By Jackina Stark
John Donne, 17th-century poet and preacher, wrote some of the most beautiful poetry in the English language. His Holy Sonnet X, “Death Be Not Proud,” may be the greatest expression of Christ’s victory over death since Paul wrote, “Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?” (1 Corinthians 15:55).
When Donne turns to the issue of sin, his poetry isn’t always so victorious. In “Hymn to God the Father,” the speaker asks if God can possibly forgive all of his sin:
Wilt Thou forgive that sin, through which I run,
And do run still, though still I do deplore?
This is only one of five groups of sins he catalogues. The groups are rather horrifying to read; it is too easy to see our own sins among them. At the end of the first two stanzas, one can almost hear Donne’s sigh:
When Thou hast done, Thou hast not done,
For I have more.
The same man who wrote the confident line, “Death, thou shalt die” (His Holy Sonnet X), sometimes looked at the sin in his life and feared that sin and death might win.
Yet the great writer/preacher must have known well the second chapter of Hebrews. It tells us that by his death, Jesus destroyed Satan and freed “those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death.” Then Jesus became our wonderfully “merciful and faithful high priest” to “make atonement for our sins” and “to help those who are being tempted” (Hebrews 2:15-18).
Our time of Communion reminds us over and over again, for we need reminding, that sin and death have been defeated. A passage in J.I. Packer’s book Knowing God (InterVarsity Press, 1993) explains that on the cross, the sinless Son did more than pay the debt for our sins. He also took on all God’s wrath in the face of that sin, averting it from you and me. He gave us peace with God. Packer cites John 20:19 and 20 as proof: Jesus appears to the disciples in the upper room after his resurrection and says, “Peace be with you!” Then he shows them “his hands and side,” and we know this is more than mere greeting. It is declaration, it is promise—we now have peace with God.
Focusing on Jesus ultimately helped Donne come to a triumphant resolution in the last lines of “Hymn to God the Father”:
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.
Shine he has; shine he will—the Lord’s table reminds us of this. And we fear no more.
Jackina Stark is a retired Ozark Christian College English professor who lives in Branson, Missouri.