A good number of people are at least somewhat familiar with the history behind the famous hymn, Amazing Grace. This song is identified as the best known and most popular of all hymns. It is routinely used in funerals and memorial services across a broad spectrum of people in this country.
Just by way of refresher, I will remind people that the author of those lyrics was one John Newton, a former captain of a slave ship who converted and became an Anglican clergyman. The lyrics are an expression of amazement that a sinner of such magnitude could still enjoy God’s forgiveness and acceptance.
Within the context of Christian Orthodoxy’s theology, it is seen as just another example of how one can escape God’s wrath by obedience to the requirements of divine acceptance as long as it happens while one is still alive physically. This is the bread and butter of evangelical Christianity’s traditional message.
The astounding “fly in the ointment” for this revered hymn, from the viewpoint of Orthodox Christianity, is their belief that the unfortunate Africans who died as the result of Newton’s traffic in human slavery went straight to Hell as a result. Meanwhile he supposedly escaped their fate by following the proper salvation prescription and became the beneficiary of amazing grace. The one who contributed to sending hundreds to Hell, then managed to escape a similar fate because he was lucky enough to be properly instructed and duly responsive.
Under Orthodoxy’s story of God’s grace the fortunate few can sing in amazement about their exalted status while completely ignoring the fate of the many who miss out. Grace is amazing as long as its benefit extends at least to me. The overall effect of such grace is apparently no factor in generating amazement among the few.
Instead of rhapsodizing about how God could forgive him despite his sins, maybe Newton should have agonized over why that same God couldn’t forgive the fellowmen he had sent to a premature grave, thereby sealing their eternal fate. When one considers this, the concept of a grace that is “amazing” becomes a whole lot less so. Suddenly the amazing grace that saved Newton becomes an indictment of a righteous God and by extension of the slaver who praised God so lavishly over his personal good fortune. If Newton really believed in a grace which allowed him to escape while his victims were assured of Hell, then his amazement is more nearly an amazement of horror.
I, for one, want to grant Newton the benefit of the doubt. I have to believe that his concept of amazing grace extended to the benefit of those he had killed directly or indirectly. A man who could rejoice in his own salvation while accepting the damnation of those he victimized would have to justify an unconscionable iniquity. I don’t see how a man who legitimately gloried in a gracious God could be that indifferent to others.
Preachers can shout the hellfire message from the rooftops; but, until we see the rank and file church members agonizing over the evident implications of that theology, I, for one, will assume that they are totally unconvinced. Their seeming acquiescent to a doctrine of unamazing grace is nothing more than a reluctance to be honest and be ostracized for it.