Home > Death, Hymns, The Article of Justification > In Christi Wunden schlaf’ ich ein–I fall asleep in Jesus’ wounds

In Christi Wunden schlaf’ ich ein–I fall asleep in Jesus’ wounds

Paul Eber

I fall asleep in Jesus’ wounds,
There pardon for my sins abounds;
Yea, Jesus’ blood and righteousness
My jewels are, my glorious dress.
In these before my God I’ll stand
When I shall reach the heav’nly land.

With peace and joy I now depart;
God’s child I am with all my heart. 
I thank thee, Death, thou leadest me
To that true life where I would be. 
So cleansed by Christ, I fear not death. 
Lord Jesus, strengthen Thou my faith.    –Paul Eber, 1569

A gentleman wanted this sung at the funeral tomorrow.  As you can imagine that was pretty exciting.  But then it got vetoed by some other relatives.

I was not familiar with this hymn because I didn’t know TLH that well, at least not funeral hymns.  I looked in the Handbook of the Lutheran Hymnal, an old book that was left in the pastor’s office from the days of Rev. E. W. Frenk, and it says that it is not certain that Paul Eber wrote this hymn.  It did not appear in a hymnal until 1638.

Either way, Nicolaus von Zinzendorf borrowed these words for his most famous hymn: “Jesus, thy blood and righteousness.”  (If you don’t know who Zinzendorf is, look him up.  He was theoretically a Lutheran.  But he also kind of had a hand in the birth of the Methodist church; and even though methodists are quiet and somewhat liberal now, at one time they were the holy rollers.  Which is why there are so many Methodists in the United States.)  Look at the two in German–first Eber, then Zinzendorf.

In Christi Wunden schlaf’ ich ein,
Die machen mich von Sünden rein;
Ja, Christi Blut und G’rechtigkeit,
ist mein Ornat und Ehrenkleid,

Damit will ich vor Gott bestehn,
Wenn ich zum Himmel werd’ eingehn.

and then….

Christi Blut und Gerechtigkeit,
das ist mein Schmuck und Ehrenkleid,
damit will ich vor Gott bestehn,
wenn ich zum Himmel werd eingehn.

It appears to have been normal for German hymnwriters to steal a line from an earlier famous hymn and write a new one as a riff of it.  “I Fall asleep in Jesus’ wounds” copies a line from one of Luther’s hymns: “Mit Fried’ und Freud’ ich fahr’ dahin.”  (In peace and joy I now depart, which is Luther’s hymn version of the Nunc Dimittis.)

Zinzendorf–a man with many spiritual descendants in the LCMS

However, the problem is that Zinzendorf’s hymn is not as good.  I admit that I can’t really read German.  But theologically Zinzendorf is inferior.  The beauty of the hymn attributed to Eber is that he parallels the “blood and righteousness” of Jesus which are his “regalia and wedding dress” with “falling asleep in Jesus’ wounds” which “makes him clean from sins”.  With Zinzendorf, the blood and righteousness of Jesus are “jewelry/adornment and wedding gown”, but there is no link from justification to the wounds of Jesus–that is, to His incarnation and passion.  And for that matter, the whole rest of “Jesus, Thy Blood and Righteousness”–at least as we have it in TLH–fails to do what the hymns of Lutheran orthodoxy do so well–keep justification from being an abstraction by emphasizing that  the suffering and death of Jesus in the body are our justification.

When the hymn talks about the “blood and righteousness” of Jesus, I’m pretty certain it refers to what theologians call the “active and passive righteousness of Christ.”  On the one hand, Jesus’ blood is our “wedding dress,” meaning that God counts the death and suffering of Jesus on the cross as though we ourselves had suffered for our sins.  On the other hand Jesus’ “righteousness,” I think, refers to Jesus’ active, perfect obedience to the Law, which is counted to us through faith, just as our sin was imputed to Him and resulted in His suffering.

Jesus’ obedience is the garment we wear in eternity (and now).  His obedience actually becomes ours.  He has glorified us with it.  But falling asleep in Jesus’ wounds–that is, dying in Jesus’ wounds–is even more comforting.  You can’t fall asleep when you’re terrified–only when you’re safe.  And who isn’t terrified when they’re dying, unless their heart is hardened?  But in Jesus’ wounds we are safe, we may rest and sleep when we die.  Not only that, but if I die in Jesus’ wounds, I die with Jesus and my death is surrounded by Jesus’ death.  And if that is so, then my death will also be surrounded by His resurrection, which is the end of death.

It gets even better yet:

I thank thee, Death, thou leadest me
To that true life where I would be. 
So cleansed by Christ, I fear not death. 
Lord Jesus, strengthen Thou my faith.

Thanks, Death.  The fear of death enslaved us according to Hebrews (chapter 2), but now he serves us.  “Grim death with all its might/cannot my soul affright/it is a pow’rless form/howe’er it rave and storm”  says another hymn.  At most committals we read, “O Death, where is your victory?  O Death, where is your sting?”  (1 Corinthians 15)  But hardly anyone takes those words seriously.  By and large Christians today never seem to think of death or of preparing for it.  If we heard the Gospel once 30 years ago, that’s all the preparation necessary.

But it wasn’t always that way.  Lutherans once used to contend with the fear of death, realizing that it meant that their faith was weak.  They didn’t sing the words above flippantly but strove to make those words their own by faith.

Johann Gerhard, the great Lutheran theologian, wrote (in 1611) a book for those preparing to die and those who ministered to them called Handbook of Consolations.  He writes in the preface:

If you would permit me to apply that definition of Platonic philosophy, namely, that it is the contemplation of death, to the true divine wisdom of Christianity, I would not, in my opinion, go against the truth, seeing that its beginning and end consists of a contemplation of death….both Christ’s death and our own….Contemplation of the death of Christ, therefore, ought never to recede from our memory.  Nor should our own death be forgotten at any time during our own life.  As death awaits us every day, let us likewise expect it every day.  As Jerome says, “He who daily remembers that he will die is one who easily despises all worldly things.”  Indeed, he, who prepares himself for a happy death by a true and serious conversion, labors after sincere godliness, patiently endures adversity, and with heartfelt feeling burns with an ardent desire for eternal life.  Moses prays, Teach us, O Lord, to number our days that we may apply our hearts to wisdom (Ps. 90:12).  A great part, therefore, of Christian wisdom consists of constant contemplation of death.  (Johann Gerhard, Handbook of Consolations, trans. Carl L. Beckwith.  Eugene, Oregon: Wipf and Stock, 2009.  p. 3)

Well, frankly, I spend little time contemplating my death or the death of Jesus.  It’s easy enough to conduct a funeral and not take to heart that you too will certainly die.  And then it will not be a matter of talk, but truth, whether I fall asleep in Jesus’ wounds.  It is not always easy for me to differentiate the security of the flesh from resting in the wounds of Christ.  Oftentimes what I call faith is really that I am not troubled and I do not feel death anywhere near.  Gerhard has another excellent quote about security in this book, which I want to write more about if I get a chance.

…Without making yourself carnally secure, be certain in the Spirit of the gift of perseverance and the reward of eternal life.  Let the infallible promises of God free you from doubt and let the exhortations and threats of God free you from carnal security.  Augustine writes, “There is no security in this life outside of hope alone in the promises of God.”  Again Augustine writes, “In this life, which is full of temptation on the earth, he who thinks he stands must take heed lest he fall (1 Cor 10:12).  As you see, those who will not persevere are by the providential will of God mixed with those who will persevere, so that we may learn not to soar too high in our wisdom but join the humble and work out our salvation with fear and trembling (Phil. 2:12).  Therefore, with one eye of the heart look upon the mercy of God and with the other the justice of God.  From a faithful consideration of divine mercy, let there arise in your heart a trust of perseverance.  From the fear of divine justice, let there arise an avoidance of carnal security.  Let a godly fear strike down your flesh, lest the love of sinful flesh deceive you.  The Lord takes pleasure in those that fear Him and hope in His mercy (Ps. 147:11).  Let the inner man hope and trust and the outer man fear and tremble.  (pp. 56-57)

Enough for now.


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