As I enter my 71st year, I can’t help but reflect on how I have been the recipient of God’s grace so many times in my life. This thought has permeated my consciousness this past weekend and I find myself even more inclined to extend additional grace to others as my life moves forward. It is apparent to me that turning 70 seems to be a seminal moment and is changing my perspective on several fronts.
A friend of mine sent me an article on the origin of the famous hymn, Amazing Grace” – and the message hits home with me. To be sure, this was one of the most sung hymns at the Baptist seminary chapels we attended during my years at school and it is estimated that the song is now sung more than 10 million times a year.
Most of us are familiar with the first verse – “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…”
But few of us know that the words were written by John Newton to be used on a New Year’s Day service on January 1, 1773 – 250 years ago this past January 1st. Newton collaborated with William Cowper on a huge volume of hymns primarily for the emerging Methodist Church and local Baptist churches. In fact, it is estimated that the John Newton worked on more than 300 hymns.
Newton’s personal story reads like some Old Testament story. He was born into a family where he father was a seaman and young John was incredibly disobedient in just about every area of his life. He would periodically realize his errors and make amends – trying to change his ways. Unfortunately, he always fell back into his old behaviors. It is almost like the idea of “hosad” in the Old Testament. The people of God would sin, cry out for mercy, God would save them, they would praise God – and then they fell right back into sin… Newton’s life was very similar to this.
He, at various times in his life, was heavily involved in the slave trade, was a slave at one time himself, was defiant and disobedient, incredibly profane, wrote nasty vulgar poems about the various captains of the ships he was serving on and was thought to be beyond God’s reach. However, he eventually became interested in a young lady and was allowed to correspond with her. They eventually were married and the courtship is thought to have been a turning point in John’s life.
But the real start of his conversion happened during a severe storm in 1748 while on a ship traveling from Africa to Liverpool. There was a terrible storm and Newton called out to God asking to be delivered safely to shore. The ship eventually landed in Ireland and this began John’s spiritual journey. However, for another six years or so he was still involved in the slave trade. Ironically, years later, he became an abolitionist and was very persuasive in his arguments against slavery. Undoubtedly, it was difficult to comprehend someone who professed a devout belief in God but was still active in the slave trade himself.
At one point, he tried to enroll in a seminary type institution but was turned down for further schooling. Supposedly, this was due to the lack of a university education but the record isn’t clear on the real reason for his being turned down. He did eventually become quite a proficient preacher and an Anglican Priest, writing many hymns and songs of the era.
Few people realize that some of the lines of “Amazing Grace” were predicated on Biblical passages. “I was lost but now was found” is taken from the story of the prodigal son – and “I was blind but now I see” was from the story of the blind man being healed with his sight restored. Many of us can identify with the words of the hymn, God has extended grace to each of us.
The original title of the hymn was “Faith’s Review and Expectation” as the message was to be preached on January 1st and was meant to be an exercise in looking back (review) and forward (expectation) to the new year. Little did Newton know that the Library of Congress would eventually have more than 3000 versions of the song and it is the first hymn we turn to when tragedy strikes.
The New Year’s Day sermon was based off King David’s words in 1 Chronicles. In our verse for tonight, the same verse used that fateful January 1st, David cries out to God by asking, in 1 Chronicles 17:16, “Who am I, O LORD God, and what is my family, that you have brought me this far?
Clearly, this birthday, I have had time to review the past and to think about my expectations going forward. God has been faithful and will continue His grace throughout all the years of my life. My encouragement this evening is that we are all recipients of almighty God’s grace. It is important to practice grace with others as well. My prayer is that we will all review the past and anticipate the future as we become progressively more sanctified in our walk with Jesus. Have a great day in the Lord, grace and peace…