“Simply to the cross I cling”

There are some hymns that speak of clinging to the cross. For example:

Rock of Ages (Augustus M. Toplady, 1784-1872)
3. Nothing in my hand I bring,
simply to the cross I cling;
naked, come to thee for dress;
helpless, look to thee for grace;
foul, I to the fountain fly;
wash me, Saviour, or I die.

The Old Rugged Cross (George Bennard, 1873-1958)
So 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 some day for a crown

What should we think of this idea of clinging to the cross? What does it even mean?

First, there seems to be no reference in the Bible to clinging to the cross of Christ.

In Gal.6:14, the Apostle Paul speaks of “boasting in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ.” This is an important matter, to which we will return later. But for the moment, it is hard to see any connection between boasting and clinging. They are distinct actions and one doesn’t imply the other. Clinging is not boasting is not clinging.

The Bible doesn’t call us to cling to things. It is a mark of idolatry to cling to an object, like a model cross, or rosary beads, if you think that will do you some spiritual good. And how can we cling to something that existed 2000 years ago? Before his ascension to heaven, Jesus even told Mary to “stop clinging to me” (Jn.20:17). She wasn’t to cling to the newly resurrected body of Jesus, let alone to the wooden cross upon which he had died.

Faith does not take hold of earth-bound objects, persons or institutions. Faith or trust is directed to Jesus: he is the one to whom the believer “clings” by faith. Our trust is in the risen and now glorious Christ, King of kings and Lord of lords.

Is there any sense in which we “cling to the cross”? Yes. Consider where the Bible tells us about taking up the cross (see Matt.10:38, 26:24; Mk.8:34; Lk.9:23). A mark of being a disciple of Jesus is that he “takes (up)” his own cross, and follows Christ. This means to deny oneself, putting oneself to “death” in order to serve Christ, to follow in his footsteps of self-denying love. This way of death is the way of life! For as Jesus went on to say, ” For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me and for the gospel will save it” (Mk.8:35).

The reference is not to the cross upon which our Lord died, but the cross that he gives us to carry as we follow him. In this cross we boast (Gal.6:14) because it is in our weakness that God’s strength is perfected (2Cor.12:9). This is the cross to which we are to cling all through our lives, as we follow the once-crucified now glorious Jesus who secured victory over evil by his death and resurrection.