Amazing Grace: 250 Years Old, but Eternally True

In 1773, on the first Sunday of January, the parish congregation in Olney, England, sang a hymn that their minister had written based on his sermonic text for the day, 1 Chronicles 17:16, 17. The title of the hymn was “Faith’s Review and Expectation.” Given that the Sunday was the first of the year in 1773, the pastor, John Newton, wanted his congregation to look at the wonder of God’s provision of salvation and all things truly good in the past with a trust in God for the same faithfulness to his promise for the future. The text Focused on David’s prayer of astonishment at the goodness of God in selecting him for such present blessings and future promises. We know the hymn by the first words, “Amazing Grace.”

Newton followed the general pattern of the biblical text from verses 16 through 27. Nathan, the prophet, had told David that he was not selected to build a house for the Lord, but the Lord would build a house for him. David had been taken from the sheepfold and had been given a name among the great men of the earth. His son would follow him on the throne; in fact, the throne thus established would last forever. Astonishingly, God said, “And I will establish him in My house and in My kingdom forever, and his throne shall be established forever” (1 Chronicles 17:14). David then expressed in humble tones, yet exuberantly grateful tones, the goodness of the Lord to him and his house. From being nothing to being forever. As was virtually always the case with Newton’s approach to preaching, he wanted the historical narrative and the doctrinal synthesis to be of benefit to the Christian experience of his parishioners. David’s story and David’s prayer were personalized to the Christian’s journey in grace. It was, in a sense, Newton’s story, but also the text puts words to the testimony of every Christian.

We find scattered through the hymn a few phrases that appear in the prayer of David. “You have brought me this far,” (16) finds expression in verse 3 of the ageless hymn, ”’Tis grace has brought me safe thus far.” Newton sees an analogy between David’s sense of blessing and his own. David gloried in divine sovereignty in protecting him from harm and his subsequent gracious elevation to kingship. Newton viewed his own protection during days of danger and subsequent placement in a position as a minister as consistent with a pattern of divine intervention. Newton never tired of reciting his remarkable elevation from enmity to adopted child, from destroyer to edifier, from a spirit of hostility to the gospel to a constant business of preaching the beautiful truth that he once tried to destroy. When David remarked that God’s gracious intervention promised favor “for a great while to come” (17), Newton applied it, “And grace will lead me home.”

The first phrase of the next verse (4) resumes this thought in the words, “The Lord has promised good to me, his word my hope secures.” He then confirms it with a personal thrust to David’s words, “And now, Lord, You are God, and have promised this goodness to your servant” (26). Just above that, David referred to “the word which You have spoken concerning your servant” (23). Newton extrapolated from David’s experience of the goodness of God, confirmed with God’s word that such an expression of confidence would be just as relevant, perhaps even more so, when considered in light of God’s word in the gospel as secured in Christ—“His word my hope secures.”

If God had manifested his invincible power and purpose by “driving out nations from before your people whom you redeemed from Egypt,” (21), how much more may we sing in worship, “He will my shield and portion be, as long as life endures,” especially in light of the image of shield depicting God’s aggressive movements for the protection and progress of his people. The Psalms present God as a shield for his people thirteen times. They present God as using a shield for his people twice. They picture his destroying the shield of the wicked once. Proverbs 30:5 says, in the very spirit of the Psalms, “Every word of God proves true; he is a shield to those who take refuge in him.”

Newton closed the hymn with confidence that “God, who called me here below, will be forever mine.” David looks upon the dimensions of God’s elevation of his house and the nature of the redemption that he has given as something that will endure “forever.” He used that word in 22 (“You have made your people Israel your very own people forever”); again, in reference to the house of David (23: “Let it be established forever”), with the intent that (24) “Your name may be magnified forever.” David’s prayer closed, “Now You have been pleased to bless the house of your servant, that it may continue before you forever, for You have blessed it, O Lord, and it shall be blessed forever” (27). In light of stated, confirmed, and reconfirmed promises of the eternity of God’s gracious acts, Newton felt perfectly confident in leading his congregation to sing, “But God who called me here below, will be forever mine.”

Tom Nettles

Dr. Tom Nettles is widely regarded as one of the foremost Baptist historians in America. He joined the faculty of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary after teaching at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School where he was professor of Church History and chairman of that department. Previously, he taught at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and Mid-America Baptist Theological Seminary. He received a B.A. from Mississippi College and an M.Div. and Ph.D. from Southwestern.  In addition to writing numerous journal articles and scholarly papers, Dr. Nettles has authored or edited nine books including By His Grace and For His GloryBaptists and the Bible, and Why I Am a Baptist.