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Only took Newton two words to sum up the central belief of evangelical Christians.
John Newton began his poem of redemption with a short phrase loaded with meaning. "Amazing grace" sums up evangelicals' answer to the most critical and heavily-debated question of Christianity: how is salvation attained?
The Christian doctrine of original sin suggests that the sins of the first humans, Adam and Eve, have saddled all that have followed with sin-stained souls. Over the centuries, many Christians have argued that the punishment for all of this sin is damnation. Yet Christians also believe that God has promised to forgive some humans and grant them a place in heaven. The divisive question is how this forgiveness attained. For some, it's earned through good behavior and works. For Catholics, God's forgiveness is also received through the Sacraments. But evangelical Protestants, like hymn-writer John Newton, believe that forgiveness is a free gift from God attained simply as a by-product of embracing Jesus as savior.
According to evangelicals, the gift of forgiveness, or grace, requires only faith. And it's wholly transformative: it cleanses the sinner's heart and makes that person immediately worthy of joining God in heaven. Pretty amazing. ("Awesome Grace" and "Wicked Cool Grace" just didn’t have the same ring to them.)
We'll let you decide how you feel about that ever so gracious, and amazing, freebie.
That sav'd a wretch like me!
If you're going by the Bible (and, ya know, Christians are), then you believe that all humans are born wretches.
While much of the hymn is generalized, this line can actually be taken autobiographically. Before embracing Christianity, John Newton was a self-admitted wretch whose early life was filled with vulgar and undisciplined behavior.
But the line also speaks to a fundamental Christian belief: as a result of original sin, all people are born "wretches." Christian writers and ministers have used various metaphors and images to impress this idea on their audience. For example, Jonathan Edwards, one of America's most important theologians, reminded his 18th-century congregation that their outward behavior wasn't fooling anyone. Inside they carried "the heart of a viper...ready to spit...venom at God" (source).
Yeah, J. Ed didn’t mess around.
Was blind, but now I see
"Amazing grace" sounds sweet to the ear, but lines like "sav'd a wretch" and "was blind, but now I see"? Not so much. Newton mixed it up with sweet-sounding and wretched-sounding...sounds. And some of these lines are based on stories and passages from the Bible.
Newton tapped into a pretty common way of describing the results of conversion. For centuries, Christians have compared the illuminating power of God's grace to the restoration of sight to the blind.
The comparison can be traced to the gospels of the New Testament. All four include accounts of Jesus curing blindness. For example, the Gospel of Mark recounts Jesus curing a blind man: "Go," said Jesus, "your faith has healed you." Immediately he received his sight and followed Jesus along the road.
Many Christians read this literally and include it on the list of miracles they attribute to Jesus, while others interpret the passage figuratively, arguing that the stories are about the eye-opening consequences of faith.
Twas grace that taught my heart to fear,
And grace my fears reliev'd
Wait, what? Why would grace both raise and relieve his fears?
This line can be confusing, but it's based on another key principle within evangelical theology. Evangelical Christians believe that before a person can be saved, they need to pass through a series of steps.
In one of the early steps, the sinner must become aware of their sin and its consequences. The person could never be redeemed unless they awaken their disgust of sin, and then let their fear of damnation open their hearts to God's saving grace. That same grace that instilled such fear would also be their salvation, though. God would prepare sinners' hearts for forgiveness by making them extraordinarily sensitive to the terribleness of their sins and the dangers of their unholy ways.
Evangelical ministers of John Newton's era itemized these steps toward conversion in great detail. They provided, in effect, a checklist against which would-be Christians could measure their progress toward salvation.
The hour I first believ'd!
John Newton "first believed" on May 10th, 1748.
In John Newton's own spiritual memoir, he said that the "hour I first believed" occurred on May 10th, 1748. When a storm threatened to destroy the ship on which he was sailing, he promised to dedicate his life to God and mend his ways if his life was spared.
His ship weathered the storm, and Newton celebrated this date as the anniversary of his conversion for the rest of his life. His spiritual journey, however, followed a more gradual path. Newton didn't abandon many of his "worldly" pastimes for several years; he continued to sail on slave ships, and he even invested in some after he stopped sailing. But eventually he became a minister, and saw the error of his ways.
Thro' many dangers, toils, and snares,
I have already come;
Newton fit more autobiographical lines into this hymn than you'd think.
In many ways, "Amazing Grace" records hymn-writer John Newton's own journey through life, and in this line, he refers to the "dangers, toils, and snares" that made up his wretched past.
Newton was pressed into the British Royal Navy against his will at a young age, and when he tried to desert, he was re-captured and flogged. He later sailed on a slave ship but was eventually abandoned on an island where he became a virtual slave himself to another slave trader. In addition to those physical hardships, Newton also passed through several spiritual "dangers, toils, and snares." He explored various "blasphemous" philosophies, supported slavery, and even wrote pornographic verse.
Yes, when this flesh and heart shall fail,
And mortal life shall cease;
I shall possess, within the veil,
A life of joy and peace.
It helps if you know your Bible verses if you want to unravel these lines.
Here, Newton, a minister well-acquainted with the Bible, draws upon a tradition dating all the way back to Moses, when the Tabernacle was divided into two sections separated by a veil. On one side of the veil, Jews were permitted to enter and worship. On the other side of the veil, God dwelled. Humans were not allowed to enter this "Holy of Holies," and the practice of keeping these two areas separated by a veil was incorporated into the Temple in Jerusalem after it was built.
Christians believe, however, that Jesus' death served to tear open the veil. His death provided an atoning link between God and humanity, and therefore the barrier between them was destroyed. Newton's use of the phrase taps into this belief. Through Jesus' intercession, the believer will be able to join God after his death, "when mortal life shall cease." But Newton also conjures the Old Testament image of the "Holy of Holies" to suggest that he'll join God in a physical place, "within the veil," or heaven, the dwelling place of God.