Amazing Grace in the Return of The Lord

The sun shall soon dissolve like snow,
the moon forbear to shine;
but God, who called me here below,
will be forever mine.

Newton’s Collage

Long before twentieth artists like Pablo Picasso began to use the technique of collage, employing a collection of objects in their work, and long before Charles Ives wrote his Second Symphony, incorporating quotations from America’s history like Columbia the Gem of the Ocean or the folk hymn Bringing in the Sheaves, John Newton gave us a theological collage in the hymn “Amazing Grace.”

While most hymns keep the thematic boundaries close that is not the case with Amazing Grace. It is true that the grace of God is the overarching theme.  But Newton makes clear that this grace of God had confronted him with his wretchedness and that implies the preaching of the law and the conviction that comes from it.  His heart would know fear because grace had caused him to see the perfection of the righteousness of the Lord.  He takes us from this convicting work of God to the awakening of his soul, and leads us to see where that the journey of sanctification leads.  His collage honors the word of God in the fourth verse and the sureness of the promises of the Lord to protect us in this life.  In verse five he reminds us of our mortality but like Paul sees that day as a doorway into the very presence of Christ.  It is a little strange that, with this doctrinal variety, Newton would not have celebrated the death and resurrection of Christ in an explicit way.  

But like the book of Esther which never mentions the name of the Lord directly, apparently for literary effect, Newton gives us a hymn that does not mention the cross but honors it as many others fail to do.  He has set us on the pilgrim journey and assured us that the Lord is trustworthy.  Many Christians having sung the words hundreds of times, “When we’ve been there ten thousand years bright shining as the Sun, we’ve no less day to sing God’s praise than when we first begun,” would be surprised to discover that Newton did not write them. What Newton wrote about the future is usually not sung and that is a shame because Newton’s verse is glorious. Here is how it reads, The sun shall soon dissolve like snow, the moon forbear to shine, but God who called me here below will be forever mine.

The sun shall soon dissolve like snow, the moon forbear to shine.

The End of the Present Order and the Beginning of the New

John Newton, writing over a millennium and a half after the crucifixion of our Lord, speaks about the “soon” destruction of the present order.  How can Newton speak in this way? The apostle Peter tells us that scoffers will come who question the second appearance of the Lord.  But Peter reminds us that the example of the flood should cause us to understand that the end of time will be like Noah’s day.  The flood came and took them all away.  Only Noah and his family were saved.  It is the same with our blessed hope for the resurrection of the body and the removal of the sin touched order.  With the Lord one day is as a thousand years and a thousand years as one day.  That day will come, but as a thief in the night.  The Lord Jesus Christ will appear without warning.  When the apostles asked about the destruction of the temple (Christ had said that not one stone would be left standing) the Lord gave them several signs to look for before the destruction of the temple and the horrible conquest of Jerusalem in A.D. 70.  But of the final day of judgement the Lord prophesied no signs.  He told his disciples “That day” would catch many by surprise.  Like the flood in Noah’s day many would be taken away to judgement. 

Nothing that happens at the coming of the Lord will overshadow the accomplishment of his first advent.  When the Lord first appeared on the earth almost two thousand years ago, he came to establish God’s kingdom in perfection.  He came to bring righteousness to the earth in a way that had never been known before.  He came to bring God’s eternal life to the people of God.  All these things were accomplished by his death and resurrection.  He is reigning above and interceding for his own.  The battle for the souls of God’s elect people is proceeding and Christ is going forth to conquer the foe.  Satan’s doom is sure.  The return of our Lord will bring to fulfillment all the things that were won by his death and resurrection.  But the time of the Lord’s return is unknown.  

No one knows about that day or hour, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. (Matthew 24:36)

When you hear of someone who claims to be able to predict the time of the Lord’s appearance, you may write them off as a charlatan, or at best a very confused person.  No one knows the time of Christ’s return.  You may say, “but didn’t the Lord speak about earthquakes, and famines, and wars and rumors of wars that would take place just prior to his return?”  “Aren’t there signs that we can look for?”  The Lord did speak of such things but specifically warned us not to be alarmed.  These were signs of the beginning and of the sure proclamation of the gospel to all the nations. (Matthew 24:1-14)

The Lord will come at an hour which will be characterized by its normalcy.  He taught that the time of his return would find the people of this world doing the things that they were doing when the flood of Noah came upon them and took them all away. (Matthew 24:37-40) They were eating and drinking and marrying and giving in marriage (normal human behavior).  They did these things right up until the time that Noah and his family boarded the ark.  They did not expect the judgement of God to fall on them.  They would go on doing the things that human beings do and there would be no accountability for sin.  Or so they thought.  

Two men will be in the field; one will be taken and the other left.  Two women will be grinding with a hand mill; one will be taken and the other left.  (Matthew 24:41) 

 Just as the wicked people of Noah’s time were “taken away” to judgment by the flood so the coming of our Lord will divide humanity into two parts, those who are taken away to judgment and those who are not.   

Therefore, keep watch, because you do not know on what day your Lord will come. (Matthew 24:42)

The Bible teaches the imminent return of Christ.   He may not come today, but we do not know that.  We must not think that there are so many things to be fulfilled, before his return, that we may rest a while.  We must be ready.  The Lord taught several parables which emphasize this truth.  He spoke about the master of a house that went away to a wedding banquet.  His servants were expected to be alert and ready to open the door immediately on his return. (Luke 12:35-40)   On another occasion he spoke about the owner of a house who would in time close the door of the house.  Those outside would knock and plead with him, but he would tell them “I don’t know you or where you come from.” (Luke 13:22-30)

The Lord will return in bodily form.  Luke gave us an account of the ascension of the Lord after his resurrection from the dead.  The Lord was taken up into heaven before the eyes of his apostles and hidden from their sight by a cloud.  Two “men” dressed in white appeared and spoke to the apostles in this way, 

“Men of Galilee,” they said, “why do you stand here looking into the sky?  This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven.” (Acts 1:9-11)

The clear teaching is this.  Our Lord ascended bodily and was concealed from sight, one day he will be revealed again in bodily form and will descend from above.  

And the second coming of Christ will also bring about a union of the church militant and the church triumphant. One of the oldest confessions of faith speaks of the communion of saints.This is not merely a reference to the fellowship of living Christians, but includes the common experience of salvation through Christ, which is shared by the living and the dead.  Thousands who came to faith in Christ while living here on the earth are now with the Lord.  They live in heaven with him and are far better off for it.  They have traditionally been called the church triumphant while those who are still here in this world are thought of as the church militant, the church on the march against the forces of evil here below.  The Bible teaches us that the church triumphant will return with our Lord.

We believe that Jesus died and rose again and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him.  According to the Lord’s own word, we tell you that we who are still alive, who are left till the coming of the Lord, will certainly not precede those who have fallen asleep.  For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first.  After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up with them to meet the Lord in the air.  And so we will be with the Lord forever. (1 Thessalonians 4:14-17)

This very important passage teaches us that the return of Christ will not be a hidden event.  There will be a loud command, the voice of the archangel will be heard, and the trumpet call of God will sound.  The second coming will be a noisy event.  One cannot miss it.  All people will know that Christ our Lord has returned.  Christians will rejoice, but the lost will be terrified because of their sins and the judgement to come.  As we have seen, the dead will be raised.  This is true of both the righteous and the unrighteous.   

Do not be amazed at this, for a time is coming when all who are in their graves will come out–those who have done good will rise to live, and those who have done evil will rise to be condemned. (John 5:28-29)

The Lord did not call the experience of the resurrected unbelievers “life.”  Only the righteous really “live.”  The wicked exist in a state of eternal torment.  Hell becomes their dwelling place forever.  But all the dead shall be raised.  The Bible does not give us much information concerning the bodily existence of those who are eternally lost.  But there is quite a bit of information concerning the future state of the redeemed.  Since we will be “like Christ,” it is instructive to remember that he even ate with his disciples after he had been resurrected from the dead.  Our existence will not be a shadowy matter but the reality of our life, in that new day, will be, if anything, far more real than life in this world.  And our new body will be one that is designed for perfect fellowship with our God.  All sin and mortality (which is the result of sin) will now be past.  The immortal life of God will be ours in truth.  As Paul said, 

 . . . we shall bear the likeness of the man from heaven.  (1 Corinthians 15:49)

The return of our Lord will also bring in the final judgment of God, which will be a judgment based on principles of righteousness. The Scriptures teach us that all must face this judgment. 

For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, that each one may receive what is due him for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad. (2 Corinthians 5:10)  

Those who try to stand before the righteous judge in that day, without the grace of God to shield them, will only know the wrath of the Lamb of God.  Their sins will be judged, and their “righteous acts” will be shown to be nothing more than filthy rags in the sight of God.  Those who know Christ will also be judged on principles of righteousness but will have the continuing intercession of the Son of God.  They will be shown mercy for their sins, and their works which were done as the result of the indwelling of God’s Holy Spirit, will be recognized as pure and acceptable in the sight of God.

The return of our Lord will mean the end of the present creation and the revelation of a new heaven anda new earth.  The old creation has been spoiled by Adam’s fall and the sins of subsequent generations.  It must and will be replaced.  A new creation has already come in Christ.  The death and resurrection of our Lord brought in a new and perfect order.  That new order has been advancing against the forces of evil for many years.  One day the Lord himself will return and we will see the unveiling of Christ’s perfection and the glorious character of his kingdom.  That kingdom will displace all others.  We may love the country in which we were born.  We may be strongly patriotic.  But the mature Christian comes to understand that we are first and foremost citizens of God’s kingdom, and it is the only kingdom that will endure for all eternity.  

And there will no longer be a great divide between heaven and earth. (Revelation 21:1)   In other words, the dwelling place of God and the dwelling place of man will have been brought together by the graciousness of our God.  In a sense, we will dwell on the earth forever.  Earth, our dwelling place will have been created new, and there will be no essential difference between heaven and earth.  But the significant thing is that we will be able to live in the very presence of our God because we will have been brought to perfection ourselves.  We were once justified before God despite our sins because of God’s grace given us in Christ.  We were sanctified by the continuing work of God in us over the years of our lives.  But on that day, we will be glorified. We will know the perfection of absolute holiness.  We will truly be righteous as our Lord is righteous.  There will be no more tears. (Revelation 21:4) There will be no more sin.  (Revelation 21:8) The same passage teaches that Christ will have made his church splendid in holiness.  The figures of this passage do not describe the literal streets of heaven; they set before us the splendors of the church in all her redeemed glory.  We are told that we will have entered an eternal day.  Light is a symbol of truth and righteousness in scripture.  There will be no need for the sun.  We will have the light of God’s presence forever.  And there will be perfect joy and satisfaction.  We will drink the water of life. 

And then, at the end of this most famous hymn, Newton reminds us of God’s call to undeserving sinners.

But God who called me here below will be forever mine.

The General Call

The children of God have heard the call of God.  The apostle Paul tells us that “faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.  The proclamation of the gospel of Christ’s death and resurrection for our sins is the heart of Christian experience.  We must hear that we are sinners who have broken the laws of God and deserve hell. And we must hear that we should look away from ourselves to Christ and his perfect righteousness.  He alone has the perfect obedience that we need.  

And so, the church preaches Christ.  We preach Christ with the truth of holy scripture.  We preach the gospel events and with Paul say that these truths are the things of first importance.  As individuals we preach Christ when we are baptized.  Without a spoken word we say to those who are present, “Christ died for me to take my sins away and he was raised for me to give me eternal life.”  And when the church gathers around the Lord’s table, we preach Christ.  There we see the Lord’s body and blood, and together with all our brothers and sisters in the Lord we remember his death as our atonement.  And we eat the bread and drink the cup.  Thus, we preach his sustaining life.  As we are nourished by his body and blood, we preach again the resurrection life of the Lord.

But there is another work of the Lord, another calling of God that Newton had experienced. That work of God is the effectual calling of the Holy Spirit.

Effectual Calling

Which comes first —the new birth or repentance and faith?

The order is this, first comes regeneration or the new birth by the Spirit.  Then repentance and faith in Christ come as the result of the work of God.  The Baptist Faith and Message puts it this way, 

Regeneration, or the new birth, is a work of God’s grace whereby believers become new creatures in Christ Jesus.  It is a change of heart wrought by the Holy Spirit through conviction of sin, to which the sinner responds in repentance toward God and faith in the Lord Jesus Christ.  Repentance and faith are inseparable experiences of grace.

Notice the order.  First there is the new birth.  Then repentance and faith appear.  They are “inseparable experiences of grace.” If you have been born again, you will repent.  If you have been born again, you will believe in Christ.  These things have come to us because of the grace of God.  He has given us new life.  He has given us the ability to repent when others do not.  He has given us faith in Christ when others do not believe in him.  On one occasion the Lord even told some of his enemies that the reason they did not believe in him was because the Father had not enabled them to do so.  (John 6:60-65) One might say, “But I thought that God gives us new life because we repent.  Isn’t repentance the condition for being born again?”  Not according to the Lord Jesus Christ.  He told Nicodemus,

The wind blows wherever it pleases.  You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going.  So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit. (John3:8)

Can you and I control the wind?  Do we arise each day and decide how fast the wind will blow or from what direction the wind will come?  Can we stop a tornado from creating havoc as it passes through a defenseless town?  Of course not.  The wind blows where it pleases. Do you see the point that the Lord is making?  We cannot control or direct the Spirit of God in his work of imparting new life to sinners.  He regenerates.  He resurrects to new life.  He causes us to be “born again.”  The wind of the Spirit must blow.  That is why we pray for the Holy Spirit to come to our friends and relatives who do not know the Lord.  We ask God to save them.   We know that if they are to come to Christ, they must be drawn to him by the work of God.  The Lord Jesus said,

I tell you the truth, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life and will not be condemned; he has crossed over from death to life.  I tell you the truth, a time is coming and has now come when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God and those who hear will live. (John 5:24-25)

The Lord was not speaking about the last day when the dead will be raised from their graves.  That is clear because, just after he spoke these words, he began to talk about that day.

Do not be amazed at this, for a time is coming when all who are in their graves will hear his voice and come out . . .  (John5:28-29a)

We are dead in our sins.  We cannot help ourselves.  God must come to our rescue.  He has done that by sending his Son to die in the place of sinners on the cross.  But that atoning work must be applied to us individually, and that is the work of God’s Spirit.  The Father chose us in eternity.  The Son died for his people in time and history.  And the Holy Spirit brings the benefits of Christ’s death to us.  He brings with him the resurrection life of Christ.  With the same power that raised the Lord Jesus Christ from the dead he touches us as we lie spiritually helpless, dead before God.  Suddenly we rise from our spiritual grave.  We believe the gospel.  We believe in Christ.  We depend on him to save us. In our dead state we did not love God.  Now we love him because he first loved us.  We did not love our fellow man.  Now we love even those that we once hated.  All this is the miraculous result of the new birth.  The Lord has touched us with resurrection power.  We are truly alive for the first time.  We have been born again!  We must make clear that the Holy Spirit, in accomplishing this work of God, uses the word of God.  The preaching of the gospel is an essential part of the Holy Spirit’s regenerating work. 

For you have been born again, not of perishable seed, but of imperishable, through the living and enduring word of God. (1 Peter 1:23)

There must be a presentation of the truths of the gospel if a sinner is to come to Christ for salvation.  But the external call to receive Christ as Lord and Savior cannot save if it stands alone.  There must also be an internal work of God.  The Holy Spirit must hover over us as surely as he hovered over the formless void.  Just as the voice of God said “let there be light” so the Holy Spirit brings light to our dark world.  He says to each of our dead souls, arise!   It is like the Lord Jesus Christ appearing before the tomb of Lazarus and shouting for the dead man to come forth.  And, just as Lazarus was called from death to life by the power of God, so we are raised by God’s powerful work for us.   But Lazarus died again.  Not so with those who are born again.  The life that began with the new birth will never end.  

John Newton had heard both the external call and he had “heard” the precious call that comes from the Spirit of God.  He could look forward to the blessings of heaven, when the earth dissolves like snow because he had been called by the Lord to an amazing salvation by grace!

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