T’was Grace that taught my heart to fear.And Grace, my fears relieved.
How precious did that Grace appear
the hour I first believed.
As we sang Amazing Grace this Sunday, this verse jumped out at me. It was one of those things you have heard a thousand times, that hits you on the one thousand and first. The way that John Newton portrays grace is amazing: both as the source of his fear and the solution to it.
Many people have heard the story of John Newton. He was a slave ship operator who became a Christian pastor and eventually took part in abolishing slavery in England. The thing that is often left out of this inspirational story is the timeline. His life is not a simple narrative of bad guy to good guy. Let me lay it out for you:
- Early 1740s he becomes a slave ship captain
- After surviving a ship crash, he becomes a Christian (1749)
- Continues on in the slave trade until retiring from the sea due to illness (1754)
- Becomes an Anglican minister (1764)
- Writes Amazing Grace (1779)
- Joins the fight against slavery in England (1787)
The reason why I think this is important is because when we hear these great stories we tend to think that these men were amazing; we tend to think their conversion was quick. We hear conversion and good work and think about these two things as contiguous. What we see in John Newton is that it took 5 years from when he became a Christian to when he stopped selling and abusing people. It took 15 years until he began to see his sin in light of God’s holiness. It took 30 years from the time that he first got a picture of Christ to when he penned the verse above. Newton did not just receive the gospel and appreciate it (and act on it), it took years of discipline before he could grasp the weight of grace. In the end, he admits that the immensity of grace had to reveal his sin and helplessness before it could offer him freedom from it.
As Peter stepped out of the boat to walk toward Jesus, he did not need more grace (or faith), he needed more humility. Jesus graciously let Peter fail so that he could see his need. The good news is: Jesus was right there. His grace is now and has always been enough. The question is: are we desperate enough to reach out for it?