Saturday, October 6, 2012

Clinging to the Rock of Ages

Augustus Toplady was an Anglican priest who lived a relatively short time in the eighteenth century (1740-1778).  By his own account he became a committed Christian at the age of 15.  He was ordained as a deacon in the Church of England in 1762 and served the rest of his life in various ecclesiastical capacities. 

He also wrote a number of hymns, and even if you have never heard the name Augustus Toplady, you are probably familiar with his most famous hymn:
Rock of Ages cleft for me
Let me hide myself in Thee
Let the water and the blood
From Thy wounded side which flowed
Be of sin the double cure
Save from wrath and make me pure

Toplady wrote “Rock of Ages” in 1763, about eight years after he had  first embraced the Gospel and, by all accounts, had been walking in it faithfully.  Yet the heart cries of his famous hymn sound very much like someone who is desperate, who realizes afresh his utterly fallen state and whose only hope is God’s mercy expressed through the Gospel:
All the labors of my hands
Cannot meet Thy Law's demands:
Could my zeal no respite know,
Could my tears forever flow,
All for sin could not atone:
Thou must save, and Thou alone!
It is almost as if, when reminded of God’s holiness and his own sinfulness, he is crying out yet again for God to save him.   Though he knew full well and had already placed his hope in the truth of the Gospel, that Jesus died for all of his sins, it is as if he had to remind himself again and again.  Why is this?

It seems that the longer a Christian walks with God and becomes more acquainted with His holiness, the more he becomes aware of his own sinfulness and unworthiness. When Christians are reminded of the sins of their past as well as those that persist in the present despite their best efforts, fear can easily set in, causing us to wonder: Is the Gospel too good to be true?  Are my sins really forgiven?  How can I know for sure?  Toplady addressed these questions in one of his lesser known yet equally powerful hymns:
From whence this fear and unbelief,
Since God my Father, put to grief
His spotless Son for me?
Can He, the righteous judge of men,
Condemn me for that debt of sin,
Which, Lord, was charged on Thee?"
Of course the answer to the song's rhetorical question is a resounding “No!” as Toplady answers by reminding himself again of the truth of the Gospel:
Complete atonement Thou hast made,
And to the utmost farthing paid,
Whate'er Thy people owed;
How, then, can wrath on me take place,
If sheltered in Thy righteousness,
And sprinkled with Thy blood?
In yet another hymn, “A Debtor to Mercy Alone,” Toplady reminded himself and other believers that God and God alone will save us and keep us from start to finish.
The work which His goodness began,
The arm of His strength will complete;
His promise is yea and amen,
And never was forfeited yet.
Things future, nor things that are now,
Nor all things below or above,
Can make Him His purpose forgo,
Or sever my soul from His love.
Those who grew up in church singing “Rock of Ages” and know it well might not be familiar with the hymn’s subtitle:  “A Living and Dying Prayer for the Holiest Believer in the World”.  Toplady understood that even those who do their utmost to walk in holiness and obedience to God, no matter how successful they may appear to be in doing so, are just as desperately dependent on God’s grace and mercy as the worst of sinners.

Toplady struggled with the same doubts and fears that I encounter; he had to remind himself again and again of the truth of the Gospel.  This is a great source of encouragement to me.  Toplady and Christians throughout the ages have understood that the message of the Gospel is not just for sinners who need to be converted.  It is also for those who have already repented and believed, and who must continue to do so on a daily basis as they cling to the Rock of Ages.

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