Augustus Toplady was an eighteenth century Anglican preacher and poet, best known for his famous hymn “Rock of Ages.” J. C. Ryle called him a man "strangely compounded, peculiarly constituted, and oddly framed," but also a man of
rare grace and gifts and one who left his mark very deeply on his own generation. For soundness in the faith, singleness of eye, and devotedness of life, he deserves to be ranked with Whitefield, or Grimshaw, or Romaine. Yet with all this, he was a man in whom there was a most extraordinary mixture of grace and infirmity. (J. C. Ryle, Christian Leaders of the 18th Century)While not as prolific as Charles Wesley or original as George Herbert, Toplady in his short life of just thirty-eight years nevertheless composed a number of poems and hymns of profound theological depth and rich devotional expression.
I recently dived more deeply into Toplady's poetry after realizing how several of his hymns had become regular sources of recurring encouragement. Like a desert nomad who knows, marks, and returns to locations of scarce, but refreshing water, there is a reason I keep coming back to Toplady in times of discouragement. So, I purchased his Complete Works and started reading the poetry. As I read, several themes emerged. I hope this introduction to Toplady’s hymns and poetry will persuade other thirsty travelers to search out and drink from this deep well.
1. His poetry expresses the feelings of angst believers sometimes experience under the weight of sin and guilt.
Toplady embraced what has sometimes been called "experimental Calvinism." This means that he was not only committed to the theological system of Calvinistic doctrine, but that the doctrines of grace coursed through the whole of his religious experience, increasing and informing his self-awareness, prompting and molding his meditations and prayers, and infusing his worship with the double notes of humility and joy.
This is especially evident in his prayerful poetry about his own sinfulness. It is rare to find hymns that reflect this kind of self-awareness and honesty. Toplady’s poems are refreshing, because they give expression to the anguish believers sometimes feel under the weight of their sins. Here are three examples.
From Poem XIX:
Ah! Give me, Lord, myself to see,
Against myself to watch and pray,
Howe weak am I, when left by thee,
How frail, how apt to fall away!
If but a moment thou withdraw,
That moment sees me break thy law.
Jesus, the sinner’s only trust,
Let me now feel thy grace infus’d!
Ah! raise a captive from the dust,
Nor break a reed already bruis’d!
Visit me, Lord, in peace again,
Nor let me seek thy face in vain.
(Poem XIX, Works, p. 889-890)
From Poem XXXIX:
My sins how slowly do I leave,
To earthly things inclined;
But wean me, Lord, and let me have
Thy self-denying mind.
(Poem XXXIX. For all the mind of Christ. Works, p. 894)
And from Hymn VI:
Astonish’d and distress’d,
I turn my eyes within;
My heart with loads of guilt opprest,
The seat of every sin.
What crowds of evil thoughts,
What vile affections there!
Distrust, presumption, artful guile,
Pride, envy, slavish fear.
Almighty King of saints,
These tyrant lusts subdue;
Expel the darkness of my mind,
And all my powers renew.
(Hymn VI. The evil Heart. Works, p. 909)
2. His poetry revels in the sin-bearing, justice-satisfying, wrath-removing, atoning work of Christ.
Don’t think that consciousness of sin crowded joyful hope out his worship. To the contrary, like the sinful woman in Luke 7, Toplady’s worship of the Savior was proportional to his awareness of his sin. Being forgiven much, he loved much. But his expressions of love for Jesus are not the vague sentiments so common in contemporary “Jesus-is-my-boyfriend” worship songs. They are, instead, tethered tightly to the sin-bearing, justice-satisfying, wrath-removing, salvation-securing cross-work of Jesus Christ.
All my sins imputed were
To my dear, incarnate God;
Bury’d in his grave they are,
Drown’d in his atoning blood;
Me thou wilt not now condemn,
Righteous and complete in him.
In the Saviour’s right I claim
All the blessings he hath bought;
For my soul the dying Lamb
Hath a full redemption wrought;
Heaven through his desert is mine;
Christ’s I am, and Christ is mine. (Poem V. For the Evening. Works, p. 887)
From Justice’s consuming flame,
Saviour, I fly to thee;
O look not on me as I am,
But as I fain would be.
Deserted in the way I lie,
No cure for me is found:
Thou, good Samaritan pass by,
And bind up my every wound…
What though the fiery serpent’s bite
Hath poisoned ev’ry vein—
I’ll not despair, but keep in sight
The wounds of Jesus slain. (Poem XVIII. Works, p. 889)
Slain in the guilty sinner’s stead,
His spotless righteousness plead,
And his availing blood:
Thy merit, Lord, my robe shall be,
Thy merit shall atone for me,
And bring me near to God. (Poem XXVIII. Works, p. 891)
The law was satisfy’d by him
Who flesh for me was made:
Its penalty he underwent,
Its precepts he obey’d.
Desert and all self-righteousness
I utterly forego;
My robe of everlasting bliss,
My wedding garment thou.
The spotless Saviour liv’d for me,
And died upon the Mount;
Th’ obedience of his life and death
Is placed to my account…
O love incomprehensible,
That made thee bleed for me!
The Judge of all hath suffer’d death
To set his prisoner free! (Poem XXXV. Refuge in the Righteousness of Christ. Works, p. 893)
And yet again…
The gift of God to fallen man,
The Lord of quick and dead:
A well of life to fainting souls,
And their sustaining bread.
Foundation of thy people’s joy,
Their pardon and their rest:
On earth our sacrifice for sin,
In heav’n our great High Priest.
The Lord of life who suffer’d death
That we might heav’n regain;
The source of blessing, who on earth,
Was made a curse for man. (Paraphrases on Select Parts of Holy Writ, Para. II. Names of Christ, expressions of his Offices, taken from various parts of Scripture. Works, p. 899)
And here is one of my favorites:
Thy anger, for what I have done,
The gospel forbids me to fear:
My sins thou hast charg’d on thy Son:
Thy justice to him I refer:
Be mindful of Jesus and me!
My pardon he suffer’d to buy;
And what he procur’d on the three,
For me he demands in the sky. (Hymn VIII. The Propitiation. Works, p. 909-910)
3. His poetry pulsates with prayerful longings for the presence and power of the Holy Spirit.
I found it very interesting to learn that in Toplady’s collection of Poems on Sacred Subjects, there is an entire section entitled, “To the Holy Spirit.”
Here’s an example:
Spirit divine, thy pow’r bring in,
O raise me from this depth of sin,
Take off my guilty load:
Now let me live through Jesu’s death,
And, being justified by faith,
May I have peace with God! (Poem XIII. Works, p. 898)
In another poem, Toplady prays:
Come, Holy Ghost, our souls inspire,
And warm with uncreated fire!
Thou the anointing Spirit art,
Who doth thy sevenfold gift impart:
Thy blessed unction from above
Is comfort, life, and fire of love. (Hymn I. To the Holy Spirit, &c. Works, p. 908)
And in yet another:
Holy Ghost, dispel our sadness,
Pierce the clouds of sinful night,
Come, thou source of sweetest gladness,
Breathe thy life, and spread thy light!
Loving Spirit, God of peace,
Great distributor of grace,
Rest upon this congregation,
Hear, O hear our supplication. (Hymn X. To the Blessed Spirit. Works, p. 910)
In another example, Toplady asks to be baptized with the Holy Ghost, to experience something of a personal Pentecost.
Baptize me with the Holy Ghost;
Make this the day of Pentecost,
Wherein my soul may prove
Thy spirit’s sweet renewing power,
And shew me, in this happy hour,
The riches of his love. (Poem XXXVI. For Pardon of Sin. Works, p. 893)
We do well to question whether this language is exegetically appropriate. But the prayer for “the Spirit’s sweet renewing power” is certainly warranted by Scripture.
4. His poetry exudes the confident assurance of a faith kept by the power of God for salvation.
One of Toplady’s most famous hymns celebrates God’s free and effective grace, beginning with God’s covenant mercy revealed in the imputation of Christ’s obedience and righteousness, but then moving in the second and third verses to the believer’s security in God’s saving love and the assurance of being preserved to the end.
A debtor to mercy alone,
Of covenant mercy I sing;
Nor fear with thy righteousness on,
My person and off’rings to bring:
The terrors of law and of God
With me can have nothing to do;
My Saviour’s obedience and blood
Hide all my transgressions from view.
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.
My name from the palms of his hands
Eternity will not erase;
Eternity will not erase;
Impress’d on his heart it remains
In marks of indelible grace;
Yes, I to the end shall endure,
As sure as the earnest is giv’n;
More happy, but not more secure,
The glorified spirits in heav’n. (Hymn IX. Assurance of Faith. Works, p. 910)
5. His poetry reflects a profound awareness of and commitment to the doctrine of the Trinity and the Trinitarian foundation of our salvation.
These trinitarian themes just course through Toplady’s poetry, lending his hymns theological depth and infusing them with devotional warmth. Here is just one example, a six stanza hymn called “The Method of Salvation.”
The Father we bless,
Whose distinguishing grace,
Selected a people to shew forth thy praise;
Nor is thy love known,
By election alone;
For O, thou hast added the gift of thy Son.
The goodness in vain
We attempt to explain,
Which found and accepted a ransom for men;
Great Surety of thine,
Thou didst not decline
To concur with the Father’s most gracious design.
To Jesus our friend,
Our thanks shall ascend,
Who saves to the utmost, and loves to the end;
Our ransom he paid;
In his merit array’d
We attain to the glory for which we were made.
Sweet Spirit of grace,
Thy mercy we bless,
For thy eminent share in the council of peace;
Great agent divine,
To restore us is thine,
And cause us afresh in thy likeness to shine.
O God, ‘tis thy part,
To convince and convert,
To give a new life, and create a new heart;
By the presence and grace
We’re upheld in our race,
And are kept in thy love to the end of our days.
Father, Spirit, and Son,
Agree thus in One,
The salvation of those he has mark’d for his own;
Let us too agree
To glorify thee,
Thou ineffable One, thou adorable Three. (Hymn V. The Method of Salvation. Works, p. 909)
6. His poetry reverberates with the heart rest and soul satisfaction found in Christ alone.
One poem begins with a very Augustinian line, echoing Augustine’s famous Confessions:
O may I never rest
Till I find rest in thee;
‘Till of my pardon here possess’d
I feel thy love to me! (Poem XVII, Works, p. 889)
And in another hymn, Toplady locates the true happiness of our souls in Christ.
Happiness, thou lovely name,
Where’s thy seat, O tell me where?
Learning, pleasure, wealth, and fame,
All cry out, “It is not here:”
Not the wisdom of the wise
Can inform me where it lies
Not the grander of the great
Can the bliss I seek create.
Object of my first desire,
Jesus crucify’d for me!
All to happiness aspire,
Only to be found in thee:
Thee to praise, and thee to know,
Constitute our bliss below;
Thee to see, and thee to love,
Constitute our bliss above.
Lord, it is not life to live,
If thy presence thou deny;
Lord, if though thy presence give,
‘Tis no longer death to die;
Source and giver of repose,
Singly from thy smile it flows;
Peace and happiness are thine;
Mine they are, if thou art mine.
Whilst I feel thy love to me,
Ev’ry object teems with joy;
Here O may I walk with thee,
Then into thy presence die!
Let me but thyself possess,
Total sum of happiness!
Real bliss I then shall prove;
Heav’n below, and heav’n above. (Hymn III. Happiness found. Works, p. 909)
As I mentioned above, what we find in Toplady’s poetry is “experimental Calvinism” or “heart-warming Calvinism.” In experimental Calvinism, the doctrines of grace are not merely the tenets of a theological system, but form rather the warp and woof one’s heartfelt dependence on the effective love, unmerited mercy, and saving grace of our Triune God. Toplady’s theology doesn't leave the heart cold, but fires it with the blazing realities of God’s redemptive love, as planned by the Father, secured in Christ, and personally applied to our hearts by the Holy Spirit.
I saved my favorite Toplady hymn for last. Originally titled “Faith Reviving,” this is a hymn I return to over and over again.
From whence this fear and unbelief?
Hath not the Father put to grief
His spotless Son for me?
And will the righteous Judge of men
Condemn me for that debt of sin
Which, Lord, was charged on thee?
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?
If thou hast my discharge procured,
And freely in my room endured
The whole of wrath divine,
Payment God cannot twice demand—
First at my bleeding Surety’s hand,
And then again at mine.
Turn then, my soul, unto thy rest!
The merits of thy great High Priest
Have bought thy liberty;
Trust in his efficacious blood,
Nor fear thy banishment from God,
Since Jesus died for thee. (Diary and Selection of Hymns of Augustus Toplady, p. 193)