English-speaking Christians, we have a vast array of hymns available to us, and we each have our list of favorites. In my assessment, the best hymns are those that are universal and timeless, speaking to all Christians in all times, places, and situations. They are firmly grounded in Scripture and drawn out of, or toward, the gospel of Jesus Christ. And they are inevitably coupled to a great melody.
Here are my picks for the ten greatest hymns of all-time. Apart from the first, they are in no particular order.
And Can It Be? by Charles Wesley. I begin with what I consider the greatest hymn by the greatest hymn-writer. Wesley’s “And Can It Be?” simply delights in the goodness of God while marveling at his saving grace. It captures every Christian’s experience of wandering, of beholding Christ, of rejoicing in his salvation, and of the great hope of entering his presence at last. “No condemnation now I dread; / Jesus, and all in Him, is mine; / Alive in Him, my living Head, / And clothed in righteousness divine, / Bold I approach th’eternal throne, / And claim the crown, through Christ my own.”
A Mighty Fortress by Martin Luther. It is bold, it is triumphant, it expresses great faith in God and great defiance toward sin and Satan. I think Satan hates it when we sing this: “The prince of darkness grim — We tremble not for him; / His rage we can endure, For lo! his doom is sure, / One little word shall fell him.”
All Hail the Power of Jesus’ Name by Edward Perronet. There are few hymns more triumphant than this one, and especially so when sung to the “Diadem” melody. It calls upon each of us, and everything else in all of creation, to pay homage to our great God. It anticipates the day when that will happen. “All hail the power of Jesu’s name! / Let Angels prostrate fall; / Bring forth the royal diadem, / To crown Him Lord of All.”
Oh, For a Thousand Tongues by Charles Wesley. In this hymn Wesley proclaims that one tongue simply is not enough to express his praise and his adoration before God. If he had a thousand tongues, he would use them all to proclaim who God is and what he has done. “He breaks the power of canceled sin, / He sets the prisoner free; / His blood can make the foulest clean, / His blood availed for me.”
When I Survey the Wondrous Cross by Isaac Watts. Watts penned this hymn—a meditation on the cross of Christ—as a means of preparation for the Lord’s Supper. Having reflected on the cross, he can only marvel at God’s wondrous grace and pledge his life to God’s service. “Were the whole realm of nature mine, / That were a present far too small; / Love so amazing, so divine, / Demands my soul, my life, my all.”
How Firm a Foundation by an unknown author. This hymn is unique in the way it speaks in God’s voice, so that God himself assures us of his goodness, his care, and his mercy. Few hymns are sweeter in times of suffering or despair. “The soul that on Jesus has leaned for repose, / I will not, I will not desert to its foes; / That soul, though all hell should endeavor to shake, / I’ll never, no never, no never forsake.”
Holy, Holy, Holy by Reginald Heber. Heber powerfully draws us to marvel at the majestic holiness of God. “Holy, Holy, Holy! Lord God Almighty! / All Thy works shall praise thy name in earth and sky and sea; / Holy, Holy, Holy! Merciful and Mighty! / God in Three Persons, blessed Trinity!”
It Is Well With My Soul by Horatio Spafford. A hymn for those suffering or for those who have suffered, it proclaims that through every trial, “it is well with my soul.” “And Lord, haste the day when my faith shall be sight, / The clouds be rolled back as a scroll; / The trump shall resound, and the Lord shall descend, / Even so, it is well with my soul.”
Abide With Me by Henry Francis Lyte. This has always been a favorite and, though it’s considered a funeral hymn, we sang it at our wedding. I love the way it calls upon God to be present with us in all of life. “Hold Thou Thy cross before my closing eyes; / Shine through the gloom and point me to the skies. / Heaven’s morning breaks, and earth’s vain shadows flee; / In life, in death, O Lord, abide with me.”
Amazing Grace by John Newton. The list wouldn’t be complete with “Amazing Grace,” would it? It is considered by many to be the greatest hymn ever written and has been recorded more than any other song. It proclaims such sweet and simple truths: “Amazing grace! How sweet the sound / That saved a wretch like me. / I once was lost, but now am found, / Was blind but now I see.”
There are so many more that could easily have been on this list: “Crown Him with Many Crowns,” “For All the Saints,” “Guide Me, O Thou Great Jehovah,” “Rock of Ages,” “Christ the Lord is Risen Today”, “Take My Life and Let It Be,” “In Christ Alone,” and on and on.
What hymns did I neglect? Which would make your top-ten?
Tim Challies is author of the weblog Challies.com: Informing the Reforming and lives near Toronto, Canada. He is also author of a number of books including The Discipline of Spiritual Discernment.