Recently, I attended a service at a church where the projector in the room wasn’t working properly, and a printed sheet was handed out with the words to the songs that were to be used. I kept the sheet and looked at it later. I think the projector failure that caused me to look at the words of the songs may have been providential.
One of the songs that was performed was titled “God in the City.” I observed that the words aren’t really distinctively Christian, at least in a traditional evangelical sense. There is mention of God as “God of this city” (I assumed it to be the city where the song was performed), and some general concepts of God as “King of these people,” “Lord of this nation,” “Creator,” etc., and the phrase “There is no one like our God” is repeated many times. But the words express nothing that could not be used by a Catholic, a Mormon, or any other group in Christendom. There is no mention of anything distinctively doctrinal, no mention of Christ, no mention of the atonement, faith, or repentance, nor is there any expression of true worship.
But the song that really caught my attention was titled “How Sweet the Sound.” This contemporary number borrows the phrase “Amazing Grace, How Sweet the Sound” from John Newton’s words set to music in the classic hymn “Amazing Grace.” Newton’s words are deeply doctrinal and expressive of the nature of grace and explain the reason that the word “grace” might be said to have a sweet sound to a Christian. He wrote that grace “saved a wretch like me,” that “I once was lost, . . . was blind.” He is expressing the truth of being “lost” in sin. Newton knew that there can be no understanding of grace in the biblical sense without understanding that human beings are hopelessly lost in sin. Sin is a pervasive fact of human existence, both personal sin and the sin nature we have as human beings since the Fall. But with the salvation offered to us by grace, God does not treat us with judgement but with mercy. He continues to deal with believers in grace as a principle of life, delivering us from the power of sin and forgiving our sins as we live in a fallen world. With the understanding of God’s grace as the remedy for sin, Newton wrote that he was no longer lost, “but now am found,” and was no longer blind “but now can see.” Newton wrote that grace “taught my heart to fear, ” that is, to know and fear God, “and grace my fears (fears in life) relieved.” He connected the receipt of grace to faith when he wrote “How precious did the grace appear, the hour I first believed!” Newton’s words express something of the depth and meaning of the doctrine of grace and can be sung to God by a believer as an act of worship celebrating His grace in the forgiveness of our sin. The hymn is an expression of gratitude from the heart of a repentant sinner who had been saved by grace.
A later writer in the nineteenth century wrote the words of the classic hymn “Grace Greater Than Our Sin.” The author wrote of the “Marvelous grace of our loving Lord, grace that exceeds our sin and our guilt” in her opening line. Her words speak of Calvary, “There where the blood of the Lamb was spilt.” The second verse speaks of “sin and despair” that “threaten the soul with infinite loss,” but grace “points to the refuge, the mighty Cross.” The third verse reminds that the dark stain of sin can be removed by nothing but God’s grace; the fourth verse celebrates that grace is extended to all who believe and pleads, “Will you this moment His grace receive?” Like Newton, this author poetically explained God’s offer of grace as a remedy for sin available to be received by faith, made possible by what Christ did for us. Singing this hymn is a testimony and an act of worship remembering God’s grace in providing Christ as the remedy for sin.
The words of the contemporary “How Sweet the Sound” number on the sheet I received takes a decidedly different tack. The words contain phrases such as “You are always right beside me,” “You’re my rock and strength, You comfort me,” and “Carry me through the waters, Where Your peace clears away all my sorrow.” The chorus begins “Amazing Grace how sweet the sound, I hear you singing over me,” and then repeats Newton’s words “I once was lost but now I’m found” before continuing on to say that grace is beautiful, covers every part of me, and has a beautiful sound. Aside from the quote of Newton’s words “I once was lost but now I’m found,” there is no mention of any concept of sin, repentance, or forgiveness. There is no mention of Christ, no mention of His atoning death that made salvation possible and brings His gracious favor and blessings to believers, no mention of faith, just an upbeat celebration that “You” are beside me giving me things like comfort, shelter, and healing in my perceived personal pain. The song uses the words “amazing grace,” but doesn’t in any way connect to the biblical concept of salvation by grace or help understand what “grace” means. The focus is purely on a “grace” that benefits “me” in the present. The tone is almost narcissistic. The concept of grace that might be brought to mind by the words of this song is decidedly different than the grace that was understood by John Newton.
Amazing grace? I’ll stick with John Newton’s version.