Amazing Grace: Behind the Hymn

On the 21st of March 1748, a belligerent John Newton encountered the grace (merciful favor) of God for the first time. In reflecting on his impassioned plea to God in the midst of a violent North Atlantic storm, Newton first expressed the well-known words, ‘How precious did that grace appear the hour I first believed.’

However, it would take further 25 years before those initial reflections took final form in the mind of this one time slave-trader. In 1773, as an ordained minister of the gospel, Newton was preparing his New Year’s sermon as he poured over the text of 1 Chronicles 17:16,17 with keen interest. The scripture revealed King David’s meditations on God’s favor, and in those words Newton found voice for his own expression of gratitude.

The converted slave-trader believed that unless a Christian is bestowed with a thankful heart in view of God’s mercies, then any comfort gained from the Lord might be lost; and in reflecting on David’s words wrote, ‘They lead us to a consideration of past mercies and future hopes and intimate the frame of mind which becomes us when we contemplate what the Lord has done for us’. It was this contemplation that finally manifested itself as the hymn Amazing Grace!

Before his death in 1807, Newton composed his own epitaph. It read, ‘John Newton, Clerk, once an infidel and libertine, a servant of slaves in Africa, was, by the rich mercy of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, preserved, restored, pardoned, and appointed to preach the faith he long labored to destroy.’ This epitaph bears witness to the power of the divine grace that had: delivered him from certain death, emancipated him from the bondage of a profane life, transformed him into an agent of mercy, and above all redeemed him from eternal condemnation.

Any discerning reader would have little difficulty in ascertaining the powerful effect God’s grace had on him. However, unlike many Christians who misinterpret God’s abundant grace as a pretext for a life free of obligation (moral or otherwise), John Newton was possessed by a view of grace that compelled authentic loving devotion. The grace that had saved ‘a wretch like him’, arrested his whole life, inspiring him to  ‘pay it forward’ as a: loving husband, devoted friend, caring pastor,  faithful preacher, concerned writer, passionate hymn writer, and indefatigable advocate of human rights.

It shouldn’t surprise us then, that grace was so powerfully expounded in the words of a former slave- trader; given that the Apostle Paul employs the metaphor of slavery to describe God’s grace to us.

The Apostle doesn’t view grace as a gratuitous action of God that merely finds expression in personal assurance, but also affirms it as a ‘new state’ in which believers now stand (Rom 5:1-2).  For Paul, grace is more than a ‘attitude or action’ of God, it is an entirely new ‘dominion’ that God establishes. God’s grace doesn’t just free us to live as we want (Rom 6:1-2), but establishes a divine sovereignty that implores loving devotion. Having been freed from the realm of slavery and established in the realm of God’s favor ‘in Christ’, through dying ‘with Christ’ (Rom 6:6), we are no longer ‘slaves’ to the mastery of sin and its power (Rom 6:6).

Now, raised ‘with Christ’ we enter this new domain, free from: the bondage of sin, the condemnation of the Law, and the fear of death. Within this dominion of grace, the Christian is freed to be a ‘slave of righteousness’ (Rom 6:18). This is not an administration of fearful duty, but a state in which the love of God compels joyful submission to Christ’s lordship. Such submission invariably bears out the fruit of holiness and the assurance of eternal life (Rom 6:22).

Therefore, having been transferred from slavery to sonship, the Christian should no longer controlled by fear and guilt, but be compelled by a grace-conditioned love. Not only so, but within this ‘new’ dominion of divine favor, the authentic believer is free to live a life that pleases God– ‘in the Spirit’ (Rom 8:3-12).

If we can grasp this, then I suspect we are well on the way to understanding the motivating force behind John Newton’s comprehension of grace. God’s grace is amazing, but understanding this grace goes well beyond contemplating the ‘ideas’ sentimentally enshrined in the world’s most famous hymn. In fact, the hymn writer’s greatest appreciation of grace was powerfully revealed in his life; a life that knew the bitterness of slavery to sin and then the joy of liberty ‘in Christ’. His was a life immersed in God’s divine grace, which bountifully overflowed in loving service to others.

For John Newton, the wonder of grace was not something only to be admired, but a ‘state of being’ to be embraced and lived out. It was more than a truth limited to the lines of a beautiful hymn, but was most powerfully manifest in the story of a beautiful life. Such a life is not extraordinary–it is the norm for those who truly comprehend God’s amazing grace!


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