Amazing grace, how sweet the sound
That saved a wretch like me
If I asked you to describe yourself in five words, I doubt one of them would be “wretch”. For anyone put off by the archaic language, here are some synonyms: scoundrel, villain, criminal, delinquent, despicable. Did any of these make your list?
Our self-esteem obsessed culture says that’s not the right way to think about yourself. But what does the gospel say? John Newton wrote ‘Amazing Grace’ after his conversion to Christianity. It was his heartfelt response to the gospel. And this is a gospel that is meant to change how we view ourselves.
In the book of Luke, there are two contrasting responses to Jesus presented almost side-by-side. Chapter 18 tells us of a rich young ruler who comes to Jesus, asking how he can be saved. He claims to have kept all the commandments since he was young, but Jesus challenges him with one more instruction: to sell everything he has and give the money to the poor. The ruler refuses—his pride and greed keep him from following Jesus and reaching eternal life.
In chapter 19, we meet another rich man. This time it’s a tax collector, who became wealthy by cheating his fellow Jews. Zacchaeus climbed up a tree just to get a glimpse of Jesus. He knew he had nothing to offer, but Jesus met Zacchaeus with grace and compassion. In response, the tax collector gave half his money to the poor and promised to pay back all he’d stolen.
Two rich men, two responses, and two completely different outcomes. We can see that the core difference was in the men’s hearts. One was puffed up with pride, the other cast down in humility. When pride meets grace, the heart becomes hardened. When wretchedness meets grace, there is the miracle of salvation.
By placing these two accounts in consecutive chapters, Luke is teaching us about the right response to Jesus: recognition of how needy we are. We must have hearts which can proclaim the words of ‘Amazing Grace’, knowing we are undeserving wretches.
Heart to hands
If we trust Jesus, we should cry out with joy at what he has done for us. Remember the words of Romans 5:6–8:
For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die— but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.
Our response to Jesus starts with a heart change, but it doesn’t end there. In these two stories, we see the hearts of the men through their approach to money.
The rich young ruler hoarded his money, clinging to it as if gold could save his soul (or at least protect him in this life). He chose wealth, even though it stood between him and eternal life.
Zacchaeus, the tax collector, had previously idolised money. He willingly paid the price of social exclusion for the sake of riches. We don’t know when he changed—but by the time of this story, he saw Jesus Christ as far superior to worthless gold. His response to Jesus’ grace was to give his money away.
A window into my own heart
To my shame, I often act more like the rich ruler. I love and follow Jesus, but there is still a deep rotten well of pride in my heart. Sometimes I recoil at being labelled a wretch. My pride blinds me to how horrible my sin is.
The remedy is to gaze upon Jesus. That’s the only way I can drain that well—to behold my Messiah. It’s what Zacchaeus was trying to do when he climbed the sycamore tree.
When I read the Bible, I see how offensive my sin is to our holy God. I see the eternal punishment I deserve. I see my gracious Saviour, who humbled himself to the point of death to save me.
Only beholding Jesus will give me the right attitude of humility and gratitude. I like the advice Jared Wilson once gave on Twitter: “Get into the word and stare at the face of Jesus until something in you changes.”
Until I realise the extent of my wretchedness, I will not hear the sweet sound of God’s amazing grace.