4 Profound Truths in ‘Amazing Grace’ We Need Today

“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.

The hymn has figured prominently at moments of intense national grieving in America. After the space shuttle Challenger burst into flames on television in 1986, the American nation heard “Amazing Grace” played at the memorial service for the astronauts. After terrorists exploded a bomb at an Oklahoma City federal building in 1995, killing 168 people, “Amazing Grace” was again carried from church services by television news programs. The memorial Mass for John F. Kennedy Jr. in July 1999 concluded with the singing of “Amazing Grace” as well.

In 2001, immediately after the terrorist attacks on September 11, a spontaneous candlelight vigil began in Union Square and people began again to sing “Amazing Grace.” This did not just happen in New York. “Amazing Grace” was sung at formal and ad hoc memorials all across the United States. Examples could easily be multiplied. “Amazing Grace” is, as one critic has observed, the “spiritual national anthem” of America.

Perhaps even more remarkably, this song that was written by a former slave trader has been taken up by African American congregations and made their own. This was true before and after emancipation in America. “Amazing Grace” became a song of personal testimony. It was gospel music greats like Mahalia Jackson who offered the song to a wider audience yet. She recorded “Amazing Grace” for Apollo Records on December 10, 1947. 

On the 250th-year anniversary of the writing of the hymn now known as “Amazing Grace” by John Newton, it is a fitting occasion to discover a message of grace for us all today— one we need to hear, now more than ever. 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?” Verse 4 of this psalm says simply, “With you there is forgiveness, that you may be feared” (ESV). 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.

There were things that happened to Newton that made him wretched, but harder yet was the wretchedness he brought on himself by sheer ignorance, foolish-ness, and depravity. When he was in the midst of the storm and looking in the face of death, his one question was, “What mercy can there be for me?” Perhaps you have asked that question. 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.

It is perhaps one of the most amazing things about God’s grace in the cross of Christ— that though the message of grace comes to us with impure hands, stained with violence, it yet offers hope and redemption to the wretched, and it plants the seeds of justice, reconciliation, and healing for all peoples in its universality and affirmation of the common humanity and dignity of every person.

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).

Newton reckoned with his blasphemous and adulterous past long before he reckoned with the iniquity of his racism and human trafficking. But as the evil of the slave trade became more evident to him— as it did to others in Britain around the same time— he began to take a stand against the whole slave system and to make critical contributions to destroy it altogether. 

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. He described someone growing in grace this way: “He knows, that his heart is ‘deceitful and desperately wicked;’ but he does not, he cannot know at first, the full meaning of that expression.” Over time there is a real change. “Much has been forgiven him, therefore he loves much, and therefore he knows how to forgive and to pity others.”

He continues, “The Lord has been long teaching him this lesson by a train of dispensations; and through grace he can say, He has not suffered so many things in vain. His heart has deceived him so often, that he is now in a good measure weaned from trusting to it. . . . He is now taught to go the Lord at once for ‘grace to help in every time of need.’ Thus he is strong, not in himself, but in the grace that is in Christ Jesus.”

When Newton thought of grace maturing in our lives, his sense was that it tended in this direction, producing a wisdom that is “first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere. And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace” (James 3:17–18 ESV).

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. In a world of injustice, there is only so far that critique can go before it descends into recrimination, retribution, and revenge. The 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 BruceHindmarsh and Craig Borlase. Used by permission of Thomas Nelson Publishing. HarperCollinsChristian.com