Full disclosure – the post below was written for the memorial service of a friend’s brother. The history of William Cowper’s life is based on John Piper’s account in “The Hidden Smile of God.”
William Cowper was born in 1731. For reference, his life spans similar years as Benjamin Franklin. Cowper’s father was a rector and chaplain to King George II. Not much is known of his mother except that she passed when William was 6. This difficult and seminal moment in Cowper’s life afforded his father the opportunity to set Cowper’s life forward in a positive or negative manner. Unfortunately, William was sent to a boarding school which set his life on a difficult course. It was this sending away rather than gathering in and comforting of Cowper by his father that ultimately resulted in a young man who battled depression and mental illness for the remainder of his life.
Upon graduating, Cowper’s father set him on a path to become a lawyer and public servant. The stress inflicted upon Cowper resulted in a mental breakdown so severe that Cowper almost ended his life at age 21. It was the beauty of creation that briefly healed Cowper.
From 1749 to 1756 Cowper fell in love with his cousin, Theodora. Although engaged, the couple never married due to the objections of Theodora’s father. Having lost his mom at a young age, Cowper was also deprived the love of his life.
In 1763, Cowper entered an insane asylum where he met Dr. Nathaniel Cotton. Cotton ministered to Cowper mentally and spiritually resulting in William receiving Jesus Christ as his lord and savior.
In 1765, now living in the English countryside, William befriended a local pastor, John Newton. Newton became Cowper’s friend and mentor for the next 16 years. Seeing in Cowper something no one else had ever seen before, Newton invited Cowper to collaborate on a hymn book. A hymnal was published in 1779 with Newton penning a hymn you may have never heard of before entitled “Amazing Grace” and Cowper contributing several hymns including “God moves in a mysterious way” and “There is a fountain filled with blood.”
From 1779 to the end of his life in 1800, Cowper a battle raged within him between the light of his relationship with Christ and the darkness of his depression. In many ways, writing hymns and poems was the fruit of this struggle. These hymns and poems earned Cowper international fame. Unfortunately, his struggle with depression continued.
On the one hand Cowper knew Christ loved him…on the other hand he couldn’t understand it. In 1800 despair led Cowper to take his own life.
Why do I mention the life of an 18th century poet who took his own life? Because we have complete confidence that Cowper’s relationship with Jesus Christ was a saving one. How his life ended does not change this fact.
This is just how powerful the grace that Jesus offers us – that no matter how our life may end, Jesus is the one who secures our salvation.
Romans 8:31-39 reveals the power of the grace that Jesus offers to us.
If God is for us, who can be against us? 32 He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things? 33 Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. 34 Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised— who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us. 35 Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? 36 As it is written, “For your sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.” 37 No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. 38 For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, 39 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.
This passage starts off with several rhetorical questions – the first is the most powerful, “If God is for us, who can be against us?” I need to be crystal clear on one thing – the fact that we need God to be for us. In order to be a Christian, my complete confidence must be in God – which means that my confidence is in no one else – not myself, my religion, my family, my country, my friends, the fact that I am a Texan (which is a huge advantage) – confidence must be in God alone, to the exclusion of all others. In other words, I cannot assume that it is the power of my goodness – that in the end my good deeds will outweigh my bad deeds for salvation. What I do will never be enough. My confidence must be in God through Christ alone.
The second rhetorical question, which is all of verse 32, summarizes what Paul says in Romans 5: 8, “God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” God graciously sent Christ to the cross in order to pay the penalty of our sin. Again, let’s be clear on this point. Each of us has sinned in our life. No one reading this post is perfect – perfection is the comparison point. In order to reconcile humanity to himself, God had to send Christ to the cross. It’s right here in verse 32 where Paul writes that Jesus did this “for us all” – Meaning that Jesus stood in our place. At the cross, Jesus took our sin and now offers to each person reading this post his sinless-ness.
Furthermore, verse 34 tells us that the cross is not the end of the story – instead, it is in many respects – just the beginning. On the third day, Jesus rose from the grave. After a time, Jesus ascended into heaven to sit at the right hand of God where he intercedes for his followers.
Before I move on, I want to make something explicit. What is the significance of the fact that Jesus sat down? In the book of Hebrews we learn that Jesus was able to sit because his work was complete. In the Old Testament, once a year, the high priest entered God’s presence to present a sacrifice for the sins of Israel. This was the day of atonement. The priest had to perform this ritual year after year because the sacrifice was sufficient to pay the penalty of past sin but not enough to pay for future sin. At the cross, Jesus’ sacrifice was enough to pay for all sin…for all time…past, present and future. Jesus sat down in God’s presence because at the Cross he declared, “IT IS FINISHED.” Nothing else needs to be done – no further sacrifices necessary.
There may be some reading this post who hope that their own goodness, or their own intelligence, or their own religion will save them. The Bible makes it clear that your goodness, your intelligence, your religion is insufficient. Salvation is possible only through Christ.
This is what Jesus offers to each of us today – the free gift of a relationship with Christ. In Romans 10:9 & 10, Paul says, “if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved.”
Sounds too simple to be true, right? Confess and believe? It is simple, it is beautiful, but it requires that you recognize your need for a savior and the willingness to submit to Christ as your lord. There would be no greater way to honor William Cowper’s memory than to receive his Lord and Savior as your own.