He breaks the pow’r of canceled sin, He sets the prisoner free.
His blood can make the foulest clean, His blood availed for me.
In my humble opinion, these are some of the finest extra-biblical words ever written. One of the things I love about my job is that I get to sing words like these with you—words that not only hold deep spiritual truths but artistically are among the finest ever written in English. This particular phrase seemed worth picking apart because of the sheer beauty it holds and the unimaginable truth it proclaims. I’ve also had more than one person come up to me and ask what, exactly, it means. So here’s what it means in fancy language: when Wesley proclaims “He breaks the pow’r of canceled sin,” he is offering us a deft and succinct summation of the duality of Christ’s salvific work on the cross and thereafter.
Perhaps it’s worth rephrasing that in a more understandable way (in college I got extra points for saying things as confusingly and intricately as possible; now when I do it I’m just being obnoxious). There are two main points Wesley is making with this phrase. He is referring to the two levels of work that the power of Jesus is accomplishing in the life of the Christian (that is, justification and sanctification).
Let’s work backwards. Firstly, Wesley tells us that “He breaks the pow’r of canceled sin.” Canceled sin is a phrase we don’t often hear, and it refers to the idea that Jesus canceled the record of wrongs against those who believe. This is what theologians call the doctrine of justification. When Jesus died, God exchanged believers’ sin for Jesus’ righteousness. This means that Jesus received the punishment we deserved. Thus, there are now no charges against us. If we think of sin like a financial debt that we have accrued, Jesus wrote a check for us and now the creditors and banks have no reason to come after us anymore because we no longer owe anything. The impending punishment that was scheduled to righteously and justly destroy us has been canceled. Wesley is likely playing off of Paul’s proclamation to the Colossians that “He canceled the record of the charges against us and took it away by nailing it to the cross” (Colossians 2:14). As Matt Chandler puts it, “Jesus is changing the scorecard.” There is a scorecard in heaven that is filled out with Jesus’ perfect works, and my name is at the top. This is justification. And this is really, really good news.
Despite all this, anyone with the self-awareness of a grain of salt knows that we all still sin. One thing I love about Wesley is he’s realistic and he takes time to address our frustrating, continual indulgence in sin when He says “He breaks the pow’r of canceled sin.” He acknowledges that sin still has some semblance of power over our lives. Though we have freedom from our sin and its debt is canceled, we are also still entangled by it. Jesus is the only one who can begin to break the hold it has on us. This is where the doctrine of sanctification comes in. God has now, through Jesus, given us new hearts that are responsive to Him, and now, slowly, through the power of the Holy Spirit indwelling believers, God is working to make us perfect. This won’t happen completely in our lifetime. Sometimes His work is quite obvious and at other times it feels more like one step forward, two miles back. But we still believe that Jesus is making us more like Him every day. To once again rephrase Wesley’s words in a clearer, more modern syntax, we could say: “He has paid for our sin and now He is breaking the remaining power it still holds over us.” Or, to continue the financial analogy, “Jesus paid what we owed to our creditors and He is now rebuilding our credit score.”
I could soliloquize about Wesley’s divine word play all day, but I’ll stop here and end with this: when we sing as a congregation, don’t let the words simply fly in one ear and out the other. Although not all songs are created equally, many of them hold profound biblical truths that are encapsulated in easy to remember words. Learn from the masters. Whether it’s the songs you hear at church, on the radio, or from your own personal library, remember that words have power. Let them transform you and let them stick with you. Finally, take time today to rejoice that Christ has done it all, that He didn’t just cancel our sin and leave us alone, but He’s working today, tomorrow, and for the rest of our lives to bring us from one degree of glory to the next in order to finish what He started (Philippians 1:6).
Danny Nathan grew up at Grace participating in the music and worship ministry. He’s currently a worship leader, leading people into worship in a variety of venues, including our modern worship service and student ministry gatherings. Danny is a graduate of The Ohio State University with a degree in English. In June 2016, Danny married his high school sweetheart Alli.