“For by grace you have been saved, through faith – and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God – not by works, so that no one can boast.” Eph. 2:8-9. Whenever I ask my peers in any Christian gathering, “What is your favourite hymn,” I have come to expect Amazing Grace to be mentioned by a considerable number. It is also the only hymn that made it to the top of the British pop chart in the 80s. I have a VCD of this hymn sung in a dozen different ways at various concerts by different artistes.
Grace is generally defined as undeserved favour. Hence, when Paul wrote about having been saved by grace, he meant precisely that. We do not deserve to be saved; and we cannot earn our salvation. We are saved because God showed his favour to us when we least deserve it. John Newton (1725-1807), the author of the hymn, truly experienced the undeserved favour of God. According to the epitaph on his tombstone, he was “once an infidel and Libertine, a servant of slavers in Africa, by the rich mercy of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, preserved, restored, pardoned, and appointed to preach the Faith he had long laboured to destroy.” Like Paul the Apostle, John Newton was a persecutor who became a preacher; a slave trader, who became a slave to the Lord Jesus Christ.
Soon after his conversion, he began to be convicted of the human aspects of his work as captain of a slave-ferrying ship. He abandoned the sea and became an effective abolitionist, crusading against slavery. In this regard, he was very much influenced by the work of William Wilberforce, the Christian member of parliament whose life work was focused on the repeal of the law legalizing slave-ownership. Evangelist George Whitefield and the Wesley brothers, John and Charles also asserted tremendous influence on his anti-slavery activities. His hymn Amazing Grace alludes to the wretchedness of his former profession, and the blindness of not seeing the inhumanity of enslaving fellow humans. For many years, John Newton served in a country church in Olney, England. It was there that, in collaboration with the famous poet and hymn writer William Cowper, he produced the famous Olney Hymns, a hymnal containing 349 hymns written by them. The object, as Newton stated in the preface was “to promote the faith and comfort of sincere Christians.” And what comfort Amazing Grace turns out to be for many generations and in many lands and languages. In a most ironic way, this hymn written by a former captain of a slave ship became by far the favourite hymn of many African Americans whose forefathers were slaves! That, in and of itself, is amazing grace! The Rev. John Newton’s ministry in Olney and, subsequently London, led many to Christ. Among them were Claudius Buchanan and Thomas Scott. Buchanan became a missionary to the East Indies and Scott made his mark as a Bible Commentator. It is truly amazing grace that when a man is saved, the saved multiplies himself. Newton’s dominant theme in his preaching ministry was amazing grace. He never ceased to marvel at the grace and mercy of God that turned his life around. We, too, should never cease to marvel at the grace of God in our lives. That is why I love to sing Amazing Grace, for every time I sing it, I marvel afresh at God’s amazing grace in my life. Amazing grace – how sweet the sound, That saves a wretch like me; I once was lost but now am found, Was blind but now I see.