One of the most beloved hymns of all time is John Newton’s Amazing Grace, not only among Christians, but also among many non-Christians. Its widespread acclaim crosses all boundaries of the belief spectrum, it seems. Most notably, Judy Collins’ version of the hymn was released as a single for the Christmas season of 1970, peaking at number 15 on the U.S. Billboard 100, and became an even bigger bestseller in the U.K., staying on the British chart for a remarkable 67 weeks. Her version is considered “one of the most notable recordings of the song for its spontaneous popularity.”
The Christian’s interest is clearly understandable, but why do unbelievers find it so compelling? Some suggest it is the familiar and beautiful melody that draws the ear, regardless of faith; but surely the distinct biblical expressions of doctrinal truth cannot be ignored. In fact, some singers, who find the term, “wretch” (Romans 7:24), to be objectionable for its quality of self-loathing, will purposefully change the words to “That saved and strengthened me,” “Saved a soul like me,” or “That saved and set me free.” Despite the occasional offense, however, the overall theme of divine favor can still stir the most hardened heart during those low times of life.
John Newton specifically composed this poem (to be later set to music in worship) as an accompaniment to his sermon on 1 Chronicles 17:16-17 which highlighted the particular elements of King David’s prayer to God as revealed in the biblical record. Originally titled, Faith’s Review and Expectation, Newton used his lyrics to focus the believer’s attention and set his heart on the blessings of God’s grace in bringing them to Jesus Christ for salvation, both now and forever.
Considering the strong Christian sentiment behind Newton’s words, how, then, does the unbeliever find such emotional attachment to this great hymn? Perhaps, within those very words of alien hope in Christ, they see their own desperate need of grace; and for a fleeting moment, perhaps, they contemplate their weak and sinful condition before Almighty God and their final estate. Is this too much for which to hope when their very soul hangs in the balance?
No doubt this is a teaching moment for believer and unbeliever alike. Amazing Grace has given us a wonderful opportunity to express the Gospel of grace to the world; and God willing, we should step out in faith to see what spiritual fruit it might bear.
Sadly, within a few hours after preaching his sermon with the accompanying hymn of Amazing Grace, John Newton scribbled the outcome in his diary:
“Hope I was enabled to speak with some liberty, but found my own heart sadly unaffected.”
Though the immediate fruit of his sermon and hymn was not revealed to Newton on that day, the Lord was surely pleased with his heartbroken servant’s work and found it more than acceptable as a humble and honorable service to His glory. History has proven this to be true, and God is to be praised for how Newton’s hymn has risen to such fame and transfixed the world.
If you know someone who doesn’t know the Lord, perhaps you might be presented one day with the opportunity to enter into a conversation about Jesus Christ by your shared appreciation for Amazing Grace. John Newton’s sermon notes, in fact, can be used as an inspiring guide to walk an unbeliever through each line to reveal and discuss the lyrics’ true spiritual significance. For your convenience, I have formatted below the basic outline of Newton’s original notations from 1773, only altering his text for easier reading and to facilitate a more personal introspection, in the hope that the Holy Spirit might work on the unbelieving heart and turn it to Christ and His glorious (and yes, amazing) grace.
John Newton’s Sermon Notes For “Amazing Grace”
King David’s Prayer, 1 Chronicles 17:16-17:
Then David the king 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 this far? This was a small thing in Your eyes, O God; but You have spoken of Your servant’s house for a great while to come, and have regarded me according to the standard of a man of high degree, O Lord God.
I would accommodate [this passage of scripture] to our own use as a proper subject for our meditations on the entrance of a new year. They lead us to a consideration of past mercies and future hopes and intimate the frame of mind which becomes us when we contemplate what the Lord has done for us.
Who Am I?
Amazing grace! (how sweet the sound)
That sav’d a wretch like me!
The frame of mind should be humility and admiration.
Who am I? This question should be always upon my your mind: Who am I? What was I when the Lord began to manifest His purposes of love? This was often inculcated upon Israel, Thou shalt remember – Look unto the pit from which we were taken. Lord, what is man! At that time I was:
I Was Miserable
Shut up under the law and unbelief. What must have been the event had the Lord left me there? After a few years spent in vanity, I would have sunk to rise no more.
I Was Rebellious
Blinded by the god of this world, I had no desire for deliverance. Instead of desiring the Lord’s help, I breathed a spirit of defiance against Him. His mercy came to me not only undeserved but undesired. In fact, I (like others) resisted his call, and when he knocked at the door of my heart I endeavored to shut Him out till He overcame me by the power of His grace. See the proper characteristics of my state: “For we also once were foolish ourselves, disobedient, deceived, enslaved to various lusts and pleasures, spending our life in malice and envy, hateful, hating one another” (Titus 3:3).
I Was & Still Am Undeserving
It was the Lord against whom I sinned and Who showed me mercy. He had no need to do this. What just cause of admiration, that He should appoint such salvation, in such a way, in favor of such a helpless, worthless creature?
God Has Brought Me To This Place
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 reliev’d;
How precious did that grace appear,
The hour I first believ’d!
Before My Conversion
His providential care preserving me from a thousand seen, millions of unseen dangers, when I knew Him not. His secret guidance, leading me by a way which I knew not, till His time of love came to me.
At My Conversion
The means by which He wrought upon me, those supports in the time of conviction, and the never-to-be-forgotten hour when He enabled me to hope in His mercy.
Since I Was First Enabled To Give Up My Name To Him
Thro’ many dangers, toils and snares,
I have already come;
’Tis grace has brought me safe thus far,
And grace will lead me home.
Mercy and goodness have followed me. In earthly concerns, He has led and fed me. Many have fallen when I have been preserved, or if afflicted, I have found Him a present help in trouble. In spiritual concerns, He preserved me from wasting sins, from gross errors, but He was also restoring and healing me, maintaining His hold in my heart, not withstanding so much opposition, so many temptations and provocations. The comforts I have had in secret and public worship, the seasonable and undoubted answers to prayer. Grace to anyone dear to me, peace in my family, and His blessing me with a church and a people.
You Have Spoken About My Future
The Lord has promis’d good to me,
His word my hope secures;
He will my shield and portion be,
As long as life endures.
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.
Are these small things? Yes, compared to what follows – He has spoken for a great while to come, even to Eternity. Present mercies are but earnests of His love, present comforts but foretastes of the joy to which I am hastening. O that crown, that kingdom, that eternal weight of glory! I am traveling home to God. I shall soon see Jesus, and never complain of sin, sorrow, temptation or desertion any more.
He Has Dealt With Me According To The Estate Of A Man Of High Degree. He Found Me Upon The Dunghill And Has Made Me A Companion Of Princes. I Was In A Wilderness And He Has Led Me To The City Of God.
What should be my grateful response?
Love, Gratitude, Obedience
Romans 12:1 [I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that ye present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God, which is your reasonable service.]
Trust And Confidence
We have good reason to cast our cares upon him, and to be satisfied with his appointments. Hitherto he has done all things well [Mark 7:37].
Yet a little while and we shall be at home. Romans 13:11 [And that, knowing the time, that now it is high time to awake out of sleep: for now is our salvation nearer than when we first believed].
The earth shall soon dissolve like snow,
The sun forbear to shine;
But God, who call’d me here below,
Will be forever mine.
Newton’s Final Note To The Congregation
We are spared thus far – But some, I fear, are strangers to the promises. You are entered upon a New Year. It may be your last. You are at present barren trees in the vineyard. O fear, lest the sentence should go forth: “Cut it down.”
Though added to Newton’s hymn in E.O. Excell’s Coronation Hymns in 1910, it is a suitable, praiseworthy addendum to the rich biblical sentiments of Amazing Grace. May the words resound in your heart in full-throated faith!
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 first begun!
– Based upon the transcription of John Newton’s sermon notebook, Lambeth Palace Library, by Marylynn Rouse, and slightly altered by The Sandwich for this particular, contemporary usage.