Have you read and thought about the words to John Newton’s famous hymn “Amazing Grace”?
Let me refresh your memory with the first verse:
Amazing grace, how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me!
I once was lost, but now I’m found; was blind, but now I see.
As a teenager I told my dad, a Navy Chaplain, “I can’t sing the song because I am not a wretch.” But my father, a wise man, said, “The man who wrote that song was speaking about himself. You need to read about him. But before you do, look up the word.” So I did.
“Wretch” is traced to the Old English “wrecca” which means “banished person.” It also means “a despicable, worthless, contemptible, or vile person.”
Well, that didn’t apply to me as a thirteen-year-old boy. The worst thing I ever did was lie to my parents and fight with my siblings. Maybe I talked back to my parents, and cheated on a test. Oh whatever – but I decided that I was NOT a wretch!
When dad asked me what I found out, I gave my report about how bad I was NOT. Granting that I was overall a good boy, dad asked me a strange question: “Are you in the same category as Jesus – one who has never sinned?”
“Of course I have sinned,” I said. “But I’m still not a wretch!” What was dad getting at anyway? Had I done something really bad that I had forgotten about? I didn’t think so. Well, I did shoot at cars with my Red Rider B-B gun one time; but the B-Bs never even came close to the cars which were a quarter-mile away. And I’m sure dad never knew about that.
Dad had turned to James 2:10 in the New Testament and read: “And the person who keeps all of the laws except one is as guilty as the person who has broken all of God’s laws.” He then asked me what it meant. All I did was to repeat the verse because it was self-explanatory.
“So,” dad asked, “are you any better than John Newton?”
Rev. John Newton was born July 24, 1725 and died December 21, 1807. In his later years, he was an Anglican minister, hymn-writer, and supported the English abolition of slavery. So, what’s the deal about a wretch? There’s more to the story.
The son of a British shipmaster, the Royal Navy captured John – a common way of drafting men into the military, sometimes called “shanghaied.” Somewhat of a rebel, he was flogged and sold into slavery. He referred to himself as “a servant of slaves in West Africa.” But he was eventually set free; and, although having been a victim of slavery, he became a slave trader.
Although it was totally demeaning, barbaric, and inhuman to the captured Africans, it was a lucrative endeavor. Not only that, it was a joint-effort: black Africans were capturing neighboring black Africans and selling the ones they didn’t kill to the white slave-traders.
Newton married a Christian, and made a confession of faith in Christ, but continued in the evil, inhumane business of treating human beings worse than he treated his dog.
When offered a better position, Newton quit the slave trade and grew in his understanding of the evil nature of slavery. By the late 1760s Newton’s conscience was gnawing at him in such a way that he finally realized the wretchedness of his malevolent, cruel involvement, and how much he had offended God.
God had revealed His “Amazing Grace” to Newton, and the song was written in 1773. In 1788, thirty-four years after Newton left slavery, he wrote a pamphlet titled “Thoughts Upon the Slave Trade.” He described the hellish conditions of the slave ships, and said, “It will always be a subject of humiliating reflection to me, that I was once an active instrument in a business at which my heart now shudders.” He joined William Wilberforce, and in 1807 they led the charge of ending the slave trade in England.
Dad was waiting for my response. I said, “According to James 2:10, since I have sinned in other areas, I am no better than a slave trader, a murderer, or anything else. I guess without Christ I did fit the ‘wretch’ category.”
Dad said, “Good boy. That is the correct conclusion.”
I now could sing the song. But it took me many years to fully understand the true wretchedness of a person without Christ. And I also understand, decades later, that if I fail to live for the Lord in the best way I know how, I would still be a wretch.
Want about you? Have you thought about it?