New Wine for New Wineskins September 2016

By , September 1, 2016 4:15 pm

amazinggrace004Amazing Grace

Amazing grace how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me, I once was lost but now am found was blind but now I see.

This universally recognised and immensely popular hymn was first published in 1779 and is possibly one of the best known hymns ever. Written by John Newton in England it became more widely sung in the USA as it was included in many hymnals there.

The song had a resurgence of popularity in the 1960’s and has been recorded thousands of times since. It has also appeared several times in pop music charts. It was even sung at Woodstock music festival in 1969.

I can remember the very first time I heard this hymn.  It was in 1970 and it was on the UK pop music chart programme “Top of the Pops”. We had a TV in our kitchen and I remember saying to my mother to listen to the words because I recognised that there was something Christian about them. I couldn’t believe that something so overtly Christian was on the very secular “Top of the Pops” and I remember being really shocked that something from my parent’s religion was actually “trending”, even though we didn’t actually use that word back then.

As we listened to the song being sung a cappella by Judy Collins and a choir of backing singers we were blown away as it was so incredibly powerful. Her version charted in the UK 8 times between 1970 and 1972 reaching number 5 and spending a total of 75 weeks in the charts.

The Royal Scots Dragoon Guards recorded an instrumental version featuring a bagpipe soloist accompanied by a pipe and drum band. Stirring stuff, especially for anyone with Scottish genes.

Amazing Grace has been recorded by a diverse group of singers and musicians over the past 50 years, including Aretha Franklin, Rod Stewart, Johnny Cash, The Byrds, Elvis Presley, Willie Nelson, etc. Even the American Celtic Punk band The Dropkick Murphys recorded a version.

In my lifetime it has become one of the most popular hymns sung at weddings and funerals and many people, believers and unbelievers, know all of the words by heart. For some reason it strikes a chord in the hearts of people from every walk of life, cultural background, social status, ethnicity, etc. That in itself is powerful, but how many of those who sing or are moved by this song really know why? How many of those who sing or are moved by this song really understand grace?

Let’s go back to the first sermon of the brand new church and hear what was said there.

Acts 2: 38 – 41 (The Message)

38-39 Peter said, “Change your life. Turn to God and be baptised, each and every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ, so your sins are forgiven. Receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. The promise is targeted to you and your children, but also to all who are far away—whomever, in fact, our Master God invites.”
40 He went on in this vein for a long time, urging them over and over, “Get out while you can; get out of this sick and stupid culture!”
41 That day about three thousand took him at his word, were baptised and were signed up.

The amazing thing about grace is that it is a gift, but if we don’t understand grace then we will underestimate the value of the gift.

Romans 6: 23

23 For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life through Christ Jesus our Lord.

In the beginning God created man in his image and according to his likeness, to be like him. Tragically, through man’s disobedience sin entered the picture and with sin came death. Since then every person has been born with a natural inclination to sin and can only be certain of one thing in their future – one day they are going to die.

We work our way through a life of sin and at the end we collect a fat wage packet full of death. That’s justice, getting precisely what we deserve. Now we might not think that is what we deserve but I’ve never heard of anyone fighting for less pay.

If we think we deserve a better deal it’s because we don’t understand grace. The wages of sin is death but the free gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.

I have heard grace being explained as an acronym as Gifts Received At Christ’s Expense, or God’s Riches At Christ’s Expense.

When John Newton finally got a handle on grace he wrote this song that at some level resonates in the lives of the vast majority of people even if they don’t know why. John Newton had worked hard at sin for the first part of his life and when he was saved and entered the ministry his preaching was said to be unique for his day in that he shared many of his own experiences from the pulpit and wasn’t afraid to admit to the sins of his past. He often said his mission was to “break a hard heart and to heal a broken heart”.

The same Holy Spirit who comes to break a hard heart is on hand to heal that broken heart. That’s the amazing thing about grace.

Amazing grace how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me…..

wretchunfortunate or unhappy person; a despicable or or contemptible person; villain, rogue, rascal, reprobate, creep, low-life, rat, swine, scumbag, sleazeball, scoundrel

When John Newton caught a glimpse of the blazing brilliance of the holiness of God, when he began to understand that God is infinitely good and completely perfect, he could only see himself as a wretch in comparison. John Newton wasn’t beating himself up by calling himself a wretch, but for the first time he was seeing the amazingness of grace and that Jesus had taken his beating, the beating that he deserved.

One of the amazing things about grace is that it allows you to be truly honest for the first time in your life, and to acknowledge the truth that sets you free. Grace allows you to come out of hiding. Sinners, wretches, rogues, reprobates, and rascals, scumbags, sleaze balls, and scoundrels, can come out of the closet, out of hiding, and be changed and transformed.

In our PC world sinners have been given a makeover, but when you understand grace you are happy to acknowledge your “wretch” status in the light of amazing grace. Because grace has saved you.

Ephesians 2: 8 – 9

8 For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— 9 not by works, so that no one can boast….. (NIV)

8 God saved you by his grace when you believed. And you can’t take credit for this; it is a gift from God. 9 Salvation is not a reward for the good things we have done, so none of us can boast about it….. (NLT)

Saving is all his idea, and all his work. All we do is trust him enough to let him do it. It’s God’s gift from start to finish! We don’t play the major role. If we did, we’d probably go around bragging that we’d done the whole thing! No, we neither make nor save ourselves. God does both the making and saving….. (The Message)

The good news is that you don’t have to collect your wage packet stuffed with all the death you have earned. Because
of amazing grace you can receive the free gift of eternal life.

You simply have to believe that grace is so amazing that Jesus took everything that you deserved so that you could receive everything you don’t deserve. You may not think of yourself as being or having been a bad person worthy of the title “wretch”.  But no matter how “good” a life we may have lived, when we compare ourselves to the blazing brilliance of the holiness of God and his complete perfection, it gives us a whole new appreciation for his grace, and for me personally I think “wretch” is a pretty good fit.

John Newton wasn’t beating himself up, he was simply comparing himself against the holiness and complete goodness of God for the first time, and his self-righteousness was vaporised.

Remember how the previously self-righteous Paul referred to himself after his encounter with the blazing glory of the risen Jesus?  He was happy to declare himself to be the chief of sinners. Because he knew how amazing grace is.

We should never measure ourselves against each other as so many do and end up thinking they’re doing okay. Even criminals have a code they subscribe to, and in prisons certain categories of prisoners are looked down upon and despised by others because of the nature of their crimes.

But it is when we measure ourselves against the perfect holiness of God that we begin to understand just how amazing grace is. God loves unconditionally, he never lies, never holds a grudge, always forgives, is patient and long-suffering, is totally pure, is completely unprejudiced, and that’s only the beginning of an attempt to describe his infinite virtue.

And so, even if, according to the various definitions of “wretch” you can only acknowledge that you are unfortunate and unhappy you can sing this song.

Amazing grace how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me…..

Or if you recognise that in comparison to the perfect holiness of God you can admit to some of the other levels of wretchedness like rogue, reprobate, or rascal, or even scumbag, sleazeball, and scoundrel, you too can sing this song.

Amazing grace how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me…..

You don’t have to remain in the fantasy world of self-righteousness where you think you’re okay just because you don’t see yourself as unfortunate or as unhappy as some other folks. Or you consider yourself to be less of a rogue, reprobate, rascal, scumbag, sleazeball, or scoundrel than some of the other rogues, reprobates, rascals, scumbags, sleazeballs, or scoundrels.

You can come clean for the first time. Because grace is amazing. When you acknowledge you’re a wretch and receive the free gift of God’s grace you are declared truly clean for the first time in your life.

God created us to be like him, and sin wrecked that. But now, because of amazing grace, the wretch can be re-labeled righteous.

2 Corinthians 5: 21

21 For He made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.

That’s how amazing grace is. The sinner is re-labeled saint, and the wretch is re-labeled righteous.

We were all born with the natural inclination to sin. That is why Jesus said you must be born again from above. It’s like having your hard drive wiped and reformatted and your life rebooted.

According to Peter the invitation is to everyone to come and change your life and be baptised for the forgiveness of your sins, and receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.

Amazing grace how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me…..

Amazing grace, the wonderful gift we don’t deserve.

The world has had enough of religion with all of its legalistic demands and its representations of a God who is more of a taker than a giver. People need to see and hear about the God who is a Father who longs for us to experience his amazing grace that saved a wretch like you and me, and can save a wretch like them…..

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