If there’s a hymn that encapsulates the impulse and theology behind the evangelical revivals in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, “Jesus Paid it All” is it.

But the “Jesus Paid it All” that was brought to prominence by D.L. Moody and others–and which has recently itself undergone a bit of a revival at the hands of Kristian Stanfill–wasn’t the first.  The music of the hymn was apparently a response to an already existing hymn of that name by William Bradbury’s, and the words clearly echo it as well.  Here’s Bradbury’s words:

Nothing, either great or small, remains for me to do;
Jesus paid, and paid it all, All the debt I owe.

Bradbury’s words are a potent affirmation of the utter sufficiency of Christ’s atonement:  “Till to Jesus’ work you cling, alone by simple faith, “Doing” is a deadly thing, all “doing” ends in death.”

This theme is carried over in Elvina Hall’s more famous words:

I hear the Savior say, thy strength indeed is small.
Child of weakness watch and pray, find in me thine all in all.

Hall’s version points to the Garden of Gethsemane, and the failure of the disciples there.  It is a moment that encapsulates the problem of Christian spirituality outside of the resurrection.  She wrote of these words, “So rapidly did the words pour into the heart, that before the prayer was ended, I had commleted the hymn, and, as I rose from my knees, the chorus words rose jubilantly to my lips:–

Jesus paid it all, all to Him I owe.  Sin had left a crimson stain; He washed it white as snow.

I suspect that in a world without washing machines, indoor plumbing, and high-powered detergents, the imagery of washing out a crimson stain had more force than it does today.

Lord now indeed I find, Thy power and Thine alone,
Can change the leper’s spots, and melt the heart of stone.

While we almost universally point to the “power” of God alone, early versions of the hymn are conflicted, and in fascinating ways.  The Reformed Church’s in America’s hymnal from 1880 uses “power,” the YMCA’s songbook from 1872 uses “blood,” and Phillip Phillips’ collection of hymns from 1874 surprisingly uses “faith”–which seems to be unique to his version, but which tempts me like crazy to put it in conversation with N.T. Wright and Richard Hays.

For nothing good have I, whereby thy grace to claim.
I’ll wash my garment white, in the blood of Calv’ry’s Lamb.

It is this verse that highlights why the hymn could become a favorite for both Calvinists and Arminians, a fact that even Ira Sankey–who was D.L. Moody’s worship leader–felt impelled to mention.  It also calls into question notion that evangelical Arminians were somehow averse to something called “total depravity.”

The  ‘nothing good’ is a specifically theological fact, and it points to the impossibility of claiming grace on grounds outside of the person and work of Jesus.  In that sense, serving the poor may be good for the poor, and even bring some virtue to us–but it cannot and will never be good for this one thing, the most essential thing.

When from my dying bed, my ransomed soul shall raise,
Then “Jesus paid it all,” shall rend the vaulted skies.

It’s my supposition that within early evangelicalism–and here I include the Methodists like Hall–the emphasis on the soul was driven by two things:  (1) the reality of death, and (2) an emphasis on the continuity of the person not generally, but before–and hopefully, with–God.  The point of the soul’s rising isn’t that this world is bad, but rather that immediately at death we are united with the God who saves us.  Whatever critiques of evangelicalism’s dualism we make should limit themselves, I think, to that concept.

But Hall’s imagery in the second line is, well, awesome.  As the veil in the temple was torn in two at the death of Jesus, so the heavens will be split by our praise of Him.

And when before the throne, I stand in Him complete
I’ll lay my trophies down, all down at Jesus’ feet.

Here again there’s discrepancy on the words.  Many versions of the final lines read, “Jesus died my soul to save, my lips shall still repeat”–a move that seems to adopt the central sentiment of the older fourth stanza.

But count me partial to laying our trophies down, as it does a better job of taking us full circle to the refrain:  Jesus paid it all, ergo, all to him I owe.  There is a reciprocal giving that the atonement applies–we are given to, and hence give.  And what we return is our worship, our praise which rends the skies and our crowns to lay at his feet.

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Posted by Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is the Founder and Lead Writer of Mere Orthodoxy. He is the author of Earthen Vessels: Why Our Bodies Matter to our Faith and The End of Our Exploring: A Book about Questioning and the Confidence of Faith. Follow him on Twitter or on Facebook.

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