Apparently Cowper saw a desperate problem in his time that still pervades our society today - an abuse of the gospel and the grace that it gives. People claim to love the Word of God, sing it, read it, and even preach it, but their hearts are far from it. Their hypocrisy struck Cowper and out of his musings came his poem, Abuse of the Gospel.
Too many, Lord, abuse Thy grace
In this licentious day,
And while they boast they see Thy face,
They turn their own away.
Thy book displays a gracious light
That can the blind restore;
But these are dazzled by the sight,
And blinded still the more.
The format of the poem is a prayer, a mourning cry to God. Cowper begins with highlighting the hypocrisy of the day and the licentiousness, or lawlessness, that abounds. People claim to love the law of God but are not constrained by it. They say that they see God's face, but they're really turning "their own away." The second stanza is a picture of the work of the Word of God, using this metaphor of light. The Word displays a light that can both transform and blind, and you can see Cowper's literary skill come out. It is a light that transforms the blind but blinds those who think they're transformed. The power is not in the interpretation of the Word, insists Cowper, but the Word itself.
The pardon such presume upon,
They do not beg but steal;
And when they plead it at Thy throne,
Oh! where's the Spirit's seal?
Was it for this, ye lawless tribe,
The dear Redeemer bled?
Is this the grace the saints imbibe
From Christ the living head?
Next Cowper paints a picture of the hypocrites approaching God with their stolen grace, a badly disfigured replica. You get a taste of Matthew 7:23 here, when the self-deceived try to shoulder their way into the Kingdom with good deeds, and Jesus says to them, "I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness." What perhaps may seem cold is really just justice, though a painful justice, the result of a life wasted on selfish pursuits.
But then in Stanza 4, you get a beautiful picture of grace. The truly saved are the "lawless tribe" but have been saved by the Redeemer's blood. And we absorb "grace/From Christ the living head." Left to our own vanity and pride, we will deceive ourselves by our hypocrisy, but when Christ redeems a soul, grace is imbibed.
Ah, Lord, we know Thy chosen few
Are fed with heavenly fare;
But these, -- the wretched husks they chew,
Proclaim them what they are.
The liberty our hearts implore
Is not to live in sin;
But still to wait at Wisdom's door,
Till Mercy calls us in.
Now Cowper appears to take a spin on another well-known passage, the "you will know a tree by its fruit" from Matthew 12:33, except he uses what they eat instead of what they bloom. Their heart's loyalty is shown pretty evidently from what overflows out of their heart, he says. Do they feast on the "heavenly fare" or are they content to chew "the wretched husks"? Do their deeds bear good fruit or rotten fruit?
Cowper ends the poem with a call to holy living, to forsake sin, to embrace wisdom, and to wait eagerly for the final call of mercy. At the beginning of the stanza, Cowper highlights what the power is that gives us strength to do those things - "the liberty of our hearts," or the freedom in Christ.
This poem may seem tough and offensive and cold and loveless, but I plead with you to read it again and see that it's not. This is Cowper's prayer, and my guess is that it hurt him just as much to write it as it does us to read it. For it's a dark commentary on the times we live in and the sin that abounds. Let this be our wake-up call to never forsake preaching the gospel, loving, telling, showing, doing, being - in everything. Let no one say to us, "You left me deceived," so that Christ will say to them, "I never knew you."