Revive Our Hearts Podcast

Hymns for Easter: There Is a Fountain

Leslie Basham: Nancy DeMoss Wolgemuth gives hope to anyone struggling.

Nancy DeMoss Wolgemuth: God can redeem any trial of life for His glory, including deep valleys of depression and mental illness.

Leslie: This is Revive Our Hearts with Nancy DeMoss Wolgemuth, author of The Wonder of His Name, for Friday, April 14, 2017.

Today we’ll hear about a man who struggled with depression and even tried to take his life multiple times. Yet, the Lord used his music to affect churches and congregations—even today.

On this Good Friday when we remember the sacrifice Jesus made, we’ll hear the story behind a song that points to that sacrifice.

Nancy: You can tell that I have an enthusiasm for hymns. Somebody said to me, “I hardly hear these in our churches anymore. I think there are a lot of people who really would enjoy them.”

I thank the Lord for a lot of modern hymns that are being written that have great, theologically robust lyrics, but I hate to see us lose some of the lyrics of the past generations that still are so rich. I do love hymns. I also love hymnals. I have quite a collection at home of different kinds of hymnals, just a whole row of them in my library.

Over the years I have read some through—parts or all of different ones. Here’s one I’m holding in my hand that has dates on different hymns. Here’s a hymn I love—“I Love Thy Kingdom Lord.” There are three dates going back to 1996 and 1998. That is when I sang this hymn in my personal devotions.

I am not a singer, and I don’t think we’ll ever hear the day when I sing on Revive Our Hearts. That’s probably not going to happen, if I can help it. But I sing to the Lord, and I think He loves it. I love doing it for Him. There is one particular hymnal that I think is fascinating. It’s called the Olney Hymns.

It’s a collection of hymns published in 1779. There are nearly 350 hymns in this collection. Unlike most hymnals where there are lots of different people who wrote the hymns, most of these hymns were written by Pastor John Newton (almost all of them, in fact).

But nearly seventy of the hymns in that collection were written by his poet friend William Cowper. Now, the name is pronounced “Cooper,” but you wouldn’t know that just by looking at the spelling. This is the way that spelling is pronounced in England.

This collection of hymns was written to be used in Newton’s church in Olney, England—hence the title Olney Hymnal. Olney was a small, rural community—mostly poor, uneducated church members. John Newton said in the preface to the hymnal that these were written “for the use of plain people.” So these were written for anybody to be able to sing, even if they didn’t have musical training or great literary ability or theological training.

The hymns in this collection were not written with music. It’s just the words, but they could be sung to any suitable tune that had the same meter. They could be sung to different tunes, depending what their meter was. The most famous hymn in this collection is Newton’s “Amazing Grace.”

By the way, did you know this (I just learned this)? The original title for that hymn was “Faith’s Review and Expectation.” That was first published in this Olney Hymns collection. I think “Amazing Grace” is a better title! 

The contrast between John Newton and William Cowper was stark. Newton was self-educated. At one point he had captained a slave ship. He was converted during a storm at sea in 1748, and then he spent sixteen years ministering as the pastor in Olney.

On the other hand, Cowper was the son of an Anglican minister. He was well-educated. He was one of the finest English writers of the nineteenth century, but he was an extremely complex, tragic figure. He had a sad, sad life, and hard to figure out. And in these few moments we have here I’m not going to do justice to his life because it is hard to figure out.

Cowper carried a lot of emotional baggage throughout his life. When he was six, his mother died while giving birth to her fifth child. He never got over that loss. He was prone to bouts of severe depression; he was plagued with spiritual doubts; he experienced numerous mental and emotional breakdowns.

William had two failed romances, which resulted in feelings of self-loathing. He made several suicide attempts, and at one point he was placed in an insane asylum for eighteen months. It was during that period that he read a verse of Scripture that changed his life.

He discovered what Romans 3 says, that Jesus Christ is set forth to be “a propitiation.” That means to satisfy the wrath of God through faith in His blood, to declare His righteousness for the remission, or the forgiveness, of sins that are past, through the forbearance of God.

Here’s what Cowper had to say about coming across that verse. He said,

Immediately, I received strength to believe, and the full beams of the Sun of Righteousness shone upon me. I saw the sufficiency of the atonement He had made, my pardon sealed in his blood, and all the fullness and completeness of His justification. In a moment I believed in and received the gospel.

The power of the Word! It gives light, it gives faith, it gives life! Once he saw the truth and embraced it, Cowper entered into a personal relationship with Christ. He was given the knowledge that his sins had been forgiven, although he continued to struggle emotionally throughout his life.

As I’ve been reflecting on this complex man . . . It would make more sense and would be a neater story if he got saved and the rest of his life was happy and life was sunshine. It wasn’t that way. But I love the fact that God used this frail servant—with all the baggage of his past and even baggage after he came to know the Lord—God used him to be  an instrument of blessing to untold generations of strugglers.

How many people are like Cowper today, with so much mental illness and depression and doubt? Some people just seem more “wired,” or prone to that.

I look at how God used a man like this to write some words that are so powerful and have ministered so much grace. It reminds me that God can redeem any trial of life for His glory, including deep valleys of depression and mental illness. Some of the sweetest fruit can come out of the most desperate lives and circumstances.

Well, in 1767 William Cowper moved to Olney and volunteered as an assistant at Newton’s church. Newton, who was six years older than Cowper, had kind of the role of mentor in the younger man’s life. While Cowper was there in Olney, he wrote many hymns that were included in this Olney Hymnal.

One of them is a phrase that he introduced to the English language: “God moves in a mysterious way.” You’ve heard that phrase? He wrote a hymn by that title. He wrote another one called, “O for a Closer Walk with God.” But the best-known hymn that William Cowper wrote—and I think probably the greatest—is a powerful personal testimony of God’s saving grace. It starts this way:

There is a fountain filled with blood
Drawn from Emmanuel’s veins;
And sinners plunged beneath that flood
Lose all their guilty stains.

Now we have a hymn that talks about a fountain filled with blood—the blood of Christ. This hymn is inspired by a verse in the book of Zechariah that says,

On that day there shall be a fountain opened for the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem, to cleanse them from sin and uncleanness. (13:1).

Do you know that that is the greatest need of the human heart—of every person who has ever lived in all times, all eras, all parts of the world.

The greatest need is not physical poverty, it’s not education, it’s not mental illness, it’s not family issues. The greatest need is to know that our sins are forgiven! William Cowper, with as confused and frankly messed-up a life as he had, found that in Christ there was a source of forgiveness and mercy.

He went on to say, in the second stanza,

The dying thief rejoiced to see
That fountain in his day;
(the fountain of the blood of Christ)
And there may I, though vile as he,
Wash all my sins away.

Here’s a man who was plagued with spiritual doubts, who lived much of his life with this fixation, this obsession, that he would be eternally damned and never experience the mercy of God.

But with eyes of faith he wrote what he knew to be true—that even if he was as vile a sinner as the criminal on the cross nailed next to Jesus—that as that criminal found salvation through the shed blood of Christ for his sins, so Cowper and every other person who places their faith in Christ could be saved from their sins . . . could wash all their sins away.

This theme of redemption by the shedding of blood is a thread that runs all the way through the Scripture. I wish we had time just to do a whole series on this. You go through the Old Testament sacrificial system. What was that all about? Killing sheep, killing goats, killing bulls, slitting their throats, shedding their blood.

It was a bloody religion, a bloody mess! But it was a picture, a symbol of something that God intended to do. And He did fulfill in Christ when He came to this earth. “Without the shedding of blood,” Scripture says, “there is no forgiveness [of sins]” (Heb. 9:22 KJV).

So whose blood should be shed for my sins? My blood! Right? The soul that sins, it will die. The life is in the blood. When you sin, you die. But God said, “No, I want to spare them; I want to give them life.” So what could He do?

He gave in that Old Testament sacrificial system a picture of the fact that an innocent being could take the place—could be a substitute—could die in the place of the guilty sinner. All the dying, bleeding lambs were a picture of Christ the Lamb of God who would come to this world and would give His life for the salvation of the world, that our sins could all be washed away.

That’s what saved the dying thief, the blood sacrifice of Christ upon the cross. That’s what saved William Cowper out of his mental illness, and that is the only thing that can save you—whether you are mentally ill or think you’re mentally healthy. We are all sinners desperately in need of a Savior. Whatever your emotional or mental background, we’re all sinners who need Jesus.

Now, some of us have been raised in church and by Christian parents and grew up knowing right and doing right. We may have a tendency to feel that our sins aren’t all that great. We wouldn’t say that, but we might feel that. This hymn reminds us that we are no less guilty than that dying thief on that cross and that there is no other way for our sins to be dealt with than by the blood of Christ.

And then there are some who, maybe, have a rougher background. You didn’t have a godly upbringing—or maybe you did, and you rebelled against that. You have sown wild oats and gone to the “far country.” Maybe you relate to that prodigal brother in Luke 15. You may feel that your sins are so great that there is no way they could really be washed away.

The thief on the cross could have felt plagued with shame. He could have felt unredeemable. Here he is in his last dying moment paying—as he said—justly for the sins he had committed. I want to say to you, no matter what you have done, no matter how great your sin, the blood of Christ is sufficient for you.

No matter how much you have not done—and may think you are okay—there is nothing that is sufficient for your sin other than the blood of Christ. “In Him we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses according to the riches of His grace,” Ephesians 1:7 tells us.

Well, Cowper, as I said, struggled throughout his life—with depression, deep emotional issues, fear of being eternally condemned to Hell. I find in this hymn a wonderful statement of faith, as he counsels his own heart with what he knows to be true from God’s Word—even though at times he found it difficult, emotionally, to believe it.

Here’s a man who clung to the power of Christ’s blood, and the hope that one day he would be free from the shackles of doubt and fear and anxiety. So he says in the next stanza,

Dear dying Lamb, thy precious blood
Shall never lose its power
‘Til all the ransomed church of God
Be saved, to sin no more.

You see, Jesus didn’t shed His precious blood so we could keep on being slaves to sin. He shed His blood to deliver us from all sin, and He keeps delivering us. Yet we won’t experience that full and complete deliverance until the day that we see Him, “when all the ransomed church of God” is finally, ultimately, fully, completely, eternally saved to sin no more! How do you like thinking about that? Bring it on, come, Lord Jesus! That’s what I want.

In the next stanza, Cowper says,

E'er since, by faith [and it is by faith] I saw the stream
Thy flowing wounds supply,
Redeeming love has been my theme,
And shall be ‘til I die.

Is God’s redeeming love your theme? Do you think about it a lot? A little? Sometimes? Never? Do you talk about it to others?

How is it possible, I wonder, for us to have been redeemed from our sin and not to care? How is it possible to fritter our lives away in other pursuits and deeds? That just doesn’t make sense, does it? Isn’t something wrong with that picture? The person who really knows what he’s been redeemed from and the price of His redemption—that fountain of blood drawn from Emmanuel’s veins—that person will have redeeming love as his theme for all of his life.

That’s the theme of many other gospel hymns and songs that we love. I think about another writer who wrote more than a century later,

What can wash away my sin?
Nothing but the blood of Jesus.
What can make me whole again?
Nothing but the blood of Jesus.

Nothing can for sin atone;
Nothing but the blood of Jesus.
Naught of good that I have done;
Nothing but the blood of Jesus.”

Oh! precious is that flow
That makes me white as snow;
No other fount I know,
Nothing but the blood of Jesus.

(Robert Lowry, "Nothing But the Blood," 1876.)

Well, I love that last stanza of Cowper’s hymn, “There Is a Fountain.” He says,

When this poor lisping, stammering tongue
Lies silent in the grave,
Then in a nobler sweeter song,
I’ll sing Thy power to save.  

He said redeeming love is my theme for all my life. Then when I get to heaven and can really speak in unfettered ways, and I’m sanctified and glorified, I’ll still keep singing about His power to save.

What he’s saying is, “I’ll never stop singing about it! That will be my theme for all eternity.” This hymn, “There Is a Fountain Filled with Blood,” was said to have been Charles Spurgeon’s favorite hymn. And, in fact, the last two stanzas of this hymn are on Spurgeon’s tombstone.

You think about Charles Spurgeon, “the prince of preachers,”—nobody could talk about Jesus and redeeming love the way Spurgeon did. I don’t think ever, except maybe for the apostle Paul, has anybody been able to be as eloquent in proclaiming the wonders and the riches of Christ and His redeeming love. And on his tombstone, the words of his favorite hymn: “When this poor lisping, stammering tongue lies silent in the grave, then in a nobler sweeter song I’ll sing Thy power to save.”

Listen. Whether you’re eloquent or you’ve got a third-grade education (or no education), the redeeming love of Christ is the greatest theme in all the history of the world. The fact is, we may struggle at times to believe and to take hold of the gospel, but that does not make it any less true.

That’s what I see in Cowper’s life. There were times he struggled greatly, emotionally. There are times when in my own walk—sometimes even when I’m in the process of teaching the Word to others—there are moments in my own humanness and weakness and unbelief when I don’t feel it all to be true.

That’s when we need to do what Cowper did—we keep affirming the truth. We say it on the basis of the authority of God’s Word, and faith will grow. One day faith will be sight, and prayer will be praise, and then for all eternity with hearts full of faith, we will say, “Redeeming love has been my theme,” and “I’ll sing for all eternity Thy power to save.”

I read this in a biographical piece on Cowper last night:

When Cowper died on April 25, 1800, it was said that his expression changed at the last from dejection to happiness. A friend commented, "It was if he saw his Savior and as if he realized the blessed fact, 'I am not shut out of heaven after all.'"

Sweet, sweet, sweet!

So tell the story now, no matter how feebly. Then rejoice, by faith, in the fact that we’ll be singing and telling and sharing it through all of eternity.

Let me just say. If you’ve never been to that fountain—that cross where Christ died—to get your sins washed away, to be cleansed from guilt and shame, God brought you here today to give you a chance to hear and to believe the good news. “There is a fountain filled with blood drawn from Emmanuel’s veins, and sinners plunged [by faith] beneath that flood lose all their guilty stains.” 

Leslie: That’s Nancy DeMoss Wolgemuth on piano, playing “There Is a Fountain.” Before we heard this song, she told us the story behind that song. If you know what it’s like to struggle with depression, I hope William Cowper’s story has been encouraging.

That song is on Nancy’s piano CD, Be Still. It includes ten hymns that encourage you to slow down and find peace in the Lord’s presence.

We’d like to send you this CD, Be Still. When you support Revive Our Hearts with a gift of any size. You can make your donation online at ReviveOurHearts.com, and there’s also a place you can let us know you’d like Be Still. Or you can ask for it when you call 1–800–569–5959.

How can a parent guide their kids out of love and not out of anger? We’ll talk about that Monday with guests Israel and Brooke Wayne. Please be back for Revive Our Hearts.

Revive Our Hearts with Nancy DeMoss Wolgemuth is an outreach of Life Action Ministries.

All Scripture is taken from the English Standard Version.

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