Hymn abuse is a terrible thing to watch. Surely one of the most abused hymns in history is John Newton’s “Amazing Grace.” No other hymn has been subjected to so much misuse, misappropriation and misunderstanding. Sports fans in the UK sing it like an anthem at soccer games. It’s sung at the memorial services of unbelieving celebrities in an effort to console the grieving. “Amazing grace” is the world’s favourite hymn and the hymn that the world most loves to abuse.
Part of the problem is that, when Newton wrote it, it was for his congregation of Christian believers. For them the context was clear. God’s grace was in Jesus Christ, the gospel is where we find God’s amazing grace. But that was assumed in the hymn and that, I think, has opened it up to all this abuse. What would God’s grace in Jesus Christ for poor sinners have to do with a soccer game? What would the gospel have to do with someone who rejected it? “The hour I first believed” – when the departed loved one never believed in the Saviour?
We can wish that John Newton would have been more explicit and assumed less – that might have spared us all this sacrilege. However, that doesn’t take away from the fact that, from a Christian perspective, the hymn does contain some beautiful words and biblical sentiments. Among them is the notion of once having been blind and now seeing. Newton knew what that was about. He wrote the words found on his gravestone and they say it all: “John Newton, Clerk, once an infidel and libertine, a servant of slaves in Africa, was, by the rich mercy of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, preserved, restored, pardoned, and appointed to preach the faith he had long laboured to destroy.” He had been blind, but was brought to sight by God’s grace. This is a biblical picture, an image that Scripture uses to describe those who are called out of darkness into God’s wonderful light. It’s an image of those who come to understand who Jesus Christ is and what he came to do. It’s an image that we also find embedded in our text for this morning.