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

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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):

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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. Amazon.com 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.

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

Happy New Year!

A prayer for everyone launching out into unknown waters of 2013, from The Valley of Vision:

O Lord,

Length of days does not profit me except the days are passed
in thy presence, in thy service, to thy glory.
Give me a grace that precedes, follows, guides, sustains,
sanctifies, aids every hour,
that I may not be one moment apart from thee,
but may rely on thy Spirit
to supply every thought,
speak in every word,
direct every step,
prosper every work,
build up every mote of faith,
and give me a desire
to show forth thy praise,
testify thy love,
advance thy kingdom.

I launch my bark on the unknown waters of this year,
with thee, O Father, as my harbour,
thee, O Son, at my helm,
thee, O Holy Spirit, filling my sails.

Guide me to heaven with my loins girt,
my lamp burning,
my ear open to thy calls,
my heart full of love,
my soul free.

Give me thy grace to sanctify me,
thy comforts to cheer,
thy wisdom to teach,
thy right hand to guide,
thy counsel to instruct,
thy law to judge,
thy presence to stabilize.

May thy fear be my awe,
thy triumphs my joy.

On New Year’s Resolutions

Tis the season for talk of resolutions, and before you pooh-pooh the idea of resolutions, or before you start listing out your resolutions for 2013 in a personal journal, consider a few words from the Apostle Paul in 2 Thessalonians 1:11–12:

To this end we always pray for you, that our God may make you worthy of his calling and may fulfill every resolve for good and every work of faith by his power, so that the name of our Lord Jesus may be glorified in you, and you in him, according to the grace of our God and the Lord Jesus Christ.

From this text, here are a few bulleted points to meditatively ponder:

  • By his power (δύναμις) God is eager to fulfill (πληρόω) the totality (πᾶς) of our faith-filled resolutions (εὐδοκία). Which means …
  • God cares about our resolutions, all of them — and he sets no limit to their number.
  • Our resolutions are legit only because God, by his power, is resolute on our eternal good in all things (Romans 8:28).
  • True godly resolutions focus outward: on God, on Christ, on divine glory, and on the good of others (2 Thessalonians 1:3–4, 11–12).
  • Shortsighted resolutions, resolutions with me as their end, are powerless and destined to fail.
  • True resolutions should fit within the context of our eschatological hope (2 Thessalonians 1:5–10).
  • True resolutions should fit within the reality of our union with Christ (2 Thessalonians 1:12).
  • True godly resolutions — “works of faith” — focus on God’s enabling power, thus they seek for what only God can provide.

And of course if you’d like help starting your list of resolutions, I find this one to be very helpful: “For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1 Corinthians 2:2, NIV).

As an aside, I appreciate what John Piper wrote about resolutions in his 2009 article:

Socrates said, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” Well, the examined life is not worth living either if the examination produces no resolutions. What examination and experience teach us is that the unplanned life settles into fruitless routine. The drifting life — the coasting, que-sera-sera, unreflective life — tends to be a wasted life. The opposite of this is self-examination — life-examination, routine-examination, schedule-examination, heart-examination — followed by “resolves for good.”