“Amazing grace how sweet the sound…” You can hear the melody and fill in the remaining words to this beautiful hymn, can’t you? We all can! It would certainly be an understatement to say that this hymn is a beloved favourite of many and a very popular number for different occasions. If you have attended church, a wedding or a funeral recently I’m pretty certain that you’ve sung Amazing Grace. You’ve sung the song, but may I ask “Do you know the story behind the lyrics to this song?”
It is estimated that about 2 million African slaves were transported by British ships across the Atlantic Ocean during a period in history known as the ‘Trans-Atlantic slave trade’. Out of these 2 million captured slaves travelling from the West coast of Africa to the Americas, known as the ‘Middle passage’, historians estimate that only 1 in 5 slaves actually survived this journey. This was due to the horrific conditions aboard the ships. The conditions included chains, overcrowded quarters, separated families, sexual exploitation, flogging, beating and butchering. The stink of perspiration, human waste and death filled the air- providing an environment conducive for diseases to spread. One slave-ship Captain, who had a reputation as a rebel amongst his comrades and who was also a self-confessed ‘blasphemer’ having rejected God completely, found himself ship wrecked on one of his journeys across the Atlantic. After being washed overboard and surviving the freezing cold conditions he saw the hand of God in his life. His name was John Newton.
John Newton came to the realization that he was not the captain of his soul. Much like the slaves that he had been transporting as cargo across the seas, he too understood that he was a slave- a slave not to man but to his sins and the devil (Romans 6:17-18; 2 Timothy 2:25b-26). So what caused this blasphemies rebel to turn to God in repentance for his sins? The answer is grace! Of this grace as it relates to salvation the Bible says “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast” (Ephesians 2:8-9). Grace is God stretching out His mighty hand from heaven and showing sinful mankind undeserved favor. It was by the grace of God that John Newton was physically saved from the icy Atlantic waters and spiritually from a hopeless existence in hell. As a result Newton was able to testify through the lyrics of his song, “I once was lost but now I’m found; was blind but now I see”. He had been blind to his involvement in the slave trade as he wrote “I hope it will always be a subject of humiliating reflection to me, that I was once an active instrument in a business at which my heart now shudders.” He was also blind to his need for salvation (Acts 4:12; 1 Timothy 2:5). However by the grace of God through faith in Jesus Christ he became a new creation (1 Corinthians 5:17). Though inwardly he was a new person, his outward behaviour would not match his true identity in Christ immediately. By the grace of God he would eventually cut ties with his involvement in the slave trade and become a minister, a voice for the abolition of the slave trade and inspire William Wilberforce to devote his life to this very purpose. At the end of his life when his memory was failing him, he would say that there were two things that he remembered “I am a great sinner; but Christ is a great Savior!”
John Newton was a sinner who deserved to pay for his crimes against humanity and even greater still- against God. Instead of condemnation for his sins he received grace and forgiveness! That does not seem just does it? Yet that is the nature of grace- It is scandalous. In fact as a result of Adam’s power trip in the Garden of Eden because of disobedience, mankind has been separated from the presence of God and stands condemned before Him (Romans 3:23; 6:23). We are all born on the road that leads to destruction and are deserving of an eternity in hell, but- God in His kindness gives us what we don’t deserve- Grace! Amazing and scandalous (Romans 5:8; 17-21). Friends grace teaches us that we cannot merit a right standing before through our own efforts (Titus 3:3-6). Our efforts will never be good enough for God. In confessing that we are great sinners, like Newton, we agree with God that we are imperfect and helpless without Him. Only then can we depend fully on the grace of God to make us righteous.