Several weeks ago, my Pastor began a sermon series about great hymns of the faith, and it is my privilege to be a part of that. In fact, when I asked if this hymn was available, I really hope I wasn’t bouncing on the balls of my feet like a kid in an ice cream shop about to get a double scoop of chocolate ice cream on a waffle cone. The song I picked was Amazing Grace, by John Newton. This hymn is the most well-known hymn in the world. I don’t know if you all remember this, but we once played a video of the group of tenors called “Il Divo” singing this hymn in the Coliseum in Rome. I thought about the spiritual irony of that – the place where Christians died at the mercy of lions was now the site of the singing of the world’s most famous hymn. I can tell you that this song has been performed by Andrea Bocelli to Zamfir, and it is also the world’s most famous bagpipe solo, if you’re a fan of bagpipes like me.
The hymn itself, like so many others, has had its original tune lost to time. Today, it is sung to the tune of an old American standard called “New Britain,” which was assigned by William Walker in 1835, and even that tune is an amalgam of two others, Gallaher and St. Mary. There is a lot of question of authorship that surrounds those two melodies, and is not the subject of my sermon today. It is my purpose to examine the Hymns in a theological context and see what we can learn in terms of Christian truth from its words.
As we begin our consideration today about this subject, questions begin to flood my mind. These questions are like, What is the meaning of Amazing? Of Grace? Is it important? If it is, what do we do about it? And if it’s really that amazing, can I share it with others?
We will answer those questions as we work through our topic. But first things first. If you have heard me preach before, you know that I prefer to define my terms carefully, and today is no different.
What is the meaning of amazing? Well, in this form, the word is an adjective meaning, causing great surprise or sudden wonder. Does the word amazing apply to anything relating to Christianity I wonder, he asked with tongue firmly planted in cheek? Of course it does. There are at least 25 verses that have some version of “amazing” in them, and some refer to God, some refer to Christ, at least one refers to us (fearfully and amazingly made). Does God cause great surprise or sudden wonder? YES! He DOES! And the thing that gives us the very greatest of surprise and causes the most wonder among us is that He extends to us His grace.
h2603a. חָנַן chanan; a prim. root; to show favor, be gracious:–
When my wife Susan and I were expecting our third child, we had both liked “Grace” as the name we might like to give our daughter (we already knew it was a girl). However, before she was born, another little blonde girl was born, and her parents named her Grace. We didn’t know what to do, about that time, I read 1 Samuel 1 and learned about the mother of Samuel, named Hannah. That name means “The Grace of God” in Hebrew, and comes from the Hebrew root word chanan, meaning to show favour or be gracious. A literal meaning could mean, “to bend or stoop in kindness to another as a superior to an inferior.”
The Greek word for the concept is charis, and carries with it the idea of kindness or graciousness in manner or action, according to Strong’s Greek Lexicon. Theologically, it has come to be seen as kindness or benevolence that has not been earned or merited. It is most familiar to me in our opening responsive reading today – Ephesians 2:8 – “For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God;”
It is the first of what have become known as the five solae:
- By Grace Alone (Sola Gratia)
- Through Faith Alone (Sola Fide)
- In Christ Alone (Solus Christos)
- In the Scriptures Alone (Sola Scriptura)
- To the Glory of God Alone (Soli Glorio Dei)
So in stringing all this together, what have we learned? That the God of the Bible is a God of Grace – that is undeserved and unmerited favour – and that grace has saved us from eternal separation from Him, if we have truly accepted the price of our reconciliation with God, the death of our Lord Jesus Christ, and His subsequent resurrection.
If you have noticed all the readings this morning, they have been selected with forethought to form an idea. They all talk in some measure about the grace of God that is on display for all to see, and to respond to as moved by the Holy Spirit. I chose Galatians as my sermon text here because it shows a lot of detail about grace. For example, were you aware that this greeting, the “Grace and Peace to you from God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ” is in some version common to all the letters that Paul wrote to every church, no matter how many times he wrote to that gathering? This shows Paul’s heart for the gatherings he wrote to – he wished them all GRACE from GOD and the LORD JESUS! So he wanted each gathering to know that God had especially stepped down and given them unmerited favour as a superior to an inferior, as the Creator to the creation.
The passage also shows the results of the grace given – The Lord Jesus Christ giving Himself:
- For our sins
- To rescue us from this present evil age
- According to the Will of our God and Father
Every one of us, if we have been justified before God and redeemed by Him, has a story of amazing grace from God, where we cried out and He answered, but few are as remarkable as that of the original story of “Amazing Grace” as we sing about it today, that of John Newton. The story of John Newton is one for the books, and more well known than most. Most here are familiar with the facts – that he was a slave trader, and a highly immoral individual during his youth.
However, did you know that he was raised by a Christian mother until she died of tuberculosis when he was 7? After that, his father raised him in his own image, a rough seafaring man in Britain’s merchant navy. In fact it was his first job, which he lost because he was a wild and unrestrained boy of 11, and that wild lack of restraint and what has been called “unsettled behaviour” would continue for many years into adulthood. He developed an aire of self-importance and self-love that became well known about him. He became a sinner’s sinner if you catch my meaning – one that knew how to sin well, and was an example of how to do it to others. As He said in his later writings of himself, “I sinned with a high hand, and made it my study to tempt and seduce others.” He was press-ganged into naval service on the HMS Harwich in 1744, where he rebelled against naval discipline, deserted, was caught and punished (flogged), and eventually convinced his superiors to discharge him to another slaving ship. People who knew him described him as arrogant, selfish, brutish, scheming, slanderous, and congenial in the sense that he recruited others to come along for the ride. (Gee, sounds like someone else I know [point at self].)
We may never know what ever possessed him to pick up a copy of The Imitation of Christ, by Thomas à Kempis. (Hint – it was the Holy Spirit!) A phrase caught Newton’s imagination about “the uncertain continuance of life.” He also recalled a phrase from Proverbs that he likely learned at his mother’s knee: “Because I have called you and you refused…I will also laugh at your calamity…” (Pro. 1:24a, 26a) And the storm began in his soul, a tempest that no doubt matched the one going on outside the ship. John Newton identifies this as the moment of his own conversion to Christianity. After this conversion experience, he began to live differently. He remained in the employ of slavers, eventually rising to the captaincy of several vessels, trying to restrain the brutality of the slave trade from within, and as he put it, “promoting the life of God in the soul” of both his crew and his cargo, the African slaves on his vessel. (You know, I have heard that story before as well – in Martin Luther. Because of his conversion, He attempted to reform the Catholic Church from within, but when he realized that was not going to be possible, he nailed his 95 theses to the Church door in Wittenburg. Likewise, the lack of any real reform within the slave trade disgusted Newton also.)
Eventually, he quit the industry in 1755. He began to hold Bible studies in his home in Liverpool. He was influenced by the Wesley brothers John and Charles, and by George Whitfield, and adopted as many of us have, “mild Calvinist views,” as he became increasingly disgusted with the slave trade and more importantly, his own role in it. Feeling some greater call to ministry (again, this sounds like somebody I know [point at self]), he was ordained as an Anglican minister in 1764 and took over the Olney parish in Buckinghamshire.
In 1779, he penned what has become the most famous Christian hymn of all time, and it told his own story, as well as that of countless others in the very first verse:
Amazing grace! (how sweet the sound)
That sav’d a wretch like me!
I once was lost, but now am found,
Was blind, but now I see.
And there is our key phrase of the message. Amazing Grace. Amazing, in that it causes sudden wonder and great surprise; Grace, in that the kindness and benevolence of our Creator God has been demonstrated to us. How sweet is that sound in YOUR ears? To me, it is diabetic sweet (meaning I can intake that). Why? Because it saved a wretch like me. You know, I have argued this with my own mother. She hates this song, because of the second line. “I AM NOT A WRETCH!” She screamed at me. But is that not the very thing all of us are? It tells us in Romans 3:23 that “All have sinned and come short of the glory of God.” Like it or not, these two words answer the most important issue in the universe – how a person can be right with God? There is only one way – Romans 3:24, the very next verse, which says, “being justified as a gift by His grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus.” Brother John Newton says as much in lines 3 and 4 of the stanza – I once was lost, but NOW I’m FOUND! Was blind, but NOW I see.
Lord Jesus Christ, in His office of the Great Shepherd, has come to seek and save that which was lost, as He says in Luke 19:10. In Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus in John 3, He encountered the spiritual blindness that we all have without Him. He told Nicodemus that unless he was born again, or born from above, however you read the passage, he could not even see the kingdom of God. And we are all in that blind state right from birth.
Scripture tells us that all of us before a life-changing encounter with Jesus, are “dead in our trespasses and sins,” in Ephesians 2:1. This is because we have all sinned, or violated God’s holy standard, God’s law. The penalty for sin has been death since the very first sin, committed by Adam long ago. And we were born under the penalty of that original violation, and having inherited our first father’s corrupted nature, we grew up to sin ourselves in thought, in word, and in deed. WE have violated God’s holy standard. WE will die, just as Adam died, all other things being equal, and be banished to a place of suffering and torment for eternity. It is called Hell. It is there whether you want to believe it or not, whether you agree with me or not, and I would be a less-than-faithful minister of grace if I did not warn you of it. And I have some VERY good news.
Although it is the destination for every person by default, we do not have to GO there! See again our main text, Galatians 1:4 – “[The Lord Jesus Christ, v.3] gave Himself for our sins so that He might rescue us from this present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father…” God saw our plight! He saw that we were unable to pay the price of our own redemption because we were BANKRUPT. We had no capacity to save ourselves. But He DID, and so He became a man, with one purpose only – to die in our place. If you want the $100 theological term for it because you’re like me and get into big words, this is called penal substitutionary atonement. All that means is that He died in our place so that we didn’t have to suffer the ultimate consequence and suffering for all time. He came, He lived a perfect life of obedience to the Father under the Law, and he offered Himself in our place. THAT’S what it means when it says that “He gave Himself for our sins.”
That sacrifice that Jesus made for us demands a response. First, we must repent. This is an old word that means to change the direction, in this case about how we see our own violation of God’s standard. We must admit that it is in fact wrong, and that it has offended God. And we must ask God to forgive us for our own particular wrongdoing. Then we must believe. That means that we must become persuaded or convinced that not only did Jesus die in our place, but that God raised Him from the dead, because that is the proof of His payment of our price of redemption. Maybe you’ve heard this before but haven’t acted on it. Maybe you just know you have to respond. If you want to make a response to the Work of our Lord Jesus Christ, I will be at the door after the meeting. Stop and talk with me there. I’ll MAKE the time.
The song itself is one of the most meaningful heart cries of all time, given in praise to God for not only our justification before God, but for how He leads us through life and sanctifies us, that is, makes us holy, so that we may someday see God, and how in the end we will be forever His and He will be forever ours even after all of creation passes away to give way to the greatly anticipated new and eternal creation promised in Scripture, in Revelation 22:12-17 – ““Behold, I am coming quickly, and My reward is with Me, to render to every man according to what he has done. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end.”
Blessed are those who wash their robes, so that they may have the right to the tree of life, and may enter by the gates into the city. Outside are the dogs and the sorcerers and the immoral persons and the murderers and the idolaters, and everyone who loves and practices lying. “I, Jesus, have sent My angel to testify to you these things for the churches. I am the root and the descendant of David, the bright morning star.” The Spirit and the bride say, “Come.” And let the one who hears say, “Come.” And let the one who is thirsty come; let the one who wishes take the water of life without cost.”
And now, I will conclude like this: The invitation has been made. The consequences of refusal have been identified. The way has been explained clearly. And you may come at no cost to you. Come, says the Spirit. Come, says the bride, His church. Come, say all those who have heard already. Come. We are waiting for you to see God’s Amazing Grace for yourself.
Let us now sing John Newton’s Hymn of Praise about God’s Amazing Grace.