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.

(John Donne, Hymn to God the Father)

 

John Donne puns on his own name in this poem, ending the first two stanzas by saying to God, “When you have done forgiving this sin, you still don’t have Donne — for I have more sins to address.” Each stanza addresses a specific class of sin, rather than specific actions which he has committed.

The first stanza addresses sins in general which Donne has committed under his own volition — that “which was my sin.” But more than this, the poet also alludes to his sinful nature, that part of mankind which we all inherit from Adam — that sinful nature which was “done before.” Yet he does not blame his own sin on Adam or anyone else, for it is “my sin,” sinful patterns which he indulges repeatedly, sometimes gleefully (“through which I run”), sometimes loathingly (“do deplore”), but ever repeating the pattern. When God forgives this sin, it is not enough, for Donne has not been redeemed.

In the second stanza, Donne steps back to view his sins more from God’s perspective, seeing that his own actions have influenced others. When he has indulged his flesh, the poet says, his sin has won others to sin, rather than to righteousness; his sin has become “the door” through which friends and family have walked into condemnation. He also views his own efforts at righteousness from God’s eyes, and realizes that even his acts of self-denial have been but pretenses, temporary abstinence from sin followed by gross self-indulgence. When God forgives this sin, it is still not enough — for there is yet more.

Finally, Donne removes himself from the perspective altogether, viewing his life as God sees it (apart from Christ, which I will address in a moment). Throughout all his actions, both sinful and righteous, there runs a thread of fear, and this is the final sin which must be absolved before the poet is assured of eternal redemption. This fear is the notion that Donne must earn God’s favor by purging his life of sinful patterns and replacing them with righteousness. He knows instinctively that this is not possible for any man, and he fears that he will end his life without having obtained eternal forgiveness from God.

It is at this point that the poet discovers the true source of redemption: not his deeds, but God’s own character. “Swear by Thyself,” the poet cries, “and I shall fear no more.” Base my redemption, not on my obedience, but upon Your perfect faithfulness; for if God swears that I am saved, then nothing can prevent it from coming to pass — not even my own repetitive sinful patterns. And the means by which God is able to make such a promise is through the propitiation of His Son, who paid the debt of all Donne’s sins on the cross. “And having done that,” the poet concludes, “Thou hast Donne.”

It is interesting to notice also that Donne was fully aware of his eternal salvation all along, even when he was wrestling with the repetitive nature of his own sin. This poem represents an internal struggle of personal conscience which any Christian can relate to, as we constantly strive to view our lives from God’s perspective, but find it hard to eradicate our own faulty, fleshly view. Donne’s pun on “Son” as “sun” brings this to light (if you’ll pardon my own pun), for he realizes that his soul has been secure in Christ all along, even while sinning and leading others into sin. “Thy Son shall shine,” he writes, “as he shines now, and heretofore” — that is, Christ shall pour out His grace at my death just as He is pouring it out now, and has been all along.

And when a believer grasps the infallible nature of God’s grace through Christ, we realize that He has us in His unbreakable grip — and we need fear no more.

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