“The Old Rugged Cross”

"And He bearing His cross went forth into a place called…Golgotha" (Jn. 19.17)

     INTRO.: A song which reminds us of the importance of the cross on which Jesus died at Golgotha is "The Old Rugged Cross" (#578 in Hymns for Worship Revised, and #322 in Sacred Selections for the Church). The text was written and the tune (Rugged Cross) was composed both by George Bennard, who was born at Youngstown, OH, on Feb. 4, 1873, the son of a coal miner. The Bennard family moved to Albia, IA, when George was a small child, and from there to Lucas, IA, where George entered the ranks of the Salvation Army. Although he wanted to become a minister, his father died when George was sixteen, leaving him as sole support for his mother and four sisters, so further education was impossible. Later he moved his mother and sisters to Illinois, where he eventually married.  When his family responsibilities lessened, he and his wife became full time Salvation Army workers, but after several years he resigned this work, joined the Methodist Episcopal Church, and moved to Albion, MI, spending many years as a travelling evangelist throughout the north-central United States and Canada.

     Late in the fall of 1912, after an especially difficult experience in a New York meeting, Bennard returned to Albion and began reflecting on the meaning of the cross in the life of the believer. Becoming convinced that the cross was not merely a symbol of Christianity but the very heart of it, he spent long hours in study, prayer, and mediation until one day a hymn began to formulate itself in his mind. The melody ran through his head, and he jotted it down quickly. Afterwards he tried for several weeks to provide words to fit the tune and finally completed four stanzas with the chorus in early 1913. When he took the hymn to the home of some friends, they were so enthusiastic that they offered to pay the fees to have it printed. It was first introduced at a special meeting of the Methodist Church in Pokagon, MI, later that year and afterwards sung at a large convention in Chicago, IL.

     Shortly after finishing the hymn, Bennard sent a copy to one of the leading gospel hymn composers and publishers of that era, Charles H. Gabriel, who said, "You will certainly hear from this song." It was published in a hymnbook for the first time in the 1915 Heart Songs edited by Bennard and Joseph H. Smith. Within thirty years, more than twenty million copies had been sold, outselling every other musical composition of any kind published to that date. The copyright was renewed in 1941 by the Rodeheaver Co. Pollsters report that it is the most frequently requested hymn, and songbook editors have designated it the most popular of all twentieth-century religious songs. While Bennard is credited with more than 300 hymns, he is best remembered for this one. For a number of years, he made his home at Reed City, MI, where he died at the age of 85 on Oct. 10, 1958. Monuments have been erected to him in both Albion and Reed City, MI, and in Youngstown, OH.

     Among hymnbooks published by members of the Lord’s church during the twentieth century for use in churches of Christ, the song appeared in the 1925 edition of the 1921 Great Songs of the Church (No. 1) and the 1937 Great Songs of the Church No. 2 both edited by E. L. Jorgenson; the 1935 Christian Hymns (No. 1), the 1948 Christian Hymns No. 2, and the 1966 Christian Hymns No. 3 all edited by L. O. Sanderson; the 1963 Abiding Hymns edited by Robert C. Welch; and the 1963 Christian Hymnal edited by J. Nelson Slater. Today it may be found in the 1971 Songs of the Church, the 1990 Songs of the Church 21st C. Ed., and the 1994 Songs of Faith and Praise all edited by Alton H. Howard; the 1978/1983 Church Gospel Songs and Hymns edited by V. E. Howard; the 1986 Great Songs Revised edited by Forrest M. McCann; and the 1992 Praise for the Lord edited by John P. Wiegand; in addition to Hymns for Worship, Sacred Selections, and the 2007 Sacred Songs of the Church edited by William D. Jeffcoat.

     The song depicts the wonderful sacrifice made for us by Jesus Christ in His crucifixion.

I. In stanza 1, we have a statement of the cross as an instrument of
suffering and shame
"On a hill far away stood an old rugged cross,
The emblem of suffering and shame,
And I love that old cross where the dearest and best
For a world of lost sinners was slain."
 A. Here the physical aspects of the cross as an instrument of death are emphasized: Lk. 23.26-33
 B. However, even in this it becomes a symbol of the suffering of Jesus Christ: 1 Pet. 3.18
 C. This suffering was not meaningless but had a purpose, that He might die for a world of lost sinners: Rom. 5.8

II. In stanza 2, the cross has an attraction for us because it was borne by the Lamb of God for us
"Oh, that old rugged cross, so despised by the world,
Has a wondrous attraction for me,
For the dear Lamb of God left His glory above
To bear it to dark Calvary."
 A. The cross, and what it stands for, is despised by the world and considered foolishness: Col. 1.18
 B. However, in the wisdom of God, the cross was the means by which the Lamb of God might be sacrificed for our redemption: 1 Pet. 1.18-19
 C. In order to do this, He had to leave His glory above: Phil. 2.5-8

III. In stanza 3, we see a beauty in the cross because on it Jesus died to pardon us from our sins
"In that old rugged cross, stained with blood so divine,
A wondrous beauty I see,
For ’twas on that old cross Jesus suffered and died,
To pardon and sanctify me."
 A. The cross is important because it was stained with blood so divine, alluding to the fact that it is through the blood of Christ that
redemption is available: Eph. 1.7
 B. Thus, the death of Jesus on the cross was not just a martyrdom for a good cause but a sacrifice to save each one of us: 1 Pet. 2.24-25
 C. The reason that this was necessary is that all of us have sinned and need to have our sins pardoned or remitted: Matt. 20.28

IV. In stanza 4, the cross becomes our means of identifying with our Savior and going to be with Him
"To the old rugged cross I will ever be true;
Its shame and reproach gladly bear.
Then He’ll call me someday to my home far away,
Where His glory forever I’ll share."
 A. We should ever be true to the old rugged cross because it represents the fulfilment of God’s plan for the redemption of mankind by Christ’s death through the gospel: Acts 2.22-24
 B. Its shame and reproach we gladly bear by glorying only in the cross: Gal. 6.14
 C. If we are willing to do these things, then we can run the race, follow Him who endured the cross, despised the shame, and sat down at the right hand of God, and thus sit with Him at God’s right hand: Heb. 12.1-2

     CONCL.: The chorus then describes what our reaction to the message of the cross should be.
"Then I’ll cherish the old rugged cross,
Till my trophies at last I lay down;
I will cling to the old rugged cross,
And exchange it someday for a crown."
Some have objected to this song, saying that it expresses worship for the cross itself as one might venerate some physical object as a relic.  However, I believe that this objection fails to note the symbolism involved in the song. Of course, we do not worship the cross as such.  But when we understand the figurative nature of the song’s language, in which the cross is used metonymously for the atonement made on it and the resultant offer of redemption through it, then we can recognize that we surely must cherish or honor what the cross stands for. Also, we realize that we cannot have the blessings of Christ’s death without a proper appreciation of "The Old Rugged Cross."


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