I love the hymn Amazing Grace. Of all the hymns, spiritual songs, and praise songs I’ve sung over the years it still remains my favorite. It says more in the simplicity of its words than hundreds of theologians have said over hundreds of years. It becomes even more meaningful when the story of its author John Newton is known. And my favorite rendition of it was performed by Judy Collins, which you can hear here. It is a song best sung acapella; only the power and beauty of the human voice can evoke the full meaning of the words (that last part is my opinion; feel free to politely disagree).
I don’t know if Judy Collins ever fully realized what she was singing. I recall seeing a quote one time that she associated some sort of nebulous spirituality with it but nothing approaching what Newton had in mind when he wrote it. Sadly, although this is the most popular hymn of all time, I fear many of us don’t understand it that much better. We sing of Amazing Grace, but do we have any idea why grace is so amazing? If we don’t properly understand the nature of God then we can’t appreciate the full depth of his grace.
We like the image of God as love. A God who forgives us because he loves us. A God who gives us everything without demanding anything. It’s a comforting image that’s a lie. While God is indeed a God of perfect love he is also a God of perfect holiness. A God whose very nature cannot allow the existence of sin in his presence, whose justice demands that a price must be paid for that sin. And that becomes a dilemma to our limited human minds. Because if God chooses to forgive us just because he loves us, it violates his perfect justice, and so proves he isn’t God. But if he chooses to condemn us to satisfy his perfect justice he violates his perfect love, and therefore cannot be God, either.
I refer to Oswald Chambers often on this blog, and once again his My Utmost for His Highest has spoken to this and served as inspiration for this post. Chambers has a habit of knocking me back on my heels and challenging me with his insights about God, Christ, and what it means to be in relationship with both. This week’s devotionals laser-beam focused again and again on this very idea. Here’s a quote from one of them (it’s rather lengthy, necessary to get the full thought):
“Never build your case for forgiveness on the idea that God is our Father and He will forgive us because He loves us. That contradicts the revealed truth of God in Jesus Christ. It makes the Cross unnecessary, and the redemption ‘much ado about nothing’. God forgives sin only because of the death of Christ. God could forgive people in no other way than by the death of His Son, and Jesus is exalted as Savior because of His death. “We see Jesus…for the suffering of death crowned with glory and honor…(Hebrews 2:9). the greatest note of triumph ever sounded in the ears of a startled universe was that sounded on the Cross of Christ- “It is finished (John 19:30). That is the final word in the redemption of mankind.
Anything that lessens or completely obliterates the holiness of God, through a false view of His love, contradicts the truth of God as revealed by Jesus Christ.”
We don’t understand the enormity of God’s sacrifice because we underestimate the depth of our own sin and depravity. The reason is because we have no appreciation of God’s holiness. As we become fully aware of His holiness we begin to see more clearly the magnitude of our sins. We no longer labor under the delusion of being “pretty good people” in spite of messing up here and there, and there are no “big” and “little” sins. When we convicted that our sins are a stink in the nostrils of God and we deserve nothing but being cast out of His presence, only then do we begin to understand why it cost God the life of His son, and just how amazing His grace truly is.
God didn’t have to provide a solution to a problem we can’t fix ourselves. He could have simply wiped us away and started over; He pretty much did that once, anyway. His justice demands it, but in His love He provided the solution. It’s the only solution, the only way that both love and justice could be satisfied. It’s why Jesus called himself the Way, because that’s exactly what he was, and is. He came to earth for one purpose: to pay the penalty for our sins and suffer the punishment that should have been ours. In the process he also showed us what a real relationship with God looks like and how to have it.
It’s written in scripture that those who have been forgiven much, love much. The apostle Paul understood that; he referred to himself as the “chief of sinners”. John Newton also understood that only too well. Having been the captain of a slave ship prior to becoming a Christian, he felt God’s grace most keenly, and was able to put that into the words of his beautifully simple hymn. May we have such a humble heart, for then we will realize that God is holy and His grace is truly amazing.
“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”