Amazing Grace by John Montgomery Boice 1993
The words 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.
The words of John Newton’s great hymn about grace are known to millions of people, secular people as well as churchgoers. But theologian and popular author J.I. Packer is certainly right when he notes, in Knowing God, that for most of our contemporaries “amazing grace” is no longer amazing. It is “boring grace” instead.
How can that be? How can a theme that has thrilled people for centuries be thought boring? If you talk to church people about next year’s operating budget, you will find them interested. You can interest them in social programs or building a new addition to the educational wing. You can talk to them about the latest baseball scores or Wall Street or national politics. But try to discuss the grace of God and you will discover that they are suddenly in a field of discourse quite beyond their capacities. They will not contradict you. They will listen. But they have nothing to contribute. Often you will be met with only blank stares.
What could have caused such indifference, particularly among church-goers? Packer believes it is a failure to understand and “feel in one’s heart” four great truths that the meaning of grace presupposes:
1. The sin of man.
Modern people are complacent about their grim spiritual condition. They assume that God is also. The thought that man is a fallen creature in rebellion against God’s rightful rule never enters their heads. It did for John Newton, of course, which is why he spoke of himself as “a wretch” who was lost and spiritually “blind.”
2. The judgment of God.
Most of our contemporaries have lost appreciation for all cause-and-effect links, especially in moral areas. So the idea of a final judgment of God at the end of human history at which sin is punished seems quite fantastic to them.
3. The spiritual inability of man.
Our culture has taught us that for man “all things are possible.” We are the masters of our own fate, the captains of our own ship. So the idea that we need the grace of God in order to get right with God, since we cannot save ourselves, seems . . . well, it just seems wrong, frankly. We assume that it will always be possible for us to mend our relationships with God.
4. The sovereign freedom of God.
In this day of multiple human “rights,” we also assume that God owes us something, salvation or at least a chance at salvation. But Packer rightly notes that God does not owe us anything. He shows favor to many — that is what this book is about — but he
does not need to. The freedom of God to give or withhold favor is the very essence of what grace is about.
Few things, I believe, are more greatly needed in today’s nearly moribund church than to recover an appreciation for God’s grace, which is why I have written this book.
People who are familiar with my other writings will note that from time to time I have drawn on material developed earlier in my other expository works. I do not apologize for this since, in my opinion, for a study like this one it is a strength rather than a weakness. It means that the material presented here in theological form has emerged from a much larger body of strictly exegetical work and therefore rightly reflects that important and essential biblical foundation.
I have avoided the use of footnotes in this book in order to improve its readability. But from time to time I refer to material that the reader may want to look at firsthand. In chapter 4, I refer to arguments in John Owen’s classic study The Death of Death in the Death of Christ. It is published by the Banner of Truth Trust (1964) and is volume 10 of the series titled The Words of John Owen. Owen’s discussion of unbelief is on page 174.
In chapter 5, the story of Ironside and the gypsy is drawn from his book In the Heavenlies: Practical Expository Addresses on the Epistle to the Ephesians (Loizeaux Brothers) and can be found on pages 96-98. The story of Henry Moorehouse and the little girl from the slums of London is told by Donald Grey Barnhouse in the booklet, “How God Saves Men” (The Bible Study Hour, 1955), pages 7-9.
The story of Barnhouse’s conversion, in chapter 6, is told in volume 5 of his studies of the book of Romans, God’s Grace: Exposition of Bible Doctrines (Eerdmans, 1959), pages 86-88. His story of the man who was afraid to get married because of his
sinful past, in chapter 8, is told in God’s Methods for Holy Living (Eerdmans, 1951), pages 72-74.
Several of the stories about giving in chapter 14 are from a helpful study of Christian stewardship by Stephen Olford, titled The Grace of Giving: Biblical Expositions (Encounter Ministries, 1972). The story of Frances Ridley Havergal is on pages 71-72, the story of General Gordon is on page 51, and the story of the Iron Cross is on page 18.
In chapter 16 the quote from C.S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory and Other Addresses (Macmillan/Collier Books, 1980) is on pages 16-17. The entire essay is on pages 3-19.
In the final chapter some of the material regarding the word Amen is from volume 10 of Donald Grey Barnhouse’s Romans studies, God’s Glory: Exposition of Bible Doctrines (Eerdmans, 1964), pages 116-121.
These chapters were originally presented as sermons to the congregation of Tenth Presbyterian Church, Philadelphia, in the late winter, spring, and summer of 1992. I want to thank the members and boards of our church for giving me the necessary time to prepare and write these sermons.
“May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit” be with us all (2 Corinthians 13:14).