It’s the most famous hymn of all time, and surely one of the most famous songs of any type. Even if you have never been to church, you have almost certainly heard it at some point.
But what makes it so popular and so powerful?
I would say it is not the music itself, considering that “Amazing Grace” has been sung to multiple different tunes, all of them borrowed from other songs which have themselves largely been forgotten.
The power of “Amazing Grace” is that its lyrics are all about God’s amazing grace. There is simply nothing more important or powerful than that. The lyrics do a really good job of conveying that message, especially if you look at the story and Scripture behind them.
Amazing grace! How sweet the sound,
That saved a wretch like me!
Why is grace so amazing? “Grace” means “undeserved kindness.” God gives us something good that we don’t deserve. It is “amazing” both because of how good the gift is, and how much we utterly fail to deserve it.
The gift is eternal life in paradise. There is no way you could ever be given anything better than that. And it is amazing what it cost God to give that gift.
And yet the gift is given to a “wretch.” That could describe any of us, but the person who wrote the lyrics is an interesting example. “Amazing Grace” was written by John Newton in 1779. Some facts about Newton’s earlier life:
He was a sailor in the British Navy, but went AWOL and was punished for deserting.
He contemplated a murder-suicide of his ship captain, but didn’t go through with it.
He was so fond of profanity that it made sailors uncomfortable. He even made up new cuss words because the existing ones weren’t enough for him.
He was such a bad shipmate that one crew chained him, starved him, and sold him into slavery in Africa.
After being freed from slavery, he became captain of a slave ship himself.
In other words, he was not exaggerating when he called himself a “wretch.” And yet God gave him grace. No wonder that was music to his ears.
I once was lost but now am found,
Was blind, but now I see.
After experiencing God’s amazing grace, Newton became a minister. His Bible study shows through his lyrics. In Luke 15, when religious leaders complained about Jesus welcoming sinners, Jesus told three stories about how He seeks those who are “lost.” The third story, about the prodigal son, uses the words “he was lost and is found” (Luke 15:32).
“Was blind, but now I see” is a direct quote from John 9:25, and is the testimony of a man who met Jesus. It would also apply to Newton: though he was once a slave ship captain, he later saw how evil that was. By speaking out and describing the horrific details of life on a slave ship, he helped inspire his friend William Wilberforce to fight for the abolition of the slave trade.
T'was grace that taught my heart to fear.
And grace, my fears relieved;
How precious did that grace appear
The hour I first believed!
Here the song gets a bit deeper theologically. “T’was grace that taught my heart to fear” means that without God’s grace, we wouldn’t even know that we needed saving. Our natural tendency is to live for ourselves and our own sinful desires, after all.
This is important because it means that we truly do nothing to earn salvation; even our awareness of the problem is a gift. That is why Paul says that faith itself is a gift of God in Ephesians 2:8-9:
"For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast."
This is the same Paul who did nothing to be saved other than persecute and murder Christians, so he understood the fullness of grace.
There are multiple other verses to the song, but different musicians or hymnals will include or leave out various ones. However, there is one I’ve always liked that is usually added on as the last verse:
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've first begun.
You see, eternity is such a hard concept to grasp. This does a good job of explaining the enormity of the gift. After ten thousand, or ten million, or ten trillion years, we are no closer to the end of eternity (because there is no “end”).
What are your favorite hymn lyrics?