John Newton, the libertine slave trader turned pastor and poet, had a special New Year’s tradition. Every year he would write a poem for his congregation and present it to them on New Year’s Day as a sort of present. For his 1773 New Year’s Day poem, he took inspiration from his sermon text that week, King David’s prayer in 1 Chronicles 17:16-17:
“Who am I, O LORD God, and what is my house, that you have brought me thus far? And this was a small thing in your eyes, O God. You have also spoken of your servant’s house for a great while to come, and have shown me future generations, O God!”
David’s prayer resonated deeply with John Newton, who never forgot the depths of depravity to which he had sunk in his life before Christ. His past life of sin and wretchedness haunted him. Yet that dark remembrance didn’t drive him to despair; rather, it was his constant source of joy, as he exulted in the amazing grace that had saved a wretch like him. “Who am I, Lord, that you have brought me thus far?”
David’s prayer, which looked back upon the gracious hand of God and looked forward to the gracious provision of God, felt like an appropriate text for both his New Year’s Day sermon and his New Year’s poem. New Year’s Day, Newton reminded his congregation, was a time to take stock of God’s past faithfulness, and to load one’s soul with courage and faith by looking forward to the blood-bought promises of future grace.
And so on January 1st, 1773, he ascended the plain wooden pulpit in his small Olney parish church, and read the new year’s poem that has since become the most famous hymn in the world:
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!
‘Twas grace that taught my heart to fear
And grace my fears relieved;
How precious did that grace appear
The hour I first believed.
Through many dangers, toils, and snares
I have already come;
His grace has brought me safe thus far,
And grace will lead me home.
The Lord has promised good to me,
His Word my hope secures.
He will my Shield and Portion be
As long as life endures
The earth shall soon dissolve like snow,
The sun forbear to shine,
But God, who called me here below,
Will be forever mine!
“His grace has brought me safe thus far, and grace will lead me home.” This is the banner that flies over the life of every believer, the monument of mercy raised anew every day that grace sustains us. This New Year’s, let’s join with Newton and admire the riches of redeeming love which has saved and preserved and promised to carry us all the way home.