Monday, August 17, 2015

Rock of Ages - Controversy in a Hymn

One of my favorite hymns of the church is "Rock of Ages" - a powerful statement of a sinner's total reliance upon God for salvation. Every line, every stanza speaks of the sinner's self-awareness of his guilt before God and his sense of total incapability to redeem himself. Likewise, every word points beyond the sinner's deeply-felt inability to God's free, but costly, provision of salvation.

    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.

Augustus M. Toplady (1740-1778), the author of this hymn, was a devoted Calvinist, convinced of the total depravity of man and the singular action of a sovereign God in providing human salvation. His outspoken Calvinist views often put him at odds with his contemporaries, the Wesley brothers - John Wesley, the itinerant preacher and founder of the Methodist faith, and Charles Wesley, a staunch supporter of his brother's ministry and one of the best known song writers in all Christian history. This disagreement led to public debate and lasting hard feelings between Toplady and the Wesleys. This dispute mirrors the debate that lingers even today between Calvinists and Wesleyans.


But here is something I find quite interesting. One couplet in Toplady's song - "Be of sin the double cure, save from wrath and make me pure" - is a thoroughly Wesleyan sentiment. John Wesley - and his Methodist followers - stressed both the centrality of prevenient grace - grace that comes before anything else - in turning sinful man toward God and the absolute necessity of the sanctification process - the growth toward true righteousness and holiness - in the life of the Christian after this conversion experience.

This powerful song seems to accomplish what years of discussion and debate - both friendly and otherwise - never could. It brings together the strongest affirmations of both Calvinism and Wesleyanism in one place.

Sometimes, a song accomplishes things that nothing else can do.


  1. I, too, love this old familiar hymn (and if I am say so, hymns in general). It may be worth pointing out, however, that there is more than a single version of the lyrics. In one the "double cure" is given as freedom from sin's "guilt" and "pow'r." The more popular version, which you cited here, is that the double cure is salvation from God's "wrath" and the gift of "purification." The former is more harmonious with Calvinism. The other, as you pointed out, brings together important themes from Calvinism and Wesleyanism. Without any additional research, I don't know which is original, though someone who reads this blog may well know.

  2. Dan: You challenged me to look again at the original wording of this hymn and it appears that you are right. The earliest published version of the seems to be

    Be of sin the double cure;
    Cleanse me from its guilt and power.

    But as I researched this, I was startled to see that there is a widely held view that Toplady may well have lifted many of the lyrics of "Rock of Ages" directly from Charles Wesley's well known hymns.

    It is VERY HARD not to see direct parallels between the Toplady's familiar lyrics and these prior hymns by Wesley:

    Hymn 31

    1 O Rock of our salvation, see
    The souls that seek their rest in Thee;
    Beneath thy cooling shadow hide.
    And keep us. Saviour, in thy side:
    By water and by blood redeem.
    And wash us in the mingled stream.

    2 The sin-atoning blood apply.
    And let the water sanctify;
    Pardon and holiness impart.
    Sprinkle and purify our heart;
    Wash out the last remains of sin.
    And make our inmost nature clean.

    3 The double stream in pardons rolls,
    And brings thy love into our souls;
    Who dare the truth divine receive,
    And credence to thy witness give,
    We here thy utmost power shall prove.
    Thy utmost power of perfect love.

    Hymn 74

    1 This, this is He that came,
    By water and by blood!
    Jesus is our atoning Lamb,
    Our sanctifying God.

    2 See from his wounded side,
    The mingled current flow!
    The water and the blood applied.
    Shall wash us white as snow.

    3 The water cannot cleanse
    Before the blood we feel.
    To purge the guilt of all our sins,
    And our forgiveness seal.

    4 But both in Jesus join.
    Who speaks our sins forgiven;
    And gives the purity divine.
    That makes us meet for heaven.

    Hymn 75

    1 Father, the grace we claim,
    The double grace, bestow'd
    On all who trust on him that came
    By water and by blood.

    2 Jesu, the blood apply.
    The righteousness bring in;
    Us by thy dying justify.
    And wash out all our sin.

    Recurrent (1) images of "water and blood" which from "his wounded side" did "flow" and the (2) references to a "double stream" and a "double grace" - as well as the (3) indirect references to "double" works of God ("The sin-atoning blood apply and let the water sanctify", "Pardon and holiness impart. Sprinkle and purify our heart", "Wash out the last remains of sin. And make our inmost nature clean", "To purge the guilt of all our sins, And our forgiveness seal.", "Who speaks our sins forgiven; And gives the purity divine.", and "Us by thy dying justify. And wash out all our sin.") ALL seem too close to Toplady's lyrics to be coincidental.

    Wow! I never imagine that my favorite hymn might be plagiarized.

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  4. Dan Lewis
    Aug 18, 2015, 4:01:00 PM

    Let me try again and remove the typos! I hate typos, especially my own!

    That's a hoot, as they say! Imagine borrowing theological ideas from someone you are at odds with theologically!

    We might want to extend a little leniency, however. My sense is that what we now call intellectual property was not regarded quite the same way by previous generations as it is today. The older generations seemed to take the view that if something was true, it belonged to the general domain, not merely the discoverer. At least this seems to be the case in the Bible. Either Isaiah borrowed from Micah, his contemporary, or vice versa (Isa. 2:2-4; Mic. 4:1-3). Either Isaiah borrowed from 2 Kings or the writers of Kings borrowed from Isaiah (Isa. 36-39; 2 Kg. 18-20). Either Peter borrowed from Jude or Jude from Peter (Jude 4-18; 2 Peter 2:1--3:3). And this doesn't even begin to describe the broad parallels between 2 Samuel and 1 Chronicles or 1 & 2 Kings and 2 Chronicles or the parallels in the Synoptic Gospels. In many of these cases the doublets are virtually word-for-word in the Hebrew or Greek texts.

    Still, it is fascinating to see Toplady's lyrics as they mimic Wesley's! No doubt, when they both get to heaven in the end, they'll have a good laugh about it

    1. Maybe Arminians won't get in? After all, trusting in yourself for conversion and perseverance does not provide much assurance. And let's not forget that the good work of converting yourself is what gets you into good standing with God, right? But the Calvinist knows that even faith is a particular gift to a particular sinner, not just a general grace to the fallen lump of mankind.

    2. My dear Charlie... "Maybe Arminians won't get in?" We'll hope that this was intended as mild humor! However, reading your others posts makes me wonder.

  5. This blog is obviously Wesleyan. But a few comments from a former Pentecostal Arminian may be in order here. First, Wesley's doctrine of prevenient grace is a perversion of the Augustinian theology of Archbishop Thomas Cranmer who wrote the original 42 Articles of Religion, later reduced to the 39 Articles of Religion in the 1662 Book of Common Prayer. Article X of the 39 Articles is titled Of Free Will. The article nowhere says that mankind in general has grace. Rather the article specifically teaches total depravity. We know this not only because Article XVII teaches double predestination but also because practically all of the Protest Reformers of Cranmer's day, including the Lutherans, accepted the doctrine of double predestionation and the doctrine of total inability.

    Augustus Toplady, in line with the 39 Articles of Religion, meant exactly what every Calvinist today means by the double cure. Not only does the atonement satisfy or propitiate God's wrath against sinners but the atonement also actually procures man's freedom from the slavery of sin such that every elect person is actually regenerated and becomes a believing, sanctified Christian. In the Wesleyan formulation the atonement merely makes conversion a generic possibility left up to enslaved sinners who have a general or common grace. The problem is that Wesley's formulation does not actually get God off the hook. What kind of God would leave the salvation of so man enslaved sinners up to random chance and their own capricious and sinful hearts?

    The Calvinist view of Toplady guarantees that not one of God's elect will be lost because the grace of God comes before we are even conscious of our sinful condition and our need for Christ. Perhaps you guys should read Toplady's book, The Golden Idol of Free Will? I find it to be an excellent rebuttal of semi-pelagianism and the Wesleyan Arminian view.

    Sincerely yours.....

  6. Perhaps you should also revisit the controversy where John Wesley deliberately reworded Toplady's tract on predestination to make it say what no Calvinist would ever say, that God is the author of your sins and forces you to sin.

  7. This is Wesley's added paragraph to Toplady's tract on Jerome Zanchius's book, Absolute Predestination: "The sum of all is this: One in twenty (suppose) of mankind are elected; nineteen in twenty are reprobated. The elect shall be saved, do what they will: The reprobate shall be damned, do what they can. Reader, believe this, or be damned. Witness my hand, A____ T____." Of course Wesley abridged the tract and eliminated all the biblical references backing up the Calvinist view and Wesley eliminated the references to evangelism and the promiscuous preaching of the Gospel to all mankind. It seems to me that Wesley is the dishonest one and not Toplady.