A Charge to Keep I Have – Charles Wesley
UM Hymnal #413 BOYLSTON
I was not familiar with this hymn until recently. As I have been listening to Pastor Meredith’s sermons, I chuckle a little bit how the brothers Wesley seem to fall into the categories of believers she has been highlighting. This past Sunday she spoke about sanctifying and perfecting grace and how God through the Holy Spirit is constantly at work in us (if we open ourselves to God) to heal, restore and recreate us into what we were designed to be in the first place. Reading through the hymn below I can see both, the guilty and the overachiever! Do You see it?
A charge to keep I have,
a God to glorify,
A never-dying soul to save,
and fit it for the sky.
To serve the present age,
My calling to fulfill;
O may it all my powers engage
To do my Master’s will!
Arm me with jealous care,
As in thy sight to live,
And oh, thy servant, Lord, prepare
A strict account to give!
Help me to watch and pray,
And on thyself rely,
Assured, if I my trust betray,
I shall forever die.
Both, John and Charles Wesley took every opportunity to convince their audience that God’s salvation is not one moment in time but an ongoing journey. I believe that their writings have not lost their power and even though the language is old, the contents is completely relatable today. In their recent book, Presidential Praise: Our Presidents and Their Hymns (Mercer University Press, 2008), authors C. Edward Spann and Michael E. Williams Sr. note that the title of President George W. Bush’s autobiography, A Charge to Keep, was drawn from Charles Wesley’s hymn. The choice of this title is but one indication of the role this hymn has played in the life of President Bush, as well as the influence of this hymn 250 years beyond its composition. 
Originally, this hymn was published in 1762 as a two-stanza short meter hymn under the title “Keep the charge of the Lord, that ye die not”. Charles liked to base his hymns on Scripture just like John based his sermons on scripture. In this case, Charles used Leviticus 8:35
“You shall remain at the entrance of the tent of meeting day and night for seven days, keep the Lord’s charge so that you do not die; for so I am commanded.”
However, F. Hildebrandt and O. A. Beckerlegge tell us in their commentary on the 1780 collection that more than likely did Charles base his text on Matthew Henry’s Commentary on Leviticus. There are obvious similarities in both texts:
‘We have every one of us a charge to keep,
An eternal God to glorify, an immortal soul to provide for,
Needful duty to be done, our generation to serve;
And it must be our daily care to keep this charge,
for it is the charge of the Lord our Master,
who will shortly call us to an account about it, and it is our peril if we neglect it.
Keep it ‘that he die not’; it is death, eternal death,
to betray the truth we are charged with.’
The beauty of Charles Wesley’s hymns is the ongoing narrative throughout the stanzas. I agonize over what stanzas to cut in a hymn because it feels likes cutting out some of the story and that feels like shortchanging those who sing the hymn. What if I leave out the stanza that helps them to hear God’s wooing?
Stanza one states unambiguously what our call (charge) is – salvation! We are to love and submit to God and to prepare our souls for heaven. Stanza two states on how we are to fulfill that call – through service! Stanza three begins with a petition to God to help us to be faithful to servanthood and ends with a warning that judgment will come. The final stanza continues with a petition to the unnamed Holy Spirit to help us to stay on the path because otherwise there will be no reward.
I can see you rolling your eyes because of the threatening tone of stanzas three and four and you are right to do that because it is indeed threatening. We can read this through the lens of guilt and shame and will not be able to see beyond the wall that goes up inside of us. Or, we could read this through the lens of compassion and empathy. It is indeed difficult to believe that God would love and restore us even though we seem to fail constantly in this thing called faith. Fear is a great motivator and it is very possible that Charles and John used fear to help others (and maybe even themselves) to repent (turn around) and fully open themselves to the work of the Holy Spirit inside of them. Fear works, we see that every day. But if we could give the thought of unconditional love a chance, we could realize that we are not alone in this; we are walking hand in hand with God and nothing can ever separate us from the love of God. Therefore, let us join the choir of angels who have spoken to humans and said: Fear not, our help comes from the Lord who made heaven and earth! Glory to God! Hallelujah! Amen!
A quick word to the tune BOYLSTON. New England native Lowell Mason wrote this tune in 1832, seventy years after Charles wrote the hymn and on a different continent. This is another good example how the matching of a tune with a hymn may also be an interpretation of that hymn. The melody is modeled after the ancient psalm tones giving the text the feel of scriptural wisdom. We will sing this melody, but I invite you to sing this hymn with the personal faith narrative Charles Wesley gave it.
 Short meter refers to the number of syllables in each line. In this case 126.96.36.199 with rhymes in lines 1 and 3 and 2 and 4.
 Psalm tones consists of a single pitch for monotony with the text, followed by a half cadence; a second pitch for monotoning, followed by an ending cadence.
Rev. Suzi Byrd