A lot of the old beloved hymns of bygone times aren’t heard much anymore. That seems regrettable to those of us of a more advanced age who were raised on those songs. We’re certainly gratified by the number of contemporary Christian artists writing music that speaks to younger generations. Yet – some of those old songs contained memorable phrases that still strongly resonate with our faith.
The 1776 lyrics of the hymn Rock of Ages undoubtedly sound archaic and strained to modern ears (e.g.: “Could my tears no respite know” or “Foul I to the fountain fly.”). But the opening lines of the third verse speak a clear and timeless truth about our salvation:
Nothing in my hand I bring,
simply to the cross I cling;
Though the author of these lines (Augustus M. Toplady) was an Anglican Priest who ‘converted’ to a Calvinist preacher, the sentiment is thoroughly Lutheran: we can bring nothing to warrant our salvation! Rather, we cling only to the redemption won for us by Christ’s sacrifice on the cross!
Now, most Christians have no problem whatsoever agreeing with the second line of these lyrics, and also agreeing in principle with the first. That is, all Christians from the earliest to the present do pay at least lip-service to the principle that our salvation is by God’s grace alone (which Luther stated in Latin as: sola gratia – “solely grace”). However, it is very difficult for Christians to resist falling into the erroneous assumption that if we do things that please God, that this somehow assists in earning His grace.
This gets tricky to talk about! The Bible makes it clear that God takes delight in our faithful relationship to Him and is saddened (and angered) when our attitudes and actions violate His will for us (e.g., Exodus 20:5-6). That is, far from being indifferent, God is deeply concerned with the way we conduct our lives. But if that is the case, surely He also gives ‘special credit’ to those who please Him (or at least are trying to), right? Or, if good behavior actually earns us nothing, what’s the point of trying?
These are ‘deep waters’ where attempts to explain God’s ways will inevitably prove inadequate. Yet, we can gain some insight when we recognize that God’s decision to send His son to die for us was not in any way based on anything we had yet done. In fact, as St. Paul says:
“… God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” (Romans 5:8)
As a crude analogy, think of the human parents who voluntarily undergo costly and painful procedures (such as bone marrow transplants) to give their infant afflicted with a birth defect a chance at life. What has the infant done to ‘earn’ that love? And what is the ‘payback’ for the parent? The only consideration is the well-being of the child, and the only ‘reward’ is the prospect of a loving relationship. If we flawed human parents are capable of such self-giving love, how much more so for our Heavenly Father!
God had already made the decision and paid the price long before we were capable of responding to His love. And all that He wants in return is that we reciprocate that love. But even that is beyond our human capability and He sends His Holy Spirit to prepare and amend our rebellious hearts so that we accept His redemption already purchased for us.
But what about faith? Isn’t that the one thing we can supply from our own resources? Not that either! In truth, we are like helpless shipwreck victims who under God’s providence are washed onto a buoyant object to which we can cling for life. We can choose to refuse this deliverance and trust in our own resources (and die). But if we will but trust God’s rescue He will give us the strength to hang on and see us to safety. Saving faith is also His gift!
As the song says, we approach God for His grace with empty hands – we have nothing to offer. Rather, all of our hope is centered on clinging to the cross on which our Savior died. Our faithful hearts and giving lives are not the cause of our rescue, but the fruits of our gratitude.