Although the hymn itself wasn’t published until 1779, the words are still being sung today by Christian musicians and congregations all over the world, and even many secular artists have added their voice to the history of the song: “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”.
While the words may trip off the tongue nowadays, Newton was writing about an element that is absolutely essential to the Christian understanding of salvation; how someone can have their sins forgiven and have peace with a holy God. Newton was writing about grace, and grace alone.
Newton, of course, didn’t conjure this idea up himself. Salvation by grace alone was one of the central tenets of the Protestant Reformation which took place over 250 years earlier and is a teaching that comes straight from the pages of the Bible itself. The premier text for this doctrine is found in Paul’s letter to the Ephesian Christians, chapter 2 verses 8-9: “For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, so that no one may boast” (NASB).
The teaching of salvation by grace alone is simply an acknowledgement of what the Bible is saying: that the totality of our salvation is a gift of grace from God. It is an acknowledgement that God’s salvation is based on His grace and mercy, not on anything that we have done.
Many religions and faiths around the world would contend that salvation is achieved through good works: giving to the poor, attending a church somewhere, or living what would generally be considered a moral life. Others may say that living a life of suffering, or secluded meditation, or trying to lose one’s sense of self-identity are all ways of salvation, and thus gain access to a heaven of some description. Others yet may even confess that, while one is saved by grace, they are not saved by grace alone – something else must be added: communion, baptism, etc.
Salvation by grace alone isn’t a terribly popular doctrine in today’s world. It certainly wasn’t popular when the Reformers of the 16th century preached it, since it kicked against the teaching of the Roman Catholic Church which, at the time, dominated much, if not all, of religious understanding in Europe.
Perhaps one reason why the doctrine of salvation by grace alone is often rejected is because, in order to accept it, we must first acknowledge what the Bible says about us. The Bible describes the condition of human nature in very bleak terms, to say the least. Scripture tells us that the human “heart is more deceitful than all else and is desperately sick’ (Jeremiah 17:9 NASB), and that “there is none righteous, not even one; there is none who understands, there is none who seeks for God” (Romans 3:10-11 NASB). As if it wasn’t clear already, Scripture emphatically says that none are unaffected by this indictment, “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23 NASB). Going even further, the Apostle Paul writes in verse 1 of Ephesians chapter 2 that “you were dead”. Thus, the default position of fallen man is that of a spiritual corpse.
Typically, we wouldn’t view ourselves like that. We like to think of ourselves as basically good, and tend to believe that if we have the right education, examples, and laws then we’ll naturally follow the right path. God, however, comes to the opposite conclusion: we are sinners; we are law-breakers accountable to God since it is His law that we have broken and His holiness that we have offended. His justice, therefore, hangs above our heads. Condemnation is our just reward.
Mercifully, while we didn’t seek after God, the Bible tells us that God seeks after sinners. Speaking of Himself, Jesus said, “For the Son of Man has come to seek and to save that which was lost” (Luke 19:10 NASB). It’s God who, as Newton wrote in his hymn, gives sight to the blind. It’s God who finds the one who is lost. It’s God who has provided the foundation upon which the salvation of sinners rests: the death, burial, and resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ. Through the death of Christ, God is not only seen to be just in dealing with sin, but at the same time is “the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus” (Romans 3:26 NASB). It’s God who saves, and He does so by His grace. There’s nothing we can do to earn it. Nothing we have done to deserve it. Nothing inherent within us that warrants God’s grace. Grace by its very definition is unmerited favour.
The totality of God’s salvation, then, is a gift from God, as we read, “not as a result of works, so that no one may boast” (Ephesians 2:9 NASB). When one considers who, and what, we are in the sight of a holy God, and what God has done to rescue us from the deadness of sin, we can do nothing but agree with Newton, that the grace of God is truly amazing grace.