The Charles Wesley hymn, I Want a Principle Within, isn’t sung as often as it used to be. It’s a powerful tool in our quest for holiness, however, so it’s well worth recovering.
At first glance the “principle” we “want within (ourselves)” can be seen as akin to computer programming. As we sing, we’re asking God to make it so that our internal programming, our guidance system, is one conducive to “watchful godly fear.” We want to be able to see things from God’s perspective and to act accordingly. Now if we go beyond the first glance and explore Wesleyan theology more deeply, we notice that this “principle” isn’t some impersonal code, law, or rulebook. This principle is the Holy Spirit, God himself living within us.
We sing that we want an “early warning system” (to use a modern metaphor) for sin. We want to know when it’s come near or entered our lives. Even more, we want to experience PAIN when we feel sin near. Why pain? Charles Wesley desires to feel sin as pain so we will respond to it the way we respond to pain – getting away from it, recognizing its danger and destructive power.
In the second stanza we sing, “Quick as the apple of an eye, O God, my conscience make; awake my soul when sin is nigh, and keep it still awake.” “Apple of an eye” is an ancient image for our pupil. Our pupil is very lively (quick), directing its gaze here and there rapidly. When we sing this we’re asking for God to sharpen our perceptual skills so we can see sin when it comes our way. We also ask for help staying mentally (and spiritually) awake and aware. If we go to sleep, or are dull in spirit, we won’t know what’s hit us until it’s too late.
In the final stanza we sinners cast ourselves on the grace of God offered us in Christ.
Almighty God of truth and love,
To me thy power impart;
The mountain from my soul remove,
The hardness from my heart.
O may the least omission pain
My reawakened soul,
And drive me to that blood again,
Which makes the wounded whole.
In Jesus we find the healing we need if we are to escape sin and live the full life God intends. We need the cleansing power of his blood applied.
This can be a difficult song to sing. Oh, I don’t mean musically (though it may be that if you’ve never heard it). It can be difficult if we’re currently in love with sin. Well, we wouldn’t say we’re exactly in love with sin, but it sure is comfortable. Also, as citizens of the world, our culture (whichever culture that might be) has certain pet sins that it excuses and even extols as part of the good life. This song hits us at the point of our desire. We’re not just singing for God to deliver us from present sin in our lives, we’re also asking for the DESIRE to be rid of it, whenever and however it comes near.
Here’s a rendition from my Texas Annual Conference compatriot Mike Whang: