I wasn’t sure how to tell them. I could already envision their uncomfortable stares, the way they’d look down at the floor to avoid my eyes or pretend they hadn’t heard. I felt my own embarrassment rise, and then shame at being embarrassed. As I walked to my weekly banjo class, I turned over again and again in my mind how to tell my classmates that the song I’d prepared that week was titled “There Is a Fountain Filled with Blood”—how to explain that it was one of my favorite hymns to sing at church.

If you’ve ever heard the tune played on a five-string banjo, you know that the old-time melody is perfectly constructed for the instrument. It has a joyful, vibrant quality, bright as June. You’ll find yourself whistling it hours later, straining for the high notes with a smile.

Could there be a starker contrast between music and lyrics?

There is a fountain filled with blood
Drawn from Immanuel’s veins ...

To modern ears—the educated, empathetic New Englanders in my class with me—how can this sound like anything but barbarism? This isn’t some scrape that cauterizes quickly. In this hymn, the amount of blood literally fills a structure; we’re immediately told to picture in our mind’s eye a traditionally quaint park decoration in a horrific incarnation. Worse still, this isn’t merely runoff from a butchery or pig farm. We’re invited to sing out that this overwhelming amount of blood is from a single man, taken from his very veins, an IV gone wrong.

The amount of blood featured throughout the hymn, the dying Lamb, and the open wounds seem to testify to something ancient and dangerous. A thief hangs miserable on a cross. “Sinners,” that aggressive jeremiad of a term, are “plunged beneath that flood,” an action that looks like a drowning, forceful and sure. This embodied darkness, this celebrated violence, stands in stark contrast to what is prized in contemporary spirituality.

The spirituality of many today, including for many Christians, is symbolic, therapeutic, perhaps even an attempt to escape from the bodies that constantly betray us and disobey us. Our mind and emotions are engaged; the spiritual realm is thought of as beyond, ineffable, invisible. Who has need for such bloody plunging? Isn’t it just a little much, a little macabre? Surely this must be a metaphor—perhaps one we can outgrow.

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There is a fountain filled with blood,
Drawn from Immanuel’s veins,
And sinners, plunged beneath that flood,
Lose all their guilty stains.

The delicate tension of this hymn is that it is both metaphor and utterly real. We rush to the metaphor side for the obvious reason that Christians do not practice immersion in or sprinkling by blood. We celebrate water baptism, in our various ways, as our Lord commanded. At a baptism, the basin or baptismal is filled not with blood but with water, or we celebrate it in a natural body of water such as a lake or stream. The candidate doesn’t get washed with soap, scrubbed at in a physical way. The imagery of baptism is clean, restorative, and wholesome. The person emerges from under the water to thunderous applause, or the baby makes a funny face at the poured liquid, and our hearts fill with warm joy. This is the fountain we know. This is a stream we would gladly be led by.

Yet without the historic blood that ran from Jesus Christ at his death on the cross, our rituals are sentimental delusions of a cleansing not actually obtained. Jesus himself explained on the Emmaus Road that the Messiah had to suffer (Luke 24:26), and Paul routinely showed from the Old Testament that same necessity (Acts 17:2–3). Only by entering “the Most Holy Place once for all by his own blood” (Heb. 9:12) could God the Son incarnate provide redemption for us.

The power of “There Is a Fountain” is its repeated insistence that the death of Jesus was real, was messy, and made all the difference. It insists, along with all of the biblical witness, that the type of cleansing we need simply cannot be achieved any other way. Perhaps in our modern sensibilities we hear these lyrics and shudder, asking, Why? The answer back is this: the depth and horror of our sin.

The dying thief rejoiced to see,
That fountain in his day,
And there may I, though vile as he,
Wash all my sins away.

A blood that covers sin was hinted at when God himself killed the animals and dressed Eve and Adam’s nakedness with foreign skins (Gen. 3:21). A blood that rescues was rubbed on Israelite doorways, stolen from lambs so that firstborns would be spared (Ex. 12:12–13). A blood that removes guilt, sin, and uncleanness was shown over and over in Leviticus through an endless parade of bulls, goats, sheep, and birds (Lev. 1–7). The altar was stained, the priests intimate with the smell of blood. Every drop of it, every instance, pointed forward to the dying Lamb of God who healed us by his wounds (Isa. 53:5; John 1:29; 1 Pet. 2:24). Ours has always been a bloody faith because there has always been blood on our hands that needed atonement.

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But this is not a hymn primarily of indictment. It is a song of sweet rescue. The first incredulous why is indeed because of our evil; that is why this blood was necessary, why we must be plunged into it. But there is another why in answer to the startling puzzle of this imagery.

Why did Immanuel, God with us, submit to such pain and shame? The blood of Jesus was given because of God’s love for his creation, specifically for us. He bled in our place and for us. For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son that whosoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. We must repent of our sin and believe in the gospel.

This is why the dying thief rejoiced. It would be insane for one dying man to look at another and ask, “Remember me when you come into your kingdom” (Luke 23:42). A corpse doesn’t come into anything except a tomb. A fountain filled with blood cannot clean; it can only defile. So what did that thief see hidden in the battered, broken body of Christ? He had the faithful audacity to see Jesus’ victory and that the victory was won in order to be shared even with someone as guilty and lost as the thief himself. Jesus used some of his last breath to promise him, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise” (v. 43).

This is why the hymn demands the major key, the lilt of celebration. This is why the theme is redeeming love and not shame:

E’re since by faith I saw the stream
Thy flowing wounds supply,
Redeeming love has been my theme,
And shall be till I die.

The majority of the lyrics startle, even frighten us. We may wonder if children should sing them, or if our guests at church won’t quietly grab their things and leave once they see what’s on the slide deck. But they are a faithful reminder of what our washing cost and how much we are valued by the one who saw our stains better than we ever could.

Singing such a song marks us as strange indeed. Yet we can have no other theme. And we must keep singing, calling others to join us:

Dear dying Lamb, thy precious blood
Shall never lose its pow’r,
’Til all the ransomed church of God
Be saved to sin no more.

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This hymn contains not only the gospel but also the mission. Jesus declared that he had sheep outside the fold that must be brought in; Paul eagerly pressed to reach the nations. The faith has been passed down, down, down, the time and distance from Jesus’ death not in any way diminishing its effectiveness. Not just as an individual person, as precious as that is, but as the entire church are we ransomed, being transformed, to someday be presented without spot, wrinkle, or blemish. We will be beautiful in the holiness Christ bought for us and that the Spirit applied to us—beautiful because of the blood.

Rachel Gilson serves on Cru’s leadership team for theological development and culture. She is the author of Born Again This Way: Coming Out, Coming to Faith, and What Comes Next.

This article is part of The Wondrous Cross which features articles and Bible study sessions reflecting on the meaning of Jesus’ death and resurrection. Learn more about this special issue that can be used during Lent, the Easter season, or any time of year at MoreCT.com/Easter.

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