We’re continuing our sermon series on hymns and songs that both inspire and teach. This week we come to what may be the most beloved of all hymns, “Amazing Grace.”
Perhaps you, like me, have noticed as we’ve made our way through this series that there’s been a theme common to many of the songs that we’ve looked at: most of them were written either during a crisis or in response to a great work of God.
Amazing Grace is no different. It’s a hymn that reflects on that most glorious of realities, salvation.
The greatest work of God in our lives is his work of giving us new life through faith in Christ and bringing us from darkness, as the New Testament puts it, into the kingdom of his light (1 Pet. 2:9; Eph. 5:8).
Our Scripture this morning contains the words of the elderly apostle Paul to his young ministerial apprentice Timothy found in 1 Timothy 5:15-16:
The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost. But I received mercy for this reason, that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display his perfect patience as an example to those who were to believe in him for eternal life.
The grass withers and the flowers all will fade, but the Word of the Lord abides forever. This is the word that is preached to you. Amen.
Cody [Pastor for Executive Duties] mentioned last week that not every conversion is particularly spectacular. And it’s true. Yet, both in our Scripture passage and in “Amazing Grace,” we see that regardless of how it happens, when it happens, or even how we remember it, all those who have come to faith in Christ have (consciously or unconsciously) followed the pattern found in the conversion of St. Paul—that’s why he refers to himself as “the foremost” example of God’s long-lasting patience—the primary example of Christian conversion.
You may ask: how can you say that? My conversion wasn’t loud or radical like Paul—there was no blindness involved?
My response is: What does a sinner look like? Are they alone sinners who live a life that is outwardly and publicly scandalous or defiant toward God?
Imagine the scene, two children in a living room playing with Lego. It’s time to get ready for school.
The father announces, “It’s time to go to school. Please put up your Lego.”
One child responds, “No! I don’t want to go to school! I hate school!” The other quietly ignores the father and continues to play. Which one is disobedient?
Each of us favors one or another of the children prior to our conversion and carries some of those characteristics with us after conversion. Some of us kick and scream against God; others of us politely ignore him. We all-left to our own devices—sin and come short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23).
John Newton was—as was St. Paul—a screamer. Paul was a religious screamer—he fought against God on the basis of his received Jewish theology; Newton was an irreligious screamer—he fought God so that he could indulge his appetites as he saw fit.
Christ transforms us regardless of whether the external appearance is dramatic or mundane.
Being made right with God is always the result of God’s grace (Eph. 2:9-10): we are made right because has acted in Christ to save us. We often associate the word “grace” with what we might call, “God’s softer side.” And indeed God is very often gentle with us, treating us like a bruised reed or smoldering flax, caring for us and strengthening us in the faith. This is how God is to us when we are his children.
Yet as God draws us to himself we can, like John Newton, discover that God’s grace can be as hard as a diamond. The second stanza of Amazing Grace contains a line that can easily be overlooked: “’Twas grace that taught my heart to fear,/and grace my fears relieved.” God’s grace can be—indeed it often is—profoundly disruptive. It alters our life, permanently. Grace has to bring us to the place of recognizing our need for God—fearing—before it can bring us across the threshold into the loving arms of Christ where his tenderness to us has no limits.
Disruptive grace entered Newton’s life as his ship made its way across the North Atlantic. A strong squall arose and battered the ship. Newton watched with horror as a wave rose above the deck and washed away a shipmate who was standing where he himself had stood only a few minutes earlier dragging the man to an anonymous watery grave.
The ship fought the storm for hours. Newton alone is said to have steered for eleven hours. In the midst of the crisis, he cried out: “Mercy!”
And the change was begun. Unlike other crises in his life, this one began—or sped up—the change in Newton’s life.
Have you experienced God’s disruptive grace? What did it look like?
Perhaps, like the prodigal son in Luke 15, you had to descend to the depth of desperation before realizing that it would be better to live as a servant in your father’s house than to continue the living with the pigs.
Newton and his battered ship landed in Ireland several days later where he reflected on the storm as well as a book he had been reading, Thomas a Kempis’ classic The Imitation of Christ—a late Medieval devotional that’s still popular today. He began to wonder whether he was really redeemable: he had not only neglected his faith, but had directly opposed it. With St. Paul in our text he professed himself, “the chief of sinners.”
The chief of sinners
Paul’s words to Timothy here encapsulate the message of the Christianity–the Gospel or “good news”—into a single sentence that all Christians should own: “Christ came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the chief.”
Paul writes that this statement is “trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance” (1:15)—a saying that is found only in the pastoral letters and which scholarship suggests meant that this saying was known and used in the churches of the day.
Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the chief. Is that a summary of the Christian message that you can lend your support to? Does the label “sinner”—wrongdoer, transgressor—feel like an accurate description?
Many of us hear the word sinner and immediately someone we know and dislike comes to mind. Others hear the word and momentarily see themselves before shrugging it off or assuring themselves that, in the big picture, they’re really quite good people. In truth, no one believes himself a sinner except through God’s work in his or her life.
The difference between these responses and those offered by Paul and by John Newton is the absence of conviction of sin by the Holy Spirit. Jesus himself tells us that the chief work of the Holy Spirit in the life of the believer is the conviction of sin. In John 16 Jesus says that he is sending the Spirit to: “…[C]onvict the world of guilt in regard to sin and righteousness and judgment…” (16:9a). If you’re able to honestly look at your life and say, I am a sinner it is because of the work of the Holy Spirit awakening you to a reality that was there all along, the fact that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Ro 3:23). You are a sinner. I am a sinner.
According to Paul, because we are sinners we are the reason that Christ Jesus came into the world! God the Son, perfect and holy, became a man and lived a life of perfect obedience to the Law of God (he did not sin) so that he could die for us, becoming sin in our place so that we could be made right with God: “For our sake he [God] made him [Jesus] to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him [Jesus] we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor. 5:21).
You cannot be united to Christ in salvation unless and until God’s amazing grace has first interrupted your life, gotten your attention, taught you to fear, convicted you of your sin and need for a savior, and brought you to the place where you acknowledge your need for Jesus and cry out with Newton: “mercy!”
God in Christ binds up your wounds, rescues you from the guilt of sin, restores you to unbroken fellowship with him that was shattered at the fall. He delivers you from sin and misery through Christ. Our redeemer’s grace is sufficient for you and for me.
 Donald Guthrie, The Pastoral Epistles. Rev. Ed. Tyndale New Testament Commentaries: 75.