20th September 2023


Little words can have profound significance. 

When the ex-slaver, John Newton, wrote the hymn, ‘Glorious things of Thee are spoken’, in 1779, in celebration of Jerusalem as God’s chosen abode here on earth, and the city in which the redeemed will find their final home, he began the last verse with ‘Saviour if of Zion’s city, I through grace a member am’, but many modern hymn books, including Baptist Praise and Worship, read, ‘Saviour since of Zion’s city…’

If speaks of a possibility, since of a certainty. When Newton wrote the hymn, theologians were much engaged with the idea of predestination and the limited size of God’s elect, a debate which produced an unhealthy doubt and uncertainty in some quarters. But the hymn is talking about ‘through grace’ and God’s grace is far too big to be bound or limited by human speculation and debate. Grace, by contrast, endows all those who turn to Christ with an unassailable assurance because the emphasis now is on what God in Christ has done, not on what we might, or might not, attempt to do.

But there could be another explanation of the employment of ‘if’ language. Newton in the heyday of the Evangelical Revival may well have been thinking of preaching to a very mixed congregation – many of whom had already committed themselves to Christ, but at the same time containing many yet to make such a commitment. For them, there was the challenge of turning to God, in repentance and commitment, thereby allowing the ‘if’ to be changed to ‘since’, with undoubted eternal significance, a challenge which is still there for us today.

John Briggs