[Editor’s Note: This is the second in a three-part series by Dr. Charles Quarles, Vice President of Faith and Learning, Dean of the Caskey School of Divinity, and Research Professor of New Testament and Greek at Louisiana College. Dr. Quarles served as a pastor for ten years and then as a missionary in Romania for three years before coming to Louisiana College. He is a noted New Testament scholar and co-author (with Southeastern’s Scott Kellum and Andreas Köstenberger) of The Cradle, the Cross, and the Crown (B&H). We at BtT believe his experience and skill in academic and pastoral ministry makes him a fine person to write on God’s amazing grace. Check-in tomorrow for part 3.]
John Newton’s hymn “Amazing Grace” was written in England in 1779. Although it is now over two hundred years old, it has stood the test of time and remains a favorite of Christians both young and old.
The old cliché that “familiarity breeds contempt” certainly does not apply in this case. We can recite every line of the hymn in our sleep and yet it has still not lost its ability to stir our hearts.
Perhaps, though, familiarity breeds neglect. We may sometimes mouth the words of the hymn without reflecting deeply on the great truths that it expresses. Let’s think for a moment about the second stanza of the hymn:
Twas grace that taught my heart to fear and grace my fears relieved, How precious did that grace appear the hour I first believed.
Newton wrote his Olney hymns to accompany his Thursday evening Bible studies. Hymn 41, now known as Amazing Grace, was Newton’s reflection on 1 Chronicles 17:16-17 in which David responded to God’s promise through Nathan that the Messiah would be born of David’s line.
The Scripture says, “Then King David went in, sat in the LORD’s presence, and said, ‘Who am I, LORD God, and what is my house that You have brought me this far?’”
David’s prayer of thanksgiving began with a confession of his utter unworthiness: “Who am I?” Newton recognized that the question was not prompted by an identity crisis. It was an expression of awe in the face of God’s astounding grace.
The prayer struck a chord in the converted slave trader’s heart and prompted him to ask, “Who am I?” “Who am I to receive the blessings of salvation.” “Who am I that the Savior should die for me?”
Verse One plainly answered that question. Newton was a “wretch,” an utterly despicable, contemptible person. He realized that his salvation was completely undeserved. It was a work of God’s mysterious and powerful grace from first to last.
The second stanza of the hymn recalled Newton’s own conversion experience. He was a callous sinner who had no fear of God or man until grace taught his heart to fear (Letter IV).
Newton’s autobiography, which has been assembled from his personal letters, shows that this hard-hearted and profane sailor aboard a slave trader’s ship first learned the meaning of fear when he found himself in the middle of a violent storm at sea.
As Newton fought the waves that threatened to shatter his ship, the Greyhound, he was haunted by Bible verses that his Christian mother had read to him many years before:
I, in turn, will laugh at your calamity. I will mock when terror strikes you, when terror strikes you like a storm and your calamity comes like a whirlwind, when trouble and stress overcome you. Then they will call me, but I won’t answer; they will search for me, but won’t find me. Because they hated knowledge, didn’t choose to fear the LORD, were not interested in my counsel, and rejected all my correction (Proverbs 1:26-30).
The raging sea tossed Newton’s fragile ship like a plaything, ready to capsize it with the roll of the next massive wave. The wind-driven rain pelted his face like tiny beestings as he strained to keep his footing on the slippery deck in his fight with the elements.
The dark starless sky warned of God’s displeasure and the ear-splitting claps of thunder seemed laced with bursts of heavenly laughter, “I will laugh at your calamity . . . when terror strikes you like a storm.” The words from Proverbs seemed addressed directly to Newton.
Suddenly the one who “hated knowledge” and refused to “fear the LORD” found himself terrified at the prospect of death and judgment. Newton later wrote that at this season in his life he “sinned with a high hand” and did his best to entice others to defy God’s law along with him (Letter IV).
Newton confessed his “delight and habitual practice was wickedness” (Letter III). “I was exceedingly vile indeed, little if anything short of that animated description of an almost irrecoverable state, which we have in 2 Peter 2:14” (Letter IV).
Newton added, “My whole life, when awake, was a course of most horrid impiety and profaneness. I know not that I have ever since met so daring a blasphemer; not content with common oaths and imprecations, I daily invented new ones” (Letter VII).
In retrospect, Newton knew that only one force in heaven or earth could prompt one who sinned with such impunity to tremble before God’s power: “Twas grace that taught my heart to fear.”
God worked by his grace to prompt Newton to fear his holy wrath. It was this fear that drove him to find relief by casting himself on Christ’s mercy.
In Letter IX of his autobiography, Newton observed that the Greyhound’s encounter with the great storm had a very different effect on him than it had on his fellow-sailors:
. . . I felt a heart bitterness, which was properly my own; no one on board, but myself, being impressed with any sense of the hand of God in our danger and deliverance, at least not awakened to any concern for their souls. No temporal dispensations can reach the heart, unless the Lord himself applies them. My companions in danger were either quite unaffected, or soon forgot it all, but it was not so with me: not that I was any wise or better than they, but because the Lord was pleased to vouchsafe me peculiar mercy, otherwise I was the most unlikely person in the ship to receive an impression, having been often before quite stupid and hardened in the very face of great dangers, and always to this time had hardened my neck still more and more after every reproof.
In his Preface to his Olney Hymns, Newton wrote that he was “deeply convinced that no one can profitably understand the great truths and doctrines of the gospel, any farther than he is taught of God.” This theological statement provides the key to interpreting the second stanza of “Amazing Grace.”
Newton’s statement is an allusion to the words of His Savior in John 6:45: “It is written in the Prophets: And they will all be taught by God. Everyone who has listened to me and learned from the Father comes to Me.”
Everyone who is instructed by the Father in this powerful way comes to Jesus in faith. Jesus taught why this spiritual instruction by God was so critical in the previous verse: “No one can come to Me unless the Father who sent Me draws him.”
The Lord Jesus reiterated this truth only a few verses later: “No one can come to Me unless it is granted to him by the Father” (John 6:65). Jesus himself taught the absolute necessity of divine instruction in order to repent and believe.
Being “taught by God” would bear results that mere human lectures could never accomplish. Everyone who received this divine instruction would come to Christ.
In his autobiography, Newton intimated that “The best words that men can speak are ineffectual till explained and applied by the Spirit of God, who alone can open the heart” (Letter XI).
The Apostle Paul also taught that God must instruct sinners. Paul insisted that those who did not have the Spirit could not understand God’s truth: “But the unbeliever does not welcome what comes from God’s Spirit, because it is foolishness to him; he is not able to understand it since it is evaluated spiritually” (1 Corinthians 2:14).
Those who understand spiritual truths do so because the Spirit grants understanding to those who could not understand on their own: “Now we have not received the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who comes from God, so that we may understand what has been freely given to us by God” (1 Corinthians 2:12).
The Baptist Faith and Message 2000 refers to this powerful divine instruction in the article II on the Holy Spirit: “Through illumination, he [the Holy Spirit] enables men to understand truth.”
The verb “enable” is a powerful term. To “enable” means “to make one able to do something that he cannot do on his own.” The implication is that the lost sinner is unable to understand truth until he is enabled by the Spirit or, in Newton’s words, until grace teaches his heart.
My own conversion experience confirms the truths of our dear old hymn.
I vividly remember the sheer terror that I felt when the Holy Spirit awakened my conscience, convicted me of my sin, showed me the severity of his holy wrath, and warned me of the judgment that awaited me. “Twas grace that taught my heart to fear!”
I remember, like it was yesterday, crying myself to sleep because I recognized that if I died in my sleep I would awaken in hell. “Twas grace that taught my heart to fear!”
My terror was not due to psychological manipulation by a hell-fire and brimstone preacher. “Twas grace that taught my heart to fear!”
My stricken conscience was not the mere product of morbid introspection. “Twas grace that taught my heart to fear!”
Thankfully, the same grace that taught my heart to fear, taught my heart to repent and believe and instructed my mouth to confess that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of the Father.
With Newton, I confess that I did not come to understand and believe the gospel that relieved my fears because of the power of my intellect or the superiority of my personal insight. “Twas grace that taught my heart” all of the truths that would grant peace to my troubled mind.
I heartily sing with Newton at the top of my lungs, “How precious did that grace appear the hour I first believed.” And I hope that the next time you sing the old hymn, it will mean a little more to you too.