Revive Our Hearts Radio

Why Grace Is So Amazing

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Watch Nancy teach this message.

Leslie Basham: Nancy DeMoss Wolgemuth brings us into a New Year’s Day story.

Nancy DeMoss Wolgemuth: January 1, 1773 was a Friday, and a small congregation in a small village, about forty miles north of London, England, gathered for a New Year’s Day service.

During that service the pastor introduced a hymn that he had written especially for the occasion. The title that he gave it that day is not particularly memorable. He called it “Faith’s Review and Expectation” . . . anyone here familiar with that hymn? (laughter) Did you sing that in your church last Sunday?

Those lyrics have been preserved and have become what is—probably—the best-known hymn in the world. Today we know it by a different name, by its first line:

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.

Leslie: This is Revive Our Hearts with Nancy DeMoss Wolgemuth, author of A Place of Quiet Rest, for January 1, 2018. On this New Year’s Day, Nancy’s going to begin a series called “Amazing Grace.”

Nancy: The pastor who wrote this hymn for his congregation for a New Year’s Day service was John Newton—and those words are autobiographical. They’re the personal testimony—the spiritual journey—of the man who wrote them . . . a man who had experienced God’s amazing grace firsthand.

Newton was born in London in 1725. He was an only child; his mother died of tuberculosis just two weeks before he turned seven. She was a godly woman. She took him to church; she taught him the Scriptures; she taught him about the Lord.

But after her death, John was sent to a boarding school for two years and then went to live with his father’s new wife. His father was a sea captain. He was a stern man, and he was less religious than John’s mother.

When John was eleven, he began accompanying his father on his voyages at sea. He quickly became comfortable with the rough-and-tumble language and lifestyles of the sailors. John lived a wild, reckless, debauched life and eventually ended up serving on a slave ship.

He didn’t get along with the other crew members, so they left him in West Africa with a slave trader, and he ended up in a cruel, abusive situation, being treated like a slave himself. Eventually John’s father sent a friend to rescue him with a cargo ship that was called The Greyhound.

On the voyage home, The Greyhound was caught in a terrible storm off the coast of Ireland, which the ship almost didn’t survive. When all hope had been lost—in a moment of desperation—Newton cried out, “Lord, have mercy on us!”

Now, this was this foul, filthy-mouthed sailor who didn’t care anything about God, but he had heard about the Lord at his mother’s knee, years earlier. “Lord, have mercy on us!” As he cried out, apparently some of the cargo shifted and plugged the hole in the ship where the water had been pouring in.

The storm finally subsided, and all who were on board survived. That day in March 1748 was a turning point in Newton’s life. It wasn’t the day he was actually converted, but it was the beginning of a process—a progression—that led to that point.

He was twenty-two at the time and he began a journey that led to his conversion to Christ and the gradual transformation of his life over the next decade.

Now, we like testimonies and stories that are tidy and neat— you get saved and everything gets fixed and you renounce everything that you shouldn’t have been involved in. It wasn’t that way with John Newton, and sometimes it’s not that way with us, as well.

He didn’t immediately renounce slavery, for a number of reasons—one of which I think is that slavery was a widely accepted practice in the eighteenth century. Everybody thought it was okay. The public conscience had not yet realized the wickedness of slavery.

After this point, John actually became the captain of a slave ship. The way I’d always heard this, he was the captain of a slave ship, and then he got saved, and then he wrote Amazing Grace . . . and period, end of story. It wasn’t quite that neat.

John came to know Jesus, he was in the process of his thinking being changed, but in that time he actually became the captain of a slave ship. Well, he started by insisting that slaves be treated humanely.

Finally, due to illness (the hand of God, let’s say?) he got out of the business—the slave trade business—and over time, the grace of God began to open his eyes to the evils of slavery. And he began to speak out and to expose the truth and the evils of the slave trade.

As a fairly young believer, Newton came under the influence of people like John Wesley and George Whitefield. They influenced him, taught him. He learned doctrine. And he finally became the pastor of a small church in the village of Olney where he served for fifteen years before moving on to pastor a church in London for twenty-eight years, until his death in 1807.

The same year that he died, William Wilberforce succeeded in getting a bill through Parliament that abolished slavery throughout the British Empire. Years earlier, Newton had convinced Wilberforce to stay in politics when Wilberforce wanted to throw in the towel and get out.

Newton had encouraged Wilberforce in the fight against the slave trade—had supported him in that. So, Newton had a part—the one who had been a slave trader, had been the captain of a slave ship—actually ended up influencing Wilberforce, who was the one who doggedly persevered until the law was passed that outlawed slavery in the British Empire.

Later in his life, John Newton wrote, “It will always be a subject of humiliating reflection to me, that I was once an active instrument in a business at which my heart now shudders.”

Is there anything in your life that you might describe in a similar way, “the subject of humiliating reflection,” and your heart now shudders to think what you did? Maybe it was in the area of immorality, perversion, pornography, abortion, maybe you promoted abortion to others. I mean, just list whatever it could be.

Then you’ve come to know Jesus, you’ve put that life behind you, but your heart now shudders to think on this “humiliating reflection” of what you did before you came to know Jesus.

And before those of us who came to know Jesus early and were raised in a family or a lifestyle that didn’t let us go into some of those things, before we get too self-righteous, let’s remind ourselves that any one of us could have done any of those sins had it not been for the preserving, keeping hand of God that kept us from it!

You say, “Why didn’t God keep me?” Why didn’t God keep John Newton from those things? There was a story God was writing, and in God’s wisdom and in His sovereignty, He wrote that story out of those “humiliating reflections” that Newton had when he thought about his past.

Newton never forgot the horrific ways that he had sinned against God, and against others, before his life was transformed by the gospel; but he did come to experience freedom from the guilt and the shame of his past, thanks to the amazing grace of God!

He never got over the wonder of that amazing grace. He always had deep remorse over the greatness of his sin, but he also had deep joy over the greatness of God’s grace!

I think of my dad as I think about John Newton. His kinds of sins were different, but he was a wild prodigal, profligate, free-living, free-wheeling young man before he came to faith in Christ—rebellious—and he sowed a lot of wild oats.

I didn’t know him in those years. He didn’t marry my mom and start our family until after he came to faith in Christ, but when he would talk about those early days, it would make him kind of emotional.

It was sad to him to reflect on where his life had been and the damage he had caused and the relationships he had broken before God’s amazing grace got hold of him. He grieved over that, but he didn’t live in bondage to the shame or the guilt of that past life. He gratefully received God’s amazing grace, and he never got over the wonder of the fact that God would have saved him!

In fact, one of his favorite verses was in the Psalms where it says, “This poor man cried, and the Lord heard him and [delivered] him out of all his troubles” (Ps. 34:6). He saw himself as a man who was hopeless and helpless apart from the grace of God . . . but who had been rescued by God’s grace!

My dad was not a highly emotional man, but one of the times you could know you would see tears in his eyes would be when he would talk, when he would retell that story of how Christ had found him, of how Christ had saved him years earlier.

It was still such a tender, sweet, sensitive thing to him. He just couldn’t get over his amazement that God would save him!

Now, some of us have never known thing other than the amazing grace of God. I never heard anything other than gospel from the time I was, well, in the womb, really. I’ve been in church since, like, nine months before I was born! So it’s easy for us to forget or not to have a conscious realization of how much it is that God has saved us from.

Because what He saved us from isn’t as much the horrific acts or sins that we might have committed—or that others have committed. It’s that heart that was bent against God, was rebellious against God and wanted its own way, and that was deserving of the wrath and judgment of God.

That’s what He saved me from at the age of four. That’s what He saved you from at whatever age. And I don’t want to ever get over that. I don’t ever want to lose the sense of the wonder of the fact that God would have saved me—the greatness of my sin and the greatness of God’s grace!

So, in that first stanza he talks about the grace of God, the sweet sound of that grace that “saved a wretch like me.” Newton understood that he was a vile sinner, a wretch, separated from God—utterly unable to change his life or to be saved, apart from divine intervention. He could not save himself.

Now, some in our sophisticated era object to that kind of language. “This is the age of self-esteem, and you call people a wretch? What are you going to do to their self-esteem? You’re going to destroy them, poor child!”

It sounds like self-loathing. It’s not popular today to talk about the sinfulness of man, to call ourselves blind, lost wretches, because we place such an emphasis on the self-worth and “innate human goodness.”

You hear this among politicians and world leaders and great famous celebrities and well-known people who talk about the innate human goodness. “If people just knew better, they would do better. We’ve got to educate them; we’ve got to give them more opportunities. Their problem is not sin; their problem is poverty. Their problem is not sin; their problem is what others have done to them.”

And in that thinking, we can pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps. If we just have enough self-determination and will to make the effort, we can overcome every obstacle to save ourselves.

That’s why some modern versions of this hymn have rewritten the second line. Instead of saying, “that saved a wretch like me,” you’ll read in some hymnals, “that saved and strengthened me,” or “that saved a soul like me,” or “that saved and set me free.”

Now, those are all great sentiments, but there’s something really precious about the thought that He saved a wretch like me. And again, for those of us who came to know Jesus at an early age, this is important stuff for us to contemplate, because we don’t easily have a sense of our total depravity apart from the saving grace of Christ.

My dad had a sense of that. John Newton had a sense of that—because he had been the captain of a slave ship, for crying out loud! My dad had broken relationships and was a gambler and was involved in a lot of just sinful kinds of activities.

But for those of us who never did any of that kind of stuff, never had an affair, never watched pornography, never had an abortion, never was involved in slave trade . . . what do we have to make grace so amazing?

Listen, if you’re not aware of the greatness of your sin before a holy God, you’ll never be amazed at the greatness of His grace. You see, the New Testament is not “good news” if you haven’t read the Old Testament, if you haven’t experienced the curse—the righteous wrath and judgment of God against sin and sinners.

When you’ve experienced that, you get to the end of Malachi, the last verse of the Old Testament, and it talks about a curse coming upon the earth and the sinfulness of man. Then you come to the gospel of Matthew, the gospel of Jesus Christ the Son of David, and you go, “Whew! Wow! This good news!” Because we have something that we need to be saved from!

If you just think you’re a good person, innate goodness, doing fine . . . if you’ve got all kinds of self-worth and great self-image, what would you need Jesus for? What would you need grace for?

That’s why it’s important that we study the biblical doctrine of sin—the sinfulness of man and what that means—that from the womb we are bent to go against God. A lot today are not able or willing to acknowledge the depth or the extent of our sinfulness, our depravity.

God’s grace will never seem truly amazing if you’ve not seen yourself to be a lost, blind wretch. In fact, the apostle John in the book of Revelation talks about those who think that they’re doing okay compared to all those other sinners out there.

He says, “You’re blind! You think you can see; you think you’re well-clothed; you think you’re rich. You don’t realize that you’re blind and poor and wretched and naked and miserable! You don’t see your true condition!” (see Rev. 3:17).

It’s not until we see our true condition—and keep asking God to show it to us—will we see the amazing riches of His mercy and grace.

Well, we see in the life of John Newton that God’s grace can save anyone! God’s grace saved me; God’s grace saved you.

We never would have been saved; we never would have wanted to know God; we never would have come to Him; we never would have cried out to Him for mercy; we never would have repented of our sins. We never would have placed our faith in Christ if God hadn’t reached down and drawn us to Himself, if He hadn’t called us out of the kingdom of darkness into the kingdom of light.

If He had not initiated His grace toward us we never would have believed. This grace is amazing! God’s grace can save me. It can save you. And God’s grace can save that son or daughter, that mate, that parent, that coworker, that neighbor, that friend—who seems so lost.

I don’t know why we say words like, “That person’s really lost.” Listen, if you don’t have Jesus, you are really lost—whether you’re sitting in the front row of church every Sunday or you’re out getting drunk at some bar down the street. You’re really lost if you don’t have Jesus! God’s grace can save anyone!

There’s another Newton hymn; it’s not as familiar, but it’s a beautiful one. It’s also published in this hymnal, the Olney hymnal where “Amazing Grace” was first published. Let me read it to you.

The words are old, archaic words, and so you’ve got to listen to it really carefully. If you don’t catch it or you’re listening to this podcast or broadcast the first time, I’d encourage you to go to ReviveOurHearts.com and look at the words on today’s transcript, so you can meditate on them. It’s a beautiful testimony from John Newton that talks about the power of God to save anyone. He says:

In evil long I took delight [delighted with evil],
Unawed by shame or fear;
'Till a new object struck my sight,
And stopped my wild career.

What was his wild career? The slave trade! He never would have stopped that, and he took delight in evil, until a “new object struck his sight and stopped his wild career.” What was that new sight, that “new object that struck his sight?” He said:

I saw one hanging on a tree,
In agonies and blood;
Who fixed his languid eyes on me,
As near his cross I stood.

Sure, never to my latest breath
Can I forget that look:
It seemed to charge me with his death,
Though not a word he spoke.

My conscience felt and owned the guilt,
And plunged me in despair;
I saw my sins his blood had spilt,
And helped to nail him there.

Alas I knew not what I did,
But now my tears are vain:
Where shall my trembling soul be hid?
For I the Lord have slain.

A second look he gave, which said,
‘I freely all forgive;
This blood is for thy ransom paid;
I'll die that thou mayest live.’

Thus, while his death my sin displays
In all its blackest hue,
(Such is the mystery of grace)
It seals my pardon too.

You see, His death displays—sets forth—the wickedness of my sin, but it also sets forth the greatness of His grace, and seals my pardon! And then in the last stanza, he writes:

With pleasing grief and mournful joy,
My spirit now is filled,

Think about that: “pleasing grief”—I’m sad over my sins, but I’m grateful for His grace. With “mournful joy”—I’m joyful over His grace, but I mourn over what it cost Him.

That I should such a life destroy,
Yet live by him I killed.

(“In Evil Long I Took Delight” by John Newton)

See the testimony there? Really, that testimony could be any of ours. We may not have done exactly what John Newton did, but this is the transaction that took place at the cross, as we realize that it was my sin that put Him there!

That could drive us to despair, if He didn’t look at us and say, “This is for you. My blood which is shed for many—for you—for the remission, the forgiveness of sins.” And so we grieve that we “such a life destroyed,” and yet we have this joy, that we “live by Him we killed.”

When John Newton was eighty-two years of age, just months before he died, he famously said to a friend:

My memory is nearly gone, but I remember two things—that I am a great sinner and that Christ is a great Savior!

Those are the two things you want to remember when you come to the end of your life. You don’t ever want to forget, I don’t ever want to forget, that I’m a great sinner . . . but I also don’t ever want to forget that Christ is a great Savior!

If you lose your mind and you lose your memory and you forget everything else, ask God to help you remember those two things.

I had the opportunity a number of years ago to visit the town of Olney in England, about forty miles south of London, where John Newton wrote “Amazing Grace.” It was a moving experience to visit Newton’s gravesite in the churchyard just behind the church in a corner of the cemetery near a stone wall.

There’s an epitaph engraved on the back of that stone. Newton wrote these words himself, and here’s what it says:

John Newton, clerk, once an infidel and libertine, a servant of slaves in Africa, was by the rich mercy of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ preserved, restored, pardoned, and appointed to preach the faith he had long labored to destroy.

Amazing grace!

You may have something—or some things—in your past that fill you with shame when you think about them. Think about John Newton and think about how the grace of God picked that man up—when he wasn’t looking for Jesus, he wasn’t conscious of His need for Christ.

But God showed him his need, preserved him, restored him, pardoned him, and appointed him to preach the faith that he had long labored to destroy.

Oh Father, how I pray that You make us aware of our great sin and of Your great grace—grace that is greater than all our sin! I pray in Jesus’ name, amen.

Leslie: Nancy DeMoss Wolgemuth has been giving us the background to one of our most popular hymns. Maybe you have a friend who would get a lot out of this program. You can send them a link to hear the audio or read the transcript by visiting ReviveOurHearts.com.

This program is possible, thanks to listeners who support the ministry—and thank you to all who gave in December as we worked toward meeting a matching challenge. We’re still waiting for some mail to arrive and tallying the results. When we know the final result, you’ll find it at ReviveOurHearts.com.

When you support Revive Our Hearts this week, we’d like to show our thanks by putting a resource in your hands perfect for a new year. It’s a booklet called My Personal Bible Reading Journal.

This booklet will encourage you to dig into God’s Word this year by helping you track what you read and recording what you learn each day. It will help you cultivate a more intimate relationship with God through His Word.

Ask for My Personal Bible Reading Journal when you call with your gift to 1–800–569–5959, or visit ReviveOurHearts.com.

Tomorrow, Nancy will be back to unfold the background of the song “Amazing Grace”—but far more importantly, she’ll help you make sure you’re experiencing that grace for yourself! Please be back for Revive Our Hearts.

Revive Our Hearts with Nancy DeMoss Wolgemuth wants to remind you of the wonder of grace. It’s an outreach of Life Action Ministries.

*Offers available only during the broadcast of the radio series.

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