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Faith’s Review and Expectation: A Look at the Original “Amazing Grace”

July 10th, 2024 | 9 min read

By Clayton Hutchins

For the past couple weeks I have been singing “Amazing Grace” to my children as they go down to sleep. This is probably the most well-known hymn in the English-speaking world. It is a hymn many of us feel like we know very well and, if we are honest, perhaps we are a bit tired of hearing it.

But as I set about singing it to my kids, I began to recall that I have heard different versions of the hymn in my lifetime, some with more verses and some with less. This recognition gave me the desire to find out what the original version of “Amazing Grace” was, as John Newton had originally written it.

As I looked into this, I encountered a number of surprises. I found that the original composition contained more verses than are found in modern renditions. This did not surprise me, as I know shortening hymns to be a common, though unfortunate, modern practice. What did surprise me is that the final verse of many modern versions of the hymn—the one that begins, “When we’ve been there ten thousand years…”—is not original to Newton at all, but was added in around a century later in America.

Another surprise is that Newton does not give it the title “Amazing Grace.” It appears as Hymn XLI in Olney Hymns with this description: “Faith’s review and expectation.” That descriptive title was curious to me, in that it does not forefront “grace” as the main or central theme of the hymn. Instead it speaks of faith looking back (review) and looking forward (expectation).

Some light is shed on what faith is reviewing and expecting by the Scriptural passage given in Olney Hymns for this composition, 1 Chronicles 17:16-17. These verses come just after the Lord’s covenant with David, in which he promises that one of his descendants would reign forever on the throne over Israel, bringing peace and salvation. They read:

Then King David went in and sat before the Lord and said, “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 Lord God!”

This is David’s response to the Lord’s gracious covenant with him and his offspring. David has a profound sense of humility. He asks, “Who am I, O Lord God, and what is my house,” that the Lord should so bless him? Implied in these words is the reality of God’s sheer, unearned grace, upon which Newton capitalizes in his hymn.

But note also the two directions that David looks: first, backward: “you have brought me thus far.” David gives thanks for the Lord’s preceding mercies that have brought him to where he is today. Then David looks forward: “You have also spoken of your servant’s house for a great while to come, and have shown me future generations, O Lord God!” The Lord has promised good to David, so that when he looks to the future, he sees there, too, the Lord’s mercy and grace coming to meet him.

Keeping this passage in mind, here are the six original verses of “Amazing Grace,” or what we might instead call, “Faith’s Review and Expectation.” The first three verses are faith’s “review”: faith looking backwards to the Lord’s gracious benefits given in the past. The last three verses are faith’s “expectation”: faith looking forwards to the Lord’s gracious benefits promised in the future. Between each verse I will give a few explanatory comments. (The original hymn with all six verses together may be found here.)

  1. 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.

Newton begins by praising the grace of God by which he was saved. He focuses upon the transition that he has experienced as a result of the working of grace in his life. Formerly he was a wretch, lost, and blind; now he is saved, found, and sees. Drawing upon biblical idioms (Romans 5:6; Luke 15:24; Acts 9:17), Newton describes his own conversion, which was a quite dramatic one, taking place after he had worked for years as a slave-trader. Beginning with such a strong note of humility reminds us of how David begins his response to the Lord in 1 Chronicles 17:16: “Who am I, O Lord God, and what is my house…?”

  1. ‘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!

Newton continues to describe his conversion, this time focusing on the manner in which grace brought about his coming to faith: first, his heart was taught to fear; then his fears were relieved. Newton refers here to how in conversion a sinner comes to fear the sentence of God’s law pronounced against him, and afterwards flees to Christ by faith to find relief and salvation. For Newton, grace is operative on both sides. God’s grace, working within, is what taught his heart to fear God’s law and just judgment, and grace is also what drove him to Christ to find relief.

  1. Thro’ many dangers, toils and snares,
    I have already come;
    ‘Tis grace has brought me safe thus far,
    And grace will lead me home.

In the third verse Newton shifts from considering his conversion to considering the Lord’s preservation of him through his life. The Lord in his grace has preserved him—and his faith—through all kinds of dangers, toils, and snares. His words “brought me safe thus far,” strongly echo David’s words in 1 Chronicles 17:16: “Who am I, O Lord God, and what is my house, that you have brought me thus far?”

Toward the end of this verse, Newton has a transitional line looking to the future (“grace will lead me home”), which prepares for the future focus of verses 4-6. Taken as a whole, verse 3 suggests the doctrine of perseverance. Newton is confident that the Lord’s grace, which has preserved him safe so far, will lead him home. He who began a good work in him will bring it to completion at the day of Christ (Phil 1:6; see also 1 Cor 1:8-9; 1 Thess 5:23-24; 2 Tim 4:18).

The language of “home” has a thematic and linguistic resonance with the “house” of 1 Chronicles 17. David began by desiring to build the Lord a house—the temple (1 Chron 17:1, 4-5). Instead the Lord says that he will build David a house—establishing his offspring on the throne forever (v. 10). David then references his “house” twice in verses 16-17. We may well think also of the final verse of David’s greatly famed twenty-third psalm: “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever.” David too was sure that God’s grace would lead him home.

Verses 1-3 were faith’s review, looking back at the grace that the Lord has given already in the past. Verses 4-6 are faith’s expectation, looking forward to the grace that the Lord has promised in the future.

  1. 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.

God’s grace is not restricted to the past. It is ever before us, coming to meet us. Our confidence in this matter is rooted in God’s word: it is a “promis’d good” that the Lord has given us. Just as David was given promises concerning his future offspring, fulfilled in Jesus Christ, so believers have been given promises by God concerning the future, which are ratified in Christ (2 Cor 1:20). Newton mentions two such promises in the final two lines of this verse: God will be his shield (cf. Psalm 18:30) and portion (cf. Psalm 16:5) through all his life.

“As long as life endures” may sound a bit ominous. Will there be a time when life will no more endure, during which God’s grace may fail to reach us? This leads into the fifth verse, which I have found to be regrettably left out of a number of modern versions of “Amazing Grace.”

  1. Yes, when this flesh and heart shall fail
    And mortal life shall cease;
    I shall possess, within the vail,
    A life of joy and peace.

For Newton, as for all believers, death is not the end. On the other side of death, we can be confident that we will have “a life of joy and peace.” This, too, is part of the “promis’d good” to all believers in Christ.

The reference to “within the vail” (vail is an archaic spelling of veil) again takes us back to the setting of 1 Chronicles 17. David wants to build the Lord a house to dwell in—namely, the temple. The temple is meant to be the place where God will dwell among his people, as he did in the tabernacle. However, in the Old Testament economy access to God was limited. His presence was concentrated most powerfully in the Most Holy Place, separated from the Holy Place by a great veil (Exod 26:33). Only the high priest was allowed to go “within the vail,” and that but once a year on the Day of Atonement (Lev 16:2; Heb 9:7).

Strikingly, Newton pictures death as a movement into to the Most Holy Place, “within the vail.” Death takes him into the very nearest presence of God. For the believer, death is not like being cast out; it is rather being taken into the most intimate place where the Author of Life dwells. Newton has such confidence to enter into the Most Holy Place “by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way which He consecrated for us, through the veil, that is, His flesh” (Hebrews 10:20, NKJV). This is the “home” to which grace will lead Newton, along with all believers in Christ.

If verse 5 considers the death of the individual, verse 6 broadens to consider the dissolution of the heavens and the earth at the last day:

  1. The earth shall soon dissolve like snow,
    The sun forbear to shine;
    But God, who call’d me here below,
    Will be for ever mine.

The wording of Newton’s final verse reflects the Biblical language concerning the destruction of the heavens and the earth at the Lord’s return, preceding the creation of the new heavens and earth (Matt 24:29; 2 Pet 3:10-13; Rev 6:12-14; 21:1). Not only “flesh and heart” will fail, but the earth itself will dissolve and the sun will cease to shine on the great and awesome day of the Lord’s return.

But there is something more sure, more certain, and more stable than the earth or sun: “God,” who, Newton says, “will be for ever mine.” Newton here emphasizes God as the believer’s final possession and ultimate enjoyment. Faith’s chief expectation—the greatest good promised us in the future—is ultimately God himself. God will be ours, to know, love, and enjoy forever.

God is further described as the one “who call’d me here below.” Sometimes I hear this mis-sung as “who calls me here below.” This perhaps sounds a bit more natural and understandable, but the “calling” that Newton has in view here is what Reformed theologians refer to as effectual calling. It is not the sort of calling that all receive, both believers and unbelievers alike, and which is either rejected or accepted. It is rather a calling that effects what it calls for, similar to when Jesus called for Lazarus to come out of the grave. It is a calling that effects what it intends, and which is not rejected. (This idea goes back much further than the Reformed theologians. St. Augustine describes his views on it in Chapter 32 of his On the Predestination of the Saints. See also 1 Cor 1:22-24.)

In this way, here at the end of the hymn, as Newton considers the end of all things, he again thinks back to the very beginning—to the moment of his conversion, when God in his grace called him out of the domain of sin and darkness into the domain of life and light. This wonderfully ties together the “review” and “expectation” halves of the hymn. As faith looks back to God’s grace given in the past, it is given assurance of God’s continued grace in the future. Through all the changes and variation of life, through death itself, and through the dissolution of the cosmos: God’s grace will lead us home.

John Newton’s Hymn XVI is indeed all about God’s “amazing grace,” but he approaches the topic from a particular perspective which helps us to see the wonder of God’s grace in all of its shining colors. Taking 1 Chronicles 17:16-17 as his Scriptural text, he explores this theme from the angle of faith taking a review of God’s past benefits in the first three verses before looking ahead in joyful expectation to God’s future benefits in the last three verses.

Unfortunately, modern renditions of this hymn to varying extents obscure Newton’s original structure and biblical imagery by removing verses (particularly the ones about death or the end of the cosmos), rearranging others, or adding still others in. G. K. Chesterton once made a remark to the effect that one should not set about removing a fence until one understands what it was there for. I hope that some light has been shed on what Newton’s original six verses were there for. It is my view that one who is aware of the original background, structure, and intention of Newton’s hymn would be slow to make renovations.

Clayton Hutchins

Clayton Hutchins writes from Kansas City, MO.