The Glory of God in the Hymnal Classic ‘Rock of Ages’ – Part 3

By Robie Day 

Not the labor of my hands

Can fulfill 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.

As we saw in the first stanza of Augustus Toplady’s poem, the salvation provided by the cross of Christ cleanses and purifies sinners and provides refuge and security from the wrath we so deserve.  In the second stanza, Toplady continues by explaining that grace is the only means by which this salvation can be attained.  While he does not actually use the word “grace” in this stanza of the poem, his intent is clear: there is nothing we can do, in and of ourselves, that could procure our salvation.

The first two lines of the stanza explain: “Not the labor of my hands can fulfill thy law’s demands.”  In Leviticus 19:2, the Lord commands his people to “be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy” (ESV).  However, as Toplady noted, there is absolutely no toil or work that we can do that fulfills God’s command to be holy.  Romans 8:7-8 explains that we, as fallen sinners whose minds are set on fleshly desires, can do nothing that is pleasing in God’s eyes.  The next three lines of the stanza continue, “Could my zeal no respite know, could my tears forever flow, all for sin could not atone.”  Even the most zealous of workers, working tirelessly without rest (respite), could not work enough to achieve their salvation.  All the zeal in the world could not atone for the crimes that we, as sinners, commit against God.  While we should most definitely be zealous in serving the Lord (Rom. 12:11) and demonstrate a penitent disposition for our sins (hence, “could my tears forever flow”) (2 Cor. 7:10), neither are adequate substitutions for the punishment that each sinner deserves.

So how is one saved?  Toplady answers this question in the final line of the stanza with this short, simple phrase:  “Thou must save, and thou alone.”  Since none of us are righteous, and each of us fail to seek after God and his call to holiness (Ps. 14:3), the only way one can be saved is for God to intervene and act on our behalf.  Simply put, “God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:8 ESV).  God acted on our behalf by sending his Son, who was perfect, righteous, and holy in every way (2 Cor. 5:21), to pay the ransom for our sins (Matt. 20:28) and endure the punishment due to each of us (Isaiah 53:4-5).  The only way that our sins can be atoned for, that the ransom for our crimes can be paid, that sinners can be redeemed and reconciled to the Father in heaven, is through the shed blood of Jesus Christ.  It is only because God chose to act on our behalf that we may be presented as “holy and blameless” (Col. 1:22).  It was God’s own willingness to humble himself  in human flesh, in order to accomplish what we could not accomplish on our own (Phil. 2:8), that any of us can receive salvation.  It is easy to see then, why such a simple line, “Thou must save, and thou alone,” means so much to me, and to so many others.  These six words are the epitome of God’s grace.

Here is Tennesse Earnie Ford singing “Rock of Ages” on his 1950’s variety show.  (He only sings “Rock of Ages” for the first two minutes.)

Read the whole series: Part 1 / Part 2

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