Amazing Grace: 250 Years Old, but Eternally True Pt.2 | Tom Nettles

by | Sep 25, 2023 | Church History, Practical Theology, Systematic Theology

 

 

The Hymn “Amazing Grace,” reached its 250th year of age in 2023. Being first sung under the leadership of its composer, John Newton, by the parish congregation in Olney, Bucks, England, it was published in 1779 in Olney Hymns. The hymn book was composed jointly by Newton and William Cowper. Newton informed those who purchased the volume, “We had not proceeded far upon our proposed plan, before my dear friend was prevented, by a long and affecting indisposition, from affording me any further assistance.” [John Newton, Works, 6 vols, 3:301] Newton marked each contribution of Cowper with a “C” right after the enumeration of the hymn. Cowper wrote 56 of the 348 hymns contained in Olney Hymns.

This hymnal is divided into three “books,” or divisions of types of hymns. The first consisted of hymns on particular texts of Scripture. The second addressed “occasional subjects,” a variety of hymns divided loosely into “seasons, “ordinances,” “providence,” and “creation.” The third dealt with the “rise, progress, changes, and comforts of the spiritual life.” Cowper’s hymns numbered 31 in that category.

“Amazing Grace,” or “Faith’s Review and Expectation,” was number 41 in Book One, the lone entry under 1 Chronicles. The text contains the word Grace six times. Notably, verse three has the most direct exposition of the operation and effects of converting grace.

‘Twas grace that taught my heart to fear,

And grace my fears relieved.

How precious did that grace appear

The hour I first believed.

 

Newton regularly called to mind the testimony of Paul as an encouragement. After describing the deep rebelliousness and injurious intent of his life—saying of himself that of sinners, “I am the chief” (1 Timothy 1:15)— he received the grace of God. For Newton, this meant that even chief sinners could be saved and would thereby magnify the grace of God. He frequently drew attention to Paul’s testimony, for he knew that its broad parameters enveloped him in its embrace. In a hymn entitled “Encouragement,” Newton wrote:

Of sinners the chief,

And viler than all,

The jailer or thief,

Manasseh or Saul;

Since they were forgiv’n,

Why should I despair,

While Christ is in Heav’n

And still answers prayer.

[Newton, Works, 3:581.]

 

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 the hymn book, 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, Words 3:303]

When Newton, therefore, writes of grace, he has 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, and 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] That the gospel call is to be sent to all, Newton gave no pause through Gibeon’s cause. 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.]

 

That the “Grace” of “Amazing Grace” is indeed the sovereign grace of the doctrines of grace is seen in an article entitled from one of the lines of the hymn, “I once was blind, but now I see.” He engaged the question, “What is the discriminating characteristic nature of a work of grace upon the soul?” {Newton, 1:282]. His thesis statement seems to be, “Men by nature are stark blind with respect to this light [Gospel truth]; by grace, the eyes of the understanding are opened.” {Newton, 1:283] After some discussion of blindness and light and the vanity of the blind seeking to tell the sightful that their contention that sight and light do exist is mere fantasy or deception, Newton made these points. “It shows that regeneration, or that great change without which a man cannot see the kingdom of God, is the effect of Almighty power.” From that principle, Newton inferred “the sovereignty as well as the efficacy of grace.” Those who now see once were blind like others and, like them, “had neither power nor will to enlighten their own minds.” Newton affirms both human responsibility in evangelism and absolute dependence on the sovereign power of God.

Ministers cannot be too earnest in the discharge of their office; it behooves them to use all diligence to find out acceptable words, and to proclaim the whole counsel of God. Yet, when they have done all, they have done nothing, unless their word is accompanied to the heart by the power and demonstration of the Spirit.” [Newton, 1:286]

 

The next time we sing “Amazing Grace,” our joy should surge in the eternal truth of sovereign saving grace, in the condescension of a God who speaks to the dead and says “Live,” who speaks to a sinner and says, “I forgive,” who speaks to the unrighteous and pronounces them justified, who ransoms his enemies and gives a relation rectified. In addition, we know that we are bearing a co-witness with the true meaning of a composer who knew the grace of God in truth.

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