GOD’S AMAZING GRACE
Amazing grace, how sweet the sound
That saved a wretch like me.
I once was lost, but now am found;
T’was blind, but now I see.
– John Newton
John Newton wrote Amazing Grace. However, few know the story of his life–John Newton was a slave trader. After his conversion to Christian faith he wrote Amazing Grace to express how undeserving he believed he was of God’s goodness and mercy.
In recent times, John Newton’s hymn has received wide, popular acclaim. At the same time, the history and significance behind the words of Amazing Grace has largely been lost. For Newton, grace was not just a pleasant song to sing. Grace defined his life. By examining his hymn, verse by verse, I believe we can begin to understand what he went through. We can then apply his testimony to our own living.
John Newton was born in London on July 24, 1725. His father was a sea captain who was away at sea for months at a time. His mother, therefore, had almost sole responsibility for raising him. She was a gentle Christian woman who early introduced John to the Scriptures and to the hymns of Isaac Watts. Unfortunately, in 1732, his mother passed away. John was only seven years old.
After John’s father remarried, there was a harsh transition from his warm, nurturing mother to a somewhat distant, uncaring stepmother. In addition, his stepmother did not have the same love for God and Scripture and prayer as did his mother. At age nine, his parents enrolled John in a boarding school in Essex. Two years later, his father took him on the first of several trading voyages. He was fifteen when he entered the world of sea merchant life on his own. He began as an apprentice on a ship whose captain was a friend of his father.
Away from the restraints of his father’s strict rules, John started down a road of rebellious and profane living. His mother’s godly teaching and her prayers for his salvation were pushed back into the corners of his memory. John Newton loved sin and he loved to sin. It seemed that at every intersection of life where a choice for good was available, John chose the bad.
When John turned 18, he was drafted to serve in the British navy, on a “man of war” combat ship. That didn’t last long. He deserted his ship but was soon recaptured and traded to a slave ship on it’s way to Africa. After further bad decisions, John ended up on an island off the coast of west Africa, working for a man in the grisly business of slave trading. When he first started, he was a trusted employee. Soon, however, Newton found that he himself was enslaved due to the suspicion of this man and his wife. For fifteen months, he felt as caged as the miserable and degraded slaves he was securing for his master. There were times when death itself would have been a welcome alternative to what he was going through.
However, in God’s providential timing, when conditions were at their worst, rescue came. John’s father, Captain Newton, had notified other sea captains that he was looking for his son. It had been a year and a half since he had heard anything about John. That was an ominous sign. In those days, 20 percent of the merchant sailors leaving port never made it back to England. His father was troubled.
By chance, a sea captain trading along the African coast for gold, ivory, beeswax and wood products, asked an acquaintance of Captain Newton’s as to the whereabouts of John Newton. This friend later stopped at the island where Newton was working and informed him of his father’s concern for him. Soon after, in early 1747, he escaped from the island and his own slavery to join this ship, the Greyhound. It would be a year (January 1748) before the ship had acquired its cargo and was ready to begin the long, tedious journey back to England.
From Africa, trading ships would travel across the Atlantic to the Brazilian coast, then head north to Newfoundland. From there, they would catch the easterly winds that would carry them home. This route covered seven thousand miles and would take several months to complete. Consequently, the trip home was as dangerous as anything ships and their crews had already endured. This is the route which the Greyhound would take to return to its port in Liverpool, England.
The Violent Storm
John Newton’s ship began its homeward voyage reaching Newfoundland by the end of February. On March 1, 1748, the Greyhound started across the North Atlantic. Ten days later, the ship was caught in a violent storm. The Greyhound was battered by the waves and pummeled by the wind so savagely that any hope of survival was lost. The ship filled with water. Without doubt, it would have sunk were it not for the load of wood and beeswax. The cargo helped keep the ship afloat.
For the next eleven days, John Newton and the crew frantically fought the storm. All the while, the stalking voice of conscience hounded John’s thoughts. Was his presence on the ship, like Jonah of the Old Testament, responsible for their perilous situation? Just as it was with Jonah, during the storm God was able to reach John Newton. He began to pray.
On that eleventh night, while gale-force winds continued to pound the ship, he wrestled with God about his degenerate life. He was trapped by his physical surroundings. He was desperate in his spiritual soul. That night John Newton was seized by the grace of God.
As he endured the violence of the storm, he realized the grief he has caused God. He knew he was not worthy of pity or mercy. His sinful acts had been wilful and vengeful. How could God ever forgive him? Had he not gone too far? However, the grace that confronted him was far more than a one-dimensional grace that has become popular in our time. This grace was heaven sent. It was of cosmic proportions.
Yes, God’s grace can break the chains of bad choices and habits. Yes, God’s grace was big enough to cover the sins of John Newton. He would learn that God’s grace was also able to carry him through storms that later came into his life. As he saw where he had been and where he was going, he began to sense the incredible depth of God’s grace. This grace was not just a theological tonic for quenching the fires of hell. For Newton, God’s grace would be the fuel that energized his living and gave meaning to his existence. He wasn’t going anywhere or doing anything without the grace of God!
The Twelfth Day
On the morning of the twelfth day with the ending of the violent storm, the crew finally got the water out of the ship. At the same time, Newton realized he was a guilt-stained sinner. God had showed him how overwhelming was his need and how, amazingly, his poverty of spirit could be met.
Although the terrifying winds had subsided, it was still painfully cold. The North Atlantic had no mercy. The ship’s crew were completely unprepared. No one had clothes sufficient to keep warm. Yet, they had to remain on deck to protect the ship. Much of one side of the ship had been ripped away. To keep the ship from sinking, that side had to be kept away from the waves. The sails were tattered beyond recognition. They were afloat, but it was still far from certain they would ever reach land.
Nevertheless, on April 8, 1748, some four weeks after the storm, the Greyhound limped into a harbor on the shores of northern Ireland. It took several weeks to make minimal, emergency repairs to the ship. Near the end of May, they finally reached their destination, Liverpool, England.
Upon arriving home, John Newton was informed that his father, Captain Newton, had just sailed for Hudson Bay in North America. He had missed his father by just a few days. As it later turned out, he never saw his father again. Like so many other sailors, his father didn’t make it back from that trip. He was unable to tell his father about his rescue from the slave island or thank him for not giving up on him.
Amazing Grace That Saved a Wretch Like Me
John Newton’s conversion and deliverance in that North Atlantic storm is a dramatic illustration of God’s saving grace. Yet, the full measure of God’s grace cannot be understood from the life of just one person. God reveals His grace in many lives and in many ways.
To draw a more complete picture, let’s look briefly at some other people whose lives reveal God’s amazing grace. Even so, regardless of our human experience, God’s grace surpasses our ability to fully understand it. God’s Word itself best tells us what we must do. We will follow the counsel of Scripture: “The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the things revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may follow the words of this law.” Deuteronomy 29:29.
First, let’s consider what Scripture says about saving grace. That is where John Newton began Amazing Grace basing it on King David’s prayer recorded in I Chronicles. In these verses, God reveals His plans for David and his descendants.
“Then King David went in and sat before the Lord and said:‘Who am I, O Lord God, what is my family, that you have brought me this far?And as if this were not enough in your sight,“O God, you have spoken about the futureof the house of your servant.You have looked on me as thoughI were the most exalted of men, O Lord God.’ ”— I Chronicles 17:16, 17.
Notice what King David said about God’s goodness to him — he felt unworthy. When we face God that, too, becomes our first concern: Perhaps God’s grace will not be sufficient for me. Or, maybe it will begin to thin out and won’t do the whole job. From a purely human perspective, that’s something to be troubled about. Yet, questions like these are not new. They are asked by every generation, whether David’s, or Newton’s or ours. But let’s stick with the Scriptures — what does it say about God’s saving grace?
To open the door to examine saving grace, let’s begin with another question: How many people on earth are spiritually dead? How many are in the same condition of lostness as was John Newton?
Like John Newton, the Apostle Paul understood something of the grace of God. He began his career as a Pharisee by persecuting the followers of Jesus. He arrested them, put them in jail and assisted in their execution. He was on his way from Jerusalem to Damascus, a major Gentile city, with authorization to arrest any followers of Jesus he might find there. God, however, turned the tables on Paul.
Paul’s hateful journey was interrupted by a blazing light from heaven. Jesus arrested Paul, as it were, with a brilliant light and temporary blindness. After three days of darkness, Jesus sent a Christian man named Ananias with a message for Paul: You will be turned from being a persecutor of Jesus to become a preacher for Jesus! He would join the other apostles in taking the Gospel throughout the Roman world. That is God’s saving grace. (See Acts 9:1-16).
After Paul’s conversion, everywhere he traveled, he told the story of God’s amazing grace in his own life. Even then, people were asking questions about God’s saving grace. When he wrote to people in Rome to explain God’s grace, he began with his own experience. It’s where we all begin, with the problem of spiritual death. Paul did not misrepresent humanity’s true condition: We are all sinful and spiritually dead. There are no exceptions.
“Just as sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin,and in this way death came to all men because all sinned . . .“Just as the result of one trespass was condemnation for all men,so also the result of one act of righteousness was justification that brings life for all men . . .“Just as through the disobedience of the one man the many were made sinners,so also through the obedience of the one man the many will be made righteous . . .”Romans 5:12, 18, 19.“For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”Romans 3:23.
Paul is clearing a path in our thinking about God’s grace. He goes back to the first man, Adam, to show how the entire race was contaminated. The sin of Adam and Eve polluted the “human gene pool,” as it were. Since then, spiritual death has been passed on to every person. We have all inherited the same fatal disease.
Now if all humans are all dead, none of us can provide spiritual life to anyone, much less to ourselves, can we? That leaves the whole thing up to God, doesn’t it? If that is true, it leads us directly to our primary question: Does God have enough grace for the entire human race? Will His grace begin to thin out? Will His grace ever run out?
How did the Apostle Paul respond to such concerns?
“For if the many died by the trespass of the one man (that was Adam),how much more did God’s grace and the gift that came by the grace of the one man,Jesus Christ, overflow to the many!”“But where sin increased, grace increased all the more, so that,just as sin reigned in death, so also grace might reign through righteousness to bringeternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord”(Emphasis added) Romans 5:15, 21.
The Apostle, writing under God’s hand of inspiration, assures us that His grace will not run out. It is not in short supply. He has grace enough for all humanity from Adam until the end of this age. Paul himself received God’s overflowing grace throughout his own life. He is letting us know that the reservoir of God’s grace is not in danger of running dry.
I Once Was Lost But Now Am Found
Just as Paul wrote from his own lost experience, John Newton wrote about the extent of God’s grace for him. As a sea merchant, there were a number of times when John Newton felt he was lost and without hope. At one time or another, we have all sensed the dread of being lost. More than likely our case was not at sea. Perhaps it was as a child in a shopping mall, out in the woods, or even preparing for an exam at school. We felt lost!
However, that is not the kind of lostness about which we are talking. If as a child, I’m lost at the mall, my first impulse on getting my bearings and finding my Mom or Dad is not to sit down and write about Amazing Grace. Am I Relieved? Yes! Astounded? No! John Newton was astounded when the grace of God apprehended him. Why? He knew he had been living a degenerate life and he saw the impending result — being lost eternally.
You see, for all of us it is not where we live, or what we know or don’t know that determines our lostness. It is our common spiritual condition. We are all sinners. You may wish to argue, “Not like John Newton!” Yes, just like John Newton. Our condition is identical to his.
How can that be? Again, listen to how the Apostle Paul describes our universal, human condition:
“As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins,in which you used to live when you followed the way of this world.”
“There is no one righteous, not even one.”
“All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”
Ephesians 2:1; Romans 3:10, 23.
Apart from God’s life-giving activity, we are spiritually dead. So we see that John Newton was not “more dead” than we. Dead is dead! But there is something wonderful about being dead: You and I can’t resurrect ourselves. Someone else has to do something for us or we won’t come to life. That’s where God comes in.
We understand that principle from our experience or even from watching television programs. An individual has a cardiac arrest. Technically speaking, the person with a “dead” heart is not living. They can’t revive themselves. But through the application of CPR by a physician or some trained person, that “dead” person can be brought back to life. However, it requires someone else to do the job. Neither you nor I can give ourselves CPR if our heart has stopped working.
Jesus said that He was in the spiritual life-giving business, rescuing people from being dead. Here is how He announced it:
“For the Son of Man came to seek and to save what was lost.”
“I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.”
“I AM the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live . . .”
Luke 19:10; John 10:10; 11:25. (See also John 1:12; 3:17).
So, being lost and being aware of our lostness is a good thing. That condition and our recognition of it place us where God’s grace can reach us. In a chapter quoted earlier, the Apostle Paul explained how God works this out. “Because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive in Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved.” Ephesians 2:4, 5. That’s good! Now I understand that being spiritually dead makes me the perfect candidate to receive God’s saving grace.