It's been a favorite of Christians for so many years. I cringe to say this, but I do not like to sing this song. For many years I conducted a hymn sing/devotional time at the local retirement home. They frequently asked that we sing this old gospel hymn, and we usually had no pianist, so I had to lead out loud and strong to get them to sing. I wasn't comfortable doing this, and once in a while I would make a few comments as to why.
Many wonderful truths are celebrated when we sing this song. "In the old rugged cross, stained with blood so divine, a wondrous beauty I see; for 'twas on that old cross Jesus suffered and died to pardon and sanctify me." This references the blood of Christ as "divine". Strictly speaking, God has no blood. But on the basis of Acts 20:28 we appreciate that it was with His own blood that God purchased His church.
The real meaning and beauty of that cross is found in the work of Christ that accomplished our justification and our sanctification. "Jesus suffered and died to pardon and sanctify me." Every Christian wants to sing this in one form or another. It is the joy that carries us through this broken world into glory. It is the only hope for sinners to gain the eternal city who's builder and maker is God. It is the substitutionary atonement that opens the door for grace to flood and govern our lives forever.
So why do I find any discomfort when I sing this gospel song?
Well, I want to know why George Bennard planned to exchange that cross for a crown. If we are singing about the cross of pain and persecution we might bear in life, yes, I will exchange that for a crown. But in the words of this hymn it is that old rugged cross--the one on which my Savior died for me--it is THAT cross that gets exchanged for a crown.
No, no, Georgie boy, we will never exchange that cross for anything here or in eternity to come. In glory it will be the cross that brought us there that we celebrate. More accurately, of course, it will be the Savior who died on that cross who will be the focus of our devotion. As surely as the resurrected Jesus bore the print of the nails and spear for Thomas to examine, he will show us that same, marked, resurrected body in heaven. No crown that He is pleased to give any of us in glory will ever be an exchange for the old rugged cross. If I receive a crown in glory, I know I will follow the example of the 24 elders who throw their crowns at Jesus' feet and say, "Worthy are you, our Lord and God..."
There's the exchange. Crowns for the Cross-bearer.