Category Archives: Devotional

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!

Sin,Shortcuts, and Small things

The quality of our ‘life’ in general is the product of our daily lives, our daily lives are the product of moment by moment decisions, and those decisions are the product of how self- aware or attentive we are. Whilst I have always known this as a general truth, it was not until I started to break down the particulars of my daily life, that I truly noted the potential impact that these small decisions and actions  we having on my  relationship with God.

As you know, life in the 21st century is fast paced. Indeed, technology augments this pace and enables us to do things so efficiently that we can often overlook the ethical/moral implications of those fast-paced actions. Let me give you an example, I have acquired a new accounting program that enables me to enter the details of all my business-related expenses (including a photo of the receipt) into my Smartphone as soon as I make a purchase; this then uploads instantly into the program’s server, recording it in the expenses ledger; its brilliant –no more logbooks.

Invariably, when I buy fuel at any petrol station I am also in the habit of purchasing a $1 coffee with a sausage roll (especially at 711) and including it with the fuel purchase on the credit card payment. Of course, the $3 I spend on food is not usually tax-deductible, but because it is on the fuel receipt and is such a small amount I just include the whole lot as fuel as a tax-deductible expense. I was doing this, not because I maliciously wanted to  defraud the government of the few cents in tax, but only because it ‘seemed’ too much of a hassle to differentiate the  two different expenses from an accounting point of view; after all I am too busy to bother with these small matters—right!

But you know, the wrong thing is the still the wrong thing—even if it’s just  a tiny thing.  It doesn’t matter if its a few cents that no one will ever know about or a big thing that will land you in jail.  When you think about what sin is and how it happens, it’s more complex than maliciously deciding to do the wrong thing. In fact, mostly its a spur of the moment decision that represents a simple short-cut. For example,  theft (stealing) is taking the short way of getting something you can legitimately acquire–if you could just patiently take the time to gain it the right way. In fact, in many instances, the difference in doing the wrong or right thing involves little more than taking a few seconds to think about it.

However, small sins and big sins affect the quality of our relationship with God in exactly the same way, even though they may not affect ‘you’ in the same way. In grieving the Holy Spirit (often through thoughtless disobedience) we can dull our sensitivity to God’s will, which in turn has an exponential effect hardening our sensitivity to bigger and bigger deviations from the truth, potentially leading us to a place where we can become  ‘relationally’ far from God— even while we  think we are ‘OK’ with God. From personal experience I have found its a dangerous place to be!

I learned a long time ago that small actions in your life can make a big difference. Both, small acts of disobedience and obedience alter the quality of our relationship with God, and consequently the joy and peace you have in life. How well we pick up on those small challenges and small opportunities depends on our self-awareness of that relationship; but that takes time! But, if  we allow the busyness of life to determine our agenda, we may soon find that those little insignificant short-cuts will lead us away from the very one who promised He would provide for our every need, if we would just seek first ‘his kingdom and his righteousness’!

I must be a slow learner, but I have been reminded,yet again, that shortcuts in small things can start a drift away from that place of intimate fellowship with the God and the joy and peace that attends it. God loves us and wants to provide for our every need, and give us fruitful life that comes with obedience to his will. I think, if we are willing to slow down and live on God’s agenda, even in the tiny things of life; in the end it will make a big difference. We will be more aware of God, his will, and ourselves—much more at peace. Who knows we might just find out that God’s provision is sitting right in front of us,whereas before we were just too busy to see it.