Wonderful Grace of Jesus

Lillenas, Haldor portrait (PF)

(photo of Haldor Lillenas)


“And the grace of our Lord was exceeding abundant with faith and love which is in Christ Jesus” (1 Tim. 1:14)

      INTRO.:  A song which extols how wonderful the grace of our Lord Jesus is with faith and love is, “Wonderful Grace of Jesus” (#638 in Hymns for Worship Revised, #452 in Sacred Selections for the Church).  The text was written and the tune (Wonderful Grace) was composed both by Haldor Lillenas, who was born on November 19, 1885, at Stord Island, near Bergen, Norway, the son of Ole Paulsen Lillenas and his wife Anna Marie Lillenas.  Ole was a farmer and storekeeper; Haldor’s siblings were named Paul, Johanes, Katrine, and George.  The Lillenas family farm was sold to allow the family to migrate to the United States. Ole came to the States via Canada in 1886 and bought a farm in Colton, SD. Anna and the children were re-united with him in 1887. In 1889 the Lillenas family relocated to a farm on the Columbia River near Astoria, OR. While living in Astoria, Lillenas learned English and began to attend school. In 1900 the family moved again to Roseville Township, Kandiyohi County, MN. While in Roseville, Lillenas began attending high school in a Lutheran school at Hawick, MN.  At the age of seventeen, Lillenas began a four-year correspondence course from the International Correspondence Schools in chemistry and chemical analysis with private tutors, working as a farm laborer most of the year, but during winter concentrating on his studies. About 1906 Anna Marie Lillenas died, and Ole decided to return the family to North Dakota; however Haldor decided to move back to Astoria, OR, where he finished his correspondence course and found employment in a chemical factory.

Like many Scandinavians at that time, Lillenas was raised in a Lutheran family. In 1906 Lillenas began to attend meetings at the Peniel Mission, a holiness rescue mission, in Astoria.  One summer evening he paused to listen to a street corner service and made his decision then to devote his life to Christian service.  In 1907 Lillenas moved to Portland, Oregon, where he worked with the Peniel Mission located there.  In 1908 Lillenas became a member of the Portland First Church of the Nazarene.  Soon after he enrolled in the ministerial course of studies, which he began by correspondence, joined a vocal group called the “Charioteers’ Brigade,” which held street meetings and revival services. In 1909 Lillenas was able to continue his ministerial studies at the Deets Pacific Bible College, now Point Loma Nazarene University, located at Los Angeles, CA.  Additionally, during this time he studied voice at the Lyric School of Music in Los Angeles.  While at Deets College, Haldor met another student, Bertha Mae Wilson, and on October 4, 1910, Lillenas married Bertha Mae, who became a songwriter like himself. They had two children, Evangeline Mae and Wendell Haldor.   Lillenas was a minister for the Church of the Nazarene for fifteen years from 1910. Soon after his marriage, he and Bertha moved to Sacramento, CA, where they took charge of the Peniel Mission.  After a year, Lillenas became the minister of the Lompoc, CA, Church of the Nazarene. During this time, he also took a two-year course in composition and harmony from the Siegel-Myers University Correspondence School of Music.  For ten years Lillenas was also a song evangelist and travelled with Bertha Mae holding revival services.  In addition, he provided songs for such meetings conducted by himself and others.  He subsequently worked with churches in Pomona, CA; Redlands, CA; Auburn, IL; Peniel, TX; and, from 1923 to 1926, Indianapolis, IN.  From a very young age, Lillenas had begun to write his own songs; however, it was not until later, that he attempted to have them published. Lillenas’ best known song is probably “Wonderful Grace of Jesus,” which he wrote during his time at the Church of the Nazarene in Auburn, IL, for use by evangelist Charles M. Alexander.   This gospel song was copyrighted in 1918, but not published until 1922 in the Tabernacle Choir Book edited by R. J. Oliver and Lance Latham. Lillenas was paid $5.00 for it.

Lillenas was a prolific composer of hymns, and it is estimated that in his lifetime, he wrote some 4,000 hymns, and supplied songs for many evangelists. Lillenas was the editor and compiler of over fifty song books for church and Sunday School.  Lillenas’ first book was Special Sacred Songs, which was published in 1919.  In 1924, while still serving with the Indianapolis First Church of the Nazarene, Lillenas founded the Lillenas Publishing Company. He resigned from Indianapolis First Church to focus on his publishing house, Before Lillenas Publishing Company was sold to the Nazarene Publishing House in Kansas City, Missouri in 1930, more than 700,000 hymnals and song books were published and sold.  The sale agreement mandated that Lillenas would serve as manager for ten years and then be reviewed. However, he continued as an editor until his retirement in 1950, at the age of 65.  After his retirement, he served as an adviser to the music department of Nazarene Publishing House until his death.  Among his other publications was the first official hymnal for the Church of the Nazarene, Glorious Gospel Songs, published in 1931, soon after Lillenas Publishing Company became part of the Nazarene Publishing House.  It included about 700 hymns and gospel songs, of which 81 were of his own compositions.  In 1938 Lillenas became a member of the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP). That same year Haldor and Bertha Mae purchased a 500-acre rural estate, that they called “Melody Lane,” in the Miller County, MO, Ozarks, halfway between Tuscumbia and Iberia.  It was here that Bertha Mae died of cancer in March 1945, and that Lillenas married Lola Dell later that year.  They remained there until they relocated to Pasadena, CA, by 1955.  In 1941 Olivet Nazarene College awarded Lillenas an honorary Doctor of Music degree in recognition of his contributions to American hymnody.  He died on August 18, 1959, at Aspen, CO, where the Lillenases had a summer retreat.  In 1982 Lillenas was inducted into the Gospel Music Association Hall of Fame.

Among hymnbooks published by members of the Lord’s church for use in churches of Christ, “Wonderful Grace of Jesus” has appeared in the 1963 Christian Hymnal edited by J. Nelson Slater; the 1971 Songs of the Church, the 1990 Songs of the Church 21st C. Ed., and the 1994 Songs of Faith and Praise, all edited by Alton H. Howard; the 1978 Hymns of Praise edited by Reuel  Lemmons; the 1978/1983 Church Gospel Songs and Hymns edited by V. E. Howard; the 1992 Praise for the Lord edited by John P. Wiegand; the 2009 Favorite Songs of the Church and the 2010 Songs for Worship and Praise both edited by Robert J. Taylor Jr.; and the 2017 Standard Songs of the Church edited by Michael Grissom; in addition to Hymns for Worship and Sacred Selections.

The song mentions three important aspects of God’s grace through Jesus.

I. Stanza  1 says that it is greater than all our sin

Wonderful grace of Jesus,

Greater than all my sin;

How shall my tongue describe it,

Where shall its praise begin?

Taking away my burden,

Setting my spirit free;

For the wonderful grace of Jesus reaches me.

  1. The fact is that each of us has sinned: Rom. 3:23
  2. But God by His grace makes it possible for our burden of sin to be taken away through justification: Rom. 5:15-17
  3. In this way, the grace of Christ sets our spirits free: Rom. 8:1-2

II. Stanza 2 says that it reaches all the lost

Wonderful grace of Jesus,

Reaching to all the lost,

By it I have been pardoned,

Saved to the uttermost,

Chains have been torn asunder,

Giving me liberty;

For the wonderful grace of Jesus reaches me.

  1. The gospel of God’s grace is His power of salvation to everyone: Rom. 1:16-17
  2. Thus all who are lost can find pardon or forgiveness in Christ by grace: Eph. 1:7-8
  3. Not only is this grace broad enough to save anyone but it is deep enough to save us to the uttermost: Heb. 7:25

III. Stanza 3 says that it reaches the most defiled

Wonderful grace of Jesus,

Reaching the most defiled,

By its transforming power,

Making him God’s dear child,

Purchasing peace and heaven,

For all eternity;

And the wonderful grace of Jesus reaches me.

  1. This means that there is no single sin so defiling that it cannot be forgiven: Mk. 3:28
  2. As a result, even the vilest sinner can be transformed by grace into God’s dear child: Gal. 3:26-27
  3. And God’s grace gives us not only peace here but also the hope of heaven for all eternity: Col. 1:3-6

CONCL. The chorus continues to express appreciation for the blessings of Christ’s grace

Wonderful the matchless grace of Jesus,

Deeper than the mighty rolling sea;

Wonderful grace, all sufficient for me, for even me.

Broader than the scope of my transgressions,

Greater far than all my sin and shame,

O magnify the precious name of Jesus.

Praise His name!

This is not the easiest song to sing, but it is a good song.  There is a beneficial message about our salvation and about the exuberant joy available in Christ because of the “Wonderful Grace of Jesus.”


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