Why Do You Sing That God’s Grace 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.

Reflect on past mercies and consider future hopes so that you can sing in the present.

This year is the 250th anniversary of the writing of the hymn Amazing Grace so a little reflection on the past might prove helpful.  Knowing about the author of the text – John Newton – and what motivated him to pen those memorable words should also be an encouragement to us who still sing this great old hymn.

It would seem that Newton himself was reflecting on the biblical text, 1 Chronicles 17:16-17, on his own life and on some key doctrinal truths.  Such reflection led him to put into poetic form words and phrases that summarized biblical truth leading to a response of heartfelt worship.  Reflection on God’s revelation should lead to doxology.

Amazing Grace was first published in Olney Hymns (1779), titled “Faith’s review and expectation.”  Literary scholar Madeliene Forell Marshall described the overall message of the hymn in this way:

As usual, the original title, unavailable in our modern hymnals, provides useful direction to our reading: the hymn will look back in time, tracing the experience of faith (i.e., “review”), and forward, anticipating the future (i.e., “expectation”).[1]

Referring to Newton’s sermon notes we observe that he understood how this looking backwards and forwards assisted him in learning the rich doctrines that nourished his spirituality for the rest of his life.  He was concerned about living a life of thankfulness and gratitude in response to God’s blessings:

The Lord bestows many blessings upon his people, but unless he likewise gives them a thankful heart, they lose much of the comfort they might have in them.  And this is not only a blessing in itself but an earnest of more.  When David was peacefully settled in the kingdom, he purposed to express his gratitude by building a place for the Ark…. My text is part of his acknowledgement.  Omitting David’s personal concerns, I would accommodate them to our own use as a proper subject for our meditations on the entrance of a new year.  They lead us to a consideration of past mercies and future hopes and intimate the frame of mind which becomes us when we contemplate what the Lord has done for us.[2]

According to these sermon notes, under points two and three, Newton asks the reader to reflect on the past and then consider the future.  In the first of the two points Newton asks the reader to look back to past mercies, before conversion, at the point of conversion, and those mercies since then.  In the first of the subpoints Newton pointed to God’s providential care in preserving us from all kinds of danger by His secret guidance. The second subpoint was a reminder about the moment where the merciful God enabled us to believe; and the third subpoint was reflection on the way mercy and goodness had followed us kept us through temporal and spiritual troubles.

The third point pointed called his congregation’s attention to future grace.  “Are these small things?  Yes, compared to what follows – He has spoken for a great while to come, even to Eternity.  Present mercies are but earnests of his love, present comforts but foretastes of the joy to which we are hastening.  O that crown, that kingdom, that eternal weight of glory!  We are travelling home to God.  We shall soon see Jesus, and never complain of sin, sorrow, temptation or desertion any more.”[3]

This was a common technique in his sermons.  He would supply historical examples to help us to consider past mercies and point to the promises of God to get us to consider future hopes all for the purpose of helping us to approach present problems in a way that would honor God.  That is what he does in this hymn.He wants us to reflect on past mercies and consider future hopes so that we can sing in the midst of present problems.

Contemplate how the power of hymns might more fully develop our perceptions of God.

It is one thing to state that doxology flows as a response to God’s revelation and that the response is a reflection on the past works of God.  It is another thing to understand how both a reflection on the past and a consideration of future grace of God helps us to respond in worship to the present works of God’s providence.  I would like to add a supplementary principle to this thesis. Contemplation about the power of hymns help to form our perceptions of doctrinal truths like the grace of God.[4]  For example, not only does meditation on God’s word about His grace inform and enlarge our conception of the nature of God, but, in addition, deep thinking and singing about hymns themselves help to strengthen our views of God’s magnificent grace.

Have you not found yourself in deep admiration of God’s grace and thankfulness for His mercy and grace when you sing some great hymn?  Consider the hymn by Samuel Davies, Who is a pardoning God like Thee, and who has grace so rich and free?  The Scriptures certainly teach from Micah that God is one who pardons our iniquities.  We know that, but when we sing that truth and repeat it in the chorus of the hymn, the truth grows down deeper into our soul.  And then, we rejoice with thankfulness and gratitude that God’s grace indeed is rich and free!  We remember the thousands of times that God has pardoned our sins and our soul melts at the thought that God has lavished His rich grace upon us.  And when we sing it, not by ourself, but with other believers who understand that same truth and who sing about it with great joy in harmony with us, then our heart grows stronger and we exult in the grace of God.

Exposition of the First Stanza

Amazing grace!

Observe how Newton gets you to think with him about past mercies.  Consider the first stanza of the hymn, phrase by phrase.  Each phrase informs the singer about some essential biblical truth and how it has affected Newton.  It tells us in the very first line that after long, deep reflection Newton has discovered and glories in the fact that the grace of God that has been shown to him throughout his life should always arrest the heart as something that is truly amazing! Grace is qualified!  This sounds like Paul after meditating on grace in Ephesians 1 breaks forth in doxological wonder.  We sing because of God’s amazing grace!

This was in accord with Newton’s confessional concept of grace as found in the 39 Articles of Religion that he ascribed to as an Anglican minister.[5]  In section 17 about predestination and election the confession teaches that God’s grace enables us to obey the gospel call, justifies us, and causes us to be adopted as a child of God; and all according to the everlasting, predestinating purpose of God.[6]

Newton’s view of grace is based on Scripture and enriched by the language of the confession.  It is amazing grace and he is going to explain why in the hymn!  Newton’s sermon notes reference an initial question: Who am I?  His shorthand notes then mention:

The frame of mind: humility and admiration.  Who am I, etc.  This question should be always upon our minds.  Who am I?  What was I when the Lord began to manifest his purposes of love?  This was often inculcated upon Israel, Thou shalt remember – Look unto the pit from which we were taken.  Lord, what is man! [7]

His next subpoints are a reflection on his pre-conversion condition of misery, rebellion, and the need for mercy.  When we consider our pre-conversion we discover that we were shut up under the law and unbelief. And therefore miserable. We were also blinded by the god of this world and rebellious. We didn’t even have a desire of deliverance.  Instead of desiring the Lord’s help, we breathed a spirit of defiance against Him.  His mercy came to us not only undeserved but undesired.  And we didn’t know that it was the Lord against whom we sinned and who showed us mercy.  “What just cause of admiration, that he should appoint such salvation, in such a way, in favour of such helpless, worthless creatures.”[8]

So then, consider how fully did Newton understand this doctrine of grace.  Surely a reflection on the truth that prior to his conversion he was in a miserable situation, was a deliberate, intentional, rebellious sinner, was a sinner undesiring and underserving of any kind of mercy or grace — surely a reflection on these truths would be just cause for admiration of God’s amazing grace!

A few years later, Newton referenced this amazing grace in a letter to John Thornton, 12 Sept. 1776:

. . . surely no one could be a greater libertine in principle or practice, more abandoned or more daring than I. But I obtained mercy. I hardly feel any stronger proof of remaining depravity than in my having so faint a sense of the Amazing Grace that snatched me from ruin, that pardoned such enormous sins, preserved my life when I stood upon the brink of eternity and could only be preserved by miracle, and changed a disposition which seemed so incurably obstinate and given up to horrid wickedness.[9]

How sweet the sound

With all of this in mind it is no surprise that Newton would have tried to think of poetic ways to exult in such grace. And, thankfully, the language of grace is descriptive and doxological.  There is an aesthetic quality about it.  It is all about the truth, goodness, and beauty of our LORD and His ways. Newton uses the language of the senses to elaborate on holy things. There is hunger for the things of God and there is a taste of sweetness in the Word of God.  But the Word of God is also something that is heard with the ear, and in a beautiful mix of literary devices, there is a sweetness even in the sound of the Gospel in a believer’s ear.  The eyes are not forgotten.  I once was blind, but now I see.  Touch is also implied and employed in the idea of his being lost, but found, reminiscent of the familiar story of the Shepherd carrying the lost sheep on his shoulders or the embrace of the prodigal son in the arms of the loving Father.  You can feel the touch of His arms underneath your tired body and the loving arms of His care and love surrounding you with welcome.  The language is almost sacramental.

Notice how Newton articulated his understanding of this grace.  Consider how he describes grace as a “sound”?  How sweet the sound.  Was he not thinking about the word of grace that was proclaimed and, thus, heard?  And why does he describe the “sound” as “sweet”?  This is not the language of an unbeliever, but of a believer who understands that God has called him out of darkness into His marvelous light.  To Newton the word of grace that he heard was understood and interpreted within the context of the doctrine of effectual calling, of irresistible grace.  It is because Newton understood that God had called him in such a way that he describes this grace as sweetHow sweet the sound.[10]

That saved

But why was the sound of the message of grace so sweet to Newton?  It is because he saw himself as one who had been delivered by the power of the gospel.[11]  Amazing grace! How sweet the sound that saved….  The language of deliverance or rescue was very prominent during Newton’s life.  As someone who had spent so much time on the seas he knew full well the impotence of anything seeking to overcome the dangerous, powerful waves of the ocean that would lift themselves up against the slave ships.  But he had also learned of the omnipotence of the Maker of the heavens and the earth, and that God alone, the Creator, was the only one who could rescue him from the storms. 

Newton’s scripture reference in his sermon notes, 1 Chronicles 17:16–17, poses the question from King David, “Who am I, O Lord God, and what is my house, that you have brought me thus far?” This is reflected in the hymn when the writer speaks of being a “wretch,” “lost,” and “blind,” yet delivered “through many dangers, toils, and snares.” The agency of that deliverance? “’Tis grace has brought me safe thus far.”[12]

It seems as if Newton understood well his salvation as a deliverance from sin and from the wrath of God.  Once again, in his sermon notes, read:

We had not so much a desire of deliverance. Instead of desiring the Lord’s help, we breathed a spirit of defiance against him. His mercy came to us not only undeserved but undesired. Yea few [of] us but resisted his calls, and when he knocked at the door of our hearts endeavoured to shut him out till he overcame us by the power of his grace. [13]

Newton often would preach of the atoning, saving grace of God that had propitiated the wrath of God.  This was a favorite theme because he understood just how wicked a sinner he had been before God saved him.

a wretch like me!

Newton never ceased to be amazed by God’s grace and told his friends, “My memory is nearly gone; but I remember two things: That I am a great sinner, and that Christ is a great Savior.”[14]  He knew the doctrine of the depravity of mankind.  He had a fully articulated understanding of anthropology.  He knew that he was a sinner through and through; and so he worked hard at putting into poetic form a view of his own sinfulness. This is reflected in the hymn when the writer speaks of being a ‘wretch,’ ‘lost,’ and ‘blind’.

In a sermon on 1 Timothy 1:15, “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—and I was the worst of them all!”  Newton states

Innumerable cases might be published to the honor of the great Physician; none more memorable perhaps than my own. I was laboring under a multitude of grievous evils: fired with raging madness, possessed with many devils, and bent upon my own destruction! 

But Jesus interposed—unsought and undesired. He opened my eyes, and pardoned my sins! He broke my fetters, and taught my once blasphemous lips—to praise His name. For the foulest of the foul—He dies! [15]

Newton often reflected on his past wretchedness: Once he described his moral condition in the words of 2 Peter 2:14, “Having eyes full of adultery, and that cannot cease from sin.” Newton later wrote, “The troubles and miseries . . . were my own. I brought them upon myself, by forsaking [God’s] good and pleasant paths and choosing the way of transgressors which I found very hard; they led to slavery, contempt, famine and despair.”[16]

This is the same truth found in the 39 Articles that Newton adhered to as well as the Westminster Confession of Faith and Catechism that Newton’s mother had taught him as a child.  In section 9 on original sin the 39 Articles state that depravity is the “fault and corruption of the Nature of every man, that naturally is engendered of the offspring of Adam; whereby man is very far gone from original righteousness, and is of his own nature inclined to evil, so that the flesh lusteth always contrary to the Spirit; and therefore in every person born into this world, it deserveth God’s wrath and damnation.”[17]

One can see that this was an important truth for Newton.  In his sermons he would express what he had learned through the Scripture, through the confessions, and through his own experience.  He understood the depths of his depravity.  He had felt it; he had seen it for years.  Otherwise, why would he go to such lengths to detail the effects of sin upon his life?  Amazing grace!  How sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me.[18]

I once was lost, but now am found;

He also described himself as one who was lost.  He just piled up terms to make sure the fullness of his sin was adequately understood. To understand why he would use this language you should remember Newton’s understanding of the parables of the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the prodigal son were important for his poetic language in the hymn.

Once again, Newton’s understanding was informed by the Scriptures and his confessional statements, not only about his sinfulness, but also about the unconditional, electing love of the Christ who saved him and who watched over him and would not let him swerve too far from His providential keeping.  I once was lost, but now am found.

    Newton was convinced of the doctrine ofunconditional election:

If any people have contributed a mite to their own salvation, it was more than we could do. If any were obedient and faithful to the first calls and impressions of his Spirit, it was not our case. If any were prepared to receive him beforehand, we know that we were in a state of alienation from him. We needed sovereign, irresistible grace to save us, or we would be lost forever! If there are any who have a power of their own, we must confess ourselves poorer than they are.[19]

Newton had an understanding of the major Calvinistic doctrines and it is obvious that he loved this doctrine of irresistible grace.  In an article printed in the Banner of Truth magazine, Dudley Reeves wrote:

The tide of the battle for Newton’s soul slowly turned with the dawning of gospel light, though for another six years he did not understand or enjoy evangelical preaching or conversation. Finally, the irresistible grace of God (or, as Newton preferred to say, the invincible grace of God) won the day — the crisis of capturing the citadel of Newton’s soul was over and the life-long process of mopping-up operations was begun.[20]

Was blind, but now I see.

Newton labored to explain the glories of this grace.  He was a wretch, yes, but he was also spiritually blind.  He was in need of the powerful operation of the Great Physician to open his eyes to see the beauty of the only One who could save him. In an exposition on Luke 24:45, Newton explains:

He opened their minds—so they could understand the Scriptures.” Luke 24:45.  When God opens the eyes of our understanding, we begin to see everything around us to be just as the Scripture has described them. Then, and not until then, we perceive, that what we read in the Bible concerning the horrid evil of sin, the vileness of our fallen nature, the darkness and ignorance of those who know not God, our own emptiness, and the impossibility of finding relief and comfort from creatures—is exactly true.[21] 

In another sermon Newton described what it was like after the Lord opened his eyes.  Newton employs the language of Isaiah 6:1-5 as his own voice and then prays for the same vision.

I saw the Lord!  “In the year King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord! He was sitting on a lofty throne, and the train of His robe filled the Temple. Hovering around Him were mighty seraphim, each with six wings. With two wings they covered their faces, with two they covered their feet, and with the remaining two they flew. In a great chorus they sang, ‘Holy, holy, holy is the Lord Almighty! The whole earth is filled with His glory!’ The glorious singing shook the Temple to its foundations, and the entire sanctuary was filled with smoke! Then I said, ‘Woe is me, for I am ruined, because I am a man of unclean lips and live among a people of unclean lips, because my eyes have seen the King, the Lord Almighty!'”

Oh! for a glance of what Isaiah saw, and has described! Oh! that we, by the power of that faith, could behold the glory of the Lord filling this house; that we could realize the presence and the attitude of His attendant angels!

According to the Dictionary of American Hymnology, “Amazing Grace” is John Newton‘s spiritual autobiography in verse.[23]  Newton himself testifies of this:

I would tell you how it is with me if I could; at the best, it would be an inconsistent account. I am what I would not, and would what I cannot. I rejoice and mourn; I stand fast and am thrown down in the same moment. I am both rich and poor; I can do nothing; yet, I can do all things. I live by a miracle. I am opposed beyond my strength, yet I am not overpowered. I gain when I lose, and I often am a loser by my gains. IN A WORD, I AM A SINNER! A vile one; but a sinner believing in the Name of Jesus. I am a silly sheep, but I have a gracious, watchful Shepherd; I am a dull scholar, but I have a Master who can make the dullest learn. He still enables me, He still owns me. Oh, for a coal of heavenly fire to warm my heart, that I might praise Him as I ought! [24]

We have considered only the first stanza of this beloved hymn but we see how many precious biblical truths are embedded in it, how many doctrinal principles are inculcated in it, and how many pastoral instructions can be gleaned from it. It is no wonder that has become one of the most popular hymns of all time.  May we take time to reflect, as Newton did, on these same biblical truths, meditate on these same doctrinal principles, and consider the many pastoral instructions.  May we learn to sing, with the rest of God’s chosen ones, just how amazing His grace has been and continues to be for wretched, lost, blind, rebellious sinners.

[1] Madeline Forell Marshall, “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound,” Common Hymnsense (1995), pp. 80-84.

[2] “Amazing grace: the sermon notes,” The John Newton Project.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Thanks to Tom Nettles for suggesting this thought.  “Ruminations about the power of hymns help to form our middle mental perceptions of doctrinal truths.”

[5] Note: Newton was raised by a devout Congregationalist mother who taught John the Westminster Catechism and the hymns of Isaac Watts; so he heard and recited the rich doctrinal catechism of the Presbyterians.  Cf. John Piper. https://www.desiringgod.org/messages/john-newton-the-tough-roots-of-his-habitual-tenderness

[6] 39 Articles of Religion, article 17.

[7] “Amazing grace: the sermon notes,” The John Newton Project.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Letter to John Thornton, 12 Sept. 1776, Cambridge University, Thornton Papers, Add 7674/1/B19, transcribed b Marylynn Rouse for The John Newton Project. http://www.johnnewton.org

[10] Newton seemed to like this phrase as he wrote another hymn adding extensively to the meaning of the words.  How sweet the name of Jesus sounds. This hymn is based on Song of Solomon 1:3. How sweet the name of Jesus sounds In a believer’s ear! It soothes his sorrows, heals his wound, And drives away his fear. It makes the wounded spirit whole, And calms the troubled breast;‘Tis manna to the hungry soul, And to the weary rest. Olney Hymns.

[11] Romans 1:16, I am not ashamed of the gospel for it is the power of God unto salvation….

[12] “Amazing grace: the sermon notes,” The John Newton Project.

[13] Ibid.

[14] John Newton, Wise Counsel: John Newton’s Letters to John Ryland Jr., Ed. Grant Gordon (Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth, 2009), 401.

[15] John Newton, The Works of John NewtonVolume 6 (Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth, 2015), 6: 203-204.

[16] John Pollock, Amazing Grace: John Newton’s Story (San Francisco: Harper & row, 1981), 62-63.

[17] 39 Articles of Religion, section 9.

[18] For further detail on this truth see Morgan Cunningham.  “A Wretch Like Me”: John Newton and ‘Amazing Grace’”  Whitworth University (2018). History of Christianity II: TH 314. Paper 22.  https://digitalcommons.whitworth.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1021&context=th314h

[19] John Newton’s Letters.  The doctrines of election and final perseverance.  https://www.gracegems.org/Newton/09.htm

[20] https://banneroftruth.org/us/resources/articles/2019/five-examples-of-amazing-grace-in-the-life-of-john-newton/

[21] https://www.gracegems.org/Newton/john_newton_excerpts2.htm

[22] Ibid.

[23] Dictionary of American Hymnology, “Amazing Grace”

[24] https://www.pristinegrace.org/article.php?id=51794&title=A+Testimony&author=John+Newton

Jim Carnes has served as Minister of Music at South Woods Baptist Church in Germantown, Tennessee since 1995. He received his education at Union University (BM) and North Texas State University (MA in Musicology). He and his wife, Nancy, have been married for 30+ years and have two daughters: Anna and Mary. Jim has written articles for various journals and books in the areas of worship, history, theology, and rhetoric.
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