“Out of the Depths” is the autobiography of John Newton, author of the beloved hymn “Amazing Grace.” Don’t pick this book up because you want to hear more about Newton as a hymnist — it’s just not there. Instead, the book focuses on his spiritual journey.
Born to a devout mother who dies when he is seven, Newton strays from the faith. As a young man he becomes willful, arrogant and disappointing to his father. His life reads like some of the great stories of the Bible. He is runs away like Jonah, is shipwrecked and beaten like Paul, and like the prodigal son finally comes home to God, his Father. He experiences both wealth and want, becomes a sea captain, a slave trader, a servant (little better than a slave himself) and finally a pastor.
Here is what he had to say about his life:
“They (true believers) are as one body, animated by one spirit; yet their experiences, formed upon these common principles, are far from uniform. The Lord in His first call, and His following providential actions, regards the situation, temperament, and talents of each and the particular services or trials He has appointed for them. All are tested at times yet some pass through the voyage of life much more smoothly than others. ….We must not, therefore, make the experience of others in all respects, a rule to ourselves nor our own a rule to others. ….My case has been extraordinary…it is to be expected that after such a wonderful, unhoped for deliverance as I had received, and after my eyes were somewhat enlightened to see things aright, I should immediately cleave to the Lord and His ways with purpose of heart and depend no more on mere flesh and blood.”
This book was a fairly easy read and I enjoyed it (the copy I had was revised and updated for modern readers). Each of us, like Newton, has a faith journey and we should spend some time reflecting on it. How has God led you to the place you’re at today? I’d like to hear about that.
Recently my husband and I went to Washington D.C. to celebrate our anniversary (46 years!) by visiting the Museum of the Bible. While there we also attended a performance of Amazing Grace at the World Stage Theater (also located at the museum). It’s the story of John Newton, a slave trader who converted and wrote the beloved hymn, Amazing Grace. I’m not sure how historically accurate the play is (the program stated some characters presented were fictional), but I plan to read Newton’s autobiography, Out of the Depths, as soon as I can get it from the library. That may be another post. Certainly there were talented actors and singers, amusing moments and great staging. If you go, you’ll enjoy the show. However, one review I read called the music “competent, but not inspiring.” I would have to agree. Not one song in the entire musical came close to the song it was all about, the one that was sung by cast and audience together at the very end. It never fails to bring tears to my eyes. Here it is:
- Sola Fide, by faith alone.
- Sola Scriptura, by Scripture alone.
- Solus Christus, through Christ alone.
- Sola Gratia, by grace alone.
- Soli Deo Gloria, glory to God alone.
The second Sola I’m writing about is Grace Alone. It goes with the Faith: “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast.” (Ephesians 2:8-9) Gee, what else can I write, that about says it all.
God’s Grace is so amazing. The ancient Hebrews built altars to sacrifice animals, birds and grain to atone for sins. We have Christ, who sacrificed himself for us. You see, there had to be sacrifice for the atonement of all mankind’s sins. That is the way God first set it up. So God sent his Son to do be the sacrifice for our sins and the sins of the world.
OK, you say, so everyone is saved. Not quite. That’s where the faith comes in. We have to have the faith in Christ, believe that he died for us, to accept this gift that he gave us. It’s like a billionaire giving away money. If you were told that you could have an amount of money (let’s make it big, $100,000) for free, all you had to do is go and accept it, you’d do that, right? Whooo Hoo, someone is giving away money, let’s go!! If only we felt the same way about God’s wonderful and amazing gift. We don’t need to do a thing, just accept it.
OK, you say, so I’ll just keep sinning to get more Grace. It’s true, we are all sinners and we all sin each and every day. But in his letter to the Romans, Paul address this: “What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it?” (Romans 6:1-2) No, you will not want to sin anymore. Once you’ve been given this gift you will not want to sin.
So… Grace Alone by Faith Alone. We’re building to the best part: Christ Alone.
This article was originally published in The Lutheran Ambassador
Lutherans are known as “the singing church” and Martin Luther has been called “the father of congregational singing.” But why do we sing? Is it simply our tradition? Is it an appropriate way to express our emotions of gratitude and love toward God? Is it a biblically sanctioned part of worship (Psalm 66:1-2)? Does it help bind us together as a community? The answer is yes to all these questions about communal Christian singing in the Church. However, there is another excellent reason Lutherans sing: hymn singing is an important part of our Christian education.
Maybe you thought the children were just having fun singing all those Sunday School songs. They are having fun, but they are also learning about important people in the Bible (Father Abraham), the essentials of the faith (Jesus Loves Me), the proper response to God’s love (Praise Him, Praise Him, All You Little Children) and what it means to be part of the church (We Are the Church).
Setting words to music is an aid to memorization. Young people often learn the books of the Bible (in order no less) by singing a song. Adults who participate in a Lutheran liturgy discover they’ve memorized many Psalms and other portions of scripture by taking part in the worship service. Well chosen hymns also serve to reinforce the theme of the sermon and the readings of the day. And in times of crisis in our lives the comforting words of hymns bring the reminder of God’s eternal concern for His people to our minds and hearts.
Good hymns teach. They help us understand the different church seasons (O Come, O Come, Emmanuel). They prepare us for communion (Let Us Break Bread Together). They tell us about the attributes of God (A Mighty Fortress). They convict us of our sin (Amazing Grace). They explain theological concepts (The Church’s One Foundation) and give lessons in how to serve (Hark the Voice of Jesus Calling) and be more generous (We Give Thee But Thine Own). Some hymns are almost a sermon in themselves (Salvation Unto Us Has Come)!
Church music can touch our hearts and sink into our souls in a way that is hard to explain or understand. Church music can lift us up into the very realm of God’s presence. No wonder Luther called it “a fair and glorious gift of God.”