By Bryan Owen
Amazing grace! How sweet the sound,
that saved a wretch like me!
I once was lost but now am found,
was blind but now I see.
Even in our increasingly secular age, it might be difficult to find people unfamiliar with those words. They open one of the most famous Christian hymns of all time. And the words came from an unlikely source.
The year was 1748, and a 23-year-old man by the name of John Newton was sailing from Africa to England on a ship named Greyhound. Staunchly anti-Christian and steeped in the ways of the world, Newton had spent seven years in Sierra Leone as punishment for bad behavior on a slave-trading ship. Now he was heading home.
A violent storm lashed into the Greyhound as it made its way into the North Atlantic Ocean, nearly destroying it. Newton spent the night furiously pumping water off the deck to keep the ship from sinking. In the midst of the howling winds and battering waves, as many of his fellow sailors died, Newton surprised himself by crying out to God with a simple prayer: “Lord, have mercy.” Incredibly, he survived when many others did not.
John Newton claimed that date — March 10, 1748 — as the day of his conversion. And that was also when he wrote the first verse of the hymn we know as “Amazing Grace.”
Looking back later in life, Newton acknowledged that this was only a partial conversion. He continued to participate in the slave trade, going on to serve as captain for no less than three different slave-trading ships.
It took time, but God’s grace eventually transformed John Newton. Indeed, near the end of his life, he published a pamphlet strongly denouncing the slave trade. In it he wrote: “It will always be a subject of humiliating reflection to me, that I was once an active instrument in a business at which my heart now shudders.”
Newton once was lost. But now he was found.
All of us can pinpoint times in our lives when we did something we regret. We wish we could go back in time and do things differently. But we can’t. And that can leave us feeling stuck.
But there’s good news. Because whether it happens instantaneously or over the course of time, God’s amazing grace has power to transform lives and cut us loose from the dead weight of the past. And that grace is available to us all — right here, right now.
The New Testament is filled with accounts of times when God’s grace gave people another chance and set them free.
For instance, there was Jesus’ prediction that on the night before his crucifixion Peter would deny three times even knowing him. In spite of protests that this would never happen, Peter betrayed his Lord just as predicted. And yet, after the resurrection, Jesus brought Peter back into the fold without shame or blame.
We could also look at the centurion who crucified Jesus. This man actually nailed the hands and feet of the Son of God to the cross. He tortured and murdered Jesus. Can it get any worse than that?
And yet, after hearing Jesus’ last words and witnessing his death, and seeing darkness come over the land and the curtain of the temple torn in two, this centurion acknowledged his wrongdoing by saying: “Certainly this man was innocent” (Luke 23:47). Mark’s Gospel reports the centurion crying out: “Truly this man was God’s Son!” (Mark 15:39)
There was a change of heart and a confession of faith. At the foot of the cross, God’s grace allowed this centurion to walk away from crucifying Jesus as a new man.
There’s also the example of Jesus himself — the one who is the very incarnation of God’s amazing grace. Hanging on the cross, Jesus absolved everyone who participated in his arrest, torture, and murder by praying:
“Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34).
It’s truly difficult to even imagine such love, mercy, and compassion. And yet, in that short prayer, Jesus released his accusers and murderers from the consequences of their actions. He gave them another chance.
And then there’s what happened to a man crucified next to Jesus.
In his Gospel’s account of the crucifixion, St. Luke highlights a contrast between two criminals crucified to the right and to the left of Jesus. One of the criminals kept heaping insults on Jesus, daring him to prove his identity as the Christ by saving himself and them. But the other criminal rebuked him saying: “Have you no fear of God? We deserve our condemnation because of what we’ve done. But this man hasn’t done anything wrong” (cf. Luke 23:40-41). And then, turning to the suffering and dying Jesus, he said: “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom” (Luke 23:42).
It’s such a simple and moving request. And it flies in the face of what’s actually happening. They’re dying on crosses. The end is near. All is lost.
And yet, in spite of being nailed to a cross, this criminal could see God at work in Jesus. And with what little of his life was left, he put all of his trust and hope in Jesus.
“Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”
This criminal didn’t ask to be spared death by crucifixion. He didn’t even ask for relief from pain and suffering. Instead, he asked Jesus to remember him. He didn’t want to be forgotten. He didn’t want to be another nameless, faceless nobody discarded by the Roman killing machine as just so much garbage. He wanted reassurance that in spite of the things he had done – in spite of the fact that he was getting what he deserved — he was still loved. He still mattered. And that as crazy as it must have seemed, there was still hope for the future.
Jesus’ response was moving and beautiful. He didn’t just tell this man: “I won’t forget you.” Instead, he made an astonishing promise: “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise” (Luke 23:43).
In the midst of his own pain and suffering, Jesus extended love, mercy, and grace to a man who deserved to die. And he did it in a way that said: “I’m not just going to remember you. I’m going to be with you as together we pass over from this life to the next. You are not alone. I am with you.”
In this exchange between two crucified Jews, we see God’s amazing grace in action. And we hear a message of “wonderful, joyous news for all people” (Luke 2:10).
For in Jesus Christ, the true Lord of the world and the King of creation has come among us to seek and to save the lost, to show us how to walk the path of love, and to stretch out his arms of love on the hard wood of the cross that everyone might come within the reach of his saving embrace. Jesus Christ has come among us to show mercy and to heal our sin-sick hearts. He has come to offer forgiveness. He has come to release us from bondage to our sins.
From now on, the past does not define us. For by the grace of God, the love of Jesus Christ defines who we really are – both now and forever.
Once we were lost. But in Jesus Christ we are found.
In him, we are a new creation.
In him, we are free.
In him, we find the true meaning and purpose of our lives.
In him, we can face anything and stand firm as more than conquerors.
And we have the promise that he will come again in glory to make all things new.
So come, thou long expected Jesus,
born to set thy people free;
from our fears and sins release us,
let us find our rest in thee. (Charles Wesley)
The Rev. Dr. Bryan Owen is rector of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.
For more on Newton’s conversion and life, see: https://www.5minutesinchurchhistory.com/the-life-of-john-newton/ and https://fromtheslowlane.wordpress.com/2015/06/29/amazing-grace-from-a-slave-ship-to-charleston-south-carolina/ (I found both useful as I wrote this piece.)