Amazing Grace: The Life of John Newton and the Surprising Story Behind the Song
APRIL 15, 2023
by Bruce Hindmarsh
“Amazing Grace,” the beloved hymn famously written by John Newton, has endured through two-and-a-half centuries and become today a powerful symbol for many people of hope in the midst of tragedy. We can each experience the grace of God more deeply by taking to heart four profound truths evident in Newton’s story.
I can be forgiven.
Newton often turned to Psalm 130 in his meditations. It begins, “Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord!” (ESV). It was an image of the depths of the sea. In Latin, De profundis— out of the profound places. So, to paraphrase, “From the depths of misery, no matter how deep, I cry to the depths of mercy. From the very deepest, hardest places, I cry out. Where else can I turn?” In Newton’s words, “’Twas grace that taught my heart to fear, and grace my fears relieved.”
Whatever shame or guilt you carry, however deep the regrets in your life, no matter what you have done, there is a mercy that is deeper yet. “With you there is forgiveness,” said the psalmist.
Newton found he had to come to a place of self-despairing faith, to cry out from the depths. “I durst make no more resolves, but cast myself before the Lord, to do with me as he should please.” It was like the alcoholic who has to reach bottom and let go. But then Newton found he could turn to Christ afresh, to hope and believe in a crucified Savior. “The burden,” he said, “was removed from my conscience.”
I can be deceived.
One of the most painful things to contemplate in Newton’s story is the way he could be blind—even after his initial conversion—to his participation in race-based chattel slavery and the brutality of the forced migration of enslaved people in the most inhumane and cruel conditions.
This blood was on his hands, and it took years before he became aware how self-deceived he was. “Custom, example, and interest,” he wrote later, “had blinded my eyes. I did it ignorantly.”
Could this happen to us? It would be naive to think it couldn’t. If some-thing is accepted by everyone (custom), and everyone else is doing it (example), and it is to my benefit (interest), then we, too, are in danger of self-deception.
I can make amends
We can learn, thirdly, from Newton’s story that it is possible to become undeceived, even if it happens slowly and in stages, and then we must face up to the truth, repudiate what we once believed, and do what we can, however costly, to make amends.
When Newton wrote “Amazing Grace,” he was thinking of the mercy shown to King David in the Old Testament, someone whose adulterous and murderous past should have disqualified him from sharing in any of the promises of God. David’s prayer of contrition was Psalm 51, where he pleads for divine forgiveness, asks for a clean heart, and trusts that “a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise” (v. 17 ESV).
Once you can see the truth, you must find the courage to act.
I can be more like Jesus.
Newton described grace as something that grows in a believer’s life over time.
Grace produces the sort of people, therefore, that are not easily caught up in “a fierce contention for names, notions and parties,” as Newton once wrote. In our increasingly polarized world, this is a good reminder that grace can work in us a kind of tenderness of spirit that makes for peace. Mercy triumphs over judgment. he very universality of the hymn “Amazing Grace” suggests there is a better way, a deeper well to draw from. As the book of Hebrews says, “the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel” (12:24 ESV). It is the word of God’s amazing grace in Christ Jesus.
That “better word” has echoed down the centuries and across the continents in the song that John Newton left us. It continues to speak a “better word” today.
• Adapted from “Amazing Grace: The Life of John Newton and the Story Behind His Song” by Bruce Hindmarsh and Craig Borlase. Copyright 2023 by Bruce Hindmarsh and Craig Borlase. Used by permission of Thomas Nelson Publishing. www.harpercollinschristian.com