Favorite Poems: A Hymn to God the Father

“A Hymn to God the Father” by John Donne

I.

Wilt Thou forgive that sin where I begun,
Which was my sin, though it were done before?
Wilt Thou forgive that sin, through which I run,
And do run still, though still I do deplore?
When Thou hast done, Thou hast not done,
For I have more.

II.

Wilt Thou forgive that sin which I have won
Others to sin, and made my sin their door?
Wilt Thou forgive that sin which I did shun
A year or two, but wallowed in a score?
When Thou hast done, Thou hast not done,
For I have more.

III.

I have a sin of fear, that when I have spun
My last thread, I shall perish on the shore;
But swear by Thyself, that at my death Thy Son
Shall shine as he shines now, and heretofore;
And having done that, Thou hast done;
I fear no more.

I first heard this poem when I was in high school. We sang a setting of it in Chorale, and the words have always stuck with me. Now I require my seniors to memorize it, too, because I think the meaning is so wonderful and important. This poem represents for me the longing for sinless perfection that we will only find in heaven through salvation in Christ (I Thess. 5:23).

In the first stanza, Donne confesses the original sin that he was born with. We all have a sin nature that separates us from God (Romans 3). He also aptly expresses the plague of sins that we hate, but still find ourselves committing and confessing repeatedly (Romans 7:13-25). He ends each stanza with a refrain of sorts, punning on his name: “When Thou hast [finished], Thou has not [finished], for I have more,” or “When Thou hast [John Donne], Thou has not [John Donne], for I have more.”

In the second stanza, Donne bemoans the fact that he has caused others to sin; people have looked at his life or actions he’s committed and have sinned because they followed his example. As a teacher, I take this caution seriously, because I know my students are watching my reactions and learning from my example. I want to be like the Apostle Paul, who said, “Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ” (I Cor. 11:1). I can also identify with the second half of this stanza, because I have recently repented of sins that I know I committed for a long time before either realizing–or admitting–they were sinful.

In the third stanza, Donne confesses a root sin–the sin of fear–that I also often struggle with. My salvation is secure in Jesus Christ. I don’t need to fear because my salvation is not dependent on anything that I have done, but in Christ alone (Ephesians 2). Because salvation is based in Christ’s work, I can trust His word and rest in His promises; there is no need to fear.

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