Fear and the Lord’s Amazing Grace

I think it is safe to say most people are familiar with the hymn Amazing Grace. Many famous musicians have sung or performed it. It’s heard at many funerals and other events. Yet too few know the grace of which the author wrote and more, what makes it so amazing.

John Newton penned this much-loved hymn and the story of his life reveals God’s grace at work in one who was far from him. And, as we’ll see, God’s grace is amazing indeed.  

John Newton and God’s Amazing Grace

John Newton, an 18th century pastor, penned this now famous hymn. He is also known for his influence in the life of William Wilberforce and the subsequent Abolitionist movement in England. What makes this hymn so remarkable is when we consider Newton’s life prior to faith in Christ.

Newton followed in his father’s footsteps and became a sailor at a young age. He lived the wild and raucous life that often comes with life on the sea. At one point, he became a captain of slave ships, transporting slaves from Africa. During these years, he kept meticulous records of what it was like on these ships. After a harrowing narrow escape from shipwreck at sea, he came to faith in Christ. Later, he had a stroke which made him leave his sailing career behind. He went on to study theology and grew tremendously in his faith.  He then went into the pastorate and spent the rest of his life as a preacher. Decades after his time at sea, he wrote an account of what took place on the slave ships and played an active role in ending slavery in England. Newton died months after slavery was abolished.

For Newton, the more he grew in his faith, the more he realized the depths of his sin and depravity. The more he learned about who God is and what he has done, the more he saw his desperate need for grace. The more he encountered God’s grace, the more he responded to the Lord with a holy fear—with awe, wonder, reverence, love, and worship.

There is a line in Amazing Grace that speaks to Newton’s fear of the Lord: T’was grace that taught my heart to fear, and grace my fears relieved. God’s grace teaches us to fear him, to respond to him with that holy mixture of awe, reverence, love, and worship. As the psalmist wrote, “But with you there is forgiveness, that you may be feared” (Psalm 130:4). Likewise, God’s grace relieves our lesser fears, because in encountering his grace, we see God as greater than all we fear.

Many believers know the Bible’s admonition to fear the Lord, but aren’t quite sure how to do that. As Newton shows us, God’s grace teaches us to fear him.

God’s Grace Teaches us to Fear the Lord

In theological terms, grace is often summarized as unmerited favor. It is God’s kindness we haven’t earned. God shows this kindness in the gift of eternal life through faith in Jesus Christ. “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God” (Ephesians 2:8). Yet such grace is also de-merited favor. It’s not merely that we haven’t earned God’s favor; we don’t even deserve it. We are born in sin and thus deserve God’s wrath and eternal damnation. As Arthur Pink wrote, “divine grace is the sovereign and saving favor of God exercised in the bestowment of blessings upon those who have no merit in them and for which no compensation is demanded from them…It is completely unmerited and unsought, and is altogether unattracted by anything in or from or by the objects upon which it is bestowed.”[1]

God’s grace for us began before we were ever born—in eternity past (Ephesians 1:4). God set his love upon us, not for anything we have done or will do, but because he chose to do so. God saved us by his grace, trains us by his grace, (Titus 2:11-12) and endures us by his grace (Phil. 1:6). From beginning to end, all is of God’s rich and overflowing grace.

As believers, when we encounter God’s grace, when we realize the length and depth and breadth of it, we can’t help but respond with a fear of the Lord—with worship and wonder and awe and love. When we realize all that God has done for us in adopting us as his own, in choosing us to be his child, in rescuing us from sin and death by the blood of his Son, we can’t help but respond with a holy fear— a fear of the One who is greater than all our other fears. We marvel and wonder at this amazing grace. We worship and honor our Savior for redeeming us. We trust him to keep and carry us in the chaos of this dark world. We love him and are filled with gratitude for all he has done and seek to live a life pleasing to him.

Like John Newton, we all were once rebels. We all followed our own way and defied God’s law. We were all lost and without hope. But then God’s grace found and rescued us. He made us his own and changed us. His grace teaches us to fear him. Like Newton, may we stand in awe of this grace. May we respond with holy fear. And may our hearts proclaim: Amazing Grace how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me!

For more on this subject, check out Christina’s latest book, A Holy Fear: Trading Lesser Fears for the Fear of the Lord, available now from Reformation Heritage Books.

Christina Fox is a counselor, writer, retreat speaker, and author of several books including A Holy Fear: Trading Lesser Fears for the Fear of the Lord. You can find her at www.christinafox.com.

Related Links

Triumphing Over Sinful Fear by John Flavel

"Flavel's Prayer on the Great Exchange" by Justin Taylor

"I Am Thy Shield": Calvin on Genesis 15" by Aaron Denlinger

"A Peculiar Perspective on Suffering" by Tessa Thompson

"A Word for the Fearful" by Philip Graham Ryken [Download]

Providence, with Ian Hamilton, Derek Thomas, and Rachel Miller [Download]


[1] Pink, Arthur The Attributes of God (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1975), p.66.2

Christina Fox