Revive Our Hearts Podcast

Have You Experienced Amazing Grace?

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Leslie Basham: Last time on Revive Our Hearts, Nancy DeMoss Wolgemuth began to unpack the history of the much-loved hymn.

Nancy DeMoss Wolgemuth: We talked yesterday about “Amazing Grace,” John Newton’s most famous hymn. It was first published in 1779, written in 1772 for a New Year’s Day service. We don’t know what tune the hymn was sung to in 1773, but it’s written in what poets call the common meter, so could fit with a lot of different melodies. Or, the congregation may have just recited it in unison.

The composers soon started adding music to go with the words. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, this hymn was sung to twenty-some different melodies. Then in 1835, more than sixty years after “Amazing Grace” was written, it was joined with the popular folk tune that we most often sing today. It is now included in 1,000 or more published hymnals.

And since the advent of radio and recording, it’s been recorded, I read one statistic that said over 7,000 times and another said over 10,000 times. It may be way more than that by now.

The first recording that we know of was an acappella version in 1922 and then so many, many people have recorded it. Mahalia Jackson, in 1947, used it during the Civil Rights Movement.

When folk singer Judy Collins recorded it in 1979, it immediately broke into the Top 20 pop charts around the world, which is probably how it became as well-known as it is today in this part of the world.

It has been recorded by Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles, Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, and Elvis. It was sung at the Woodstock Music Festival in 1969.

Let’s just say that it’s been sung by many people who don’t actually have an experience of what it’s worth or about, but I love how God can take these words and weave them into the fabric of a culture. It’s become famous in pop culture. It’s been on The Simpsons. It was on Star Trek II in 1982. It inspired a Broadway musical. It’s frequently used (sung or played) in funerals and memorial services. It was the subject, you may remember, of a documentary that Bill Moyers did on public TV in 1990.

Well, it’s become so famous, but what we want to do in this short series is to talk about the meaning of the hymn and the meaning of God’s amazing grace.

Leslie: This is Revive Our Hearts with Nancy DeMoss Wolgemuth, author of A Place of Quiet Rest, for January 2, 2018.

Yesterday, Nancy began a series on the story behind the hymn “Amazing Grace.” It first went along with a New Year’s Day sermon, so Nancy thought this was the perfect time of year to celebrate the song with you.

Nancy: Just a little more background on this hymn: At age thirty-nine, John Newton, who, as we said, had once been a slave trader. He’d been rebellious and far from God, but God had brought him to Christ. He became the pastor of a small village church in Olney, England. I think I read that the population of the town at that time was about 2,500.

At that time, churches sang mostly psalms. A lot of churches sang only psalms. Newton began introducing to his congregation simple hymns about the gospel and the Christian experiences into their services. This was radical in those days.

He would write hymns in many cases because a lot of them didn’t exist. He would write them to accompany his own messages because music can help you remember things that you might otherwise forget. There weren’t a lot of hymns available, so he would write a lot of them.

He had a close friend named William Cowper. Now, if you’ve seen this, it looks like C-o-w-p-e-r, but it’s actually pronounced Cooper. Cooper was one of the best-known poets of the era, and he helped Newton to write some of these hymns.

In 1779, Newton and Cowper published a collection called Olney Hymns. It was the village of Olney. It was the Olney church, the only perish, and the compilation of hymns was called the Olney Hymns. The original edition had nearly 350 hymns, of which Cowper wrote nearly seventy, including the much-loved “There Is a Fountain Filled with Blood,” written in this era by William Cowper.

Newton wrote 281 of the hymns written in this hymnal, including, “Glorious Things of Thee Are Spoken,” “How Sweet the Name of Jesus Sounds in a Believer’s Ear,” and others that you would recognize. Of course, the most well-known today being “Amazing Grace” that comes from that collection.

Now, Olney was a small, rural community with mostly poor, uneducated parishioners. So in the preface to this hymnal, Newton explained that these were written “for the use of plain people.” This wasn’t any highfaluting stuff. This was intended that simple people could sing the riches of God’s grace and of the gospel.

He said his purpose for putting this hymnal together was “a desire of promoting the faith and comfort of sincere Christians.”

It’s interesting, we often think of music today in the church as what kind of music can we write that will reach people who don’t know Jesus. I’m not saying there’s not any place for that, but historically, and even scripturally, you’ll find that the norm for the music of the church is for the people of God. It’s to edify the people of God. It’s to build them up in their faith and comfort them in their walk with God.

The songs of Zion are for the people of Zion. And typically, those who don’t know Christ, don’t get our hymnity, our Christian songs, our gospel songs. No matter how contemporary they may be made to sound, it’s foolishness to those who are perishing, but to those who are being saved, those who belong to Jesus, this is rich, precious singing that we are able to do with the help of these kinds of hymns.

Last January, a year ago at this time, I read a blog post by a man named Tony Reinke. He works for DesiringGod.org, a ministry of Pastor John Piper. Tony wrote a blog post called “God Has Brought Me Safe Thus Far.” The subtitle was “Amazing Grace for a New Year”

As I read that post—of course, I’ve been familiar with the hymn “Amazing Grace” for many, many years. I had read quite a bit about the background of John Newton, the one who wrote the words. But as I read this post, I learned some things I didn’t know about the background of this hymn, and it inspired me to record this series at the start of this new year.

Tony pointed out that John Newton took some time at the beginning of each new year, to reflect back on what God had done in the past and to remind himself of the promises of God for the future. And he urged his congregation and his friends to do the same.

At the beginning of each new year, he wrote hymns and sermons for his church—hymns for a new year, sermons for a new year. And he wrote letters to various friends to encourage them to pause, to think about the grace of God—past, present, future—and to worship Him who has given us this amazing grace.

For example, here’s a letter to a friend that Newton wrote, explaining this pattern. He said:

“New Year’s finds me employed. I compare it to a hill on the road, from the top of which I endeavor to look back on the way that the Lord has led me thus far through the wilderness [God’s past grace.]

I look around to contemplate the difference His goodness has made between my situation, and that of thousands of my fellow creatures. [So he’s looking at God’s present grace in his life.]

I then look forward, and perceive that I am drawing apace to my journey’s end. I shall soon be at home. [Future grace—past, present and future.]

This is what he would do right on or around New Year’s Day. And I want to say, at the start of this year, that that would be a great habit, a great pattern for all of us. I’ve done this many years over my years of walking with the Lord, but it was a great reminder to read Tony’s article and to read Newton’s letters and to realize the value of stopping.

We just move too fast. The holidays go fast, and now, before you know it . . . We’ve got our New Year’s Resolutions going, but two weeks from now who will even remember what they were?

So . . . stop. Take time today, this week, to ponder, to look back on God’s grace through the rearview mirror, to look around at God’s grace today, and then to look forward to the promises of God and the grace that you can anticipate in the year ahead.

Knowing this practice of Newton’s, and knowing that he wrote “Amazing Grace” for a New Year’s service at Olney, January 1, 1773, shines new light on these familiar words that were written twenty-five years after Newton’s conversion.

This message and hymn for the New Year service that year came out of Newton’s study of a passage in 1 Chronicles chapter 17. This is a prayer of King David.

In this prayer, David reflects on God’s past grace in his life and realizes how he did not deserve it. He says in 1 Chronicles 17, verse 16—this was the text for Newton’s message on that New Year’s Day service. In fact, I wondered if the service was actually on New Year’s Day, which was a Friday that year, or if it was on the Sunday after, so I wrote Tony Reinke because I couldn’t find it for sure. He said, “No, they had a special service on New Year’s Day when Newton preached this sermon from 1 Chronicles 17, and he introduced this hymn ‘Amazing Grace’.”

1 Chronicles says:

“Then King David went in and sat before the Lord and said, ‘Who am I, O Lord God, and what is my house, that you have brought me thus far?’” (v. 16).

Who am I? Why should You do this for me? He reflects on the what God has done, and then he reflects on the grace that God has promised to show him in the future. Verse 17:

“And this was a small thing in your eyes, O God. You have also spoken of your servant’s house for a great while to come, and have shown me future generations, O Lord God!”

So he rehearsed the promises of God, he banked them. He took them to the bank, and he said, “I’m believing You for this. I see what You have done in the past, and I can trust You for the future.”

You see, David had a track record with God. If you’ve been walking with God for any length of time, so do you. You can look back if you think about it, and you stop and you ponder: “What has God done for me this past year?”

Now, there may have been lots of trials and troubles, but you’re still alive. Did God give you peace? Did He give you courage? Did He spare you from something? What did He do? Ponder anew what God has done, and then that will give you confidence, as it did David, to trust God’s promises for his future.

Newton wrote “Amazing Grace” to go along with this message from 1 Chronicles. And the hymn was patterned after this passage. The original version, which was published in the Olney Hymns in 1779, had six stanzas. The first three are the most familiar and are found in most of our hymnals. But these stanzas show this progression of rejoicing in past grace and trusting God for future grace in the year to come. That’s why he entitled this hymn—not “Amazing Grace,” which we call it today—but he entitled it “Faith’s Review [past grace] and Expectation” [future grace].

So he remembered back to the days when he had been a coarse, profane sailor actively involved in the slave trade, and how God’s amazing grace had reached out to him, had conquered his heart, and had transformed his life. And he knew that that same grace was still at work in his life, making him more like Christ, enabling him to overcome sin, and to please and serve the Lord. And he knew that he would be dependent on the grace of God every day for the rest of his life—past, present, future grace.

Now, see how that all unfolds as you listen to these stanzas from “Amazing Grace.”

First: past deliverances:

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.

Past grace. Past deliverances. Reflecting on that “Faith’s Review.”

Now, reflecting on the grace that Newton had experienced over the past twenty-five years, that gave him confidence to trust God for grace today, now, in the present and in the future.

And the third stanza shifts from the past deliverances to present and future deliverances:

Through many dangers, toils and snares,
I have already come;
’Tis grace hath brought me safe thus far, [here’s the turn]
And grace will lead me home.

He expressed confidence that God’s grace that he had experienced in the past would be sufficient for the rest of his life. His hope was not in himself, but in God and in His promises. He said:

The Lord has promised good to me,
His Word my hope secures;
He will my Shield and Portion be,
As long as life endures.

You see, when you have a track record with God, it enables you to have faith and expectation for the future. And not only for the rest of his life here on this earth, but beyond—not just “as long as life endures,” here—next stanza—not as familiar to most of us:

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.

Have you heard that stanza before? “Amazing Grace”—it’s in the original six stanzas. And then what was his last stanza, the last one he wrote:

The earth shall soon dissolve like snow,
The sun forbear to shine;
But God, who called me here below,
Will be forever mine.

Hope for the future. “Faith’s Expectation Based on Faith’s Review.” God’s grace will be ours in this life, and for all eternity.

Now, over the years, there have been additional stanzas written by others. The best known one is one that we commonly sing as the final stanza of “Amazing Grace,” written, we think, by a man named John Rees in 1859, though I’ve seen people say they’re not so sure about that. But it was written years later:

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

Amazing grace—past, present and future.

Now, there’s a strange, little-known twist to this story. Newton’s friend and collaborator, William Cowper—remember him? We talked about him yesterday. He was the son of an Anglican minister. He was well educated. He was one of the finest writers of the nineteenth century. But he was an extremely complex, tragic figure.

He was a tormented soul. He was given to bouts of depression and despair through most of his life. He had repeated attempts at suicide, and Newton stood by his side through the course of many years and kept trying to help him believe in the amazing grace that Newton had experienced that he wanted Cowper to experience.

And at some level was Cowper a believer? It’s hard to tell. He wrote some amazing hymns. He had a lot of huge struggles. Some of the best-loved and known hymns that we sing:

There is a fountain filled with blood drawn from Immanuel’s veins,
And sinners plunged beneath that flood, lose all their guilty stains.

The dying thief rejoiced to see that fountain in his day;
And there, may I, though vile as he, wash all my sins away.

These words were written by William Cowper.

Well, on the afternoon of January 1, 1773, the same day that John Newton unveiled “Amazing Grace” to his congregation in Olney, Cowper wrote another hymn—same day—that was also to become famous. Let me read the words to you:

God moves in a mysterious way
His wonders to perform;
He plants His footsteps in the sea
And rides upon the storm.

Deep in unfathomable minds
Of never failing skill,
He treasures up His bright designs
And works His sovereign will.

Ye fearful saints, fresh courage take,
The clouds ye so much dread
Are big with mercy, and shall break
In blessings on your head.

Judge not the Lord by feeble sense,
But trust Him for His grace;
Behind a frowning providence
He hides a smiling face.

His purposes will ripen fast,
Unfolding every hour.
The bud may have a bitter taste,
But sweet will be the flower.

Blind unbelief is sure to err
And scan His work in vane.
God is His own interpreter,
And He will make it plain.

(“God Moves in a Mysterious Way” by William Cowper)

Fabulous words! He talks about the sovereign purposes and plan of God, and how we can trust Him even when we can’t understand the circumstances that He allows to come into our lives. Rich theology about the mercy and grace of God, written in the afternoon of the same day where earlier John Newton had unveiled the new hymn, “Amazing Grace,” to his congregation.

But Cowper failed to believe his own eloquent words. He was convinced that God was angry with him, and that God’s grace just didn’t apply to him. So later that same night, January 1, 1773, in a fit of despair, he attempted to take his own life with a knife—after just writing those amazing words.

Let me just say this: I don’t know how to explain all that. Cowper had a very confused life. In fact, I’ve read that he never came back to church after that day. He was so sure that he had fallen from the grace of God. Newton tried to continue to befriend him. It’s hard to explain all that, but here’s one thing I think it says to us:

It’s not enough to know about the grace of God, the amazing grace of God, or to tell others about it. We’ve got to exercise faith and appropriate it as our own. God’s grace is sufficient for me, for my doubts, for my fears, for my confusion, for mental illness, for suicidal thoughts. And I’m not standing in judgment of William Cowper.

I’m just saying, the very thing he wrote about, and the very thing that Newton wrote about, the amazing grace of God and the sovereign, good plan of God, is exactly what Newton needed. It’s exactly what Cowper needed. And it’s exactly what you and I need in every situation and season of our lives.

Whatever the shame, whatever the guilt, whatever the pain, whatever the confusion, it’s not enough just to have this theology in our heads. We’ve got to step out in faith. It has to be “Faith’s Review and Expectation,” as Newton called his hymn that we now call “Amazing Grace.”

So as we come into this new year, what may be troubling you? Everybody else is partying and having a great time and celebrating the turning of a calendar onto a new year, but your heart is heavy and troubled.

You know these words. You sing the hymns at church. You sing “Amazing grace how sweet the sound. His grace as brought us safe thus far, and grace will lead us home.” We sing these precious words. We’ve reviewed what faith has done in our lives, what God’s grace has done. And we review the promises of God for our future.

The question isn’t: Do you know all these things? But here as we turn into this new year, will you trust God to be God in your life? Will you lay hold of His amazing grace and say, “Lord, I need You. I need this grace in my life, and I receive it by faith”?

Newton wrote in another letter to a friend, around New Years’ again, “With new years, new mercies.” With new years, new mercies. Would you remember that as we start into a new year? With new years come new mercies. With new days come new mercies. With new hours come new mercies. His mercies are fresh and new every morning.

I don’t know what you’re facing today. You may be happily celebrating this New Year. But throughout the year ahead, you’re going to experience challenges, pressures, problems, unexpected crises.

We can’t write the script for what lies ahead. But God has written it. He knows what it is, and with whatever this new year brings, it will bring fresh mercies from the hand of God, and His grace will always, always, always be sufficient, and it will always be amazing.

Leslie: Nancy DeMoss Wolgemuth has been helping us appreciate the background to the well-known hymn, “Amazing Grace.” But far more importantly, she’s challenged all of us to make sure we have experienced God’s amazing grace for ourselves.

A key way we access that grace is by reading His Word, and we’d like you to experience a fresh season of consistent Bible reading in 2018. So we’d like to send you a booklet called My Personal Bible Reading Journal. This journal will help you keep track of what you’re reading and give you a place to record your thoughts.

We’d like to send it to you as our “thank you” when you support the ministry of Revive Our Hearts with a gift of any amount. Ask for My Personal Bible Reading Journal when you call 1–800–569–5959, or visit ReviveOurHearts.com to make a donation of any size and request the journal.

Thanks to everyone who chipped in toward our matching-challenge giving goal last month. We’re still tabulating the results. We’ll post the latest information at ReviveOurHearts.com as soon as we have it.

Tomorrow, Nancy will offer up for us a benediction on the year behind us and a blessing for the year ahead. Do you know what those words blessing and benediction really mean? She’ll explain it tomorrow. Please be here for Revive Our Hearts.

Revive Our Hearts with Nancy DeMoss Wolgemuth wants you to experience God’s grace in a fresh way this year. It’s an outreach of Life Action Ministries.

*Offers available only during the broadcast of the podcast season.

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