Despite this hymn’s rather recent birth, little is known about the author of “Jesus Paid it All.” Elvina M. Hall was born early in June of 1820 in Alexandria, Virginia. She married twice: first to a Richard Hall and four years before her death in 1899, to Rev. Thomas Meyers. Her now best, if not only, known hymn was written in 1865 during a service at her church, Monument Street Methodist Church in Baltimore, Maryland. George Schrick was her pastor at that time. After the service, she gave the poem to the pastor; recently, he had been given music by organist John Grape. Rev. Schrick decided that the words and tune went marvelously together, and thus a new hymn was born.
This hymn has often been a comfort to both singer and listener. There is a story from 1886 when on that New Year’s night, a mission was meeting and ended by singing “All to Christ I Owe,” as the song was sometimes called. As the speaker walked away, a young woman walked up and asked him, “…do you think, sir, that Jesus could save a sinner like me?” He answered “that there was no doubt about that.” She was a poor serving girl who had left her work that morning and had been roaming the streets, not knowing where to go. Thus, the speaker brought her back to the mission where she stayed for a short time before falling ill. Soon after, that same man came back, spoke Scripture to her, and sang again the hymn that had first attracted her. She repeated that chorus once more and two hours later died. Yet in those final hours, she had comfort in the words that reminded her that she was loved by God and in His hands because “Jesus paid it all.”
This hymn reminds us that it is not by our own reason or strength that we come to know Christ, but it is by His sacrifice and gift of grace that we are saved.
I hear the Savior say,
“Thy strength indeed is small,
Child of weakness, watch and pray,
Find in Me thine all in all.”
Jesus paid it all,
All to Him I owe;
Sin had left a crimson stain,
He washed it white as snow.
This hymn begins with Christ. While we could listen to many other things that might tell us otherwise, our Savior tells us what we need to hear. He is the first we should turn to. And what does He tell us? What He told His disciples on the night He was betrayed (Matt. 26:41). As the disciples should have kept watch and prayed that night in Gethsemane, so too should we keep watch and pray until Christ returns. It is in Christ that we should find our peace, our strength, our comfort (Luk. 11:1, 2 Cor. 1:3-4, Phil. 4:7, Eph. 6:18). We are weak, but He is strong and will give us what we need in our time of need (Mar. 14:38, Luk. 17:6, 2 Cor. 12:9-10, Heb. 4:16).
The chorus allows the hymn to end with Christ as well, as it should, for Christ is the beginning and the end, and in all things, He has supremacy (Col. 1:18). And what is that parallel phrase we repeat and remember so well? It is this: that Jesus paid for all our sin, so our whole selves are owed to Him. This is what Paul meant by reminding us that we were “bought at a price” and are slaves to Christ (1 Cor. 7:23). Sin, our old Adam, left a mark on us that was irredeemable except by the Blood of the Lamb (1 Cor. 15:22, 1 Pet. 1:18-25). He is what makes us clean and blameless in God’s sight; it is Christ to whom we owe everything (1 Cor. 1:8, Isa. 1:18, 1 Jhn. 1:7).
Lord, now indeed I find
Thy pow’r and Thine alone,
Can change the leper’s spots
And melt the heart of stone.
The second verse is a sort of response to the first; it is our acknowledgement of Christ’s supremacy in all things. This verse is quite metaphorical, but its message is clear. While God can make clean a leper and melt a hardened heart, this verse is talking about how God transforms our outward appearance or actions and our hearts (Luk. 17:11-19, Ezk. 11:19). This is not done by our own actions but we recognize, as the hymnist did, that this is done by the power of God (Rom. 5:6-8, Gal. 2:15-21). It is only by His power alone that we are made new (2 Cor. 5:17, Gal. 6:15).
For nothing good have I
Where-by Thy grace to claim;
I’ll wash my garments white
In the blood of Calv’ry’s Lamb.
Verse three is a continuation of the second verse. However, I see it not only as a reminder to ourselves but as a witness to others. As said before, it is not by our own reason or strength that we come to know Christ but rather it is Christ working in us (Eph. 2:1-10, Titus 3:4-7). Our works are filthy rags, and there is nothing “good” that we have done by which we claim the grace of God (Rom. 7:13-25, 2 Tim. 1:9-10). Rather, it is only in the Blood of the Lamb, in the holy and perfect sacrifice of Christ Jesus our Savior that we are made clean (1 Cor. 6:11, Rev. 7:14, 22:14). God’s grace is a gift freely given; our lives have been purchased with the Blood of Christ (1 Cor. 2:12, Eph. 1:4-10).
And when, before the throne,
I stand in Him complete,
“Jesus died my soul to save,”
My lips shall still repeat.
Finally, recognizing that all that we have is given to us by Christ and that by His death and resurrection we have been given eternal life, we look forward to that day when He returns (1 Cor. 11:23-26, 1 Thes. 5:10, Col. 3:4). On that day, we will stand before Him and bow down to Him who saved us from our wretched sin. “Jesus died to save my soul” should always be on our lips. He died for your soul; He died for mine. What else could we have to say? He paid it all. Not part, not half, not none as we could give, but Christ paid our debt in full that we might be made clean and stand before Him complete (2 Tim. 4:7-8, Rom. 8:15-18). This is why we repeat that chorus, because we owe everything to Him who loved us and died for us to make us white as snow (Rev. 5:11-14, 7:15).
Blessings to you and yours,
“Jesus Paid it All – This Hymn was More than a Coincidence.”
Sankey. My Life and the Story of the Gospel Hymns and of Sacred Songs and Solos.
Osbeck. 101 More Hymn Stories.