Who among us doesn’t know the words and melody of this timeless hymn? It’s constantly played – in churches, at funerals and weddings, and even in public. Amazing Grace has almost become clichéd. The words roll aimlessly off our tongues when we sing it, almost mechanical. After all, who hasn’t heard it at some point in their life? Chances are that the great majority of us can sing at least the first stanza by heart.
A few days ago, I was struck by how sad this really is.
There is nothing aimless, cliché, or passive about grace. God didn’t take it lightly when He bestowed it upon us. After all, His only begotten Son died so that we could be restored “by grace through faith” to the perfect love relationship we were created to have with Him. So why is Amazing Grace almost seen as overused?
Maybe it’s because few people have actually heard the story behind the song. Penned around 1773 and published by John Newton in 1779, the hymn was actually originally titled Faith’s Review and Expectation. And the story behind the words is even more compelling.
Let’s just say that John Newton was wild. Pressed into service against his will and compelled to serve in the Royal Navy, embitterment worked heavily against the good principles his godly Christian mother had endeavored to instill in him as a child. Being captured and made a public example of after attempting to desert his ship did little to improve his spiritual state. He made such a menace of himself that his captain gladly transferred him to work on the Pegasus – an Atlantic slave ship.
The harrowing events John both witnessed and participated in are too grotesque to describe in detail. Murders, immorality, drunkenness, revelry, and the cruel treatment of hundreds of slaves played a huge part in John’s life. Eventually, he became so debauched and merciless that he was hated even of his own shipmates. At one point during his career, he was even kept as a slave – to slaves. Nothing, it seemed, could bring this hardened wretch out of his sin and into the glorious light of the gospel.
Except for one powerful element… Grace.
John Newton had been raised by a godly mother. And her prayers during his childhood that he would grow up to preach the gospel as a clergyman did not go unheard. Those many years later, when in the height of his sin, God touched his heart. During a severe storm, he called out to the Lord in the torments of a guilty conscience. Sometime later, according to his own account of his conversion, he trusted in Jesus by faith through grace and was saved.
And, as God would have it, John Newton was the man who heavily influenced young William Wilberforce – the valiant Parliament member who fought to end slavery and bestow rights upon missionaries in British-controlled India.
That is the power of grace. That is the meaning of the word amazing in the song title. God’s love and forgiveness extend even to the lowest sinner. And the same grace is extended to you and me. We were all enslaved to sin, but the Lord removed the chains. Like John Newton, I believe all of us can say “I remember two things clearly. I am a great sinner and Christ is a great Savior!”.
"Amazing grace! How sweet the sound,
That saved a wretch like me!
I once was lost, but not am found,
Was blind, but now I see."