John Newton’s hymn “Amazing Grace” is the most famous New Year’s Day hymn in church history, first unveiled to his rural congregation on January 1, 1773.
The entire hymn is closely modeled after 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. It was a fitting way to bring in the New Year, and it was his annual pattern.
At the start of every year, Newton set aside a day to reflect on life. He was at one time a hardened sailor in the slave trade. He was broken and humbled and redeemed. And he was aware of the ongoing grace upholding his life. And his future was completely in the hands of God’s mercy, too. Like David, Newton saw grace in 3D — past, present, and future.
New Year’s was a special time of reflection and worship, and the practice was embedded into his personal disciplines. It became a hallmark of his pastoral work. He penned new hymns and sermons and personal letters every year to urge his friends to take time at the unveiling of a new year to stop and reflect on grace. He would tell us to do the same at the start of 2017.
Past, Present, Future Grace
Newton’s most famous hymn “Amazing Grace” is the best example of this reflection. The hymn was first unveiled in his church on New Year’s Day (1773), and it’s a reflection on the new year: a look back on his past deliverances, a look around on his present deliverances, and a look forward to his future deliverances in Christ.
As each New Year approached, Newton patterned his thinking along this reflective triplet.
In one letter to a friend, Newton explained the discipline,
New Years finds me employed. I compare it to a hill on the road, from the top of which I endeavor to look back on the way that the Lord has led me thus far through the wilderness (past). I look around to contemplate the difference his goodness has made between my situation, and that of thousands of my fellow creatures (present). I then look forward, and perceive that I am drawing apace to my journey’s end. I shall soon be at home (future).
At the time he wrote this, John Newton, the wretched sinner, had been saved from his sin and judgment. John Newton, the folly-prone Christian, was being saved. And John Newton, the glorified and perfected man in Christ, would be saved in the end.
Such confidence in grace was synonymous with his confidence in the all-sufficient Christ.
To another friend, Newton wrote, “I hope this New Year will bring many new blessings to you. The Lord is good. He has delivered (past) — he does deliver (present) — he will deliver (future). Oh, what an Altar, Atonement, Temple, Priest! What a Sun and Shield! What a Savior and what a Shepherd have we!”
The New Year afforded Newton the reminder to meditate on the grace of Christ.
Knowing how Newton processed the New Year — and knowing he wrote “Amazing Grace” for a New Year’s Day service in his church — take a moment now to read the hymn as it originally appeared. Read it slowly, meditatively, as you reflect on how God has delivered, is delivering, and will finally deliver his children.
The hymn opens with a reminder of God’s past grace:
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!
Now note the transition to God’s present grace:
Through many dangers, toils, and snares,
I have already come;
‘Tis grace has brought me safe thus far,
And grace will lead me home.
Finally, Newton concludes with confidence in God’s future grace:
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.
New Year, New Mercies
Wrote Newton in another letter to a friend, “With new years, new mercies.”
Yes, because we are in the middle of a storyline of grace, a new year brings new anticipation of new mercies from Christ.
The new year is an opportunity to pause on the path and to stand humbly on the hilltop of time to look back on grace received, to cherish the sustaining grace of God upholding us now, and to anticipate future graces yet to come in 2017.