Words: William R. Newell, 1895
Music: Daniel B. Towner, 1895
William Reed Newell (1868-1956) was a prominent Chicago minister noted for his ability in expository preaching. His "verse-by-verse" commentaries on Romans, Hebrews, and the Revelation are still widely read. (His commentary on Romans is available online through the Christian Classics Ethereal Library.) In 1895 Reed was tapped by Dwight Moody to become the assistant superintendent of his preaching school (later the Moody Bible Institute), where Daniel Towner was director of music studies; the song "At Calvary" was a product of their collaboration.(Biography)
Years I spent in vanity and pride,
Caring not my Lord was crucified,
Knowing not it was for me He died
We can always count on Peter to be blunt, and he does not let us down on this subject: "The time that is past suffices for doing what the Gentiles want to do, living in sensuality, passions, drunkenness, orgies, drinking parties, and lawless idolatry."(1 Peter 4:3) Perhaps this does not describe your past (or perhaps it does). Perhaps you did not spend that many years outside of Christ, before obeying the gospel; or perhaps you did not sin to the outrageous level described here; but most of us (perhaps all of us of a certain age) have had our years of "vanity and pride".
What Peter describes in the passage above are vanities as well as sins; they are typically the products of thoughtlessness. But pride is another matter. It was pride and selfishness, not fleshly immorality, that caused the Pharisees to reject Jesus.(Matthew 23:23) Many an otherwise right-living person has fallen prey to this sin; and it plagues many a Christian who would never think of engaging in sinful behavior of the more obvious sort. We must remember that Jesus died for these sins too, and that we who are guilty of them are just as dependent on His mercy as is the most flagrant libertine.
Mercy there was great, and grace was free;
Pardon there was multiplied to me;
There my burdened soul found liberty,
If grace means unmerited favor extended toward another, mercy goes one better with the addition of compassion for the other's unfortunate situation:
But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ--by grace you have been saved--and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus.(Ephesians 2:4-7)
The mercy of God extended the means of salvation through Christ's blood, spilled at Calvary: "He saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to His own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit."(Titus 3:5) Here the grace of God towards all humanity is shown, because it is His desire "that He may have mercy on all."(Romans 11:32) There will always be enough of God's grace and mercy for those who obey His will and are washed in the blood of Christ at Calvary. Peter blesses his readers with the statement, "Grace and peace be multiplied unto you through the knowledge of God, and of Jesus our Lord."(2 Peter 1:2)
By God’s Word at last my sin I learned;
Then I trembled at the law I’d spurned,
Till my guilty soul imploring turned
Romans 10:17 teaches us, "So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ." The knowledge that produces a saving, obedient faith must first convict of sin, however; as Romans 3:20 says, "through the law comes the knowledge of sin." The principle was illustrated in the reaction of the Corinthian church to Paul's rebuke in his first letter:
For even if I made you grieve with my letter, I do not regret it--though I did regret it, for I see that that letter grieved you, though only for a while. As it is, I rejoice, not because you were grieved, but because you were grieved into repenting. For you felt a godly grief, so that you suffered no loss through us. For godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation without regret, whereas worldly grief produces death. For see what earnestness this godly grief has produced in you, but also what eagerness to clear yourselves, what indignation, what fear, what longing, what zeal, what punishment! At every point you have proved yourselves innocent in the matter.(2 Corinthians 7:8-11)
Note the difference between "worldly" and "godly" guilt. The world is burdened down with guilt, and knows no way of relief but to blame others or to deny its reality. Our culture tends to view guilt as categorically negative, a thing to be avoided, but this passage shows us that "godly grief" is constructive when it motivates us to change behavior (repentance) and turn to God for forgiveness.
Now I’ve giv’n to Jesus everything;
Now I gladly own Him as my King;
Now my raptured soul can only sing
This stanza is often omitted in hymnals, and in actual practice, but it contributes a significant step to the psychological progression of the hymn. It is a jubilant response to the fear and trembling of the second stanza. 1 John 4:18 says, "There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love." "Fear of God" in the sense of respect and awe, of course, are characteristic of the Christian life (and commanded in 1 Peter 2:17), but the fear of punishment has been driven away by the blood of Christ and His constant assurance of forgiveness.(1 John 1:7) The fear of God's punishment may initially goad us to take our spiritual situation seriously; but His love for us takes that fear away and fills its place with joy.
O the love that drew salvation’s plan!
O the grace that brought it down to man!
O the mighty gulf that God did span
In the final stanza Newell takes stock of the progression of the hymn's protagonist. In the first stanza, we speak as an alien sinner, "having no hope and without God in the world."(Ephesians 2:12) The saving work of Christ is of no use or meaning to us, because we are without the knowledge that faith requires.(Romans 10:17) But in the second stanza, we have learned the truth of God's law and our sinfulness. The protagonist is "cut to the heart"(Acts 2:37) and repents. Turning to Calvary, we find that the atoning death of Christ is our only hope. The third stanza shows the state of the Christian following salvation, with guilt removed and fears relieved. Now we reflect on the saving work that has been accomplished.
God had "a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth."(Ephesians 1:10) "This was according to the eternal purpose that he has realized in Christ Jesus our Lord."(Ephesians 3:11) It began with the separation of a people to Himself,(Exodus 19:6) to whom He taught holiness through His revealed law. From this holy nation He caused His Son to be born: "But when the fullness of the time was come, God sent forth His Son, born of a woman..."(Galatians 4:4) Throughout a process of centuries, God brought together the people and circumstances that would cause His purpose to unfold for our salvation.
The "gulf that God spanned" is even a greater wonder. We know that Matthew 13:49 teaches that someday "the angels will come out and separate the evil from the righteous." In Christ's account of the rich man and Lazarus, Abraham tells the rich man in torment that after death, "between us and you there is a great gulf fixed, so that those who want to pass from here to you cannot, nor can those from there pass to us."(Luke 16:26) This is the extent and fearfulness of the gulf that exists between God and the sinner, if it is left unresolved. But consider now Romans 8:38-39,
For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.(Romans 8:38-39)
On the one hand we have a gulf that is impossible for us to cross; on the other we have a bond that is impossible to for anyone but us to break. What could make such a change? It is the "immeasurable greatness of His power toward us who believe, according to the working of His great might."(Ephesians 1:19) "For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God."(1 Corinthians 1:18)
About the music: For more on the origins of the Moody Bible Institute and Daniel Towner's role as a "singing evangelist", please see the last part of my post on "Anywhere with Jesus". Towner's music for "At Calvary" is typical of songs written for mass meetings: it has a simple, catchy tune with repeated phrases (every phrase has exactly the same rhythm, except at the words "at Calvary"); simple, easily anticipated harmonies; and no complex interplay between the parts (which would tend to just get muddled, given the tendency of large groups to drag). This song also exhibits the practice of harmonizing the alto in parallel with the soprano; the tenor is almost completely superfluous.
None of this is meant as a criticism; the music serves its purpose well. It has the same ease of learning that is sought in writing contemporary devotional songs; it also has the same tendency toward being forgettable.
It is always interesting to try to identify the older gospel songs with their secular stylistic counterparts. Many, for example, are marches, such as "Are you washed in the blood?"(PFTL#50); others, such as "A wonderful Savior"(PFTL#9) seem to be inspired by folk dance styles. Once again, I mean no offense; but is it all that hard to imagine the tune of "At Calvary" being sung with secular lyrics? Perhaps a college fight song?
"Biography of William R. Newell." Christian Classics Ethereal Library. http://www.ccel.org/n/newell/