By Charles Quarles, Dean of the Caskey School of Divinity at Louisiana College
Even though it was written in 1779, John Newton’s hymn “Amazing Grace” remains a favorite of Christians everywhere.
It has aptly been called the “Anthem of Southern Baptists” because of its powerful and poetic expression of the truths of the gospel that Baptists hold dear.
Unfortunately, when we sing the old familiar hymns, we may mouth the words without reflecting on the great truths that they express. Let’s think for a moment about one of the great doctrines that the hymn articulates:
The hymn opens with the exclamation:
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 verse offers a vivid description of the helpless state of the lost sinner. He is a “wretch,” an utterly despicable person.
The words “I once was lost, but now am found” evoke memories of the parable of the loving father and lost son in Luke 15 and remind us that we were all prodigals who were completely unworthy of the Father’s love.
Newton did not stop there. He reminded us that we wretches, we prodigals, were blind to the truths of the gospel until God’s amazing grace gave us sight.
The same great grace that saves wretches, that seeks and finds the lost, opens the blind eyes of the sinner to the glories of Christ. The statement brims with biblical insight.
The prophet Isaiah foretold that when the reign of the Messiah dawned, “Then the eyes of the blind will be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped” (Isa. 35:5).
The Gospels show that Jesus confirmed his identity as the Messiah by fulfilling Isaiah’s prophecy, by opening blind eyes and unstopping deaf ears.
In Mark 7:31-37, concerned friends brought a deaf man to Jesus. Jesus thrust his fingers in the deaf man’s ears, sighed deeply, and issued the command, “Ephphatha,” an Aramaic expression meaning, “Be opened.”
Immediately the man’s ears were opened and he was given the ability to hear. The bystanders were astonished and exclaimed, “He has done everything well! He even makes deaf people hear!”
Only a few verses later in Mark 8:22-26, others brought a blind man to Jesus and begged Jesus to touch him and heal him. Jesus placed spit on the man’s eyes, laid hands on him, and cured him of his blindness.
Jesus clearly intended to teach more through these miracles than the mere fact that he is the Messiah. These miracles possess what some New Testament scholars have called “parabolic significance,” that is, they are miracles that also function like parables. Make no mistake. These were true miracles that Jesus actually performed in real history.
On the other hand, Jesus intended to teach spiritual truths through these miracles as well.
These miracles serve as object lessons that teach those with eyes to see and ears to hear about Jesus’ work in saving sinners.
Jesus hinted at the spiritual lesson taught by the two miracles in a brief rebuke given to his disciples in a dialogue sandwiched between the two miracle accounts.
“Don’t you understand or comprehend? Is your heart hardened?” he asked. Then borrowing words from Jeremiah. 5:21 and Ezekial 12:2, he charged, “Do you have eyes, and not see, and do you have ears, and not hear?”
The occurrence of this discussion in between the healing of the blind man and the healing of the deaf man is no coincidence.
The discussion shows that Jesus saw the blind and deaf as pictures of the spiritual condition of lost humanity.
The miracles show that just as Jesus has the power to give sight to those who are physically blind and hearing to those who are physically deaf, he has the power to impart spiritual sight to the spiritually blind and spiritual hearing to the spiritually deaf.
This intention of Jesus is confirmed in John 9. Immediately after Jesus healed the man born blind (John 9:1-34), Jesus once again engaged in a discussion of spiritual blindness:
“I came into this world for judgment, in order that those who do not see will see and those who do see will become blind” (John 9:39). The Pharisees understood Jesus’ meaning and retorted, “We aren’t blind too, are we?”
The Apostle Paul was deeply influenced by Jesus’ teaching regarding the lost person’s spiritual blindness and Jesus’ ability to grant spiritual sight. He described unbelievers as spiritually blind: “The god of this age has blinded the minds of the unbelievers so they cannot see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ” (2 Cor. 4:4).
Notice that Paul did not say that unbelievers are merely visually impaired and will have difficulty seeking the light of the gospel as if it will eventually become clear to them if they only squint hard enough. No, unbelievers are “blinded” and they “cannot see.”
Only God could heal sinners of their spiritual blindness. Doing so required the unleashing of God’s miraculous power, the very power displayed in the creation of the universe:
“For God who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of God’s glory in the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Cor. 4:6).
Not only is Christ’s gracious and glorious work of granting sight to the spiritually blind attested by Scripture and premiered in our great hymns, it is celebrated in our current Baptist confession.
Article II, Section C of the Baptist Faith and Message explains the work of the Holy Spirit in salvation with these words: “Through illumination He [the Holy Spirit] enables men to understand truth.”
The word “enables” implies that men are unable to understand the truth on their own. God must grant the ability to understand truth. He does so by removing the scales from blind eyes, opening deaf ears, enlightening a darkened mind, and softening a hard heart.
Newton was thoroughly convinced of this. In his autobiography, Newton wrote, “I was so strangely blind and stupid” (Letter II). But he exclaimed, “The Lord at length opened my eyes” (Letter II). He confessed, “Till then I was like the man possessed by the legion [of demons]. No arguments, no persuasion, no views of interest, no remembrance of the past, or regard to the future, could have constrained me within the bounds of common prudence” (Letter IX).
Some theological views essentially rewrite the theology of Newton’s hymn in a manner that glorifies human ability more than divine grace. Lost sinners are not really blind, just slightly near-sighted. God did not give us sight, just cleared a few things up.
This view of grace might be amusing, but it is hardly amazing. I think that Newton got it right.
A biblical view of “amazing grace” insists that when we were blind to the light of the gospel, God called light from darkness and gave us sight.
Both Scripture and our Baptist confession insist that we did not understand and embrace the gospel because we were more intelligent or insightful than someone else, but because God mercifully performed a miracle that opened our blind eyes to His truth. Now that is truly amazing!
Charles L. Quarles , PhD, is Dean of the Louisiana College Caskey School of Divinity; Vice President of Faith and Learning; William Peterson Carter, Jr. Research Professor of New Testament and Greek at Louisiana College.