Pam and I had the privilege of prayer walking the streets of Stirling, Scotland, with some International Mission Board missionaries about 15 years ago. We strolled up and down narrow streets lined with small shops, praying for God’s grace to reclaim Scotland. We were grieved to see so many of these storefront shops selling items of sorcery and materials to draw customers into evil, man-centered religions.
To our surprise, alongside the material lures to false religion, many of the same stores displayed prints of the popular Christian song, “Amazing Grace.”
Although Scotland has no official national anthem, most Scots will say “Scotland the Brave” deserves the honor. But unofficially, Amazing Grace is given the honor by many, and certainly is among the most recognized songs of the land.
You likely know the story of how John Newton came to pen the words more than 250 years ago.
Born in London July 24, 1725, his father was the commander of a merchant ship. At the age of 11 Newton made six voyages with his father before the elder Newton retired. The boy served on a man-of-war, the H.M.S. Harwich, but the intolerable conditions prompted him to desert the ship and crew. He was quickly recaptured, publicly flogged and demoted to a common seaman.
His plea for service on a slave ship took him to Sierra Leone, where he became the servant of a slave trader and was brutally abused. In 1748 he was rescued from turbulent seas by a captain who had known his father. The experience of this brush with death made a profound impression on Newton’s life.
The childhood religious instruction he received from his mother, who had died when he was seven, had long since been abandoned. But as the ship’s captain on a homeward voyage, he attempted to steer through a violent storm, experiencing what he called his “great deliverance.”
The fierceness of the storm convinced him that the ship would surely sink and all would be lost. According to his journal he cried out, “Lord, have mercy upon us.” Reflecting on the event he was convinced that God had responded to his cry in the storm, and that the grace of God was at work on his behalf.
Until the day he died Newton observed the anniversary of May 10, 1748, as the day of his conversion.
Thus was born the motivation for “Amazing Grace” and more than 280 other hymns. The song expresses Newton’s gratitude for the amazing grace of God. “Through many dangers, toils and snares, I have already come; ’tis grace has brought me safe thus far, and grace will lead me home.”
Although he continued in the slave trade business for a time after his conversion, he ensured that slaves under his care were treated humanely. Ultimately he became a minister and a strong force in the abolitionist movement.
Newton later wrote a strong pamphlet in which he described the horrific conditions of the slave ships, and worked with William Wilberforce, a devoted leader of the Parliamentary campaign, to abolish the African slave trade. He lived to see the British passage of the 1807 Slave Trade Act, that initiated many changes in the slave business.
Newton’s story, the immense popularity of this song and the powerful impact of its message raced through my mind on the evening of Good Friday.
Pam and I were enjoying an Irish music concert when the drone of bagpipes drew our attention to the aisle beside us. A piper launched a rendition of Amazing Grace, strolling from the back of the concert hall to the front, joining singers and other instrumentalists on stage as they mastered the music and message of the great hymn.
The crowd at the concert of otherwise non-religious music jumped to their feet and enthusiastically applauded the musicians’ presentation of Amazing Grace.
It occurred to me, this is a song that is played and/or sung at almost every state funeral in the United States. It is played at secular concerts like the one we attended. Many in the British Isles expect the song when they hear bagpipes. Around the world, the song has been translated in countless languages.
Worshipers sing it wherever believers gather across the nations. It could very well be the most recognized hymn in history and surely is near the top of most “favorite” lists.
Amazing Grace has been printed in more than 1,100 hymnals, included in hit films and performed by stars like Aretha Franklin, Judy Collins, Johnny Cash and Rod Stewart. It is amazing that this song gets so much play time around the world.
What makes the song so popular? Is it the longing of all mankind for forgiveness? Is it the opening words that invite us to experience God’s grace – even though most people probably have no idea what grace really looks like?
I believe it is powerful because the magnitude of our sin makes grace necessary. The message of grace is the core truth of the Christian faith. Paul, a first century terrorist to believers, wrote, “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast” (Ephesians 2:8-9).
The man-created religions of the world do not have a concept of grace. There is no grace in Islam, Hinduism, Confucianism, Taoism, atheism or animism. Some forms of Buddhism claim an element of grace. Grace is unique to the God of the Bible.
Christians have a Savior who is twice described by John as “full of grace and truth” (John 1:14, 17). Notice that grace does not stand separate from truth, but in balance with it.
Grace does not ignore man’s sin problem. It confronts sin head-on from the very person of God. Grace does not minimize sin or wink at it. Sin is still the heinous, evil destroyer of man and an offence against Holy God.
But grace forgives and changes lives. Where we were once blind, we now see.
This is the message of John 3:16. God so loved lost mankind that He gave. His gift was not a trifling one. His grace was demonstrated at the expense of the excelling gift of His only Son. He gave the most costly gift of grace – Jesus, the Messiah.
As I pondered the resurrection of Jesus Christ and the incredible grace of God during the Easter weekend, I was moved to use the space in this column to accentuate His amazing grace for readers of the Biblical Recorder.
I was tempted to comment on the battles for religious freedom in the United States, more recently highlighted by embattled legislation in Indiana and Arkansas. I could offer my thoughts on the cowardly acts of terrorists in Kenya and dozens of other hot spots. There are many subjects I could write about that are relevant to spiritual, social and political tensions.
But nothing is more relevant to us than the incomprehensible grace of the true and living God Who conquered death and gives us life.
“And God is able to make all grace abound toward you, that you, always having all sufficiency in all things, have an abundance for every good work” 2 Corinthians 9:8.
Amazing Grace by John Newton
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.
‘Twas grace that taught my heart to fear,
and grace my fears relieved;
how precious did that grace appear
the hour I first believed!
The Lord has promised good to me,
His Word my hope secures;
He will my shield and portion be
as long as life endures.
The earth shall soon dissolve like snow,
The sun forbear to shine;
But God, who called me here below,
Will be forever mine.
Through many dangers, toils, and snares
I have already come;
‘tis grace hath brought me safe thus far,
and grace will lead me home.
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.