Editor's Note: This is an edited transcript of Susie Hawkin's preached message (available in the related media). Appreciation for the transcription work goes to Marilyn Fine.
We are continuing in our series on great hymns of the faith. How many of you were here at Criswell College Friday night to hear Elisabeth Elliot? I saw many of you there and it was a wonderful night. Hopefully, we will have time to talk about that a little bit because it was quite a story of God’s grace which is what we are going to be talking about today. We have been studying great hymns of the faith and picking a different hymn every week. We talk about the author, how it was written, what it means, and then go through and understand some of the scriptural references and message of the hymn.
Today, we come to one of the greatest hymns of all time. If it is not the greatest, it is probably the most favorite hymn. It is the hymn, Amazing Grace. I think the reason that this is so beloved by Christians of every culture and across the years and across denominations is because there is something about grace that we all need.
The story of amazing grace is very well known. The author is a man named, John Newton. The story of his conversion is very famous but just in case some of you are not familiar with it, let me tell you a little bit about John Newton.
John Newton was born in 1725 in London. His mother was a Christian and taught him the Bible at her knee while he was a little boy. However, she died when he was very young. He ended up going to sea with his father at age 11. You can imagine what a rough life this was with the seamen and sailors. So, he was eventually pressed into service. He deserted the navy. He was brought back as a servant of a captain of a ship and he ended up working in the slave trade. Eventually he worked his way up in that business to owning a ship and being a part of the slave trade. These ships would sail to western Africa, Sierra Leone, and capture these slaves, Africans, and take them back for payment. There was a lot of rum. There was a lot of liquor. There was a lot of bribery. It was a dirty, dirty, dirty business.
One night as he was sailing through a very violent story, he really believed he was going to die. He cried out, “Lord, have mercy on me.” In his own account of his conversion, he would go back to that time and realize that there was something truly genuine in his cry. He felt that God had come to him and that the presence of God had protected him in that storm. We have had other stories about people that had seemingly miraculous conversions such that when they cried out to the Lord they were instantly changed. John Newton was different. Sometimes people’s stories are like that, aren’t they? He became aware of the presence of God. His conversion was very quiet and it took him a while to work through everything. Slowly, he began to change. As you can imagine, his business, his career, his companions, all of these things began to change. At first he continued in the slave trade, but he began to treat these slaves differently as God worked in his heart. It was not that long though and he gave it up and renounced that trade completely.
It is interesting that this man who really had the lowest of the low jobs, the most looked down upon “career” or “trade,” eventually became a peer of some of the most powerful Christians in England at that time. There were quite a few powerful Christians around then because this was during the Enlightenment Period and the second great awakening—when there was a great revival in England.
John got married and gave up seafaring. He became active at a Methodist Church and became a good friend of John Wesley. All you Methodist girls know who that is. John and Charles Wesley were founders of the Methodist Church and Charles was another prolific hymn writer. Newton also became a very close contemporary of George Whitfield who was one of the most famous preachers in England. Do you remember our first hymn, Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing? The author, Robert Robinson, was converted under the preaching of George Whitfield.
Newton became a pastor in the Church of England. He also became a friend of William Cooper who wrote a lot of hymns. Together he and Cooper held weekly services. These were like mid-week services, and their goal was to write a hymn for every service. That is a pretty industrious goal, wouldn’t you say? They did it and so wrote quite a few hymns.
Now, some people say that the melody for Amazing Grace, which true origin is unknown, was the tune of the slaves. A song that they sang that he would have heard over and over when he came across the Atlantic. Other people say it was an old drinking song. Who knows what it was. We know what it is today. We may not know what the words originally were, but we know what they are today.
One fact which is interesting is that Newton was always a very meticulous record keeper. During his days of slave trading, he kept very detailed journals. So, today historians go back to John Newton’s journals as containing some of the most detailed accounts historically of the slave trade and exactly what happened. An interesting feature is that his writings show how slowly but surely God changed his heart.
Another wonderful thing about his story is that toward the end of his life he became close friends with William Wilberforce. Do you know who he was? He was a man in England who really aggressively pursued the abolition of slavery. John Newton, who at one time in his life had taken advantage of people in the cruelest, most inhumane, way, toward the end of his life became very active in the anti-slavery abolition movement in England. In that he was a dear prayer partner of William Wilberforce.
Now, the thing about this story is that the song is just an expression of his life. It is amazing. The story of his life is really illustrated through the words of the song. I have a friend who is here and she is going to play this song on the piano for us. You will have to follow along on your handout, because I am not going to stand here and sing it to you—especially after Sherry Bell was here last week. You should be familiar with these words so I want you to just follow along as you hear this beautiful rendition of Amazing Grace. I invited Jo Ellen Burch, come on, you come to the piano. Jo is employed at Criswell College. She has been there about 25 years. She was Leroy Till’s secretary here for those of you that are First Baptist people. She is a pianist at Northway Baptist Church. I love to hear her play the piano. When I was first thinking about this series and who would sing and what I would do this is the first thing I thought I want her to play the piano. It is just something about the way you play the piano. I love it. I do not know how people can express a gift even through an instrument, but she does. So, she is going to play Amazing Grace. Follow along with the words and then we will talk about it in a minute.
(piano playing Amazing Grace)
When we finish our talk, I want you to go back to the piano and play that again. I have to hear that again. Thank you so much. Play it several times! We will all stay around and listen to it. That was wonderful. See, I love that people with musical ability can make the music speak to you. That was really beautiful. Thank you.
Okay, Amazing Grace. I am just so tempted to have her just play it over about 10 times and sit down. You would probably prefer that if the truth were known. Well, let us talk about Grace for a minute. To attempt to talk about the grace of God in about 17 minutes is almost ridiculous, but I am going to try it anyway. That has never stopped me before, as you know. I want us to hit the high spots as we just think about the grace of God.
Years ago, C.S. Lewis was interacting with a group talking about the different aspects of religions. Their topic for the morning was what makes Christianity different than other religions. Well, of course, they were very knowledgeable of the scripture and they talked about the incarnation. Well, there were fables and stories about God becoming man or inhabiting men in other religions. Then there were stories about miracles. However, there were stories from other religions about possibly resurrections or life after death. C.S. Lewis had been out of the room, and he came back in. One of the theologians said to him, “What do you think makes Christianity unique?” He said something like, “That is the easiest question I have ever been asked. It is that Christianity shows the grace of God. It is God’s grace. No other religion shows grace. With the Hindus you have karma, with the Buddhist you have the Eight-Fold Path, with the Jews you have the Covenant, and with the Muslims you have the Law of Allah. In all these other religions there is something that must be attained, but when it comes to Christianity it is the grace of God. “
You know what grace is. Grace is an undeserved gift. That is simply what it means. It is a very, very simple meaning. It is God’s love coming to us, free of charge, no strings attached. It is an underserved gift. Now, we know that, but the flip side of that is that as Christians so often we do not show grace. Have you noticed that? Yes, I know, we do not want to talk about that part, but we have to talk about some of these hard issues if we are really going to investigate the subject a little bit. Well, yes, we know God is gracious. We know we are to be gracious, but sometimes people, Christians in particular, can be legalistic and judgmental. Now, I doubt if any people in here have had the experience, but some have. I have read about them. So, we have to be fair and talk about that, too. When I was studying for this, I read this fictional little story about a sinner who had been kicked out of his church. He went to the Lord and he said, “Lord, what am I going to do? They will not let me back in the church.? God said, “What are you complaining about, they won’t let me in either. At least you have been there once.” Well, sometimes we can be that way.
Now, let us think back just as we always do in looking at the scripture. From the very beginning in the book of Genesis, God shows grace, did He not? When He came to Adam and Eve, He provided them a covering for their sin. Starting with the first few chapters of Genesis through to the Book of Revelation we have the story of God’s grace. It is all over the pages. As I always say, take your concordance and look up the word, “grace,” “gracious,” any of those derivatives, you will see page after page after page of verses talking about God’s grace.
In John 1:17, when the apostle John was writing his first chapter of his gospel giving an eternal overview of the coming of Christ into the world, he said,
“For the Law was given through Moses, but grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.”
This gives us a very simple way of looking at this. The Law of God, the 10 Commandments, the Law, came through Moses. Right? We know that. That is the Old Testament, the old Covenant. But, grace came through the Lord Jesus Christ. Now, God showed grace in the Old Testament. There is no question, but grace reached its culmination. It overran everything in the person of Christ. He was the ultimate revelation of God’s grace. If you want to just read a story of grace, you just read the story of Jesus’ life – all of His reactions, all of His actions, all of His teaching, all of His preaching, all of His interactions were always characterized by grace.
However, there is always tension on this subject and it goes back to this verse. “The Law came through Moses, grace and truth came through Christ Jesus.” All right, what do you have there? You have the law and you have grace, right? Now, that is where sometimes the rubber meets the road, as we say. That is where sometimes you have tension because we want to give grace. We want to experience grace, yet we do not do away with the Law, do you? We do not ignore the Law. So, we often find a tension between those two. I know I have used the story in here many times as an illustration of Les Miserables. The Victor Hugo story contains some of the tension between Law and grace. If you remember the story, Jean Valjean, the protagonist, stole a loaf of bread. He went to prison because he stole a loaf of bread. Now, that is the law. If you steal, you go to prison, right? There is no grace with the Law. It does not matter that he stole the bread because his young nephew was dying of hunger. That did not matter to the law. So, you have that whole story. One of the subthemes is the tension between law and grace. Jean Valjean is being pursued by the law and yet he experiences grace himself and then ends up giving it to others. It is just a phenomenal story on this very topic of the Law and grace. We do not have time to really go into it today. You know, though, that it is reality. Let’s get down to reality here. We all say hate the sin but love the sinner. Is that very easy to do, though? Isn’t that difficult to do sometimes? Yes, it is difficult to do.
I have a good friend who is going through a divorce. It is very painful for her. It is a terrible thing to have to go through. I have not been good friends with someone who has had to do that for a long time. I have not seen that up close in quite a while. I am reminded sometimes of the ungraciousness of people in relating to her. I have heard people who are divorced say that it is the scarlet letter of the Church. I used to think, “oh, they are just overreacting. No, it is not.” Well, you know what, it is. It is. There are many places where it is. To listen to her experiences and watch how some show her legalism and judgmentalism because of circumstances beyond her control has been eye-opening. Thankfully there are also other experiences where she is shown grace. It is very interesting to me, just as an observer, to say, what would I do in this situation? How do you uphold the sanctity and honor and the Covenant of marriage, yet show grace to someone that has not been shown it? I am just saying to you that these are not easy questions. Would you agree with that? To walk it and to live it is something that is very important to know how to do.
Well, let’s talk very quickly on what is grace. Think of the derivatives of the word “grace.” We say “grace” before a meal. We are “grateful” for kindnesses shown to us. We are “gratified” by good news. We are “congratulated” when we have a success. We leave a “gratuity” when we are pleased with service in a restaurant. We love it when somebody is “gracious” to us in hospitality. All of these words convey the sense of grace, a gift, something is given out of appreciation.
Now, the opposite is true, too. You have “ungrace” when you say someone is a “disgrace.” That is a shameful term, isn’t it? We would say that William Bennett has fallen from “grace.” We could go on and on about all the people who have fallen from grace. That simply means that they have embarrassed us or they have shamed themselves. So, this word is used in many different ways, but it all goes back to the root of “appreciation” “of giving something out of appreciation” or “giving something from an overflowing heart or spirit to someone who did not necessarily deserve it.” That is the root of the word.
Now, grace is, as we talk about what it is, the opposite of legalism. You know what legalism is. Legalism means living by the law – no exceptions. No exceptions is living by the law. Now, in John 8 there is the story that some of you may be familiar with of the woman who was caught in adultery. Jesus had constant run-ins with the Pharisees. That was because they were so upset. You want to talk about obsessive/compulsive. They were all about the law and every detail of the law. Let me remind you that they had added many things to God’s law. They had taken the Ten Commandments and the Laws out of Leviticus and Deuteronomy, but they had also added many other little tiny insignificant things that they considered to be just as important as the moral law. Jesus was constantly in tension with them about grace and law over what God really wanted from His people versus what the Pharisees thought God wanted from His people. As you know, things got pretty heated between the Pharisees and Jesus. They were always trying to trap him because if they could prove Him wrong, that he was disloyal to Moses or disloyal to Rome or He said something that was wrong, then they could get Him out of the way. That was their goal. Very ungracious.
One of the traps they set for Him, we are told about in John 8. It says, “Early in the morning, Jesus came into the temple and all the people came to Him. He sat down and taught them.” This would be in one of the courts where there would be informal gatherings of people.
Now, the Pharisees obviously knew that Jesus would be there because they brought to Him a woman caught in adultery. There is a strong implication here that she had been caught in the act of adultery. Where was the man? We would like to know, but he is not here. Surprise, surprise! Uh, huh. Anyway, we can’t go off on that.
When they sent her in the midst, they said to Him, “Teacher, this woman was caught in adultery in the very act.” Now, Moses, here it comes. “Now the law says that if she is caught in the act of adultery, she should be stoned. What do You say?” They were testing Him that they might have something of which to accuse Him because if He said “let her go,” ah, He would not be obeying the Law of Moses. If He said “stone her,” then He would be going against Roman law which said that was an unlawful execution. Remember how the Jews had to go to Pilate and find grounds to crucify Jesus. Well, He could not just kill somebody on religious grounds in the Roman Empire.
But Jesus stooped down and wrote on the ground with his finger as though He did not hear. When they continued asking Him, He raised Himself up and said to them, “He who is without sin among you, let him throw a stone at her first.” Then, He stopped down again and wrote on the ground. Then, “those who heard it, being convicted by their conscience, went out one by one, beginning with the oldest even to the last.” Jesus was left alone.
Now picture this. Jesus was left alone. The woman only was standing there. Then Jesus raised Himself up. He was down; she was standing up. He raised Himself up and saw no one but the woman. He said, “Where are your accusers? Has no one condemned you?” She said, “No one would.” He said to her, “Then neither do I condemn you. Go and sin no more.”
What a story of grace this is. I love these details in this story. Jesus not only forgave her, but He restored her. That is part of grace. Restoration. Did He shame her? Did He condemn her? Did He call her names like they were doing? No, He simply said, “I do not condemn you either. Go and sin no more.” Now, you know what is brilliant here? How Jesus just changed the focus here. Before the category was “sinner” and “not sinner.” “Not sinners” – these are the Pharisees, the righteous. The “sinner” was the woman. But Jesus changed it. He changed those categories here to “those who are willing to admit their empty hands.” —willing to admit their sin— and “those who are not willing to admit their need.” We are all sinners, right? There is none righteous. Ah, the difference here we see was between those who say “I have no sin” and those who say “I have sinned and I need all the grace I can get.” That is really the category that we are talking about in these scriptures.
You know what? If you are going to receive the gift of God, here is how you receive it. You have to come like this woman. Humble and trembling with empty hands. Augustine said, “God will give where He finds empty hands.” Isn’t that true? If you are righteous and you think you have kept the Law and you are “just fine, thank you,” you do not need God’s grace. It is those who come to Him and say, “Lord, I’m empty. I’m needy. I’m pathetic,” that is what I say, “I am pitiful. I need it.” Those are the ones that God pours out His grace upon.
Now, grace involves forgiveness. Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you.” Did He condone adultery? Of course not, of course not, but He said, “I will not condemn you then.” You know, it is interesting that Cecil DeMille and different movie script writers have tried to pursue this whole idea of what was Jesus writing there? What were the words He was writing? It says here that they were convicted by their conscience. It just makes you wonder if He was writing names or things or places. People, places or things that they might say, “hmm, yes, I do remember that.” They were convicted by their own conscience. Whatever He wrote pricked their own heart. What was Jesus saying? “None of you are righteous. You better remember that.” That is what He was saying and He said then, “I forgive you. Neither do I condemn you.” You know, there is nothing like condemnation and unforgiveness to destroy relationships. There is nothing that is more destructive. It is “ungrace.” It is “ungrace”.
Ernest Hemingway has a story that he wrote years ago about a Spanish family and a young boy, kind of like the prodigal son. He ran off to Madrid, the big city. His father had gotten old and wanted to restore the relationship. So, he put an ad in the Madrid newspaper which said, ‘Paco, the boy’s name was Paco, meet me at the Hotel Montana Tuesday at noon. All is forgiven.” Now, Paco is a very common name in Spain. When he arrived at the hotel at noon, he found 800 young men crowded around the hotel waiting to meet their father. I know! It just grabs at your heart. But, you know what is interesting, that is just a story by Ernest Hemingway. You know what? I did not realize until I read the postscript to that story is that Ernest Hemingway’s grandparents went to Wheaton. His parents were Christians, but they were very condemning of him. They never would read anything he wrote because he would not live the life that they had chosen for him. They rejected him. They sent him notes and letters condemning him saying he was going to hell and you better not neglect your views to Christ and all this. You know what. It said that man died hating his mother and his father, but I believe he hated their God even more. It is so sad. It is a story of “ungrace”. You know what that tells us? Even Christians can be guilty of that. Yes, we can. We can be guilty of it and it is so incredibly destructive. Now, God not only forgives, but He restores.
I love the little details. It says she was standing and Jesus was kneeling. Something about the body language there affects me. She was not kneeling cowering here. At some point, she stood up. I am sure covering herself. Jesus was kneeling down. He stood up and He said, “I do not condemn you. Now, go and do not sin any more.” Part of grace is restoration. You can see that in every story in the Bible where we have Jesus’ grace shown toward someone. Not just forgiveness, but restoring them to dignity, restoring their worth, making them feel like their life is not over. They can start again and that is what He did with this woman.
Now, there are a couple of questions that are raised by grace. There are always two major things that come up when you talk about grace. If you talk about it long enough you get around to these questions. Number one – does grace have a limit? Well, we might say, now that we are reading about it, of course not. Grace does not have a limit. Well, there is Moses – he was a murderer. There was David – He was a murderer himself. So, we see that, no, grace does not have a limit. But, then we get to slave traders. Anybody see Roots? Or La Amistad? I could not even watch that. I had to cover my eyes. I am sure many of you did, too, in parts of that movie. The cruelty and depravity of mankind. Can slave traders know the grace of God? Well, we just heard a song written by one who did. Can Jeffrey Dahmer? Can people like that be shown the grace of God? You know what? For those who have tried to be righteous their whole life there is something in us that says I do not think that is right. I look at my little grandson who is perfect in every way. I look at that little face asleep on my husband’s chest and I think, “is there a hell hot enough for people who hurt a baby?” I do think that, but you know what? We read last week in Romans 8 there is nothing that separates us from the love of God. That is how great it is. That just shows us how ungracious we are and how phenomenally gracious He is.
The second question it brings up is, “what can I get away with?” You are familiar with the term, “cheap grace,” right? Have you ever had anybody say this to you: “I can do this or that because I know God will forgive me”?
Philip Yancey—I think you should have every book he wrote— tells a story of a friend of his named, Daniel, in the book Amazing Grace. Over a cup of coffee Daniel says to Philip, “I have been married 15 years, but I have met another woman. Do you think if I leave my wife, divorce her, and marry this other woman, will God forgive me?”
Philip Yancey explores things thoroughly, and that is one of the reasons I like him. He takes you through the issue. He does not just give quick little pat answers. He really ponders this and he thinks about it.
Daniel, his friend, went ahead and did this. He eventually divorced his wife for another woman, left his children, and destroyed his home. Yancey comes up with this conclusion and I think this is a brilliant conclusion to this question. The thing is, that if you were considering willful sin and taking advantage of the grace of God, you might have put a little distance between yourself and God. Wouldn’t you say that is true? All right. If you then go on and commit the sin, you are even putting more distance, and how do you know you will ever even care again about the grace of God? Isn’t that true? If you continually distance yourself from God, will you really care? Will you want to repent? You are that much further from repentance. He says by his own testimony that this man to his knowledge has never even wanted to repent or even thought once again about the grace of God.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer talked about this in World War II. That great theologian from Germany who termed it, “grace abuser” or “cheap grace.” The only thing you can conclude is once you understand what grace is, if you ever really get it, you never want to abuse it. Right?
Okay, John Newton said, and we will be finished, “amazing grace that saved a wretch like me.” Spiritual eyes. He gained spiritual sight, for he could now see the truth of God’s grace. He says it is “grace that taught my heart to fear. Grace my fears relieved. How precious did that grace appear the hour I first believed.” God’s grace will never be as real to you as it is at the time of salvation when Jesus comes into your heart. In Ephesians 2:8-9, “For my grace you have been saved through faith and that not of yourself.” God’s grace is made its most powerful in your own life at the time when He comes into your heart and your life and begins to change it. Just like He did with John Newton. Maybe it is a slow change, maybe it is a fast change, but it is a change and it is God’s grace that does that.
I love that verse, everyone does, where he says “through many dangers, toils and snares I have already come.” The verse there says that God will keep us in His grace. Have you ever heard that little saying, “the will of God will never take you where the grace of God cannot keep you”? It is a great concept. God will take you through the dangers. God’s grace will see you through the toils and the snares and the difficult times. Paul talks about that in II Corinthians when he said, “Please, God, remove this thorn, this thing that is bothering me so much.” Remember what the Lord said to him? “No, my grace is sufficient.” I want you to learn about my grace. My grace is sufficient for your need. That is what He is talking about there. Then he says in James 4:6, “God gives more grace.”
“When we have been there 10,000 years, bright, shining as the sun, we’ve no less days to sing God’s praise then when we just begun.” As eternity enfolds, can we ever pray and thank Him enough for His grace that is shown to us? No. In James 4:6, I love this verse, it says, “For He gives more grace. God resists the proud but gives grace to the humble.” Remember those empty hands? Remember the woman caught in the act of adultery? Those whose hands are empty God will give the gift of grace to.
You need more grace? I do. I need grace. You need grace with your marriage relationship? He will give you more grace. With your child who is pushing you to the limits? God will give you more grace. Your neighbor or your coworker is pushing you right past the limit? You know what, God will give you grace. He gives more grace. However much you need, He will give you that much more. He will because He has unending stores of grace.
I just want to remind us that when we experience grace ourselves, it is then our responsibility to give it. Dwight Moody said that out of a hundred men, one will read the Bible. The other 99 will read the Christian. How important it is that our lives are characterized by grace given to others on behalf of what God has given to us.
Let’s pray. Father, thank You for this time that we have had. Thank You for Your grace. We cannot even begin to grasp how great and phenomenal it is, but we know we have it and we are thankful for it. We pray that You would help us show it to those around us today. How we praise You for Your gracious love to us, in Jesus’ name, amen.