When I hear that old hymn Rock of Ages, I hear it in my mind being sung in my father’s baritone. He sings:
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 wrath and make me pure.
As a child, lolling my head on the back of the pew and counting the ceiling tiles in the sanctuary, I never thought much about the meaning of the words. But now I look at those last two lines and think about what they mean. The songwriter — the hilariously named Augustus Toplady — is actually spitting some pretty sophisticated theology here. He’s telling us that we have two problems: we need to be saved from our sin, yes, but that’s not enough because we also need to be made pure. Sam Storms says, “It isn’t enough to be delivered from the penalty of sin. We must also be set free from the power of sin. We need the redemptive work of Christ, through the Spirit, to be applied to us in such a way that we find strength and power to overcome the presence of sin and to resist temptation and to grow in likeness and conformity to the image of Jesus Christ.”
This concept always makes me think of my old neighbor Pete. Pete was a crotchety old guy, but there was one thing he loved beyond measure: his perfectly manicured lawn. Pete spent about eight hours a day sitting in his front yard in his coordinating sweatsuit pulling weeds by hand. When I tried to emulate him and yank up big fistfuls of thistle or ivy or chickweed, it quickly became apparent that Pete knew a secret to this process of which I was unaware. Do you know what grows on a patch of bare ground where there used to be weeds? More weeds. If you want beautiful soft grass to grow there, it’s not enough to just pull the weeds. You have to plant fescue.
So you see, when the Holy Spirit does the hard work of sanctification in our hearts, he is yanking those weeds from our lives, he is killing our idols and refining sin out of us. But that’s only half the story, because if that’s all we do, then more sin is just going to creep back into those spaces and we’ll find new ways to try and satisfy those corners of our hearts that can only be filled by Christ. As Calvin said, “The human mind is, so to speak, a perpetual forge of idols.” What we need is not less sin, it’s more Jesus. We have to actively plant the gospel in the places where we are prone to sin. This is what makes us pure, what makes us more like Christ.
This is also what John the Baptist is talking about in John 1:29-34. In my last post we talked about the tabernacle, the place of sacrifice and atonement for sins for the people of Israel. Just as John the Evangelist’s readers would have instantly understood all of the significance of that word tabernacled, so the listeners and disciples of John the Baptist would have understood exactly what he meant when he called Jesus the Lamb of God. The Israelites were great students of the law, and they were very familiar with the Levitical laws regarding the sacrifice of a lamb without blemish — that is, perfect. They would lay a hand upon the lamb, thereby symbolically imputing their sin onto the sacrifice, and their sin could be atoned for and forgiven. The people would have been reminded of the Passover, when God delivered the Israelites from slavery in Egypt; this was the centerpiece of their calendar, their history, and their faith. They would have been reminded also of the words of the prophet Isaiah, which they had memorized, “He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent, so he opened not his mouth” (Isaiah 53:7).
Jesus, as the Lamb of God, not only takes away the sin of the world, he goes so far as to take it upon himself. He becomes the sacrifice for us that frees us from the penalty and power of sin for all time. In fact, the word that John uses in the text means both things, to take away as well as to bear upon oneself. Both concepts are embodied in the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, who, as John the Baptist continued, baptizes us with the Holy Spirit, the agent of sanctification in our lives. Peter tells us, “He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed. For you were straying like sheep, but have now returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls” (1 Peter 2:24-25). Jesus was the better lamb, the sacrifice to end all sacrifices, that defeated sin and death.
And so, knowing this, how are we to respond? Well, John the Baptist answered that for us already. “Behold,” he says in verse 29 and again in verse 36. Look at him! See what he has done! As we read in Hebrews 12:1, “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.” Get your eyes on Jesus. Plant fescue.
Written By: Jess Upshaw Glass