Augustus Montague Toplady was born in 1740 and died in 1778, at the age of thirty-seven. Let’s look at those thirty-seven years. His father, an officer in the Royal Marines, died as Augustus was just turning two. He died of yellow fever during a military campaign. So Augustus was basically raised by his mom. After some early education, he entered Trinity College in Dublin. The library on that campus, the Long Room, contains millions of books, among them the fabled Book of Kells. This is where Toplady studied.
As a first-year college student, he heard a sermon, and he was converted. By his own testimony he said it was during that sermon that he received his effectual call from God. Toplady was initially influenced by John Wesley and the growing Arminianism of that day, but then he read Thomas Manton on John 17 and he became a convinced Calvinist. As a third-year college student, he published his first book, which was a book of poems. He graduated in 1760, and came under the influence of men like George Whitefield and John Gill. In 1762 Toplady began his pastoral ministry, serving in the Anglican Church. He held a variety of pastorates, and he spent his last three years in London preaching.
Curiously, some Wesleyans around London circulated rumors that Toplady had died, and not only that he had died, but that on his deathbed he had renounced Calvinism. Well, Toplady wasn’t quite dead yet, so he appeared in public in London. He squelched the rumor that he was dead, but he was also intent on squelching the rumor that he had denounced Calvinism. He would die later that year on August 11 of 1778, of tuberculosis.
In 1763 Toplady was new in the pastorate, not long out of college, and that was the year he wrote what he is probably most famous for: his beloved hymn, “Rock of Ages, Cleft for Me.” There is a bit of folklore about him being on a journey, getting caught in a thunderstorm, and hiding under a large boulder, and that becoming the inspiration for the song. That tale may or may not be true, but this hymn’s beautiful lyrics drive home what it means that our salvation is a work of Christ. “Nothing in my hand I bring. Simply to thy cross I cling. Naked, come to thee for dress. Helpless, look to thee for grace. Foul, I to the fountain fly. Wash me, Savior, or I die.” Oh, the urgency in what Toplady is saying here!
Toplady knew that, apart from Christ, it’s not that we simply won’t become better people. We’re not just “okay people” apart from Christ. No, we’re headed for the wrath of God over us, and unless Christ washes us with his precious blood and gives us his righteousness, we die. We die. That’s what Toplady tells us in this hymn.
A wonderful line tells us how Christ is the “double cure” for our sin. The guilt of our sin puts us under the wrath of God, and the power of sin causes us to do things we don’t want to do. But Toplady has us clinging to Christ, that rock of ages who is our double cure, freeing us from both sin’s power and sin’s guilt. And that is the life of Augustus Montague Toplady, and his great hymn, “Rock of Ages, Cleft for Me.”