Really Amazing Grace
Read: Luke 15:11-31
Trivia question: Of all the songs ever written in any language, which has been recorded most often, by the most artists? The answer: “Amazing Grace.” But do you know the dramatic story behind the song?
In the 1700s John Newton was a captain in the British slave fleet. It was a bloody trade. Twenty percent or more of the captives died on every trip from Africa to the slave markets of Jamaica. And by all accounts, Newton was one of the worst sailors in this horrifying profession. He was so immoral that one former captain refused to ever sail with him on the crew, calling him “a Jonah sure to bring God’s curses upon any vessel.” And Newton was a staunch opponent of Christianity in any form, denouncing God as a myth.
Then one day his ship was caught in the worst storm of Newton’s career. Fearing for his life, he cried out to God. And inexplicably, he became a believer.
His skeptical crew thought it just another phony near-death conversion, but his faith stuck. In fact, he eventually left shipping entirely to become a pastor in Olney, England. It was there, in January 1773, that Newton wrote song lyrics to accompany a sermon he was preaching. He meant to demonstrate to his church how he personally felt as he thanked God for His mercies. He called the song Faith’s Review and Expectation but it became better known by the first two words of the lyric:
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.
That first verse uses words from the story of the Prodigal Son, when the father says, “For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.” The father lavishes gifts on a son who had done nothing but bring shame to his family. That’s what grace is — God’s unearned, lavish gift of salvation for us sinners (For a fuller definition of grace, turn to the first small group lesson).
Newton never could have imagined that words he intended as autobiographical would find resonance in so many millions of hearts. In recent years I’ve shed tears of gratitude myself singing that song, thinking of my own lostness and God’s grace to me.
But only recently.
Because here’s the forgotten side of the Prodigal Son story: the older brother; the Practical Son. His words to the father are telling: “Look! All these years I’ve been slaving for you…”
Sadly, many joyless Christians see themselves exactly the same way: slaving like a servant instead of celebrating like a son. So they work harder and harder trying to be good, desperate to earn the father’s attention and approval, all the while blind to the fact that they already have what they strive so earnestly to gain.
I can tell you that while I relate to the younger brother at times, I spent most of my Christian life thinking like the older brother. I tried so hard not to disappoint my Heavenly Father. Yet I still lived with an unshakable feeling that I just wasn’t doing enough. So I tried to pray longer, I tried praying on my knees, I read through the whole Bible several times — all the while looking over my shoulder, in a spiritual sense, wondering if my Father was watching and approving.
It all came to a head when I was a pastor, burned out and bitter, yelling in prayer something very much like “All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders — yet I never get to party!!” How did my story end? I’ll tell you more tomorrow.
In the parable, the father tries to correct this older son’s thinking: “My son, you are always with me, and everything I have is yours.” But Jesus leaves us hanging, the story unfinished; we never discover the older brother’s response. That’s because Christ was telling this story to dry, legalistic religious people — to an audience of older brothers (See Luke 15:1–2). He is leaving the story unfinished because we finish it with our response.
I pray that, if you’re one of those veteran Christians for whom “amazing grace has become boring grace,” as J.I. Packer puts it, you’ll have your eyes opened during the Grace Immersion to your Father’s love and the riches He lavishes on you!
Why do you think the song “Amazing Grace” resonates with so many people? Does it resonate with you?
To whom do you relate in the parable of the Prodigal Son?
Imagine God saying to you the words in the father’s response (v. 31). How would you feel?
Today tell God honestly how you feel about your relationship with Him: Distant, exhausted, confused, happy, sad, or anything else. Ask God to use this study of grace to bring about a “grace revolution” in your heart and mind.