto you:  Searching what or what manner of time the Spirit of Christ which was in them did signify, when it testified beforehand the sufferings of Christ and the glory that should follow.”  (1 Peter 1: 10-11)

“Wherefore Jesus also, that he might sanctify the people with his own blood, suffered without the gate.”  (Hebrews 13:12)

The songwriter asks a series of questions in the first verse of this song relating to the death of his Savior.  Of course, he knows the answers.  I believe he is trying to express his utter amazement with the fact that Christ would leave his heavenly glory, and take upon himself an earthly body, to sacrifice Himself at the cross for humanity.

It was God himself who prophesied of Christ’s sufferings and Satan’s defeat four thousand years before the cross.  The prophets prophesied of Christ’s sufferings hundreds of years beforehand, most notably the prophet Isaiah, who saw the most clearly of them all.  All of the thousands of animals that were sacrificed under the Law were pointing towards the Lamb of God that would be sacrificed for our sins.  The angel that appeared to Joseph said, “…and thou shall call his name Jesus: for he shall save his people from their sins.” (Matthew 1:21)  John the Baptist introduced him to the world as “…the Lamb of God which taketh away the sins of the world.”  (John 1:29) 

Yes, alas our Savior did bleed and die.  Alas He did suffer outside the wall of the city of Jerusalem, on Mount Calvary, to redeem a lost humanity.  Yes, He did leave his heavenly abode and suffered a cruel death on the cross, to save poor and lost sinners from their sins, and to bring all of those who believe in His sacrifice back into fellowship with their Creator.

 

Vs. 2       Was it for crimes that I have done, He groaned upon the tree?  Amazing pity!  Grace unknown!  And love beyond degree!

“And the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us, (and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father,) full of grace and truth.  John bare witness of him, and cried, saying, This was he of whom I spake, He that cometh after me is preferred before me: for he was before me.  And of his fullness have we received, and grace for grace.  For the law was given by Moses, but grace and truth came by Jesus Christ.”  (John 1:17)

“In this was manifested the love of God toward us, because that God sent his only begotten Son into the world, that we might live through him.  Herein is love, not that we loved God, but that he loved us, and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins.” (1 John 4:9,10)

As was brought out in the verse in 1Peter, the prophets enquired and searched diligently of the time and manner in which the grace of God would come unto us.  They foresaw a glorious time in which God would write His laws upon the heart of man and not on tables of stone.  They foresaw a time when God would reveal himself to man on the inside.  Even for the “heroes of the faith” listed in the eleventh chapter of the book of Hebrews, it is said that they “received not the promise: God having provided some better thing for us, that they without us should not be made perfect.”  That better thing is what Jesus came to accomplish though his death on the cross.  He provided the way back to the Father through his death.  Even though the “heroes” obtained a good report, they could not be made perfect before Christ.  No one could be born of God before Calvary.  Jesus Christ provided the way, for he said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life.”  He was full of grace and truth, and we receive of his grace.  Strongs Concordance defines grace as, “…the divine influence upon the heart and it’s reflection in the life.”  This was impossible before the cross.  It was “grace unknown!”  It is only through our faith in His work at the cross that we can have the life of God in us, from the inside - out.  Under the Law of Moses there was a struggle to keep the laws from the outside – in.   Under the grace and truth of Jesus Christ, the struggle has ended for those who believe in what he did for us at the cross.    

It was “love beyond degree” that sent Jesus to the cross.  It cannot be measured in our human terms.  If you want to catch a glimpse of the love of God, then look to Calvary.  When referring to the love of God, the Holy Scripture most often points us to Calvary.  Besides the scripture quoted in 1John 4:9,10, there is “For God so loved the world that he gave’ (John 3:16), ‘who loved me and gave himself for me’ (Gal. 2:20), ‘as Christ has loved us, and hath given himself for us an offering and a sacrifice to God’ (Eph. 5:2), ‘the love of Christ constraineth us…if one died for all then were all dead’ (11 Cor. 5:14), ‘unto him that loved us, and washed us from our sins in his own blood’ ” (Rev. 1:5), etc.   

The love of God in Christ “passeth knowledge.” (Eph. 1:19)  Even though we can grow in knowing it’s breadth, and length, and depth, and height, in this life we will never fully comprehend the love of God that sent Christ to die for us.  It is truly “love beyond degree!”

 

VS. 3    Well might the sun in darkness hide,  And shut his glories in,  When Christ, the mighty Maker died    For man the creature’s sin.

“And when the sixth hour was come, there was darkness over the whole land until the ninth hour.”  (Mark 15:33)

“Thinkest thou that I cannot now pray to my Father, and he shall presently give me more than twelve legions of angels?  But how than shall the scriptures be fulfilled, that thus if must be?”  (Matt. 26:53,54)

It is recorded in the scriptures, that for the last three hours of the crucifixion of Christ, there was darkness over the land.  The sun was hidden behind the clouds from noon until his death at three o’clock in the afternoon.  In the normally brightest part of the day, it was dark when the Son of God suffered on the cross.  He had been on trial the night before, but it was the world on trial that day.  Jesus said to his disciples just before his crucifixion that now is the judgment of the world.  The world was judged that day.  It was found guilty of sin and guilty of killing its Savior.  The religious crowd had produced the two false witnesses in the trial that helped sentence him to death.

Though the religious crowd, spawned by Satan, thought they had destroyed Jesus, they really brought in the redemption of the world.  They did not realize that Jesus could not have died any other way.  Jesus said that no man could take his life, but that he laid it down himself. (John 10:18) They tried to kill him at least three other times in his ministry.  Once, in the very beginning of his ministry, they tried to throw him off a cliff, and twice later on by stoning.  Both times he escaped in their midst.  He knew that there was no redemption in a mob killing.  It had to be through the cross.  He could have called thousands of angels to help in his defense.  He cried out to the Father in the Garden the night before with such intensity that drops of blood fell from his face.  But, he knew that because of Israel’s rejection of Him, there was no other way for man’s redemption but the way of the cross.  

 

Vs. 4   But drops of grief can ne’er repay   The debt of love I owe:   Here, Lord, I give myself away,  ‘Tis all that I can do!

“Ho, every one that thirstest, come ye to the waters, and he that hath no money; come ye, buy, and eat; yea, come, buy wine and milk without money and without price.”  (Isaiah 55:1)

“Forasmuch as ye know that ye were not redeemed with corruptible things, as silver and gold, from your vain conversation received by tradition of your fathers; But with the precious blood of the lamb without blemish and without spot.” (1 Peter 1:18,19)

No amount of money or earthly possessions can buy our salvation.  Whether you are saved or lost, we have been bought with a price, and that price is the precious blood of Christ.  There is nothing that we can do to earn our salvation or repay what Christ has done for us at the cross.  It is a free gift of God.  The only thing we can do is repent and believe the gospel.  Isaiah says that if the wicked forsake their ways and turn to the Lord, that he will have mercy and abundantly pardon.  (Isaiah 55:7)  That is a promise of God; or as Peter calls it an “exceeding great and precious promise.” (II Peter 1:4) 

We can never repay the debt of love we owe.  But what we can do, as the songwriter suggests, is to give our self away to him.  This verse speaks also to the believers of the gospel.  It is a call unto him who not only died for us, but for the whole world.  His love exhibited on the cross is for everyone.  Let our prayer be for Him to give us a heart of love to reach out to the lost.  It is only through his grace that we can be able “ambassadors for Christ.”  Let us not only pray for our country, our leaders, and the lost, but also pray that his glorious light would shine through us to reach out to them in the darkness.  In light of what he did for the whole world at the cross, can we do any less?  Can we do any less than to give ourselves away for the cause of Christ?  Can we say along with the songwriter, “Here, Lord, I give myself away.  Tis all that I can do!”

 

Chorus:     At the cross, at the cross where I first saw the light,  And the burden of my heart rolled away,  It was there by faith I received my sight, and now I am happy all the day!

“And I will give them one heart, and I will put a new spirit within you; and I will take the stony heart out of their flesh, and I will give them an heart of flesh.” (Ezekiel 11:19)

“In whom also ye are circumcised with the circumcision made without hands, in putting off the body of the sins of the flesh by the circumcision of Christ.”  (Colossians 2:11)

“In whom the god of this world hath blinded the minds of them that believe not, lest the light of the glorious gospel of Christ, who is the image of God, should shine unto them.”  (11 Cor. 4:4)

In the Old Covenant, circumcision was instituted as a sign of the covenant between God and Abraham.  It was a cutting off of the foreskin.  It was a type of the circumcision of the heart that was prophesied of and is fulfilled in the New Covenant to everyone that believes the Gospel.  The old stony heart is cut out and a new heart of flesh is put in the believer.  The burden (sin) of the heart is “rolled away.”  The “body of the sins of the flesh” is put off.     

John tells us that, “God is light, and in him is no darkness at all.” (John 1:5)  If we see the light of the glorious gospel of Christ, darkness cannot stay.  It is at the cross that we first see the light.  We know that if we see the light, the burdens (sin) of our heart cannot stay.  We know that if we see the glorious gospel, the “circumcision of Christ” puts off the sin nature.  It is not by our works, but by our faith in his finished work “At the Cross.”

Oh, what a glorious gospel!  It is no wonder the songwriter concludes with, “and now I am happy all the day!"