Christians seem to sing fewer hymns these days, but when they do, sometimes they tinker with the lyrics. Consider the change made to a simple hymn by John Newton: “Amazing grace! How sweet the sound! That saved and strengthened me!”

There is a grace that strengthens, as we shall see, but Newton was talking about a grace that does more than strengthen; he was praising God for the grace that saves. In the original, therefore, Newton identified himself as the worst of sinners: “Amazing grace! How sweet the sound! That saved a wretch like me!” Brian Abel Ragen comments: “While Newton believed that human beings were wretches, in desperate need of a Savior, these 20th-century adapters clearly believe that they and the congregations who sing their words are perfectly nice people.… They are not bad—certainly not wretches; they have simply lost their way. They are not wicked; they merely have a handicap—a dysfunction—from which they hope to recover.”1

Downplaying depravity like this inevitably has the result of minimizing the amazing grace of God. As Ragen concludes, “Grace is amazing because it saves wretches, not because it puts a final polish on nice people.… You cannot be saved if you are not lost.… You cannot be freed unless you are enslaved.”2

Philip Graham Ryken, 1 Timothy, ed. Richard D. Phillips, Daniel M. Doriani, and Philip Graham Ryken, Reformed Expository Commentary (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2007), 18–19.

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