“Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God.”Colossians 3:16
I was walking through the house this morning when I caught a snippet of one of my favorite hymns playing on my wife’s phone. It started me thinking about worship in song, the debate over traditional hymns versus contemporary worship songs, and why I have a preference, just as everyone else does. Knowing something of my background may help to explain it.
I grew up singing mostly traditional hymns in a church where the singing was acapella. I was blessed with being born into a family that could sing and sing well. My mother had a beautiful voice, as did her brother and cousin (the one who recently passed away, mentioned in earlier entries). I was fortunate to inherit the music gene as well. I lead the song worship for our church each Sunday and have done so since I was 15 (that’s a long time, believe me) for many congregations wherever we’ve lived, and hope to continue for several more years, Lord willing.
While there are several contemporary praise songs that inspire and encourage me (Chris Tomlin’s version of Amazing Grace being one of the foremost), there are several reasons for my love of traditional hymns. First and foremost, their words are weighty and meaningful, and they can’t properly be sung except with the full agreement of the singer. As a friend of mine used to say, you have to “sing it like you mean it.” The singing in worship is the expression of our hearts and minds to God in song, our prayer and our praise. If we sing the words but don’t make them our own, we condemn ourselves. The singing is also a means of teaching and encouraging one another as we sing. As we sing hymns which contain biblical truths we teach and encourage each other in our efforts to grow in our faith.
My appreciation of a hymn is greatly increased by knowing the ‘backstory’ behind its writing. Some of my favorite hymns are the product of extraordinary circumstances and are a powerful expression of faith in God. Such is the case with the hymn Amazing Grace. I’ve heard it sung in a variety of ways, some more touching and inspirational than others. It’s regarded as the most popular hymn of all time. One of the first recordings I heard of it was by Judy Collins backed by a choir. It was amazing in spite of the fact that Ms. Collins has never expressed any faith in God and regarded the song as ‘inspirational’ but didn’t associate it with any Christian belief. (That recording, by the way, is a powerful testimony to the beauty of acapella singing; it is hauntingly beautiful, and often brings tears to my eyes). The hymn is one of my favorites, close to being my absolute favorite.
It was written by John Newton, and many of you know his story. He was a sailor on a slave ship, later a ship captain, who had been taught the Bible by his mother at an early age, but who had rejected that teaching and wandered as far in the opposite direction as possible. During a life-threatening storm at sea, he began to reexamine what he had been taught and eventually repented and left the slave trade. Years later he became an evangelist and wrote this and many other hymns. He was influential in the life of William Wilberforce who was instrumental in outlawing slavery in the British Empire. His ministry lasted for many years, and some of his final words were, “My memory is nearly gone, but I remember two things: that I am a great sinner, and that Christ is a great Savior.”
The words resonate with me because my conviction is the same as that of John Newton: I am a great sinner, and Christ is a great Savior. Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me. I deserve nothing good from the hand of God; the only thing I deserve is death. God once grew so distressed over the sin and depravity of mankind that he flooded the earth to eradicate all of humanity. Thanks be to him that he not only promised not to do it again, but he also made it possible to extend his love, mercy and grace to us through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ. Christ is the only avenue by which we can have access to the amazing grace of God.
I once was lost but now am found, was blind but now I see. Unless I am in Jesus Christ, fully surrendered and obedient to His Lordship of my life, I am lost and without hope. Even more distressing, I am blind to the fact that I am lost. I may see myself as doing just fine and have no desire to change, not realizing that being outside of Christ means I am anything but fine. I’m blind to my own peril: eternal separation from God and eternal punishment for my rebellion and rejection of God’s invitation of grace. But when I come to Christ and become his possession, I finally begin to understand just how amazing God’s grace truly is; now I see.
Most of the times when this hymn is sung, there are only four verses listed. Sadly, there are several others that most people have never heard. The entire set of verses is below; read them slowly and take time to meditate on what is written. They are the story of the Christian life and hope encapsulated into six verses.
Amazing grace! (how sweet the sound)
That sav’d a wretch like me!
I once was lost, but now am found,
Was blind, but now I see.
’Twas grace that taught my heart to fear,
And grace my fears reliev’d;
How precious did that grace appear,
The hour I first believ’d!
Thro’ many dangers, toils and snares,
I have already come;
’Tis grace has brought me safe thus far,
And grace will lead me home.
The Lord has promis’d good to me,
His word my hope secures;
He will my shield and portion be,
As long as life endures.
Yes, when this flesh and heart shall fail,
And mortal life shall cease;
I shall possess, within the veil,
A life of joy and peace.
The earth shall soon dissolve like snow,
The sun forbear to shine;
But God, who call’d me here below,
Will be forever mine.
The last verse that’s traditionally sung is attributed to Harriet Beecher Stowe’s book Uncle Tom’s Cabin and was not originally a part of Newton’s hymn. But it fits so perfectly with the rest of the verses, indeed, is the exclamation point to what Newton had expressed. When we understand how wretchedly hopeless our condition is, and how amazing God’s grace is, why would we not spend eternity singing God’s praise?
When we’ve been there ten thousand years,
Bright shining as the sun,
We’ve no less days to sing God’s praise,
Than when we first begun.
“But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved— and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.”Ephesians 2:4-10 (emphasis mine)
Amazing Grace, indeed.