No study on Hymnology would be complete without “Amazing Grace.” Amazing Grace is probably one of the most well-known, widely published and well-loved Hymns by all faiths. It has often been referred to in modern-day meetings as the Baptist Anthem. There is probably not a more accurate description of Grace than Amazing and this is truly the case when you consider the biographical background of John Newton.
John Newton was born in London in 1725 but at the age of 6, his mother died. She was a godly, praying woman who instilled in him the Word of God proving what the Bible declares in Proverbs, “Train up a child in the way he should go: and when he is old, he will not depart from it.” The song, Amazing Grace could very well be the testimony of John’s conversion and Christian life. In its original form, there were six verses. The first three that are known and used now were written by John Newton. In its original publication in Olney Hymns in 1779 it bore the title “Faith’s Review and Expectation.”
As we explore the verses of Amazing Grace, from the very first verse we see Newton’s knowledge of theology.
Amazing Grace how sweet the sound,
That saved a wretch like me.
I once was lost, but now am found,
Twas blind but now I see.
The definition of Grace, according to Emory H. Bancroft, is “unmerited favor to sinners.” The word Grace appears in the New Testament alone over 170 times. One cannot even read the title, Amazing Grace, without immediately being reminded of Ephesians 2:8 “For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God:” It is Grace that saves us, Grace that keep us, Grace that leads us and Grace that will one day lead us home. What John Newton was saying about Grace, is that has a nice ring to it, I like the sound of that.
The line “that saved a wretch like me” draws our attention to the Depravity of man. Man is born without a spark of divinity; all men are born with the depraved nature of Adam. 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 realized that for man to see God there must be a new birth is also introduced in these lines. Acts 4:12 declares that there is no other name whereby we must be saved.
Salvation, Regeneration, is the only way to Christ. Man is born lost. He does not have to do anything to be lost, he is lost. The only way for man to get to Heaven is he must be quickened, made alive. And that is what regeneration does and is. Regeneration is that spiritual work by the Holy Ghost that imparts the new nature, the nature of Christ in a man. That is what is meant in the phrase, “I once was lost”.
“Twas blind but now I see”, man’s lost condition is typified in the scriptures as blindness. No doubt John Newton had read the story of Jesus healing the blind man in John 9 where the blind man declared “Whereas I was blind, now I see”.
The second verse of Amazing 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.
John states clearly, it is all of grace. He says the same grace that put me under conviction and condemnation, when I turned to Christ, it was that same grace that relieved all my fears, and it came the same hour, the same time that I believed. No doubt, the promise of Romans 10:9 of “believing in the heart” came to John’s mind as he penned these words. That word believe has a strong meaning, to trust or entrust, to have faith in. The implication is illustrated by believing that a chair will hold you up but haven’t really put your faith in the chair until you sit down in it. You believe it will hold you up and support you, but you have not demonstrated your faith until you commit yourself to it by sitting down in it. That is what the word believe means, to display your faith, committing yourself to Christ.
The third verse, if you know anything about the life of John Newton speaks much to the heart:
Through many dangers toils and snares,
I have already come.
Tis grace that brought me safe thus far
and grace will lead me home.
At the tender age of 6, after the death of his mother, little John set sail with his father, who was a sea captain. John later joined the British navy, but he was a very rebellious sailor. He even deserted the navy and was later caught, put in irons and publicly beaten. He later would become a captain of a ship himself, the captain of a slave ship. John was on a long trip from Brazil and to pass the time, he was reading a book entitled Imitation of Christ written three hundred years earlier by Thomas Kempis. Then came a terrible, horrific storm that almost sent the ship and entire crew into the ocean. After surviving this storm, this got John to thinking about life and about death. He knew he was lost, he knew he was a sinner. The teachings of his godly mother came back to mind and John knelt and repented and received the Lord Jesus. You can only imagine the storms and dangers that John had been through when he penned those words. He knew that it was only by the Grace of God that he was not dead and in Hell.
After being saved, John would trade his position for the pulpit. John, a lover of the sea, took a land job and studied for sixteen years and then was ordained in the Anglican Church and was assigned a pastorate in the small English town of Olney. It was there that he wrote the words of Amazing Grace, and he was absolutely right, How Sweet the Sound!!
John Newton wrote the first three verses of Amazing Grace and wrote these additional verses that we do not use and you may not know:
The Lord has promised good to me,
His word my hope secures;
He will my shield and portion be,
As long as life endures.
Yea, when this flesh and heart shall fail,
And mortal life shall cease,
I shall possess, within the veil,
A life of joy and peace.
The earth shall soon dissolve like snow,
The sun forbear to shine;
But God, who called me here below,
Shall be forever mine.
The fourth verse that is in our hymn books, “When we’ve been there ten thousand years” is anonymous and was added in 1910 by Edwin Othello Excell in Coronation Hymns. The musical tune that we now use for Amazing Grace was composed by Edwin Excell in 1910.