When I Survey the Wondrous Cross (Isaac Watts meets Chris Tomlin)


Isaac Watts was born in 1674 in Southampton England.  “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross” is thought, by many, to be the greatest hymn ever written. 

The eldest of nine children, he was the son of an educated deacon in a dissenting Congregational church.  At the time of Isaac’s birth, his father was in prison for his non-conformist beliefs.  Young Watts showed an unusual aptitude for study and learned Latin at the age of five, Greek at nine, French at eleven and Hebrew at thirteen.  He began to write verses of good quality when he was very young.  Watts is frequently referred to as the father of English hymnody.  One of his early concerns was the deplorable state to which congregational singing had degenerated in most English-speaking churches.  The singing consisted of slow, ponderous Psalms in which each line was first read by an appointed deacon and was followed by the droning of the congregation.  Watts was a revolutionary producing “futuristic music” for his time.  Because of this bold departure from the traditional Psalms, Isaac Watts was often considered to be a radical churchman.  Watts not only rewrote the Psalms in this way, but he also wrote a number of hymns based solely on personal feelings.  These hymns were known as hymns of human composure.  Such hymns were very controversial during his lifetime.  “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross” is an example of this type of hymn written by Watts.  It’s the first known hymn to be written in the first person, introducing a personal religious experience rather than limiting itself to doctrine.


Isaac Watts, and his hymn “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross” helped to reshape the future of church music as we know it today.  Mr. Watts would have been proud to know that Chris Tomlin is continuing his tradition.


The words of “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross” tell a wonderful story.  They tell of the paradoxical beauty of sacrifice.  They tell a story of pain and suffering woven together with joy and love.  Who would have ever thought that these polar opposites could come together and form a paradoxical statement that on the face of it sounds ridiculous, but when taken to heart and pondered makes so much sense that even the simplest of minds can understand it?


The lost Verse:


Watts, actually wrote 5 verses but one has been dropped through the years (including in our hymnal).  Here’s is the missing verse (it’s actually meant to be the fourth verse):


“His dying crimson, like a robe,
Spreads o’er His body on the tree:
Then am I dead to all the globe,
And all the globe is dead to me.”



Born and raised in East Texas, Chris Tomlin grew up on a steady diet of country music, learning his guitar style by playing along with Willie Nelson records.  Not that you would ever guess it from listening to the gentle smoothness of his vocals.

“I love the simplicity of drums, bass, electric and acoustic guitars,” Chris explains. “We’re not about putting on a big show. We don’t want to be rock stars. We’re about connecting with people and having a shared experience of coming before God and worshipping Him.

Credited with venerable church choruses such as “Forever,” “We Fall Down,” and “The Wonderful Cross,” Tomlin is considered one of this era’s top songwriters. With millions singing his songs weekly, Chris is recognized as a pivotal voice of today’s modern expression of Christian worship.  Yet, Tomlin has masterminded several remakes of classic hymns including Amazing Grace (My Chains Are Gone) and “Take My Life and Let it Be.”

Here is the chorus that Chris Tomlin added:


Oh the wonderful cross, Oh the wonderful cross

Bids me come, and die, and find

That I may truly live.

Oh the wonderful cross, Oh the wonderful cross

All who gather here, by grace,

Draw near and bless Your name.

CCLI Song No. 3148435 © 2000 worshiptogether.com songsSix Steps Music (Admin. by EMI Christian Music Publishing)(Admin. by EMI Christian Music Publishing) Chris Tomlin / Isaac Watts / J. D. Walt / Jesse Reeves

The scriptural reference to “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross” is Galatians 6:14.


May I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world. – NIV


Tomlin’s chorus draws from Gal 2:20:


I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me.  The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. – NIV


You can listen to Tomlin’s version here (with a little help from Matt Redman):

Want to give this new version a try this year?  Here’s a few places that sell the sheet music in digital form (can be downloaded instantly):

Here’s a free pdf of the lead sheet (no piano notation):

Here’s piano/vocal/guitar music for $3.99:

You can also download a nicely done MIDI file of this arrangement for free here:

     Listen to it here:  http://www2.mlc-wels.edu/dbauer/midi%20files/oct%2024%202004/wonderful%20cross2.MID

     Download the file by scrolling down to “Wonderful Cross” (right mouse, save target as) here:

     Or, you can download it from my file download area (lower right hand column of this BLOG page).

Information Sources:

1.  Isaac Watts Bio – http://www.webedelic.com/church/isurveyf.htm and other internet sources

2.  Chris Tomlin Bio – http://pressroom.emicmg.com/artists/ChrisTomlin/files/uploads/filedownloads/Chris_Tomlin_Arriving_Bio.doc and other internet sources

3.  Scripture taken from the Holy Bible, New International Version, Copyright© 1973, 1978, 1984 by International Bible Society.  Used by permission of International Bible Society

 Please report song usage to CCLI if you have such a license.  The song number for “the Wonderful Cross” is #3148435.


2 thoughts on “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross (Isaac Watts meets Chris Tomlin)”

  1. I like having modern refrains put to the Lutheran hymns (refrains that summarize the hymn message and have catchy tunes). The repeated refrain can be a good message that sticks in our minds for the rest of the week. Think of the way that refrains have helped the psalms in CW. The refrains summarize the psalm so that we see a key message in them as we sing them.

    I think a good example of the effective use of the refrain put to an old hymn is “Amazing Grace” by Chris Tomlin:

    Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me.
    I once was lost, but now I’m found, was blind but now I see.

    My chains are gone. I’ve been set free,
    my God, my Savior has ransomed me.
    And like a flood His mercy reigns, unending love, amazing grace.

    “The Wonderful Cross” by Chris Tomlin also has a catchy and joyful refrain. Although this seems to be a popular song on the radio and in some churches, I have several concerns with “The Wonderful Cross” refrain:

    “Oh the wonderful cross, oh the wonderful cross bids me come and die and find that I may truly live.”

    First, the refrain seems vague and confusing. What does he really mean by “bids me come and die”? Does this mean that the cross bids me to be converted (decision theology)? Does this mean that I must do something, namely die, in order to truly live (work righteousness)? Does this mean that the cross motivates me to die to sin (sanctification)? Or does this mean something else?

    My second concern is that the refrain doesn’t seem to explain the main reason why the cross is so wonderful, namely that the cross is where Jesus died to wash away all my sin, or where Jesus died to pay the debt of all my sin. It seems to me that the main emphasis for the cross being wonderful should be “Jesus died for me” (justification) rather than “I died so that I might live” (what I do or did).

    Here are examples of some CCM refrains that I think better explain
    the wonder of the cross:

    “The Power of the Cross” by Keith Getty:

    This the power of the cross. Christ became sin for us.
    Took the blame, bore the wrath. We stand forgiven at the cross.

    “Only in the Cross” by Sovereign Grace:

    So I will glory only in the cross
    Yes I will glory only in the cross
    And I will make my boast
    In the Lord Jesus Christ
    Crucified to ransom us

    “The grace song of heaven” by Keith Getty

    Thank You for the cross, Lord. Forgiven we can stand,
    for all the sins of man You have washed away.
    Thank You for the cross, Lord.
    Forgiven we can stand and know You as our King.


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