The older I get, the more I find myself falling in love with older hymns. Whether a song was written four weeks ago or four hundred years ago doesn’t determine its value, certainly, but there is a quality about many of these older songs that is lacking in much of what we sing on Sundays in 2015 compared to even 50 years ago.1
The best way to describe it is the passions of their writers were tempered—not that they were lacking passion or zeal, but they themselves had been tested and tried. They’d experienced difficulty and suffering in a way that is foreign to most of us in the west today. This is particularly true of the hymns of John Newton.
Newton, the slave trader turned Anglican minister, is best known for his semi-autobiographical hymn, Amazing Grace. But “My Grace is Sufficient for Thee” is arguably the greater work. Of it, Tony Reinke writes, “If ‘Amazing Grace’ gives us a macro-look at grace and the Christian life, ‘My Grace Is Sufficient for Thee’ is a micro-look into how grace gets applied to the warfare in the Christian life.”2
Consider its words:
Oppressed with unbelief and sin,
Fightings without, and fears within;
While earth and hell, with force combined,
Assault and terrify my mind.
What strength have I against such foes,
Such hosts and legions to oppose?
Alas! I tremble, faint, and fall,
Lord save me, or I give up all.
Thus sorely pressed I sought the Lord,
To give me some sweet cheering word;
Again I sought, and yet again,
I waited long, but not in vain.
O! ’twas a cheering word indeed!
Exactly suited to my need;
Sufficient for thee is my grace,
Thy weakness my great pow’r displays.
Now despond and mourn no more,
I welcome all I feared before;
Though weak I’m strong, though troubled blest,
For Christ’s own pow’r shall on me rest.
My grace would soon exhausted be,
But his is boundless as the sea;
Then let me boast with holy Paul,
That I am nothing, Christ is all.
All throughout this hymn, built upon the foundation of Paul’s words in 2 Corinthians 12:7-10, we see the overwhelming nature of our war against sin in our lives. “Oppressed with unbelief and sin, / Fightings without, and fears within; / While earth and hell, with force combined, / Assault and terrify my mind,” Newton writes. When our minds are likewise assailed, to what can we turn for comfort?
Only all-sufficient grace can account for the change of tone in this hymn. Grace alone is powerful enough to comfort Newton in his darkest trial, under the most persistent pain, and under attack on all fronts. God’s solution to trials may not always be an escape from circumstances, but may be a stable and ever-present response from God to those who ask. My grace is sufficient for you. “Such an assurance was more valuable than the deliverance he sought could be.”
“I am nothing, Christ is all.” The all-sufficient grace of God provides us the context for discovering our insufficiencies. Grace welcomes us to look into our emptiness and personal weakness because our strength and security is outside of us, in God’s all-sufficient grace. Our owning of personal weakness is one of the results of the active presence of grace. And our weakness is how we broadcast the grace of God to others.
“Our weakness is how we broadcast the grace of God to others.” It’s our weakness that tests our zeal, and refines our passion. They remind us of our hope—not that we live victoriously, but that Christ is our hope, and his grace is sufficient.