For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith – and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God – 9not by works, so that no one can boast. Eph. 2:8-9
St. Augustine once shared a powerful imagery, “God always pours His grace into empty hands.” No one’s hands could have been emptier than John Newton’s. His father was a merchant ship’s captain and was always at sea. His mother did her best to raise him, teaching him the Scriptures and sacred songs. Unfortunately, his mother died just before his 17th birthday and John would follow in his father’s footsteps. After losing his morther, John Newton’s world was the open sea. The world of the Spirit, tenderly taught by his mother, had vanished over the horizon and was lost at sea – much like Newton’s own soul. In his own words, John’s “delight and habitual practice was wickedness,” and he “neither feared God nor regarded men.” In short, he was “a slave to doing wickedness and delighted in sinfulness.”
After a short stint in England’s Navy during the war, John was dishonorably discharged and he then went to Africa aboard a freighter. In the shadow of the African Continent, John Newton was finally hired aboard a slave ship, where African men, women and children were treated like cargo and shipped across the Atlantic as slaves. In March of 1748, somewhere in the middle of the North Atlantic, grace grabbed a hold of him. The hand of God rescued a shipwrecked soul. A powerful tempest had engulfed the small slave ship. All hands were awake and on deck, as voices were shouting with urgency. Water was beginning to flood the hold. Newton wondered if this was how it was all going to end – entombed on the ocean floor. Then something remarkable happened – John Newton began praying. Later, he would surrender his life to Jesus and eventually become a preacher. He preached the Gospel until the venerable age of eighty-one.
Newton especially loved crafting sermons and hymns together. Reflecting on his life as a slave trader and on his conversion to Christ, John Newton wrote the hymn Amazing Grace over 270 years ago. Today, we have nearly 4,000 separate renditions of John Newton’s hymn. It comes in every style, crosses every border, and reaches every ear. When it’s announced at church, people stand a little taller to sing it. They lift their voices a bit higher. Just for a moment, they are catching a glimpse through the gates of heaven.
Perhaps, one of the reasons that this hymn has been so singularly loved and enduring is that every single verse conveys some powerful element of God’s truly amazing grace. The hymn helps us to discover three truths about the grace of God:
1. God’s grace has a captivating presence that draws sinners in (“how sweet the sound”)
2. God’s grace has a compassionate purpose for every sinner (“that saved a wretch like me”)
3. God’s grace has power to change sinners (“I once was lost, but now I am found, was blind, but now I see”)