Rewriting “Amazing Grace”

I love music.  My personal list of favorite songs is a very long list, but in my opinion there is one song that tops them all.  My favorite song was written in the late 1700’s by a middle-aged Englishman.   His lyrics attempted to capture his understanding of who God is, how God chooses to relate to sinful people, and the future reward for those who place their trust in Him. He titled his new song, “Faith’s Review and Expectation.” No one really knows where the tune came from, but many know the story of the man who wrote the lyrics.

“Faith’s Review and Expectation” was written by John Newton. As a young man, Newton captained a slave trading ship. He was known to be a man so full of hate that all who knew him considered him a wretch of a human being.  But since God loves everyone, even the worst of us, God broke through to John and got a hold of his heart.  In time Newton surrendered his life to Jesus Christ, went on to become an influential writer of hymns, and then finally the rector of St. Mary Woolchurch in London where his preaching influenced William Wilberforce, the great Parliamentarian who labored his entire life to end the slave trade in England.

Newton’s song was later renamed “Amazing Grace.” Its words have inspired and encouraged so many. Amazing Grace how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me / I was once lost but now am found, was blind but now I see / ‘Twas grace that taught my heart to fear, and grace my fears relieved / How precious did that grace appear, the hour I first believed / The Lord has promised good to me, His word my hope secures. / He will my shield and portion be, as long as life endures.

“Amazing Grace” declares John Newton’s profound appreciation for the relentless love of God that had set him free from his great guilt, his profound sense of worthlessness, and his deep shame.  Shortly before he died at age 82 Newton remarked, “My memory is nearly gone, but I remember two things, that I am a great sinner, and that Christ is a great Savior.”

I’m convinced that what John Newton meant to say so long ago when he originally wrote the lyrics of “Amazing Grace” is sadly not what most of us mean when we sing his song today.  Though we may sing Newton’s original lyrics, they have taken on a meaning very different than he intended.  He wrote about God’s “Amazing Grace,” but today we sing the song as if it described God’s “Enabling” or “Entitling Grace.”

Today we sing the song as if it meant the following: Enabling grace, how sweet the sound that lets ME do MY thing / I once felt bad, but now I don’t – God’s love just let’s ME be/ ‘Twas grace that made ME like MYSELF, and grace that set ME free / How precious did this grace appear the hour God first liked ME / The Lord has made it all ‘bout ME, His word MY wants secures. / He will MY dear enabler be, as long as my desire endures

Newton’s song, rich in its understanding of God’s amazing, unconditional acceptance has been transformed in people’s minds into a song about God’s enabling, unconditional approval.  This is a flawed understanding of the quality of relationship God has offered to sinners, and a dumbing down of the grandeur of God’s relentless love for us. God’s unconditional acceptance of us in any condition we may be found cannot be mistaken with unconditional approval for any condition we may be found.  Have you rewritten the lyrics to “Amazing Grace”?

About Andy Lewis

Andy is an author, pastor, and musician who lives in Santa Cruz California. Currently he serves as lead pastor at Faith Community Church in Santa Cruz
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