God's Amazing Grace and Two Great Men

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God's Amazing Grace and Two Great Men

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The New Testament speaks often of God’s grace (Greek charis). It’s impossible to come up with a simple definition to do it justice, because it encompasses so much about God’s character, His loving-kindness, compassion, mercy and generosity. Perhaps the best single word is gifts. It is the summation of all the wonderful gifts God offers to mankind.

The more one understands and experiences it, the more amazing it is.

The greatest single gift from God, the one that opens the door for us to receive all the rest of God’s gifts, is the forgiveness of our sins made possible by the sacrifice of our Savior Jesus Christ. This removal of our guilt and its penalty of death is also called justification and redemption (Romans 3:24).

The New Testament book that most profoundly speaks of grace is Ephesians. “In [Christ] we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of sins, according to the riches of His grace” (1:7). “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God” (2:8).

John Newton

Let’s now look at a brief summary of the lives of two men who were deeply grateful for God’s grace. The first is John Newton who wrote the words to around 300 hymns, including “Glorious Things of Thee Are Spoken” and “Amazing Grace” (first published in 1779).

Newton was born in London July 24, 1725. In his nautical career, he served on a merchant ship, then a military ship and then on slave ships. He ultimately became the captain of his own ship, continuing to ply the slave trade.

Then on March 10, 1748, he thought his ship was going to be destroyed by a violent storm, and cried out, “Lord, have mercy on us!” He survived, and always looked back to that day as the beginning of his path to Christianity. He continued in the slave trade, but from that day on he made sure the slaves on his ship were treated humanely.

He retired from seafaring in 1755 and began intense self-education in the Bible, also learning Latin, Greek and Hebrew. Before long, he became a minister in the Church of England, first serving at Olney, Buckinghamshire. In 1767, the poet William Cowper and he became friends and they collaborated in writing many hymns.

For a long while, Newton was so ashamed of the “20,000 ghosts” of the slaves he had transported, he avoided thinking about his grisly past. Then he began to record his memories in letters and journals, and historians today credit them for most of what is known about the 18th-century slave trade.

In 1780, Newton became the rector of a church in London, where he drew large congregations and served until his death on Dec. 21, 1807. He influenced many people, including a young member of Parliament, William Wilberforce.

William Wilberforce

The movie Amazing Grace is based on a book by the same title, which is a biography of William Wilberforce, the pioneering British abolitionist who labored almost 20 years to end the British slave trade. The movie was released on Feb. 23, 2007, exactly 200 years from initial passage of the Slave Trade Act in 1807.

Wilberforce’s turn toward Christianity began in 1784 and was partly the result of the influence of John Newton. Wilberforce considered becoming a minister, but Newton advised him to stay in Parliament where he could have a greater impact by influencing reforms in British law.

Then on March 10, 1748, he thought his ship was going to be destroyed by a violent storm, and cried out, “Lord, have mercy on us!”

Then an abolitionist meeting in 1787 transformed the young MP (member of Parliament), into a crusader. For years, only a few friends shared his conviction and gave him moral support. One was a wise and witty woman, Barbara Spooner, whom Wilberforce married. Above all, Wilberforce was inspired by his knowledge of the Bible and strengthened by his faith in God.

Wilberforce began his crusade to end slavery in the British Empire as a lonely voice against great opposition. But he was not only determined, he was an eloquent and powerful speaker. After speaking out for 20 stressful years, the British Parliament finally outlawed slave trading.

After passage of the Slave Trade Act, Wilberforce continued to be an effective force in bringing about other reforms in British society.

Sadly, although slave trading has been officially outlawed in virtually every nation on earth, there is an incredible amount of illegal slave trading and human trafficking, mostly of women and children, going on all over the world.

The world could certainly use many more William Wilberforces to be bright lights and strong voices in the wilderness. But the world will continue in the darkness of sin until Jesus Christ returns to “preach deliverance to the captives…to set at liberty those who are oppressed” (Luke 4:18). His return is a sure fact. We hope it will be soon.

William Wilberforce also set a rather revolutionary standard for fatherhood in his day, spending lots of time with his six children in spite of his busy schedule. He was spiritually devout, humble and self-disciplined, being very regular with Bible study, prayer and fasting. For example, he memorized all of Psalm 119. He must have loved God’s law! But he never tried to make a show of his Christianity.

God’s grace deserves the deepest gratitude

After his conversion, John Newton’s attitude was similar to the apostle Paul’s, who regarded himself as “the least of all the saints” and “chief” among sinners (Ephesians 3:8; 1 Timothy 1:15). Newton said, “I remember two things: I’m a great sinner and Christ is a great Savior.”

William Wilberforce was also humble, not feeling or acting self-righteous and superior to other people, even though he was religious and an eloquent speaker. The author of the book Amazing Grace, Eric Metaxas, said, “Wilberforce knew that he was as wicked a sinner as the worst slave trader, without that sense of one’s own sinfulness, it’s very easy to become a moralizing Pharisee” (World Magazine, Feb. 24, 2007).

Since we are saved by God’s grace, which is a gift, the greatest gift imaginable, how can we claim any credit and “boast” as if we are saved by our own works? (Ephesians 2:8-9). There is a wonderful story in Luke 7:36-50 contrasting the woman who came to lovingly worship Jesus because she realized she had been forgiven of much and the smug Pharisee who didn’t think he needed forgiveness.

The apostle Paul regarded himself as “the least of all the saints” and “chief” among sinners.

Jesus told a story of a king who forgave his servant of a huge debt, but that servant later would not forgive a fellow servant of a minor debt (Matthew 18:21-35). The first debt was 600,000 times as large as the second debt! That illustrates how much sin God forgives us of compared to how little the hurt is we have to forgive others of.

When the king learned of this lack of mercy, he “delivered [his servant] to the torturers until he should pay all that was due to him” (verse 34). Then Jesus said, “So My heavenly Father also will do to you if each of you, from his heart, does not forgive his brother his trespasses” (verse 35).

Perhaps the number one reason for an unforgiving attitude is the lack of understanding of the enormity of sin for which God has forgiven us. On the other hand, to those who see their awful sinfulness, God’s grace is truly amazing!

The beloved hymn

The lyrics and melody of “Amazing Grace” have made it one of the best-loved hymns around the world. Once one knows the story of John Newton, it’s clear that the words are partly autobiographical. Through the years other writers have reworded some of the original verses. The lyrics of the six stanzas below are those most commonly sung today:

Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound,
That saved a wretch like me.
I once was lost but now am found,
Was blind, but now I see.

’Twas Grace that taught my heart to fear.
And Grace, my fears relieved.
How precious did that Grace appear
The hour I first believed.

Through many dangers, toils and snares
We have already come;
’Twas Grace that brought us safe thus far
And Grace will lead us home.

The Lord has promised good to me.
His word my hope secures.
He will my shield and portion be,
As long as life endures.

When we’ve been here ten thousand years
Bright shining as the sun.
We’ve no less days to sing God’s praise
Than when we’ve first begun.

Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound,
That saved a wretch like me.
I once was lost but now am found,
Was blind, but now I see.

The words remind us of the gift of grace that God will someday extend to all mankind—both slave and free.