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Amazing Grace: A Definitive Essay on the Song

A Discussion of the Song

by Mary Cage

Click here for printable copy.

I once watched a PBS special by Bill Moyers on the meaning of the song, "Amazing Grace," written by John Newton over a hundred years ago. (If you have sound, you are listening to it being played now on bagpipes.) Moyers interviewed many people, and went to all sections of the country, transcending cultures and beliefs, to find out what the song meant to different people. It was a beautiful program, one of those rare, uplifting shows one seldom sees on television.

As I sat and watched the program, I kept thinking, "These are beautiful sentiments, but many of these people do not seem to know the real meaning of the song. Some of them do not even profess to be Christians." And even many of those who professed to be Christians fell short of expressing what the author meant. Most of them, sadly, did not express that they had experienced even a little of what John Newton had experienced. As beautiful as the program was, it was presented from a mainly secular point of view. And I thought, "What did the song mean to John Newton himself? What was he trying to convey?" He had evidently undergone some profound experience, and was attempting to express it the best way he could.

I had read somewhere that Newton had been a vile person, transporting slaves from Africa to the West Indies. His evil heart drove him to the brink of insanity. And then one day, burdened by the wretched sin of his past life, he cried out to God to save him, and He did. Many would say that he "got religion" or "had a change of heart." But what happened was: Newton was "born again."

John 3:3

Jesus answered and said unto him, Truly, truly, I say unto thee, Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.

Newton wrote of what God had done for him in the song, "Amazing Grace;" and it has become the best known and best loved hymn of the Christian faith.

The true meaning of the song is that the "amazing grace" of God lies in freely saving and reconciling a wretched sinner to Himself, and bringing that wretched sinner to be born again spiritually. He is no longer a "wretched sinner" but a "new creation in Christ Jesus."

2 Cor 5:17

Therefore if any man be in Christ, he is a new creature: old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new.

Why does Newton call God's grace "amazing?" And just what is "grace" anyway?

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

Newton calls God's grace "amazing," because it is a supernatural gift. It is not of this world. Many people think that "religion" is just a fixation of the mind, and that it is totally under the control of the individual embracing it. They put it in the same category as any other philosophy of the world. Some choose to be humanists (or some other philosophy) so they go to college and earn degrees, which a man-made institution bestows upon them.

But no man can bestow God's gift of "amazing grace" upon another man; and no man can take it away! God's grace is supernatural, and it reveals His True Nature, which is Divine Love! It does not come by way of man, or his institutions or methods. It cannot be earned. All of the religious works in the world will not earn one ounce of God's grace! It is amazing in that it is a free gift, an empowerment of God, bestowed to the heart by God Himself. And it will only come to a humbled heart that repents and turns to God for that which only HE can bestow!

Those who claim to have God's grace because they are religious, but are nevertheless self-righteous and have never humbled themselves before God, have not yet received His "Amazing" Grace. We must present ourselves as beggars before God's Throne of Mercy. That is what John Newton did, and that is what every soul that has ever been "born again" has done. Only then can we realize the true meaning of Newton's simple but beautiful song.

"I once was Blind but now I see!" This is not physical blindness Newton speaks of. This is a "dead in trespasses and sins" blindness, that only God can cure. When Jesus worked His miracles of healing the blind 2,000 years ago, His work was symbolic of what He is still doing in opening the "eyes" of the spiritually blind!

The song may mean many things to many people, as the Moyers' program revealed. But perhaps the reason so many people love it and it brings warmth to the hearts of so many, is because, built into its poignant strains is the call from Jesus Christ, "Humble yourselves. Come unto me all ye that are weary and heavy laden and I will give you rest."

Have You experienced the true meaning of the song? God is as close away as a prayer, waiting to bestow upon You His "Amazing Grace."

"Amazing Grace"

by John Newton

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
I have already come;
'Tis grace has brought me safe thus far,
And grace will lead me 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.

Yes, 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 call'd me here below,
Will be for ever mine.

When I've been there ten thousand years,
Bright shining as the sun,
I've no less days to sing God's praise
Than when I first begun.


Want to read more about John Newton? Click here.