On Sunday, the congregations at all three of our main campus venues sang the modern hymn His Mercy is More. The refrain goes:
Stronger than darkness, new every morn
Our sins they are many, His mercy is more
Written by Matt Papa and Matt Boswell, the hymn draws from a 1767 letter and sermon by John Newton. Here’s an excerpt from that letter:
Are not you amazed sometimes that you should have so much as a hope, that, poor and needy as you are, the Lord thinketh of you?
But let not all you feel discourage you. For if our Physician is almighty, our disease cannot be desperate and if He casts none out that come to Him, why should you fear?
Our sins are many, but His mercies are more: our sins are great, but His righteousness is greater: we are weak, but He is power.
True to his letter, Newton’s sins were many.
He renounced his faith as a young man. He became a sailor, but then deserted the Royal Navy. As punishment, he was sent to work on the slave ship Greyhound. Even among such a cruel and inhuman atmosphere, Newton’s hateful behavior became notorious among the crew.
Once though, during a terrible storm at sea, he shouted, “Lord, have mercy on us!” After he and the others aboard the Greyhound barely survived, Newton began to ponder his plea. His primary question: What kind of God could love a sinner like me?
In the coming decades, Newton found the answer. Ultimately he became an Anglican priest and an abolitionist. Given his awful past, especially his involvement in the slave trade, God’s mercy became the theme that defined his life.
Newton is best known today for a hymn he would write in 1773: Faith’s Review and Expectation. The title didn’t stick, nor did the original tune. But the lyrics did. Over the years, the hymn became known by its first two words — Amazing Grace.
His Mercy is More has the feel of an Irish sea shanty. It’s a safe guess that Newton was thinking about that awful slave ship when he penned the sermon years later. The man forever linked with God’s grace would live out his life in awe of God’s mercy.
It’s also likely that Newton was thinking about words written by the Old Testament prophet Micah:
Who is a God like you, who pardons sin and forgives the transgression of the remnant of his inheritance?
You do not stay angry forever but delight to show mercy.
You will again have compassion on us; you will tread our sins underfoot and hurl all our iniquities into the depths of the sea.
(Micah 7:18-19, NIV)
More about this hymn at Matt Papa’s website.
Jim Killam is a journalist, author, teacher and terminal Cubs fan. He and his wife, Lauren, live in Rockford and work internationally with Wycliffe Bible Translators.