“Amazing Grace” – Celebrating the New Year with Newton

“Amazing grace how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me.…” I imagine we are all familiar with this beloved song, but do you know that John Newton wrote it to strengthen his congregation as they entered the New Year? 

He originally titled it “Faith’s Review and Expectation.” Devoted to writing a new hymn each week, Newton crafted this one to coincide with his New Year’s sermon for January 1, 1773. New Years that year fell on a Friday, and during that special service, Newton spoke from 1 Chronicles 17:16-17. In this passage, King David responds in praise and awe over God’s grace in his life. He recalls God’s grace in anointing him as king and in promising that one of his descendants will build God’s temple and have an eternal kingdom. Contemplating all this, David prays:

“Who am I, O Lord God, and what is my family, that you have brought me this far? And now, O God, in addition to everything else, you speak of giving your servant a lasting dynasty! You speak as though I were someone very great, O Lord God!” (1 Chronicles 17:16-17).

From this passage, Newton urged his congregation to likewise consider God’s past, present, and future grace in their lives. He notes how reflecting on God’s past mercies and meditating on His future promises transforms us in the present. It reshapes our perspective. It fills us with joy and changes the way we enter the next year.

Newton spoke on this because he knew it firsthand. It was his pattern to set aside a day each year to recall and rejoice in God’s grace. Having spent years chasing after the empty passions of the world, Newton knew that there was no greater delight than beholding God’s grace. 

It was this newly instilled passion to help others behold God’s grace that led him to preach on 1 Chronicles 17 and craft “Amazing Grace.” Let’s look at a few of Newton’s reflections to enrich our own celebration of God’s past, present, and future grace.

Past Grace: “Who am I, O LORD God?” (v. 16)

David knew he did nothing to deserve God’s favor. He found it hard to take in that God would be so good to him. Yet time and again, God showered David with His love and blessings. 

Reading King David’s question in this verse led Newton to sing the answer: 

“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.” 

Oddly enough, some of our greatest joy comes from realizing our total unworthiness before God. He saved us when we least deserved it. He lovingly pursued us when we foolishly ran from Him in rebellion. He miraculously opened our blind eyes to behold His glory. Without God’s radical intervention in our lives, we would have no hope. 

In light of this, Newton told his congregation, “This question should be always upon our minds.  Who am I?  What was I when the Lord began to manifest His purposes of love?”

Present Grace: “You have brought me this far” (v. 16)

Along with saving us when we least deserved it, God has never ceased in lavishing His grace upon us.  Newton encourages us to reflect on how God has brought us to our present situation. Whether it be protecting us from dangers, walking with us through toils, or rescuing us from snares, God’s goodness has sustained us.  His providence surrounds us. The fingerprints of God’s love and sovereignty mark every aspect our lives. 

 As we conclude a difficult year, Newton helps us sing with grateful hearts,

“Through many dangers, toils and snares,
I have already come;
‘Tis grace has brought me safe thus far,
And grace will lead me home.”

May your reflection on these things assure your heart that God’s grace will continue to sustain you this year regardless of what lies ahead. 

Future Grace: “You have promised these good things to your servant” (v. 26) 

After reflecting on all the ways we have experienced God’s grace thus far, Newton asks his congregation, “Are these small things?” To which he surprisingly responds, “Yes, compared to what follows…. Present mercies are but earnests of His love, present comforts but foretastes of the joy to which we are hastening.” Everything thus far in our lives is but a small token of the eternal treasure God still has in store. 

To help us delight in some of these promises, Newton leads us to sing,

“The Lord has promised good to me,
His word my hope secures;
He will my shield and portion be,
As long as life endures.

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.

The earth shall soon dissolve like snow,
The sun forbear to shine;
But God, who called me here below,
Will be forever mine.”

So how do you view the future? What is your mindset going into the year ahead? 

For John Newton, a new year meant new opportunities to delight in God’s grace. “With new years, new mercies,” he penned in one of his letters. It was a line he also included in his New Year’s hymn for 1776 titled, “See Another Year Is Gone.”

So often we approach the new year as a new occasion for self-improvement: exercising more, eating more healthily, saving money, and so on. Not all of this is bad. But what if you undertook all your ambitions and plans for the new year as opportunities to experience more of God’s grace. What if you committed to consistently engaging in Scripture and prayer, not just to make yourself a better Christian but to behold and receive more of God’s grace in your life? What might the ambition of finding more delight in God look like for you this year?

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