What is grace? Can a nonbeliever know what it is? Grace is difficult for the unbeliever to understand primarily because of the demonstrative change it can make in the life of a believer. And there isn’t a better example of the difference that grace made in one’s life than in the life of John Newton, author of America’s favorite hymn, Amazing Grace.
Newton understood what it meant to be a “wretch”. He commanded an English slave ship in the 1700’s and brought thousands of slaves to this country during his lifetime.
Captain Newton showed no compassion for his cargo. He chained them below the decks to prevent suicides. The slaves were laid side-by-side to save space, row after row, one after another, until his vessel boasted as many as 600 Africans. And if a slave became ill during the voyage, he was tossed overboard to prevent the infection from spreading.
Well that all changed one night when Newton’s ship almost sunk. He gave his life to Christ and spent the rest of his days scratching his head in disbelief over the change. When he was 82, he said, “My memory is nearly gone, but I remember two things, that I am a great sinner, and that Christ is a great savior.”
Newton’s song reminds us all about how wretched we are. In fact, the Bible says that without Jesus, we are dead to sin. Indeed, we have no chance, but for the grace of God. That’s what Paul meant when he said in his letter to Titus, a young pastor, “At one time we too were foolish, disobedient, deceived and enslaved by all kinds of passions and pleasures. We lived in malice and envy, being hated and hating one another. But when the kindness and love of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy. He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us generously through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that, having been justified by his grace, we might become heirs having the hope of eternal life.” (Titus 3:3-7)
Grace is the unmerited favor of God. As one writer puts it, “The very heart of the gospel is the supreme truth that God accepts us with no conditions whatever when we put our trust in the atoning sacrifice of His incarnate Son.” That’s why it has long been said that the best way to describe grace is by using the very letters that make up the word: G-R-A-C-E, God’s Riches At Christ’s Expense.
So our faith teaches us that grace can only come from God. But did you know that grace has a unique purpose of its own? The Bible says that grace “teaches us to say ‘No’ to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age.” (Titus 2:11)
John Newton was no different than the rest of us which is why his song means so much to so many of us. It reminds us there is only one thing that distinguishes one sinner from another: Grace. And when you think about that, it really is amazing!