The best known Christian hymn/song today – at least here in the UK – is ‘Amazing Grace’. Sung by Christians and non-Christians alike, it was written by John Newton (1725-1807), a former slave trader and clergyman, as a personal testimony to how God, by grace (God’s love and favour bestowed upon undeserving sinners like us through Jesus Christ) saved him from the godless, wicked life he was leading at the time, and transformed him into the Godly man he became. Its opening lines declare:
Amazing Grace! How sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me.
I once was lost, but now am found, t’was blind but now I see!
Newton was nurtured by a Christian mother who taught him the Bible at an early age, but was raised by his father following his mother’s death from tuberculosis when Newton was just seven years of age. When he was 11 years of age he went to sea with his father, a merchant navy captain. A rebellious youth, he was well known for his ‘unsettled behaviour and lack of restraint’. In 1743, when on his way to a position as a slave master on a plantation in Jamaica, he was press ganged into service with the Royal Navy. Newton rebelled against the discipline of the Navy and deserted only to be caught, put in irons, flogged, and ultimately discharged. Returning to the slave trade, he eventually arrived in Sierra Leone where he became the servant of an abusive slave trader. He was treated cruelly – becoming in effect the slave of a slaver – his clothes turned to rags, and he was forced to beg for food to allay his hunger.
In 1748, Newton was rescued by a sea captain and returned to England. On its homeward journey, however, the ship he was travelling in was overtaken by an enormous storm. Newton had been reading Thomas a Kempis’ The Imitation of Christ, and was struck by a line about the ‘uncertain continuance of life’. He also recalled a passage that said: ‘Because I have called and ye have refused … I also will laugh at your calamity’ (Proverbs 1:24-28). Fearing for his life, believing that the ship might sink, Newton prayed for deliverance. This experience began his conversion to evangelical Christianity, though he admitted later, ‘I cannot consider myself to have been a believer, in the full sense of the word.’
This was confirmed by the fact that Newton continued to participate in the slave trade, serving as a mate and then as captain in several slave ships. In 1754 however, whilst aboard a slave vessel bound for the West Indies, Newton became seriously ill with a violent fever and, once again fearing for his life, and asked for God’s mercy, this time more genuinely. This event he claimed was the turning point in his life. He gave up seafaring altogether in 1755, taking an office job instead. He began to hold Bible studies in his Liverpool home. Influenced by John and Charles Wesley and George Whitefield, he became increasingly disgusted with the slave trade and his previous role in it. In 1757, he applied for the Anglican priesthood, but it was seven years before he was accepted. In 1764, he was eventually ordained and assigned to the Parish of Olney in Buckinghamshire. He became well known for his pastoral care and was respected by both Anglicans and nonconformists alike.
In 1769, Newton began a Thursday evening prayer service. For almost every week’s service, he wrote a hymn to be sung to a familiar tune, including ‘Amazing Grace’. So popular was his preaching, that the church could not accommodate all those who flocked to hear him. Newton, more and more deeply regretted his previous involvement in the slave trade, and after he became Rector of St Mary Woolnoth, in London in 1779, his advice was sought by many influential figures in Georgian society, among them the young M.P., William Wilberforce. Wilberforce was contemplating leaving politics for the ministry, but Newton encouraged him to stay in Parliament and ‘serve God where he was’. Wilberforce took his advice, and spent the rest of his life working towards the abolition of slavery.
Advent is that time in the Christian Year when we prepare ourselves for the wonder of Christmas itself – the birth of the Saviour, the Messiah, the Lord! One who was given two distinct names: ‘Jesus … because he will save people from their sin’ and ‘Immanuel … meaning God with us’ (Matthew 1:21,23). Each Sunday in Advent (comprising of four Sundays in all) has a different preparatory theme, and on the Fourth Sunday in Advent, traditionally, we think about the role of Mary, the mother of Jesus, in this wonderful story and particularly the fact that in and through her we see The God of Grace!
Luke tells us, in his version of the Gospel account, that when the angel Gabriel initially appeared to Mary and gave her the news that she was to bear the promised Saviour, he greeted her with the words: ‘Rejoice (Mary), full of grace, the Lord is with you’ (Luke 1:28). Now whilst it could be said that Mary is given too prominent a place in Roman Catholic, Orthodox and Anglo-Catholic Churches, she is equally probably not given enough place in the majority of Protestant, Evangelical, Reformed, Pentecostal and Charismatic Churches. This is a sadness because we have much to learn from Mary from her willingness to say ‘Yes’ to God, and to life, in response to God’s gracious dealings with her, not least the fact that, in her humility and submissive spirit towards God and his will for her life, she was filled with God’s grace – with the God given ability to be all that God wanted her to be. Without God’s grace Mary could not have done what she did! She did not fulfil God’s plans and purposes for her life because she was ‘special’ but because God’s grace enabled her to be all that God required her to be!
Grace has rightly been defined as ‘the undeserved blessing of God freely bestowed on humankind, supremely in the gift of God’s Son, Jesus Christ to both the manger and the cross’. We are all totally dependent on the grace of God – it is as important to us spiritually as the air that we breathe is to us physically – both for our salvation (Ephesians 2:8,9) and for the ability to cope with every other eventuality in life (2 Corinthians 12:9)! The good news, however, is that this same grace is as available to us today as it was to Mary, and to John Newton. The Apostle John tells us in the Prologue to his version of the Gospel story that Jesus came to us ‘full of grace and truth … [and] out of that fulness we have all received grace in place of grace’ (John 1:14,16). It is in coming to Jesus that we find this vital ‘undeserved blessing of God freely bestowed upon us’ – a source that can never ever run dry. As fast as we use up the grace of God there is always more on tap, so to speak! Grace to save us, and grace more than sufficient for all our needs!
Life-giving God, we thank you for calling Mary to be the mother of Jesus. In a world where men are in control, you chose a young girl to nurture the Saviour of the world. In a world where power is sought, you turned our values upside down by inviting Mary to share in the great work of redemption. We thank you that you still call women and men to share in your saving actions. You call us to live and serve in the way of Christ, uncertain of the future but trusting your faithfulness. Sometimes your choice surprises us, the way you seem to point daunts us, your faith in our possibilities awes us. Help us to say ‘Yes’ when you call us. Enlarge our vision, strengthen our resolve and increase our sense of your all-sufficient grace, that we might be used mightily for your glory and for the serving of your world. Through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.