Soli Deo Gloria: For the Glory of God Alone
Posted: Thursday, January 7, 2010 2:56 pm
The Messenger, January 7, 2010
By BILL TANNER
Special to The Messenger
John Newton died in 1807, but his song lived on. The words to “Amazing Grace,” penned in December 1772, slowly and steadily reached across England and then to America. The song’s spread was accelerated by two major spiritual upheavals in American life which took place in the middle and latter half of the 18th century.
In Massachusetts, the Calvinistic preaching of Jonathan Edwards, George Whitefield and others began what eventually became known as the Great Awakening. Although Newton himself wasn’t converted during the Great Awakening, the movement’s Calvinistic theology profoundly affected his intellectual and spiritual development. In this respect, Newton’s hymn “Amazing Grace” could be considered a product of the Great Awakening.
The second boost to the popularity of “Amazing Grace” came during the Second Great Awakening, which was by no means a replica of what happened earlier under Edwards and Whitefield. The leaders of the Second Great Awakening tended to be less educated, the sermons less scholarly and the responses more physical and emotional. The guiding theology of the movement was also radically different. Emphasis had subtly shifted from God choosing people, to people choosing God — a shift from Calvinism to Arminianism.
The effect of this change would be profound, leading in the 20th century to the worst excesses of televangelism, audience manipulation and bumper-sticker theology. If the task of the preacher was not merely to present the gospel and to allow the Spirit to convict, but to elicit a decision, then any technique that changed minds was legitimate. Under these circumstances, the “altar call” and “anxious seat” were introduced, while soft music was used to play on the emotions.
Evangelists of the Second Great Awakening stressed moral reformation more than spiritual regeneration. During this period, the last three verses of Newton’s great hymn were virtually deleted from hymn books and replaced with “when we’ve been there ten thousand years.” This changed the subject from I to we and the focus from grace to praise in New Jerusalem.
The original words of Newton’s hymn focused solidly on the activity of grace. John Newton was a man appalled at the depths of his own sinfulness and amazed at the heights of God’s mercy. “Amazing Grace” was not only the story of his life but also the essence of his message. Newton outlined in verse the Christian pilgrimage from conviction of sin, to repentance and faith, through this earthly journey and on to life eternal.
(just as Newton wrote it)
Amazing grace! How sweet the sound
That saved a wretch like me!
I once was lost, but now I’m found,
Was blind, but now I see.
’Twas grace that taught my heart to fear,
And grace my fears relieved;
How precious did that grace appear
The hour I first believed.
Through many dangers, toils, and snares,
I have already come.
’Twas grace that brought me safe thus far,
And grace will lead me home.
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.
Editor’s note: Bill Tanner is a retired farmer and businessman and a life-time resident of Union City. He attends Grace Community Church.