Rock of Ages and Justification

Justification is a word which I’ve heard quite a lot recently: we’ve been studying it with Mike Ovey in our Christian Doctrine classes. It’s great and humbling stuff, thinking through salvation and what God has done for us.

With all this in mind, I went to church this morning where we sang “Rock of Ages”, the hymn by Puritan hymnwriter Augustus Toplady. Although I’ve never really paid serious attention to it before, it is a great hymn – and it did make me think of a few things related to justification and salvation which have been floating around my head lately:

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 sin’s guilt and power.

Not the labour of my hands
Can fulfil 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.

One of the things which has really struck me about justification – in particular the protestant view of justification by faith – is the idea that we can bring nothing to our own salvation. There’s no way anything we do could be enough: sin has worked through our lives from the very core; everything we do is in some way corrupted – even if it’s a good thing. To take an example from my own life, if I preach I do it for God. But am I doing it for God wholeheartedly, or because I want people to see how Godly I am or to think how clever I am etc etc? There is nothing I could bring to my own salvation, because every good deed I do is sown in some kind of corruption.

This is exactly what Toplady was getting at in the second verse: “Not the labour of my hands / Can fulfil Thy law’s demands … Thou must save, and Thou alone”. There is nothing that we can do or contribute to our salvation. There is no way we can obey God’s perfect law. God must save, and God alone. He is the only one who can.

Nothing in my hand I bring,
Simply to Thy cross I cling;
Naked, come to Thee for dress;
Helpless, look to Thee for grace;
Foul, I to the fountain fly;
Wash me, Savior, or I die.

Another thing we’ve discussed with justification is whether faith itself is something meritorious, i.e. whether it’s the faith itself is of ourselves, and that is what causes us to be justified. Mike Ovey, who has been teaching us justification, said that faith is more like a conduit: it is the means by which grace comes to us, the means by which we are justified, but it is ’empty handed’: faith itself does not cause us to be justified. This is what I like about those first two lines: “Nothing in my hand I bring / Simply to Thy cross I cling.” Faith is an empty-handed clinging onto God; an acknowledgement that there is nothing we can contribute.

The second half of the verse is reminiscent of Philippians 3:8-9 “I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them garbage, that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ — the righteousness that comes from God on the basis of faith.” Those who by faith cling onto the cross are clothed with divine righteousness, not something which comes from ourselves but something which comes from God.

While I draw this fleeting breath,
When my eyes shall close in death,
When I rise to worlds unknown,
And behold Thee on Thy throne,
Rock of Ages, cleft for me,
Let me hide myself in Thee.

What can we do then? “Let me hide myself in Thee”. Christ is our only hope; there is nothing we can look to outside the Rock of Ages. But we can bring praise and thanksgiving to Him, and rest secure in the salvation He won for us.

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