What\’s Wrong with Amazing Grace?

What’s wrong with amazing grace? The first and most important answer is: Nothing. You need to know I believe in grace, and it is indeed amazing. Whether you consider yourself a follower of Jesus or not, you are here because of grace, you are alive because of grace. If you wake up tomorrow morning and get to live another day, that will be because of grace. What is grace? Grace is God’s amazing generosity to a world that does not deserve God’s generosity, cannot buy God’s generosity, and (generally) does not expect God’s generosity.

Of course, if you are a follower of Jesus Christ, you know more than that about grace: you know that God forgave your sins when that was the last thing you deserved, that God has welcomed you into his family, made you his friend, taken you into his confidence about his plans for the world, encourages you to be his apprentice in turning the world right side up. That’s amazing, and that’s grace!  . . .

But I do have some problems with the song called Amazing Grace, because I actually think grace is bigger and therefore more amazing than the song lets on.  So let’s start with the song. 

It is beloved of so many, in and out of the church. How can anyone find anything wrong with it? The first thing that might cause us to hesitate is the fact that the song is so popular in secular circles! Here are about twenty randomly selected names of artists who have recorded this song: Andy Griffith, Ani Difranco, Billy Ray Cyrus, Christina Aguilera, Daniël Lanois, Diana Ross, Dolly Parton, Janis Joplin, Jerry Garcia, Joan Baez, Judy Collins, Kylie Minogue, Pete Seeger, Rod Stewart, Woody Guthrie, and Willie Nelson.

I don’t want to be mean or judgmental, but I am not aware of any of them claiming to be followers of the Jesus who brought amazing grace to the world. That’s not necessarily bad: after all, maybe God will use the song to nudge them towards Jesus. But would they sing it if it were a bit moiré challenging?

So what’s wrong with it?

a) It’s interesting that there is no reference to Jesus or his cross: the way Christians understand God’s grace, this is where we see it most clearly: that God would go to such lengths for us. When we think grace, we don’t just think a benevolent, grandfatherly, “as long as they’re happy” kind of kindness: we think of a man two thousand years ago who suffered a brutal execution (compared with which that of Saddam Hussein was positively humane and benign).  Maybe one reason secular singers like it is that it doesn’t mention the dreaded J-word or that messy execution.

b) The song is more about me than about God (the words “I”, “me” and “mine” come three times in each of first four verses). But Christian spirituality is not “all about me.” Certainly that’s a part of it: that God should graciously pay attention to little ol’ sinful me. But I am not where grace begins and I am not where grace ends: it begins in the heart of God before the world was ever made, and it involves the whole world, and will end with the renewal of the whole world. By grace, God sweeps me up to be a part of that—that’s the thrill of amazing grace—but it’s not what it’s all about! But because of our sinful nature and the emphasis in our culture on “me” (think of all those uses of “my” in Windows, for example: “My documents,” “My music,” “My pictures”, “My video”  etc.—my computer comes with ten such files), it is easy to become obsessed with this piece of the puzzle, and forget that we’re not at the heart of it.

c) And lastly, there is no reference to what we do in this world if we have experienced grace. Grace here has nothing to do with living a lifestyle of grace in this world: it’s just a vehicle to get us through this world unscathed as quickly as possible, to survive the “dangers, toils and snares.” I can’t wait to get to heaven and escape from this vale of tears. It reminds me of that 60’s Gospel song: “This world is not my home, I’m just a-passing through.” Get me out of here as quickly as possible! I don’t think that’s exactly the attitude that Jesus encouraged in his disciples.

Now, we need to say this song makes better sense if we know the story of John Newton. For him, Jesus was very clearly the centre of his faith. If this song seems a lot about me, it’s because of his experience. He was a slave trader, carrying slaves from Africa to North America, who turned to God when his ship was about to sink during a terrible storm on the Atlantic. He really felt he was a terrible wretch. He was amazed to discover that God didn’t treat him as he deserved, he was amazed that he was still alive, and he was amazed that God could love someone like him.

Neither was he a man who was so heavenly minded as to be no earthly use. His belief in heaven actually led him to work for the abolition of the slave trade he had once supported, and when William Wilberforce was wondering about whether he should become an ordained minister or fight against slavery in the British Parliament, Newton encouraged him to stay in parliament and serve God there—which changed the course of English history. So there is no question that Newton lived out his experience of grace in a life of discipleship.

Having said that, at the same time, I want to say that grace is more than that and more amazing than that!

Where to begin? The words of Jesus would seem like a sensible place to start. In the Sermon on the Mount, for example, one thing Jesus is teaching about is the importance of loving our enemies. The way he explains it is interesting: he tells us what God is like, and then says that we should be the same. Love your enemies: why? Because God loves his enemies. How do we know God loves his enemies? Because he sends Jesus to die for our sins? Well, that is true, of course, but it is not what Jesus says. He actually says:

Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven [he wants to remake us in the image of God]: for [because] he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.

God blesses the righteous and the unrighteous equally. (Of course, it may not be as simple as that. There is an old rhyme which says:

 The rain it raineth every day
 upon the just and unjust fella;
 but rather more upon the just
 for the unjust hath the just’s umbrella.

But the point Jesus is making is that God is indiscriminate in his goodness, blesses people in a thousand ways, whoever they are and whatever they’ve done, and whatever they think of God!   That’s amazing, and (guess what?) that’s grace.

The apostle Paul taught the same as his Master. In Acts 14:17, he says: God has not left himself a witness in doing good—giving you rains from heaven and fruitful seasons, and filling you with food and your hearts with joy. He is preaching to unbelievers, and he explains to them that God has blessed them with material blessings—why? For the simple reason that they can be satisfied and joyful. Amazing, eh? This is God’s grace, as much as the grace that flows from the cross of Jesus Christ. In fact, they are sides of the same coin, or two points along the same continuum. Both are expressions of God’s love, both are grace . . . and both are amazing. Maybe somebody could write a song about that.

Why does this matter? One reason is that if we don’t understand this, we won’t understand what is happening in our world, and that will shake our faith. I did some research a few years back on why young people leave church once they leave home. One of the themes that emerged was that a number of them said things like this:

Once I got out into The World, to my surprise I found a lot of people who were actually good people: they were intelligent, caring, forgiving, thoughtful and funny. They had good marriages and solid friendships (at least, as many as Christians do), did their jobs creatively and conscientiously, and gave to charity. All my life, I’d been taught that because they are sinners, and the world is a bad place, they would all be mean, spiteful, greedy and lustful, all the time. And it simply wasn’t the case.

As a result, their faith faltered, and in some cases disappeared. But if they had had a doctrine of this kind of grace—common grace, as Reformed folk call it—their faith would not have been shaken. They would simply have said, Wow, this is wonderful: God is blessing these people so much! Yes, they are sinners like everyone else; yes, they need to trust in Christ for their salvation. But God loves them anyway: all these good things in their lives are gifts of God’s grace, but they don’t realise it yet.

In Paul’s mind, common grace and saving grace are connected: in Romans 2, he asks: “Do you not realise that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance?” Some people are brought to Christ because they have a sense of guilt and are looking for forgiveness, some come because they have a sense of emptiness in their lives and realise that only God can fill it: but it sounds as though Paul is saying, some have experienced amazing blessings from God, and a proper sense of gratitude ought to bring them in faith to God. If God’s grace to me in creation is amazing, how much more his grace in salvation!

But there’s another dimension to this grace business, and it links common grace (God’s material care for everyone) and saving grace (God’s love through the death of Christ).  This aspect is what John Wesley called prevenient grace. What he meant by this was that God is at work preparing people’s hearts to hear about Christ, nudging them, drawing them, trying to catch their attention, causing them to think about questions of faith. This happens long before the person deliberately says, Yes, I want to trust Christ. It’s the kind of grace that clears the stones out of the field, ploughs up the ground, sows the seed, waters the seed and waits patiently for a harvest. We might add, it is this kind of prevenient grace which makes people question the meaning of life; it’s prevenient grace that makes them wonder why they can’t forgive more easily; it’s prevenient grace which makes people look at the stars and say, There must be a God out there.

This is the kind of grace that Paul banks on in Acts 17. He doesn’t start in by talking about sin and the Athenians’ need for a saviour. He talks first of all about three ways that God has been trying to get their attention.

  1. There is the altar to the unknown god (23): God has convinced them that there is a god whom they do not know. Paul can tell them this God’s name.
  2. Then he quotes things from their own religion—truths that they have figured out (with the help of prevenient grace): in verse 25 he speaks of God as the source of everything (which the Stoics believed) and that of God not needing our help (which the Epicureans believed). You can imagine them nodding as he said these things.
  3. Then thirdly in verse 28 he quotes from their poets Aratus and Epimenides: “In him we live and move and have our being” and “We too are his offspring.” Now these poets were actually writing in praise of the pagan god Zeus not the God of Jesus: but Paul has no hesitation about saying (in effect), Actually you were writing not about Zeus but about the Creator God of the Jews. 

How was Paul able to do this? First of all, he knew that, somewhere in this pagan culture, God was at work, because he believed in prevenient grace. Then he says, “As I walked about your city and looked carefully at the objects of your worship, I found . . .” So he looked carefully to see what clues God had planted, or (if you prefer) to see where prevenient grace was at work, so that he could show the Athenians how it pointed to saving grace as found in Christ. If we don’t look for these things, we won’t find them.

I suppose I came to these convictions about grace through doing the work of evangelism in the universities. I discovered that if I lectured on the resurrection, nobody came. But if I lectured on “Jesus is Alive: Elvis is Alive: What’s the Difference?” people were fascinated.

One useful example that came along was the cartoon strip Overboard. I don’t know if you read it, but it’s about three pirates and their Labrador dog Louie on their pirate ship. But occasionally an extra character turns up: he sits at a drawing board, and there is a sign on the wall saying “Overboard Inc.” Who is he? Well, he’s the creator: and the characters come and argue about him: sometimes they don’t like the lines he gives them, sometimes they want to write the story themselves, sometimes he lets them experience the results of their foolish choices.

So . . . Three aspects of grace: I won’t call them three kinds of grace, because they all show the love of a generous God.

  1. Common grace: God’s material blessings on all humankind regardless of whether they believe or not.
  2. God’s prevenient grace, seeking to point people to Jesus Christ, and
  3. Saving grace, when we put our trust in Christ and are caught up into God’s purposes for the world. 

And we need to understand all of them: if we only stress common grace and prevenient grace, we will neglect the cross. But if we stress the cross and forget the other aspects of God’s grace, we will be puzzled by the way ungodly people are blessed, and (maybe worse) we won’t see how God is at work in people’s lives or be able to point them to Christ.

Let’s rejoice in God’s grace, wherever we find it, and co-operate with the God whose grace is so amazing.
Knox Church, Spadina

January 2007