The World’s Most Famous New Years Song (A Hymn)


The world’s most famous New Years song is a hymn: “Amazing Grace,” penned by pastor John Newton and unveiled for the first time to his Olney congregation on January 1, 1773.

The entire hymn is inspired by 1 Chronicles 17, a chapter that speaks of King David’s past, present, and future. Newton does the same, reflecting on past grace, present grace, and the hope of future grace — a progression you can watch unfold in the hymn itself.

Newton’s original title was more accurate to this purpose (“Faith’s Review and Expectation”), but today it is more widely remembered by its catchy first two words.

Setting the text of “Amazing Grace” alongside 1 Chronicles 17 will show just how deeply Newton’s hymn soaked up the rich biblical theology of this chapter of Scripture. We see direct lines of contact made by the terms house/home, word, and forever. Also notice the corresponding tenses of the hymn echoed in 1 Chronicles 17: past (verse 7: “I took you from the pasture”), present (verse 16: “Who am I, O Lord God, and what is my house, that you have brought me thus far?”), and future (verse 26: “O Lord, you are God, and you have promised this good thing to your servant”).

While writing my book on Newton, I made this colorized chart to trace the correlations between Newton’s hymn (left) and the inspiring themes from 1 Chronicles 17 (right):

Paradoxically, the final verse (“When we’ve been there ten thousand years…”) originated in the Afro-American worship tradition, not by the former slave trader. Of all places, the added verse made its first formal appearance within “Amazing Grace” in Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852).

Reflecting his personal practice on New Year’s, Newton’s hymn itself provides a doxological moment in time to stop to thank God for his past mercies, his present mercies, and his future mercies.

The scope of the Christian life can be found in Newton’s hymn:

  • salvation (“sav’d a wretch like me”)
  • trials (“many dangers, toils, and snares”)
  • struggles with doubts and need for divine promises (“his word my hope secures”)
  • protection in spiritual battle (“he will my shield and portion be”)
  • aging and facing death (“when this flesh and heart shall fail”)
  • hopes for re-creation (“earth shall soon dissolve like snow”)
  • anticipation for the beatific vision (“A life of joy and peace”)
  • and treasuring God forever (“But God, who call’d me here below, / will be for ever mine”)

From the beginning to the end of this autobiographical hymn, we are introduced to the unwavering grace of God throughout the Christian’s immortal, eternal existence. Newton communicates this vision of the Christian life in catchy language very easily read and sung. About 85% of the hymn is comprised of monosyllabic words. Newton was committed to clarity and simplicity, traits that spill over into all his pastoral work and explain his enduring place as a spiritual luminary so many centuries after his death.

Of course, nothing from the pen of Newton endures like this hymn. currently sells the song in 12,700 different versions. It has been recorded in every genre, including jazz, country, folk, classical, R&B, hip-hop — even heavy metal! The popularity of the hymn is obvious at sporting events and political rallies, among other settings. It endures as one of few religious songs that can be sung impromptu in public because many people (if not most people) can recite at least the first verse by heart.

The hymn is, first, brilliant biography (of David) and, second, brilliant autobiography (of Newton). Newton is the wretch, a term he often used to allude to his own sin and to a period of physical captivity he endured before his conversion. But most brilliantly of all, the hymn functions as a collective autobiography for every Christian. “Amazing Grace” is perceptive biblical theology, embraced by one man deeply moved by his own redemption, articulated for corporate worship. And it is the perfect hymn for New Year’s Day.


For more on Newton’s life and pastoral legacy, see my book on John Newton here.

Was John Newton Converted in a Shipwreck on March 11?


The simple answer is no.

Partly this is due to a calendar change. The date of the storm, on the day of the storm, was the early hours of March 11. But due to an eleven-day shift in the calendar in 1752, the successive anniversary Newton celebrated for the remainder of his life was the recalibrated date of March 21, 1748. This stands as the most accurate date.

More importantly — and contrary to most popular myth of Newton’s remarkable life — the shipwreck does not mark his conversion, but what he would later call his “great day of turning.” The near death experience at sea, and God’s “deliverance” of his physical life, so deeply startled young Newton from his life of moral debauchery that it sent him earnestly searching for God’s grace in the gospel (even to a church in Charleston, SC that still stands today). But that process had only started.

In my research into his life and letters, the best guess I can render is that Newton was converted to Christ 18 months after surviving the storm at sea, and I base this on his 1795 letter, written as an old man recounting the key dates in his life to a friend.

I cite the letter in Newton on the Christian Life, page 35:

I have still some faint remembrance of my pious mother, and the care she took of my education, and the impression it made upon me when I was a child, for she died when I was in my seventh year. I had even then frequent intervals of serious thoughts. But evil and folly were bound up in my heart; my repeated wanderings from the good way became wider and wider; I increased in wickedness as in years: But you have my Narrative, and I need not tell you how vile and how miserable I was, and how presumptuously I sat in the chair of the scorner, before I was twenty years old. My deliverance from Africa [1747], and afterwards from sinking in the ocean [1748], were almost miraculous; but about the year 1749 (I cannot exactly fix the date) the Lord, to whom all things are possible, began to soften my obdurate heart. (Letters [Taylor], 125).

The rest, as they say, is history.

Reading John Newton’s Letters


Since completing my book-length synthesis of the letters of John Newton, I find myself often asked: Where should I begin, if I want to read Newton for myself?

I love this question, so let me first affirm it. Yes! You should read Newton for yourself. In his letters, you will find a lifetime of careful counsel to feed your soul and direct your steps. Newton was a brilliant pastor. He wrote sermons, he wrote hymns (like Amazing Grace), but he also wrote many pastoral letters. John Newton was convinced that his letters were his greatest contribution to the church. I agree.

Those letters are also some of the easiest writings from the eighteenth century to read and comprehend. But they are not superficial. Tim Keller once told me Newton’s letters “blaze with glory.” He calls those letters “pure gold.” Yes, exactly, the letters are full of gold, but like physical gold, it is not easy for readers to find all the gold in one place. This is my attempt to map you to the mines.

The Works of John Newton

Apart from my Bible, I have not re-read any other book more frequently than John Newton’s 6-volume works, originally published in 1820.

Fittingly, in content, the 3,790-pages work out to be 50-percent letters to his friends, family, and inquirers:


That’s a lot of letters. In fact, this is the best way to get your hands on many of Newton’s letters at once.

Even better, the 6-volume set was very recently re-typeset and republished by the Banner of Truth into a tighter and slightly cheaper 4-volume edition. It’s all the content, collected in a beautiful cloth binding for $120.

To show the two different editions, here’s a favorite Newton quote printed in each. The older edition (1820/1985) is on the top, and the newer version (1839/2015) is on the bottom.


Additionally, the new re-tyepset edition offers some very handy features for readers. The names of the recipients of Newton’s letters, originally cryptically redacted, have been restored. And the editor has added Newton’s short autobiography to the collection, which is a very nice value-add.

A couple of readers have asked: If they own the 6-volume works, should they also purchase the new 4-volume collection? My short answer is no. But in either case, Banner of Truth, who first published Newton’s 6-volume works in 1985, has done a great service to the church with this newly re-typeset replacement. For serious readers of Newton’s letters, the Works is a must-own resource.

What Works for You?

But there remain a few more buying options.

$140: You can buy the Banner’s new 4-volume retypeset edition of the works, with autobiography, in beautiful cloth.

$130: You can buy a digitized and paginated version of the original 6-volume works via Logos Bible software.

$60–80: You can buy Banner’s 4-volume retypeset edition as a Kindle ebook (ISBN: 9781848716414). Forthcoming. This price has not been finalized.

Free: You can download and read the 6-volume works of Newton online as free PDFs through these links:

Newton’s Other Works

Okay, now here’s where it starts to get complicated and the mines start getting smaller and more remote.

For readers especially interested in Newton’s letters, we have covered only a fraction of what has been published. Many other volumes of published letters are found outside the 4/6-volume edition, mostly in old and rare volumes of collected letters of Newton’s correspondences. These include letters to specific family and friends with the last names of Barlass, Bull, Campbell, Clunie, Coffin, Dartmouth, Dawson, Jay, Jones, More, Palmer, Scott, Taylor, and Wilberforce. And many of these individual letters — and many of Newton’s very best letters, in my opinion — are found in these random volumes (and not in the works).

Added to these titles, two diligent editors have recently transcribed Newton’s letters to Ryland and Thornton (forthcoming).

So you can spend quite a lot of time gathering up hundreds of excellent letters not found in Newton’s works, and many are available online for free download in Google books and the digital archive.

Best Single-Volume Collections

There is a way through all the complexity.

If you want to start small, here are my favorite single-volume collections of letters to consider first as small steps in building your John Newton letter library. Most of the letters in these free PDFs are not found in the collected works:

Overwhelmed yet?

In sum, if you want to read all the published letters of Newton, it is both possible and also complicated. If you are looking for a fun historic adventure, collecting and enjoying Newton’s letters would be a venture to keep you busy for years.

I certainly enjoyed every bit of the chase to find all of Newton’s published letters. The search took me all over the world and introduced me to many new friends and fellow admirers of Newton’s letters. With their help I collected all of Newton’s published letters, studied them closely, and then wrote a synthesis of all of Newton’s best pastoral counsel, collected all in one place, which I wrote into my new book: Newton on the Christian Life: To Live Is Christ (Crossway).

I hope my book is a helpful introduction to the mind and heart of John Newton. As Sinclair Ferguson kindly said of my book, “Tony has lovingly distilled the essence of Newton for us. Newton on the Christian Life is a taste of spiritual manna that will make us want to read the letters of Newton for ourselves.”

That is my earnest prayer and hope.

What John Newton Taught Me


Recently a friend of mine wrote and asked: “Having spent so much time with your friend John Newton, what would say is the single most important thing — numero uno — he has pressed into your heart?”

Here’s my answer (posted with permission):

Brother, what a wonderful question!

Well, what strikes me most about Newton is his insistence that the Christian life is exodus (conversion), followed by forty years of desert wandering and trials and challenges (the Christian life), that all usher in the Promised Land of eternal life in the presence of Christ. In other words, most of us arrive at the doorstep of eternity by degrees and disclosures, not abruptly and in a flash.

And so many of the pressures and promises of life cloud our vision. There are many sinful things we think will be gainful in life, and so we are lured from one idol to another fleeting idol until we are made to realize the futility of this search, and how habitually we have been reaching for god substitutes. But something of this hold true for even the good things in life, like marriage and children and ministry — so God brings into our lives disruptions and trials to break us free from assuming these good gifts can supply the gain we need to manage this life with joy.

And so as time goes on, and as we find the sinful things to be empty, and even the good things in life wear thin in what we expect them to bring in truly satisfying our hearts, we begin to see something our hearts were longing for in all those things. And just as we begin to see the thinness of all the things we previously rooted our eternal hopes in, a new delight shines through the background.

As the Christian life develops and deepens we are ever weaned from this world, slowly, by increments, and through various trials and troubles and letdowns. And the good gifts in life do not become worthless but seem to take on a new character because Christ begins shining through them to us and we grow in gratitude and see all things as gifts that come to us directly from the Savior’s hand.

And as the Christian ages and spouses are taken away and even children are taken early and as ministry responsibilities pass on to others, there is a growing sense of inadequacy and a growing sense of incapability with this world that grows stronger and in a sense more bitter — a sorrow in the rejoicing.

Then finally comes a day when our time on earth draws to a close, and the beauty of Christ shines more precious to us than ever before in life. Not all of the sudden, but as though it were the culmination of forty years of wilderness preparedness, all of life leading us to a point when finally everything on earth seems to be loss compared to the greatest gain, the greatest treasure, which is to enter the unspeakable delight of the presence of our Savior. And in that moment, suddenly, through death, we find the truest gain we were seeking for all along as the doorway into the beatific presence of Christ opens to us.

I have never seen a man live with resolve in a vision of the Christian life like the one I see in the life and letters of John Newton. That’s what I take from him. He pulls away the clouds and the shrouds of what makes this life feel so enclosed by the momentary, to show that we are all being led, day-by-day, step-by-step, into the presence of our greatest gain in the universe.

John Newton Birthday Bash Book Giveaway!


[UPDATE: The contest is now concluded. We had 473 entries to the #JNXL contest. Thank you all! And congratulations to @jreidpatton and @jenniferguo, the winners!]

John Newton turns 290 years old today (Tuesday). In celebration, two randomly drawn winners will get a set of the Theologians on the Christian Life series to date (9 volumes). All thanks to our friends at Crossway Books.

Here’s how to enter.

Beginning right now, post your favorite quote(s) from John Newton (or from the new book) — in Twitter and/or Instagram — using the hashtag #JNXL.

Post as many quotes as you like, but entries are limited.

  • Up to 2 entries on Twitter will be entered (each #JNXL quote is worth 1 entry).
  • Up to 2 entries on Instagram will be entered (Tweets to pics not counted).

If you use Twitter and Instagram, that’s 4 entries per person max.

Don’t have any favorite Newton Tweetables? [hint]

The shipping address for the winning books must be within the continental US.

On Thursday morning (9am central), entries will be collected and one male and one female will be randomly drawn from the entries and will win one set of the 9-volume paperback set of Theologians on the Christian Life. I will contact winners to get addresses later. Contest ends Thursday morning at 9am central time. Winners will have 12 hours to respond to winning notification or another winner will be chosen.

Two winners will get all this $135 goodness for free (paperbacks):

A Sweet Twist of Grace

265 years ago John Newton sailed into the port of Charleston and unloaded 150 African slaves (October 1747).

242 years ago Newton wrote the hymn “Amazing Grace” for his church in England (December 1772).

227 years ago Newton formally became an abolitionist to end the Atlantic slave trade (January 1788).

Friday in Charleston:

Politics aside, it was, for one moment in America, a sweet twist in our shared history. It was a work of God in overcoming multiple layers of sin. It is grace — God’s unmerited favor.