God’s Sustaining Grace

Through many dangers, toils, and snares,
I have already come;
’Tis grace hath brought me safe thus far,
And grace will lead me home.

“Amazing Grace,” or “Faith’s Review and Expectation,” appeared in “Olney Hymns” in 1779, six years after it was first sung in the parish church at Olney. It was number 41 in Book One, devoted to “select passages of Scripture” the lone entry under 1 Chronicles. Newton viewed the prayer of David in that text, 1 Chronicles 17:16 and following, as a review of the operations of divine grace in his experience. David looked to the past, to the present, and then to the future. When the Christian contemplates the grace of God, he sees it in its seamless power, recognizing its effectual workings of the past, observing its sustaining power in the present, and confident of its immutable purpose in the future.

The text of “Amazing Grace” contains the word grace six times. Notably, verse two has the most direct exposition of the operation and effects of converting grace—grace to fear and grace for fears relieved. This is “grace upon grace” (John 1:16). John explains that the first grace was in this, “The law was given through Moses.” The grace that was layered on top of that was found in this: “Grace and truth came through Jesus Christ” (John 1:17). The powerful grace of the Spirit in using the law to teach the fear of God and the consequences of sin led inexorably to the grace of faith in the completed work of Christ. Led to biblical belief by the Spirit of God showing the glory of Christ, the believer finds such grace as precious when the assaulted conscience under the terrors of God’s curse on lawbreakers find release by the certainty of acceptance. Verse two captures it

‘Twas grace that taught my heart to fear,
  And grace my fears relieved;
How precious did that grace appear
  The hour I first believed!

Verse three continues with the emphasis on sustaining grace, the necessary concomitant to saving grace. All of it is of the same quality and necessary, not only for the power and effectuality of regeneration, but for sustaining faith in a world hostile to the gospel and those who believe it.

Through many dangers, toils, and snares,
I have already come;
’Tis grace hath brought me safe thus far,
And grace will lead me home.

Verse four, five, and six look to the future of God’s sustaining grace in the believer’s life: “As long as life endures. … when mortal life shall cease, … will be forever mine.” Though the final three stanzas do not contain the word grace, the preciousness of the promises communicated find their origin and certain sustenance in sovereign omnipotent grace.

 Newton did not view grace as a cooperative power of God, but a unilateral and effectual exertion of power based on the eternal saving intent of God. In the preface to Olney Hymns, Newton made clear that he did not intend the hymn book to be an element of a polemical dispute with those who “differ with me, more or less, in those points which are called Calvinistic.” [Newton, 3:303] He was not out to promote controversy, but to edify the worshipper and convict the unregenerate of sin and absolute dependence on God. He claimed the freedom, however, as others of a different viewpoint claimed for themselves, to make his hymns as clear as he could on points of doctrine and Christian experience that glorified God and sent the sinner to the merits of Christ and the grace of God without reservation. “The views I have received of the doctrines of grace,” Newton explained, “are essential to my peace; I could not live comfortably a day, or an hour, without them.” As to any accusation that they promote carelessness and diminish evangelistic concern, Newton contended for an opposite viewpoint. “I likewise believe, yea, so far as my poor attainments warrant me to speak,” Newton averred, “I know them to be friendly to holiness, and to have a direct influence in producing and maintaining a Gospel conversation; and therefore I must not be ashamed of them.” {Newton, Works 3:303]

In a sermon entitled, “Sovereignty of Divine Grace Asserted and Illustrated,” Newton began his final paragraph with the encouragement, “Does it not appear from hence, that the doctrine of free sovereign grace is rather an encouragement to awakened and broken-hearted sinners than otherwise?” [Newton Works, 2:413, 414] Newton consistently encouraged his auditory to find in Christ not only a sovereign Savior, but a merciful and willing Savior. In 1800, preaching before the “Lord Maor, Aldermen, and Sherifs,” Newton closed a message on “The Constraining Influence of the Love of Christ” with an earnest appeal to flee from “everlasting destruction from the presence of the Lord,” for “We have incurred the penalty annexed to the breach of this law.” [Newton 6:516]

To those who are sensible of their desert and danger, the gospel points out relief and a refuge. Jesus invites the weary and burdened sinner, and says, “Him that cometh, I will in no wise cast out. You have heard something of his glorious person, power, authority, and love. He is able, he is willing, he has promised to save to the uttermost all that come to God by him. Oh, that today you may hear his voice, and comply with his invitation! [Newton 5:516.]

When Newton, therefore, wrote of grace, he had in mind the sovereignly chosen, eternal disposition, of love toward sinners viewed as fallen and under just condemnation. From the unit of fallen sons of Adam, the triune God placed electing, redeeming, justifying, persevering love on particular individuals to bring them from being under a sentence of eternal damnation to inherit the status of sons of God and receive eternal life. In a hymn on Leviticus 8, Newton versed, “He bears the names of all his saints deep on his heart engrav’d; attentive to the states and wants of all his love has saved.” [Newton, 3:328] At the same time, that the gospel call is to be sent to all, Newton gave no pause. He wrote, “But Jesus invitation sends, treating with rebels as his friends; And holds the promise forth in view, to all who for his mercy sue.” [3:330] He used Samson’s lion to teach God’s protective grace for believers: “The lions roar but cannot kill; then fear them not my friends, they bring us, though against their will, the honey Jesus sends” [Newton, 3:333]. Contemplation on 2 Kings 2 in the story of Elisha’s healing the waters of Jericho with salt led to this verse. He emphasizes human depravity which can only be healed by grace.

But grace, like the salt in the cruse,

When cast in the spring of the soul;

A wonderful change will produce,

Diffusing new life through the whole:

The wilderness blooms like a rose,

The heart which was vile and abhors,

Now fruitful and beautiful grows,

The garden and joy of the Lord.

[Newton, 3:349]

The present experience of grace forms the substance of verse three. Newton viewed that experience in two parts—the dangers, toils and snares, of struggle involved in present sanctification, and second, the settled assurance that grace will lead us home. That idea is an element of and leads into the internal dominant hope (1 John 3:3) energized by the “Blessed Hope” (Titus 2:13) we find in verse 4–“His word my hope secures; He will my shield and portion be as long as life endures.”

Newton described the “fears-relieved” kind of grace (verse 2) in a sermon entitled “Grace in the Blade” on Mark 4:28. Though punctuated with various manifestations of immaturity, lack of knowledge, fright, and terror before enemies, this is a time “remarkable for the warmth and liveliness of the affections.” [Newton 1:202] This new and enthusiastic believer Newton has named “A.”

The next stage, “B,” is “Grace in the Ear.” (Mark 4:28). Whereas desire and perhaps rapidly fluctuating joy and despair characterize “A,” Newton saw conflict as the state of “B” leading to a maturing understanding of the nature of the conflict caused by the operation of the flesh against the Spirit. “Through many dangers, toils, and snares, I have already come.” The person denominated “B” knows that grace has brought him safe thus far.

Having felt the wrath of God pacified by the blood of Christ, having achieved some spiritual equilibrium, and having seen the deadly enemies of the past held at bay, B may think that little conflict will occur in his future pilgrimage. He learns otherwise very soon. “Alas!” Newton says.” “His difficulties are in a manner just beginning; he has a wilderness before him, of which he is not aware.” God’s operations of grace will include some severe tests to “humble and prove him, and to shew him what is in his heart.” Aiming toward the “latter end” of life with more sustained comfort and anticipatory joy, this stage is designed by God “that all the glory may redound to his own free grace.” [Newton 1:205]

B learns that he lives “in a world that is full of snares, and occasions, suited to draw forth those corruptions.” [206] He is wiling to endure hardship and knows from Scripture that his heart is deceitful and desperately wicked, but he could never anticipate how deeply he could fall if left to his own devices and strength. When he finds respite from breakthroughs of perversity and malicious sin, God gives occasions in which he still will discover “new and mortifying proofs of an evil nature.” Hezekiah and Peter had exalted manifestations of grace followed by events in which, left to their own strength and determination, they fell to a sensible and distressing experience of their own evil nature when unsustained by immediate grace. A variety of experiences will teach B to be more “distrustful of his own heart” and view the way before him with ever-increasing conscious dependence on grace and “to suspect a snare in every step he takes.” [209]

As Newton described his own pilgrimage as person B, he found “multiplied instances of stupidity, ingratitude, impatience, and rebellion, to which my conscience has been witness!” [208] The person in this stage of pilgrimage in grace has a mind is more thoroughly informed by Scripture truth concerning the call to “lay aside every weight and the sin which so easily besets us” (Hebrews 12:1). Parallel to that, and with a maturing grasp of the coordinate operations of the “renewing of the mind” (Romans 12:2) and the “renewal of the Holy Spirit” (Titus 3:5), he has an increased awareness and admiration of “the rich sovereign abounding mercy of the covenant.” [209] “Through many dangers toils and snares I have already come. ‘Tis grace has brought me safe thus far.”

When the result of grace is the “Full corn in the ear,” the Christian pilgrim can say, “and grace will lead me home.” Newton labeled this stage of pilgrimage as the experience of “C.” He more fully develops this in verse 4, but the threshold to that stage is introduced here. C recognizes more profoundly that whether living or dead, he belongs to Christ. He knows that even if he lives as long as Methuselah, and does not enter heaven for centuries, this will mean fruitful labor for him. It will involve opportunities for glorying in Christ before a wicked and perverse age. Like Paul, he desires to be with Christ, knowing that such a state is far better, but he has learned to be content in any condition in this life and to trust God’s wisdom as to the time and condition of his entry to the heavenly presence of Christ among the “spirits of just men made perfect” (Hebrews 12:23), for he knows that, by invincible grace, his place there is assured. “Grace will lead me home,” and that same grace will sustain me while I am here.

Newton described this state of grace as characterized by humility, spirituality, and “a union of heart to the glory and will of God.” [214, 215] He learns humility in looking back “upon the way by which the Lord has led him; and while he reviews the Ebenezers he has set up all along the road, he sees, in almost an equal number, the monuments of his own perverse returns.” [212] He learns a deeper and more humble submission to the will of God in all circumstances. While he is impatient with his own failures in light of God’s immeasurable grace, he learns to bear with others as they also will stumble over the “snares of the world.” [213].

C learns more intensely how deeply rooted is the evil principle that clings to him in this life and thus learns to seek and value more profoundly the operations of the Spirit in mortification of the flesh. He learns how vain it is to cling to temporal things and how excellent it is to increase in the knowledge of God and conformity to Christ. As he looks with confidence to the grace that will lead him home, “He sees that the time is short, lives upon the foretastes of glory, and therefore accounts not his life, or any inferior concernment dear, so that he may finish his course with joy.” [214]

For C, grace still reminds him of the sinful pit from which he was lifted, and reminds him of the snares, dangers, and toils that once were more prominent and threatening than now. He still knows and feels the power of indwelling sin and yearns to be free of its hindrances. Increasingly diminished, however, is the fixture on oneself, and ever more prominent is a joy in savoring and contemplating the glories and beauties of God. “That God in Christ is glorious over all, and blessed for ever, is the very joy of his soul.” [216] They may have great grace for great difficulty and appear to make slow progress in their grasp of the glory of God. They may also have less intense outlays of grace for small difficulties and seem to advance rapidly. In both cases grace makes them endure.

Grace must sustain us from first to last.  Preceded by the grace of election, Christ’s condescension, and victorious resurrection, we are dependent on divine grace even prior to any experience of it in our hearts. Made by grace to fear the curse and brought by grace to embrace the cure, we find grace upon grace. Born spiritually by the Spirit’s grace and secured eternally by the Redeemer’s intercession, grace will lead us home.  The absolute and perpetual need of grace arises from the depravity of our hearts. We are humbled by this but not thrown down for an unending fountain of grace flows from the saving wounds of Christ “since Jesus is appointed to me of God, wisdom, righteousness, sanctification, and redemption; and since I find that, in the midst of all this darkness and deadness, he keeps alive the principle of grace which he has implanted in my heart.” [Newton 1:250, “On a believer’s Frames.”]

Tom has most recently served as the Professor of Historical Theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He previously taught at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School where he was Professor of Church History and Chair of the Department of Church History. Prior to that, he taught at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and Mid-America Baptist Theological Seminary. Along with numerous journal articles and scholarly papers, Dr. Nettles is the author and editor of fifteen books. Among his books are By His Grace and For His Glory; Baptists and the Bible, James Petigru Boyce: A Southern Baptist Statesman, and Living by Revealed Truth: The Life and Pastoral Theology of Charles H. Spurgeon.
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