Embracing Grace: Unconditional

A 365 Day Devotional Journal

Day 83 

Scripture: Romans 10:17; Luke 14:33

Bosendorfer 185 keyboard. Photo courtesy of NorCal Bosie. Public Domain.

If you grew up on gospel music or have a background in the Pentecostal movement, you will be familiar with the hymn “I Surrender All.” Even if you more recently became a believer, you may be familiar with the song simply because many hymns have been redone by contemporary Christian bands. Mercy Me comes to mind, as does Carmen, for both have sung this song. It is a favorite at revivals and altar calls alike.

“I Surrender All”1

All to Jesus, I surrender; all to Him I freely give.
I will ever love and trust Him. In His presence daily live.
I surrender all, I surrender all.
All to Thee, my blessed Savior, I surrender all.

All to Jesus I surrender; humbly at His feet I bow.
Worldly pleasures all forsaken; take me, Jesus, take me now.
All to Jesus, I surrender; make me, Savior, wholly Thine.
Let me feel the Holy Spirit, truly know that Thou art mine.
All to Jesus, I surrender; Lord, I give myself to Thee.
Fill me with Thy love and power; Let Thy blessing fall on me.


Scupture of breadline at 1930 FDR memorial. Photo courtesy of Peter Griffin. Public Domain.

For those of us who have sung this song, however, I wonder if we know what it means to surrender all. We are not by nature creatures who easily give up, nor do we desire to do so. The will to live is strong for most of us, as is the will to succeed in life to the measure that we envision success. The comedy science fiction movie, Galaxy Quest, coined the motto “Never give up, never surrender!” And we are a people who cling to this idea, whether we know it or not.

Surrender is a phrase that implies “giving up” or “giving in.” Surrender all is one of those inclusive phrases that bring to mind the unconditional surrender of a weaker party to a stronger party, as in an unconditional surrender following a war or great battle.

Unconditional is an English word not found in most modern translations of the Word, except the Message Bible. But its meaning is found throughout Bible text, for unconditional means “not limited by conditions; absolute; without limitations; total.”2,3  We all know God’s power is absolute, His sovereignty is unconditional, His will is total, His mercy is without limitation, His justice is not limited to conditions.

So what is the story behind the song?

Photo courtesy of Vera Kratochvil. Public Domain.

Judson W. Van de Venter (1855-1939) was raised in a Christian home. He came to Jesus at age seventeen. He graduated high school and college with a degree in art, but was also very gifted in music. Judson mastered thirteen different instruments, taught and composed music, and was deeply involved in church music.

But God was pulling on his heart.

He wavered five years between the idea of ministry full time or pursing art (and music) in the secular world. It is not an uncommon struggle. I could name at least half a dozen famous singers who came from gospel roots before they embraced the world. Many more that succeed in the realm of Christian music or ministry might as well be in the world from the way they live. A trip down memory lane in any news archive bears this out. So I am guessing Van De Venter’s conflict stemmed from choosing between a life of probable anonymity and becoming a nationally recognized artist.

“I Surrender All” was first published in 1896, in the Gospel Songs of Grace and Glory, compiled by Weeden, Van de Venter, and Leonard. Winfield S. Weeden (1847-1908), one of the compilers, put the words to music. Weeden so loved the words to this song that it ended up on his tombstone. A brief story behind the song was included in the publication. This is an excerpt from it:

“For some time, I had struggled between developing my talents in the field of art and going into full-time evangelistic work. At last the pivotal hour of my life came, and I surrendered all. A new day was ushered into my life. I became an evangelist and discovered down deep in my soul a talent hitherto unknown to me. God had hidden a song in my heart, and touching a tender chord, He caused me to sing.”4

London bronze fountain. Photo courtesy of Yana Ray. Public Domain.

Dr. Billy Graham later shared how greatly Judson Van de Venter’s song influenced him. It appears in his book, Crusade Hymn Stories, edited by Cliff Barrow.

“One of the evangelists who influenced my early preaching was also a hymnist who wrote ‘I Surrender All’—the Rev. J. W. Van de Venter. He was a regular visitor at the Florida Bible Institute (now Trinity Bible College) in the late 1930’s. We students loved this kind, deeply spiritual gentleman and often gathered in his winter home at Tampa, Florida, for an evening of fellowship and singing.”5

Everyone has heard of Dr. Billy Graham, but few of us remember Rev. Judson W. Van de Venter, yet he ended up greatly influencing a man who went on during his lifetime to lead worldwide crusades. Do you wonder if Graham might not have had such an impact for God’s kingdom apart from Van de Venter’s obedience?

I do.

Photo courtesy of David Wagner. Public Domain.

This leads me to ask the obvious question: “If God asked me to lay down a life of fame and fortune to follow a path of anonymity, would I be willing to do so?”

“In the same way, those of you who do not give up everything you have cannot be my disciples.”6

Sounds like unconditional surrender to me.

Read: Romans 10:17; Luke 14:33. Journal your private thoughts.

Father, You set life and death before me and have urged me to choose life, that I might live. As the poet once wrote, I choose the path lesser traveled. I chose life. If things in this life are so important to me, then I am not worthy of following You. I choose to lay them down. In Jesus’ name, amen.    

1“Story behind the song – I Surrender All.” The Stories Behind the Hymns. http://www.faithclipart.com/guide/Christian-Music/hymns-the-songs-and-the-stories/i-surrender-all-the-song-and-the-story.html (accessed June 10, 2011.)
2 unconditional. Dictionary.com. Dictionary.com Unabridged. Random House, Inc. http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/unconditional (accessed: June 11, 2011).
3 unconditional. Dictionary.com. Collins English Dictionary – Complete & Unabridged 10th Edition. HarperCollins Publishers. http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/unconditional (accessed: June 11, 2011).
4“Story behind the song – I Surrender All.” The Stories Behind the Hymns. http://www.faithclipart.com/guide/Christian-Music/hymns-the-songs-and-the-stories/i-surrender-all-the-song-and-the-story.html (accessed June 10, 2011).
5“I Surrender All.” Sermon Index: Promoting Christ-Centered Revival. http://www.sermonindex.net/modules/articles/index.php?view=article&aid=6023 (accessed June 10, 2011).
6Luke 14:33. THE HOLY BIBLE, NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION®, NIV® Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.™ Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. www.biblica.com

Copyright © 2011, Érin Elise.

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