William Cowper suffered from severe depression, was institutionalized by his family, and made numerous attempts to take his own life. His time on this earth was marked by brutal despair but was not without the hope of the resurrection. In 1772, Cowper penned the words of a hymn that has edified the church and spoken comfort to Christians for over two centuries.
“There is a fountain filled with blood drawn from Immanuel’s veins, and sinners plunged beneath that flood lose all their guilty stains.” Cowper’s opening stanza turns our gaze to Calvary and helps us answer the question posed in Psalm 24:3: “Who shall ascend the hill of the Lord? And who shall stand in His holy place?”
The Clean for the Unclean
None of us meet the qualifications to stand before God, to enjoy His presence. We are all stained by sin and marred by our corruption as children of wrath. When we could not ascend the hill of the Lord, Christ came to us.
Jesus came and proclaimed, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God” (Matthew 5:5). Jesus, the only one who is pure, lived a sinless life. He was blameless, without fault, having no corruption, and yet He willingly submitted to drink the cup of God’s wrath, the cup that sinners with unclean hands and corrupt hearts deserved to drink. And these very sinners were the ones who betrayed Him, falsely tried Him, and then abandoned Him.
Jesus carried his own cross up a hillside outside the city gate. Then, at the cross, He bore our sins in His body on the tree. The One who was pure died in the place of the impure. The One who was clean bore the iniquities of the unclean. Jesus absorbed the wrath of God due sinners at the cross. He paid for our sins in full so that we could ascend the hill, so that we could be welcomed into the presence of Almighty God, so that we could be declared clean, pure, righteous.
In light of our sin, Cowper points us to Calvary, likens us to the thief on the cross, and compels us to see that as Jesus atoned for the sins of a criminal, He has done the same for us. In Christ, we lose all our “guilty stains” and “wash all our sins away.” And this is not only our hope but also, as the third stanza reminds us, the hope of the church globally throughout the ages.
Cowper says that Christ’s blood is sufficient for “all the ransomed church of God.” The cross is a sure sign that the church that Jesus purchased with His own blood will be safely brought into eternal glory–justified, sanctified, and glorified. In the United States, in East Asia, in South America, Afghanistan, Australia, and all points in between, a people is being gathered to stand before the throne and proclaim the eternal worth of Christ.
Looking to Christ Until the End
Through a life plagued by struggle, and even a temptation to end his own life, Cowper did not look inward for the remedy to his condition but rather outward to Christ. He held to the hope that is in Christ. The story of his life is not finally about depression, the prevalence of suicide, or doubt, but the redemption that is in Jesus. Redeeming love was his theme when he trusted in Christ for salvation, and it was his theme as he entered glory.
Cowper’s hope in life everlasting and eternal union with the resurrected Christ is seen most vividly in this hymn’s final stanza, a stanza that takes my mind back to a pastoral residency I did several years ago. One of my responsibilities was to help oversee the mid-week worship gathering. There was a gentleman at this church who was there every single Wednesday. His wife came to me and told me that he was struggling greatly with dementia. His mind was giving way.
On one particular Wednesday night, after a long day, while feeling underprepared, and quite frankly, not wanting to preach, I stood on the same row as this man. “There Is a Fountain” was the final song before I got up to preach. As the song moved into the final stanza, I heard this man whose mind was failing him, who was moving closer to the grave, boldly singing, “When this poor lisping, stammering tongue, lies silent in the grave, then in a nobler, sweeter song, I’ll sing Thy power to save.” The singing of this saint encouraged and edified my soul at that moment, compelling me to preach Christ and Him crucified, and it still encourages and edifies me today.
Cowper, assailed by much darkness in this life, penned these words with similar resolve. This last stanza longs for a day when the Christian’s experience is no longer a foretaste but rather an enjoyment of glory divine. A day when faith gives way to sight, when the perishable puts on imperishable, and the mortal puts on immortality (1 Cor 15:53).
Indeed, on that day, when there is no more sorrow, suicide, suffering, or sickness, when we know the fullness of joy in the presence of God, in a sweeter nobler song we’ll sing of His power to save for all eternity.
There is a fountain filled with blood,
Drawn from Immanuel’s veins,
And sinners plunged beneath that flood
Lose all their guilty stains
The dying thief rejoiced to see
That fountain in His day;
And there have I, though vile as he,
Washed all my sins away
Dear dying Lamb, Thy precious blood
Shall never lose its pow’r,
Till all the ransomed church of God
Be saved, to sin no more
E’er since by faith I saw the stream
Thy flowing wounds supply,
Redeeming love has been my theme,
And shall be till I die
When this poor, lisping, stamm’ring tongue
Lies silent in the grave,
Then in a nobler, sweeter song,
I’ll sing Thy pow’r to save