Posted by: rcottrill | August 17, 2012

Amazing Grace

Words: John Newton (July 24, 1725; d. Dec. 21, 1807)
Music: New Britain, by an unknown composer

Wordwise Hymns (Newton born, hymn written, Newton died)
The Cyber Hymnal

Note: John Newton’s original version of the hymn, as printed in Olney Hymns, in 1779, contained six stanzas (CH-1 through 6). CH-7 does not appear to have been from Newton’s pen, it was added much later, and the author is unknown. However, it does make a fitting conclusion to this wonderful song.

The tune has had five different names over the years, including New Britain, McIntosh, St. Mary’s, Gallaher, and (later) Amazing Grace. Its earliest publication seems to have been in an 1829 book called Columbian Harmony, but the tune was first wedded to Newton’s text in Southern Harmony, published in 1835. In 1900, Edwin Excell (1851-1921) arranged the tune as we know it today.

What can be said of this great hymn that hasn’t been said before–many times over? Much of it is autobiographical, reflecting the author’s own experience. After a narrow escape from a terrible storm at sea, John Newton began to think of his past life. He had not only rejected Christ and the gospel, but had blasphemed the Lord’s name over and over, with terrible oaths. The depths of his depravity horrified him. Was there any hope for such a vile sinner? He says:

“I began to pray. I could not utter the prayer of faith. I could not draw near to a reconciled God and call Him Father. My prayer was like the cry of the ravens, which yet the Lord does not disdain to hear. I now began to think of Jesus whom I had so often offended. I recollected the particulars of His life and death, a death for sins not His own, but for those who, in their distress, should put their trust in Him….In perusing the New Testament, I was struck with several passages, particularly the prodigal [i.e. Christ’s parable of the prodigal son, Lk. 15:11-32]–a case that had never been so clearly exemplified as by myself. And then the goodness of the father in receiving, nay, in running to meet such a son, and this intended only to illustrate the Lord’s goodness to returning sinners, this gained upon [impressed] me.”

The grace of God, and “the God of all grace” (I Pet. 5:10), is the central theme of this hymn. “Grace” is a word found some 137 in our English Bibles, from “Noah found grace in the eyes of the Lord” (Gen. 6:8), to “The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you all. Amen” (Rev. 22:21). It represents the unearned and unmerited favour and blessing of God. And it is “amazing” for that very reason. Not only is it undeserved. But those who receive were fully deserving of just the opposite, wrath and divine judgment.

As Newton pondered the wreckage of his past life, he saw in his wretchedness a man whom God treated with grace that he in no way merited and had no hope of earning. God’s free gift overwhelmed him, and did so for the rest of his life. He would readily say with Paul, “I commend you to God and to the word of His grace” (Acts 20:32). The devout passion of his hymn reveals this. The words he chose strike an emotional chord, as well as delivering important truth. There we find amazing, sweet, and precious grace, poured out upon a wretch, who is lost, and blind.

There are more than a dozen personal references in the hymn (I, me, my), bringing this centuries old hymn closer in form to the modern gospel song, with its focus on experience. However, there is nothing shallow here. It would be rare for a superficial contemporary offering to put words such as wretch, lost and blind in the singer’s mouth. Nor would it be willing to grapple with the paradox of grace teaching our hearts to fear (CH-2).

CH-1) 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.

CH-2) ’Twas grace that taught my heart to fear,
And grace my fears relieved;
How precious did that grace appear
The hour I first believed!

Stanzas CH-4, 5 and 6 are lesser known, since they are not included in many modern hymnals. But they are worthy of note. “His Word my hope secures,” and “the earth shall soon dissolve like snow” are especially notable lines.

CH-4) The Lord has promised good to me,
His Word my hope secures;
He will my shield and portion be,
As long as life endures.

CH-6) The earth shall soon dissolve like snow,
The sun forbear to shine;
But God, who called me here below,
Will be forever mine.

1) In what way does grace awaken fear, before it relieves it”

2) What are some of the riches of God’s grace (Eph. 1:7; 2:7) that He gives to us in salvation?

Wordwise Hymns (Newton born, hymn written, Newton died)
The Cyber Hymnal


%d bloggers like this: