On that day there shall be a fountain opened for the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem, to cleanse them from sin and uncleanness.
~ Zechariah 13:1
When Robert Robinson wrote “Come Thou Fount” at the age of 23, he was a young man who understood himself well. He was indeed prone to wander, and prone to leave the God he loved.
When his father died while Robert was a young teen, his widowed mother indentured him to a London barber. During his failed apprenticeship, his master found him more fond of reading than of working at his profession. He often ran off with his friends, eventually becoming part of a street gang.
One day, after being released from his indentured service without completing his apprenticeship, Robinson decided to attend a revival service held by George Whitefield, taking along several of his friends to heckle the famous preacher. However, Whitefield’s fervent plea to “flee from the wrath to come” (in his sermon based on Matthew 3:7) haunted the 17-year-old prodigal.
After more than two years of fearfulness, Robsinson found “peace by believing,” saved by the blood of Christ. He spent the next few years in London, listening to the great Methodist evangelists like Whitefield and Wesley (learn more of their story here) before answering the call to preach himself. Early in his pastoral ministry, he penned the hymn for which he is most famous today.
There is a much circulated but never cited story that Robinson turned away from his faith later in life, but the 19th-century hymnologist A.B. Grosart was skeptical of these claims. What we do know is that in his relatively short career he changed ecclesiastical bodies three times, exhibiting perhaps an insecurity in his doctrinal convictions. At the time he composed “Come Thou Fount” he was preaching at the Calvinist Methodist Chapel (following Whitefield in the infamous split of the Methodists) in Norfolk. He then became a Baptist for the better part of his career before eventually becoming associated with the Unitarians, though he maintained his belief (counter to that of Unitarians) in the divinity of Christ even during this time.
Robinson became a prolific scholar, with many massive works published during the 1770’s. In 1781 he was asked by the Baptists of London to prepare a history of baptism, and of the Baptist branch of Protestantism. He slaved over this History of Baptism for nine years, completing the first of four planned volumes in 1790, which you can read here. His untimely death at the age of 54 is often attributed to his long hours of study at the expense of his health; he literally worked himself to death. Yet the fruit of his labor—much of which was published posthumously—has been of immense value to church historians, particularly Baptists.
Thomas Miller of Gateway Worship recently composed a new chorus to go with Robinson’s lyrics for their song “Come Thou Fount, Come Thou King”:
Come, Thou Fount of every blessing,
Tune my heart to sing Thy grace;
Streams of mercy, never ceasing,
Call for songs of loudest praise.
Teach me some melodious sonnet,
Sung by flaming tongues above.
Praise the mount! I’m fixed upon it,
Mount of Thy redeeming love.
Here I raise my Ebenezer;
Here by Thy great help I’ve come;
And I hope, by Thy good pleasure,
Safely to arrive at home.
Jesus sought me when a stranger,
Wandering from the fold of God;
He, to rescue me from danger,
Interposed His precious blood;
O to grace how great a debtor
Daily I’m constrained to be!
Let Thy goodness, like a fetter,
Bind my wandering heart to Thee.
Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it,
Prone to leave the God I love;
Here’s my heart, O take and seal it,
Seal it for Thy courts above.
O that day when freed from sinning,
I shall see Thy lovely face;
Clothed then in blood washed linen
How I’ll sing Thy sovereign grace;
Come, my Lord, no longer tarry,
Take my ransomed soul away;
Send thine angels now to carry
Me to realms of endless day.
This hymn is a beautiful prayer of thanksgiving, penitence, petition, and praise. Robinson’s lyrics are perhaps more eloquent than the language we may use in everyday conversation, but they express the testimony of every sinner saved by grace.
The first stanza acknowledges that God is the source of every good and perfect gift (James 1:17), and that worship is the proper response of those who have been washed in His ceaseless “streams of mercy.” Through the ministry of the Holy Spirit, it is God Himself who gives us hearts and minds prepared to praise Him.
In the second stanza we remember that it is God who is our help. When the Israelites defeated the Philistines at Mizpah, “Samuel took a stone and set it up between Mizpah and Shen and called its name Ebenezer; for he said, ‘Till now the Lord has helped us‘” (1 Samuel 7:12). “Ebenezer” is a Hebrew word meaning “stone of help.” It is good for us to memorialize significant moments in our lives when God has delivered us, as he had delivered Robinson from his slavery to sin shortly before he penned these words. Jesus seeks out his own even when they are wandering far from him. And because he was faithful to rescue us from the danger of the “wrath to come,” (Matthew 3:7), we can trust that he will bring us “safely to arrive at home.”
The hymn’s third stanza is a plea for sanctification. When Christ died on the cross, he canceled the debt that stood against us (Colossians 2:14). His death was sufficient to pay for all sin (Hebrews 9:26); our daily sins remind us of our indebtedness to the Lord’s grace. Christ calls us out of slavery to sin to become slaves of God (Romans 6:22), but our sinful nature wars against our new nature. This makes us “prone to wander” right back into capticity to sin (Romans 7:23). But thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! He is the good shepherd (John 10:11). His goodness binds us “like a fetter” (a chain used to restrain prisoners or slaves) and keeps us from wandering out of his reach.
It’s a shame that most modern arrangements of this hymn include only the first three stanzas, as the final verse is my favorite. While it is good to confess our wanderings, it is better to rest finally on the promise that one day we shall be “freed from sinning!” All those saved by God’s sovereign grace will be “clothed then in blood-washed linen” (Revelation 7:14) and will join the everlasting praise of our Savior. Until that day comes, we pray for the soon coming return of the King (Revelation 22:20)!