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The Story Behind The Song – Amazing Grace

No study of hymnology would be complete without “Amazing Grace.” Amazing Grace is probably one of the most well-known, widely published and beloved hymns of any religion. In today’s gatherings, it is often referred to as the Baptist hymn. There is probably no better description of Grace than Amazing, and that is indeed the case when you consider John Newton’s biographical background.

John Newton was born in London in 1725, but his mother died when he was 6 years old. She was a God-fearing, prayerful woman who instilled the Word of God in her, proving what the Bible says in Proverbs: “Raise a child in the right way, and when he grows old, he will not depart from it.” The song Amazing Grace can very well be a testimony of John’s conversion and Christian life. In its original form, there were six stanzas. The first three known and used today were written by John Newton. In its original publication in the Olney Hymns of 1779, it was entitled “Faith’s Review and Expectation.”

As we explore the verses of Amazing Grace, we can see Newton’s theological knowledge from the very first verse.
Wonderful Grace, how sweet it sounds,
It saved a wretch like me.
I was once lost, but now I’ve been found
I was blind, but now I see.

Grace is defined by Emory H. Bancroft as “undeserved favor to sinners.” The word grace occurs more than 170 times in the New Testament alone. It is impossible to read the title: Amazing grace, without immediately thinking of Ephesians 2:8: “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: it is grace that saves us, Grace that keeps us, Grace that leads us, and Grace that one day brings us home. John Newton said about Grace that it has a nice ring, I like the sound of it.

The line “saved a wretch like me” draws our attention to the depravity of man. Man is born without a spark of divinity; all people are born with the depraved nature of Adam. The scriptures that prove this are Romans 3:10, 3:23, Ecclesiastes 7:20, Galatians 3:22, and I John 1:8. The fact that John Newton recognized that in order for man to see God, there must be a new birth. Acts 4:12 states that there is no other name by which we can be saved.

Salvation, renewal is the only way to Christ. Man is born lost. You don’t have to do anything to lose it, it’s lost. The only way a person can get to heaven is to be quickened, brought to life. And that’s what regeneration does and that. Rebirth is the spiritual work by the Holy Spirit that gives man a new nature, the nature of Christ. This is what the phrase “once lost” means.

“I was blind, but now I see,” the lost state of man is described in the scriptures as blindness. No doubt John Newton read the story of Jesus healing the blind man in John 9, where the blind man declared, “While I was blind, now I see.”

The second verse of Amazing Grace,

It was grace that taught my heart to fear
and his grace allaying my fears.
How precious this grace seemed
the hour when I first believed.

János clearly states that this is all grace. He says the same grace that brought me under conviction and conviction when I turned to Christ was the same grace that eased all my fears and came at the same hour, at the same time, that I believed. No doubt John had in mind the promise of Romans 10:9 to “believe in the heart” when he wrote these words. This word “believe” has a strong meaning: to trust or trust, to believe. The implication is illustrated by thinking that a chair holds you up, but you didn’t really believe in the chair until you sat in it. You think it holds you up and supports you, but you haven’t shown your faith until you sit on it. This is what the word believe means, to show your faith, to commit yourself to Christ.

The third stanza, if you know anything about John Newton’s life, speaks volumes to your heart:
With many dangers and traps,
I have already come.
This is the grace that has kept me safe so far
and grace leads home.

At just 6 years old, after his mother’s death, little John set off on a journey with his father, who was a sea captain. John later joined the British Navy, but was a very rebellious sailor. He even left the navy and was later caught, put in irons and publicly beaten. Later he becomes the captain of a ship himself, the captain of a slave ship. John was on a long journey from Brazil and to pass the time he was reading The Imitation of Christ by Thomas Kempis three hundred years earlier. Then came a terrible, terrible storm that almost sent the ship and all the crew into the ocean. After surviving this storm, John thought about life and death. He knew he was lost, he knew he was guilty. The teachings of his pious mother came to mind, John knelt down, repented and accepted the Lord Jesus. You can only imagine the storms and dangers John went through when he wrote these words. He knew that it was only by the grace of God that he did not die and was in hell.

After being rescued, John changed his position to the pulpit. John, who loves the sea, took up work on land, studied for sixteen years, was ordained in the Anglican Church, and assigned to the small English town of Olney as a pastor. There he wrote the words to Amazing Grace and he was absolutely right: How sweet the voice is!!

John Newton wrote the first three verses of Amazing Grace and wrote these additional verses that we don’t use and you don’t know:

The Lord promised me good things,
His word is assured by my hope;
He will be my shield and my portion,
As long as life lasts.

Yea, when this body and heart fail,
And mortal life ceases,
I take possession of the veil
Joyful and peaceful life.

The earth will soon melt like snow,
The sun does not shine;
But God, who called me here,
She will be mine forever.

The fourth stanza in our hymnals, “When we had been there ten thousand years,” is anonymous and was added by Edwin Othello Excell in 1910 in Coronation Hymns. The musical melody we use today for Amazing Grace was composed by Edwin Excell in 1910.

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