Visit the memorial service following any tragedy, and you will most likely hear the song, "Amazing Grace." Its memorable words and soul-stirring tune (especially when performed on bagpipes) have captivated millions, and seem especially suited to times of collective sorrow.
"Amazing Grace" is also one of the most-recorded songs in history, with hundreds of artists from nearly every style of music having contributed their rendition of this classic hymn. Through the years it has been popular in both Christian and secular circles, and has even been at the top of the music charts.
But I have to wonder how many of the people who have sung (and even recorded) this song have never gotten past the poetry and the notes. How many have uttered the words "amazing grace … that saved a wretch like me" and yet are strangers to grace and offended by God's declaration of their wretchedness?
The man who knew this song most personally—it was the story of his life—was John Newton. This year marks the 200th anniversary of his death, and though he is remembered for many things, above them all shines the bright testimony of his faith handed down to us in "Amazing Grace."
He was a man whom God rescued from many things, but though he believed "there never was or could be such a sinner as myself," you and I alike are just as guilty as he was, and just as desperately in need of God's amazing grace.
After his conversion, John Newton continued a life of grace. He was a devoted husband who eventually became an effective preacher, a caring pastor, as well as a down-to-earth teacher. Whenever conflict arose, he sought ways to focus on truth without losing sight of the effect his words and manner would have on those he was trying to convince. Despite their differences on some doctrinal issues, John Wesley once wrote to him, "You appear to be designed by divine providence for a healer of breaches, a reconciler of honest but prejudiced men, and a uniter (happy work!) of the children of God."
What would John Newton think of his song being used in times of tragedy, and being found on the lips of those who do not yet take it to heart? From his letters we get the impression that he would be thankful for such a testimony to God's grace being proclaimed in times of trouble: "Perhaps dark times are the brightest, for they are usually seasons when the Lord's people are stirred up, and when many who would not hear Him in prosperity are glad to seek Him."
In this issue, using the story of John Newton and the teaching of the Bible, our desire is to search out what grace is, who it is for, and how it is received. We trust that you will be blessed by this study, and will learn to trust, rest, and glory in God's "Amazing Grace!"
—T. Don Johnson
Not long before his death, John Newton told a friend: "My memory is nearly gone, but I remember two things—that I am a great sinner, and that Christ is a great Saviour."