Hymn of the Month, February 2020
Researched and written by Rev. Nicholas Davelaar
“Amazing Grace” is one of the best-known and best-loved hymns in the English language—if not the best-known and best-loved hymn. The life story of the hymnwriter no doubt contributes to that.
Born in London on July 24, 1725, into the family of a naval commander, John Newton spent his early years primarily in the care of his mother. In his autobiography titled Out of the Depths, he describes both parents as godly, but his mother was the one who mainly shepherded his young soul with Scripture and calls to trust in God. She also began teaching him Latin in order to prepare him to become a minister. She died, however, when Newton was seven. Newton’s life was never the same after that. Newton was provided for physically, but spiritually left to drift. At the age of 11 Newton joined his father at sea and ran headlong into rebellion and godlessness. For instance, he was flogged at one point for attempted desertion. Even so, at the age of 23 Newton was entrusted with command of a slave ship.
Over the course of the six years of his command, God did a mighty work in Newton’s heart. He eventually quit the slave trade, spent the next nine years learning and serving among believers, including George Whitefield and the Wesleys, and in 1764 was ordained to serve as a pastor in the village of Olney. His best works, including Olney Hymns, were written there. In 1780 he received a call to serve in London, and died there years later, on December 21, 1807.
No one knows who composed the tune that has become inextricably wed to Newton’s “Amazing Grace”. It first appeared in 1829 and was published with Newton’s hymn six years later. Edwin Excell (1851-1921), an American musician and later publisher, arranged it into its current form.
Though Newton undoubtedly wrote “Amazing Grace” with an eye toward his own experience of God’s grace, he had more than his own experience in view. “Amazing Grace” was published in the first section of Olney Hymns, as one of 141 hymns “On Select Passages of Scripture.” The passage for this hymn was 1 Chronicles 17:16-17: “Then King David went in and sat before the LORD and said, “Who am I, O LORD God, and what is my house, that you have brought me thus far? And this was a small thing in your eyes, O God. You have also spoken of your servant’s house for a great while to come, and have shown me future generations, O LORD God!” Newton’s hymn is a grateful meditation on those verses, specifically on God’s grace that was and still is amazing.
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.
“Who am I… that you have brought me thus far?” David marveled. Newton leads us in expressing the same amazement concerning God’s work in each of our own lives. We were “dead in the trespasses and sins in which [we] once walked,… but God, being rich in mercy,… made us alive together with Christ” (Eph 2:1-2, 4). God found us, just as the shepherd of Luke 15 found his lost sheep. God opened our sin-blinded eyes to see and trust in Jesus, such that now we profess with the man whom Jesus healed of his blindness, “One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see” (John 9:25).
Is this your profession? Does the grace of God amaze you?
'Twas grace that taught my heart to fear,
and grace my fears relieved;
how precious did that grace appear
the hour I first believed!
In this second verse Newton continues to lead us in acknowledging and marveling at God’s grace at work in our hearts and lives. He leads us first to profess that it was grace that taught my heart to fear. Deuteronomy 10:12 asks, “ And now, Israel, what does the LORD your God require of you, but to fear the LORD your God…?” God by his grace teaches us to do that. This teaching necessarily takes the form of heart-reformation as much as it does mind-shaping; our problem is not that we don’t know how to fear God so much as we don’t want to. God by his grace can and does teach sinners to fear/honor him as God. Furthermore, by his grace he relieves our fears/dread, comforting us with good news of reconciliation with God through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ: “Since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.” (Rom 5:1). With Newton we can testify that the grace of God appeared precious the hour I first believed (Rom 13:11)!
Thro' many dangers, toils and snares,
I have already come;
'tis grace has brought me safe thus far,
and grace will lead me home.
With gratitude we can not only say that the grace of God appeared precious the hour I first believed, but also that its preciousness has continued since then. God by his grace has brought us through many dangers (Rom 8:35; 2 Cor 11:26), toils (Ps 90:10), and snares (Luke 17:1), and he will continue to until the end (Rom 8:38-39).
The Lord has promised good to me,
his Word my hope secures;
he will my shield and portion be,
as long as life endures.
God “has granted to us his precious and very great promises” (2 Pet 1:4), and to communicate the certainty of them to us he has sworn by himself (Heb 6:13-18). His Word our hope secures, like an “anchor of the soul” (Heb 6:19). Thus we can cry out with David: “You are my refuge, my portion in the land of the living” (Ps 142:5).
Is he your hope, your joy, through Jesus Christ our Lord?
And when this flesh and heart shall fail,
and mortal life shall cease,
I shall possess within the veil
a life of joy and peace.
In this and the next verse we look ahead, and Newton leads us in doing so with Scripture-rooted hope. In this verse in particular we reflect upon the future using the image of the Old Testament tabernacle and later temple. Each one had two rooms: the Holy Place and the Most Holy Place (also called the Holy of Holies). Priests would enter the Holy Spirit daily to perform the worship God commanded through Moses, but only the high priest could enter the Most Holy Place, and only once a year at that. There God dwelt among his people in a way unlike any other place, and the high priest could enter only after offering certain prescribed sacrifices to atone for his sin. According to Hebrews 9, Jesus is our high priest who entered into the greater and more perfect Holy Place, and now “we have confidence to enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain” (Heb 10:19-20). We do so already in prayer, and we will do so fully, physically after we die. After this flesh and heart fails, we will possess a life of joy and peace in the presence of God (Rev 22:1-5).
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've first begun.
This well-known and well-loved conclusion is perplexing on the surface. Why will we shine? Did Newton engage in a poetic flight of fancy here? Newton would point us to Daniel 12:3 as proof that he wasn’t. There God through the angel told Daniel of things to come, specifically of the end, when “those who are wise shall shine like the brightness of the sky above; and those who turn many to righteousness, like the stars forever and ever.” We who have trusted in Jesus will dwell with God endlessly. This is something to marvel at! Who are we that God should draw us to himself? Truly his grace is amazing! Let us thank and praise him with joy!