The beloved hymn, Amazing Grace, includes this phrase – “that saved a wretch like me!” So, what’s a wretch? The dictionary defines the word as “a despicable person, one who is miserable.” John Newton, who penned those famed words was not just being poetic!
Born to a godly mother, he was taught the Scripture. When he was 7 years old, she died, and he went to sea with his father. He became in his own words a champion at immorality. “I sinned with a high hand,” he later wrote, “and I made it my study to tempt and seduce others.” Eventually he drifted into the lowest rungs of humanity, a captain of ships that carried human cargo from their African homes to the West Indies where they lived out the rest of their lives in misery and death.
In the film, “Amazing Grace” (2007) which tells the story of William Wilberforce, the member of England’s Parliament who led the 30 year struggle to outlaw slavery, Newton reveals that the horror of slave trade haunts his dreams, despite his own experience of Christ’s transforming grace, becoming a minister of the Church of England. He had been a wretch, a man so low yet God’s grace saved him!
We may find ourselves distanced from Newton’s sordid story and comfort ourselves that we are not so wretched as he. Indeed in many churches, sensitive to modern ideals about the supposed goodness of human nature, the hymn is modified so that the word – ‘wretch’ – reads ‘soul.’ Perhaps we would conveniently forget what Scripture teaches us about our depravity. Ugh! That’s an awful word, isn’t it? But, the fact is that apart from the grace of God, shown us in Jesus Christ, we are sinners, miserably alienated from God in our self-will. If we are willing to look at our sorry state without redemption, the bright glory of Grace shines ever more wondrously in our eyes; truly amazing!
Paul knew of the wretched state of humanity first hand, too. This man was a self-righteous defender of his religion, ready to kill in the name of God. We meet him as he witnesses the martyrdom of Stephen, watching him die as stones thrown in rage pummeled the life from his body. Then, Saul (later, Paul) met Christ and experienced amazing, transforming grace. He never forgot that his sinful nature was ready to make a re-appearance if given the least chance. He wrote, “O wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?” (Romans 7:24, NKJV) But he does not dwell on hopelessness, nor does he make excuse for sin!
God, through Christ, by the Holy Spirit, gives a new heart! When Paul gives us the inspired words in Romans, he says that he is not a wretch any longer: “The answer, thank God, is that Jesus Christ can and does. He acted to set things right in this life of contradictions where I want to serve God with all my heart and mind, but am pulled by the influence of sin to do something totally different.” (Romans 7:25, The Message)
In a broken, sinful, hate-filled world where pornographers exploit young women, where the rich take even more, where cruel people increase suffering with joy, where there is greed, prejudice – I am joyful in my salvation – a wretch no more! Beyond that, we are privileged to join with God in the fight against the wretchedness of the world, made priests of grace, our appeal this –“on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God.” (2 Corinthians 5:20, NIV)
Would you humble yourself, willing to admit to your wretchedness? There is a Savior who accepts wretches and makes heart, soul, and mind new! The Word promises – “I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws.” (Ezekiel 36:26-27, NIV) Yes, we sometimes slip back into our wretchedness when we take our eyes from Jesus. But, we need not wallow in the shame of our sins. Instead, we turn back to our God, and like the lost son, find the open arms of the Waiting Father.
My favorite passage in all of the Scripture is one I choose for todays’ word from the Word. I revel in the wondrous grace revealed here. May you know the joy of sins forgiven, the release from wretchedness, the welcome into the Father’s family.
“For this reason I kneel before the Father, from whom his whole family in heaven and on earth derives its name. I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith.
And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the saints, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God. Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen.” (Ephesians 3:14-21, NIV)
Read a detailed account of the Life of John Newton. Click here.
How sweet the sound,
That saved a wretch like me.
I once was lost, but now,
Was blind, but now,