How Long (Love Constraining to Obedience)

To see the law by Christ fulfilled, to hear His pardoning voice

Can change a slave into a child and duty into choice

No strength of nature can suffice to serve the Lord aright

And what she has she misapplies for want of clearer light

How long, how long beneath the law I lay; how long, how long I struggled to obey

Then to abstain from outward sin was more than I could do

Now if I feel its power within, I feel I hate it too

Then all my servile works were done, a righteousness to raise

Now, freely chosen in the Son, I freely choose His ways

Now, freely chosen in the Son, I freely choose His ways

How long, how long beneath the law I lay; how long, how long I struggled to obey

How long, how long in bondage and distress; how long, how long I tried without success

As we celebrate the Lord’s Supper this Sunday, we will sing a hymn known to very few. It may be known as “To See the Law by Christ Fulfilled” or “Love Constraining to Obedience” by William Cowper. Cowper (pronounced Coo-per) was an 18th century poet and hymn writer who collaborated with his friend and colleague John Newton to form the Olney Hymns. Throughout Cowper’s life, he struggled deeply with depression and insanity, spending time in a mental asylum and surviving three attempts of suicide.

I chose this hymn during communion for two reasons. The first reason is Thom’s sermon text for this week. As we continue our study in James, we see very practical applications for our faith. We attempt to answer the question – of what importance is my work to God when I am His child by faith? James answers that question:

What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food,  and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that?  So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead. (2:14-17)

Cowper addresses this faith vs works dilemma by appealing to the fact that we are no longer slaves to sin, but slaves to righteousness through Christ (Romans 6). As we see the law fulfilled by Christ and are pardoned by His substitutionary grace (v1) we are no longer like slaves in the sense that we are forced to do things we don’t want to do, rather we obey God out of a sense of trust and joy as a child obeys his father. The result is that a God Who has freely chosen us (v3) makes us desire to freely choose His ways. Obedience to God’s will gives Him glory and in turn protects, encourages, and strengthens His children. We are no longer creatures who “were by nature children of wrath” rather, we begin to hate our own sin more and more as our desires reflect the desires of our Savior (v4).

The second reason I think this hymn is helpful is because of the continued phrase in the refrain - how long. The author uses this affirmation as rhetorical cry, akin to saying, I can’t believe I’ve wasted so much time, energy, and effort trying to fulfill the law myself! He realizes that only Christ can ultimately fulfill the law, because only Christ can obey His Father perfectly – and on our behalf no less! Cowper laments his time spent beneath the weight of the crushing law, his struggle of obeying God in his own strength, his bondage, distress, and ultimate failure to do something that only God can accomplish.

How often do we feel this way? How often do we ask God, I’ve worked so hard. Why won’t you reward me? Coming to the Lord’s table is a reminder that our work – even righteous work – is nothing but filth to the living and holy God (Isaiah 64:6). We are reminded that God has completed what He promised, and that we are free to live and work in light of that promise.

The kindness of God allows us to see this with all our senses: we hear a blessing the elders speak over us (as we hear the text to this hymn sung), we see the bread broken and the wine poured, we hold the bread and bring the cup to our lips, and we taste a reminder of the body and blood of Jesus sacrificed on our behalf.

I pray that this hymn is a blessing to you this Sunday, and that you would find fresh nourishment from God’s Word sung, preached, prayed, and tasted.  

Here’s a link to the version we’ll be singing.