This is one of Charles Wesley’s early hymns, originally published in Hymns and Sacred Poems (1742). It was inspired by Psalm 51:10 ‘Create in me a clean heart, O God; and renew a right spirit within me’, “transformed by a New testament reading of the words ‘clean heart’, ‘renew a right spirit’ and ‘within me’. Now the heart is clean because it is set free from sin, and Christ is to reign in it and have his name written on it.” (Companion to Hymns and Psalms) Originally there were eight verses; verses 5 to 7 are generally omitted from modern hymnals.
I have chosen this hymn for Sunday’s Covenant Service, for its echoes of both Psalm 51 (used in part in the prayers of confession) and Jeremiah 31:31-34, with its promise that God will write his law people’s hearts. In my sermon for the Covenant Service I set this alongside the last verse of the hymn, where Wesley prays
Write thy new name upon my heart,
Thy new best name of love.
In his Methodist Hymn Book Notes (1883), G.J. Stephenson writes that “Clustering round this hymn are… memories sacred and precious which it is difficult to pass by” and tells a number of anecdotes which illustrate the devotional importance of this hymn for early Methodists, including the following:
Faint not, Christian, though the way be dreary, and though clouds and gloom be spread around — there is light above and beyond.
Just one hundred years ago, when John Hampson and Joseph Pillmoor were itinerating in and around Nottingham, and Messrs. Warwick, Willis, Kerring, and Jeffries, as local preachers, were carrying the word of life with them to the out-lying villages, the prospect of success was so cheerless that one day, after preaching, one of the local brethren said, as they had visited Calverton so long, and no apparent good had been done, they purposed to discontinue the preaching at that place.
The word had taken hold of some hearts, and amongst the persons thus blest was Mrs. Morley, who, fearing to be deprived of the privileges of the Gospel altogether, told the preacher that he had been mistaken, that good had been done, that she, with others, desired their visits ; and thereupon these few sisters in the Lord were formed into a society, which has continued in that place ever since. By the preaching, Mrs. Morley had been convinced of her sinful state; by the class and prayer meeting, she found peace through believing in Jesus, and lived through fourscore years and five to testify to the power of Christ to forgive sin, and to keep the believer from falling. When, shortly before her death, she was asked if Christ was precious to her, she promptly replied, ” O yes, precious indeed ; ” and then, with uncommon energy in her manner, she said —
“O for a heart to praise my God,
A heart from sin set free !
A heart that always feels Thy blood
So freely spilt for me.”
And delighted to dwell on the last appropriating word, “For me, for me! ” With this assurance, her happy spirit went to keep an eternal Sabbath before the throne of God, 20th June, 1830, aged eighty-five years.
This is the hymn as usually sung today, in five stanzas. For the full version visit Cyberhymnal.
O for a heart to praise my God,
A heart from sin set free,
A heart that always feels Thy blood
So freely shed for me.
A heart resigned, submissive, meek,
My great Redeemer’s throne,
Where only Christ is heard to speak,
Where Jesus reigns alone.
A humble, lowly, contrite, heart,
Believing, true and clean,
Which neither life nor death can part
From Christ who dwells within.
A heart in every thought renewed
And full of love divine,
Perfect and right and pure and good,
A copy, Lord, of Thine.
Thy nature, gracious Lord, impart;
Come quickly from above;
Write Thy new name upon my heart,
Thy new, best name of Love.