by John Newton (1725–1807)
Tune: New Britain
YouTube recording: http://youtu.be/Tq1qMwpvzZM
1 Amazing grace! How sweet the sound
That saved a wretch like me!
I once was lost, but now am found;
Was blind, but now I see.
2 ’Twas grace that taught my heart to fear,
And grace my fears relieved;
How precious did that grace appear
The hour I first believed!
3 Through many dangers, toils and snares,
I have already come;
’Tis grace hath brought me safe thus far,
And grace will lead me home.
4 The Lord has promised good to me,
His Word my hope secures;
He will my shield and portion be,
As long as life endures.
5 Yea, when this flesh and heart shall fail,
And mortal life shall cease,
I shall possess, within the veil,
A life of joy and peace.
6 The earth shall soon dissolve like snow,
The sun forbear to shine;
But God, who called me here below,
Will be forever mine.
7 When we’ve been there ten thousand years,
Bright shining as the sun,
We’ve no less days to sing God’s praise
Than when we’d first begun.
As we celebrate the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ we celebrate the most powerful message of all time in the cross as it represents one thing above all else: God’s totally underserved gift of grace. From the exile from Eden, where God provided the skins Adam and Eve were to wear; through the exile in Egypt and the arrival in the Promised Land, through the Law and Temple Sacrifices, all the way to the final sacrifice upon the cross, blood was required for our redemption. The consequences of sin are real, yet, in Grace a means for our redemption has been provided. On the Day of Resurrection God says once again: “I got this.” It is not of our doing, lest anyone should boast, but totally undeserving of redemption, we are redeemed by the grace of the Almighty. And how amazing that grace is to a wretch like me!
Through great sin we learn of greater salvation. John Newton (1725–1807) knew the power of grace first hand. He spent his youth from his pre-teen years until about 30 years old on the sea, primarily in the slave trade. He made many trips between Africa and the Americas picking up and selling Africans into slavery, taking African wives (even while married back home), and living a fully self absorbed life. He was a rebellious man toward both human authority and God’s authority. At one time his rebelliousness caused his own enslavement on the island of Sierra Leone. Sailors are known throughout history for their profane language, Newton was known as the most profane of all. He often would create new profanities, never before heard, and hurl them at the captain of his ship, much to the amusement of the crew and non-amusement of his captain. One time he was nearly starved and beaten to death for his indiscretions. He was a man who lived his life in open defiance of all authority and especially God’s authority. However, his recklessness often placed him near death, as these experiences piled up he began to wonder whether he could possibly be worthy of God’s mercy.
After one particularly harrowing sea voyage Newton had a conversion experience of sorts and decided to dedicate his life to God. However, the conversion process for him was very slow and only in stages was his life reclaimed for God.
At the age of 25 he married his childhood sweetheart Mary “Polly” Catlett. By 30, he suffered some sort of collapse and never returned to the sea. He gained work at a customs house and began to give himself the education he never received as a youth; teaching himself Latin, Greek, and Theology. He and Polly were very active in the local church and it was eventually suggested to him to apply for a clerical education. He was initially rejected because of his lack of education and his association with evangelicals and Methodists. These were small sects who operated independent of the official Church of England. He was eventually accepted and after his education took a position in Olney, a small town of about 2500 most illiterate farmers.
Amazing Grace was probably written about 1772, about 8 years into his new role as priest in the Anglican Church. It was not for another 8 years, in 1780 that he began to privately express regrets about his participation in the slave trade and not until 1785 that he began to actively speak against slavery which he did ardently for the rest of his life. This change in attitude is pretty reflective of the general thinking within in English Society as well. It was not until the late 18th century before the abolitionists movement began to take hold. Yet, throughout his life you can see the fearful working out of his salvation. Each of his near death experiences and humiliations brought him closer to knowing the Grace which was already present. Even after coming to an understanding and acceptance of God’s underserved and unfailing grace, Newton still had to grow in his understanding of what this grace demanded of him.
Newton never hid from his past and would use his own experiences to explain the Gospel to his congregation. The directness of this hymn and the first person language have made it one of the greatest Christian songs of all time. The language is very simple with very few even multi-syllabic words. The tune, source is unknown, is a simple pentatonic song. It has only 5 different pitches which is also common to all nursery songs. Out of such simplicity, God’s message has been declared to millions for nearly 250 years.