John Newton, the author of this famous hymn, is an amazing testament to God's saving grace.
Born in England in 1725, he was raised by a godly mother until she died just before he turned seven. Because his father was a sailor who spent most of his time on long voyages at sea, John's next few years were unhappily spent at boarding school and in the custody of his step-mother.
On his eleventh birthday, John Newton's father introduced him to the sailor's life, and they made several voyages together during his early teenage years. John was treated well, but he was surrounded by poor role models. Later, John would write in his autobiography: "I am persuaded that my father loved me, though he seemed not willing that I should know it." One of the ways the elder Newton cared for his son was in using his connections to secure job opportunities for him. These, however, were repeatedly squandered as distractions and a penchant for mischief led John to one disappointing end after another.
During his rebellious teenage years, John Newton became a self-described "slave to every customary vice," whose actions were "exceedingly vile." It wasn't long until he adopted a philosophy that denied the existence of God. This brought some rest to his troubled conscience, because if God didn't exist, then there would be no judgment for his sins either. He took much pleasure in converting as many people as possible to his godless theology by ridiculing and blaspheming their faith.
But even though he tried to forget about God, God did not forget about John Newton, and preserved his life on many occasions. Once he was only minutes late for a boat which overturned, drowning all of the passengers. Another time he was thrown from a horse and landed just short of being impaled on sharpened stakes. Some of these dramatic brushes with death caused John to consider the possibility that God was watching over him, and he even made several failed attempts at reforming his life.
A series of circumstances, including forced military service, desertion, capture, demotion, and transfer to the crew of a slave ship, eventually left John nearly dead from malaria and brutally mistreated by slave traders in Africa. Eventually, John was found by a ship captain who, at his father's request, was looking for John to bring him home. God, the heavenly father, was also seeking John Newton, and was about to get his attention.
During the long trip back to England, he was awakened one night by a violent storm which was ripping the ship apart. He briefly went below deck, and the man who took his place was washed overboard. John cried out, "the Lord have mercy on us!" As the sailors attempted to save the battered ship, John began to seriously consider his life in light of the Bible. He recollects: "I concluded at first that my sins were too great to be forgiven."
In time, however, as John Newton learned more of the amazing grace of God, he "began to understand the security of the covenant of grace, and to expect to be preserved, not by my own power and holiness, but by the mighty power and promise of God through faith in an unchangeable Saviour."
'Twas grace that taught my heart to fear, And grace my fears relieved; How precious did that grace appear, The hour I first believed!
This same "amazing grace" of God that saved John Newton is available to sinners today. Like him, you might think that your sins are too great and too many to be forgiven. Or, you may not yet understand that "all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God" (Romans 3:23). Either way, God's Word teaches us that we are slaves of sin (John 8:34), and that "the wages of sin is death" (Romans 6:23). Like John Newton discovered, trying to live a better life is powerless; self-reform is hopeless. You and I need a Saviour.
Jesus Christ, the Son of God (John 3:16) is the One we need. He lived a perfect life and then died as a guiltless sacrifice for sin (1 Peter 1:18-21). His gift of forgiveness and everlasting life is offered to all who will repent of their sins and put their trust in Him. Salvation is offered through God's grace, and accepted by faith: "For by grace are ye saved through faith" (Ephesians 2:8). Will you turn to God and take advantage of His amazing grace today?