Overwhelmed By His Grace: Chapter 1 Overwhelmed!
By Brian Anderson
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!
John Newton, the author of that world-famous hymn, was born in 1725. By the age of seventeen, he sported one of the worst reputations among the sailors of his day. John filled his days with stealing, lying, and blaspheming. In fact, someone once claimed that John could curse for two hours straight without ever repeating himself! He eventually sold himself into the service of a slave trader in Africa and nearly died from sickness and starvation at the hands of his master's cruel wife. After being taken on board ship by a captain who had instructions from John's father to find and retrieve him, a great storm at sea threatened to destroy the vessel and drown the entire crew. But God had other plans. In the midst of the violent tempest, John Newton fell to his knees in desperation and cried out to God to have mercy upon his soul. There on that rickety, half-submerged ship, God answered his prayer, and forgave him for his wicked ways. More than that, God transformed him over time into a brand new man, replacing his pursuit of sin with a love for Christ, holiness, and truth.
John went on to become a well-known and beloved minister of the gospel until the day of his death. Yet he never lost his sense of amazement that God would show such wondrous grace to a sinner such as himself. Near the end of John's life, some well-meaning friends suggested that he stop preaching. "I cannot stop," John nearly bellowed in reply. "What! Shall the old African blasphemer stop while he can speak?" Before John passed into glory about two years later, he wrote an epitaph to be written on a plain marble tablet to mark his grave:
John Newton, Clerk
Once an Infidel and Libertine,
A Servant of Slaves in Africa,
Was, by the rich mercy of our Lord and Savior
Preserved, restored, pardoned,
And appointed to preach the Faith
He had long laboured to destroy
Assuredly, John Newton was overwhelmed by the riches of God's grace. He preached, wrote, and sang of amazing grace from the day God saved him on that stormy sea, until the day the red damp earth was placed on his coffin fifty-nine years later.
My Discovery Of Sovereign Grace
During the summer of 1991, God began to overwhelm me with the same grace that overwhelmed John Newton nearly two and a half centuries earlier. As a pastor of Milpitas Bible Fellowship, I found myself teaching through the book of Romans, in a verse-by-verse expository fashion. In Romans chapters eight and nine, I encountered some of the most hard-hitting teaching on sovereign grace in the Bible. I had made a commitment, however, to teach what I believed was the true meaning of the text, not what I wanted the text to mean. As I ploughed through this section of God's Word with my congregation, God began to show me just how breathtaking His grace actually is.
At first I did not treasure the truths I discovered. In fact, at times I fought fiercely against them. Nevertheless, I earnestly desired to understand God's Word. I wanted to know the answer to such questions as, "Why are some people saved and others lost?" and "How exactly does a person come to Christ?" I had always thought I understood the answer to those questions. I believed the reason some were saved was simply because they made the decision to come to Christ. Furthermore, I had always assumed that a person came to Christ simply by exercising his free will to believe on Him. My study in the Scriptures, however, forced me to rethink those beliefs. It was extremely humbling and a bit frightening when I began to discover that I was not really the master of my fate or the captain of my destiny. It was hard to relinquish the idea that I was the one calling the shots. Furthermore, it was not easy to agree with God that in my unsaved condition I was spiritually dead, helpless to make a move toward Him. Yet, my understanding of the Bible led inescapably to these conclusions.
The truth of God's absolute sovereignty, especially in the arena of man's salvation, held a vise-like grip on my mind for months on end. For a solid year I could think of little else. I woke up thinking about God's sovereign grace and drifted off to sleep with this thought running through my mind. During the day I studied it in the Scriptures and meditated on my discoveries. During the ensuing year, I spent hundreds of hours reading books and listening to tapes dealing with this theme.
Interestingly, an amazing metamorphosis took place. The very truths which I yielded to only grudgingly because I could no longer deny them, slowly began to fill my heart with pleasure and delight. I found that my own experience echoed that of Charles Haddon Spurgeon's who wrote,
When I was coming to Christ, I thought I was doing it all myself, and though I sought the Lord earnestly, I had no idea the Lord was seeking me. I do not think the young convert is at first aware of this. I can recall the very day and hour when first I received those truths in my own soul - when they were, as John Bunyan says, burnt into my heart as with a hot iron, and I can recollect how I felt that I had grown on a sudden from a babe into a man - that I had made progress in Scriptural knowledge, through having found, once for all, the clue to the truth of God. (C.H. Spurgeon Autobiography, Vol. 1, The Banner of Truth, pgs. 164-165)
With John Bunyan and Charles Spurgeon, I too felt God's red-hot iron as He burned the truths of sovereign grace into my soul. Jonathan Edwards, the great American theologian and philosopher of the 18th century, likewise stated,
From my childhood up, my mind had been full of objections against the doctrine of God's sovereignty in choosing whom He would to eternal life. . . It used to appear like a horrible doctrine to me. But I have often, since that first conviction, had quite another kind of sense of God's sovereignty than I had then. I have often since had not only a conviction, but a delightful conviction. The doctrine has very often appeared exceeding pleasant, bright and sweet. Absolute sovereignty is what I love to ascribe to God. But my first conviction was not so. (Iain Murray, Jonathan Edwards - A New Biography, The Banner of Truth, pg. 103)
Like Jonathan Edwards, the more time I spent considering the Biblical teaching of sovereign grace, the more delight I found in it.
My newfound Biblical discoveries caused me to grow in my understanding of God. The best way I can describe it is that my God suddenly grew much bigger. Contemplating His absolute power, majesty, and rule took my breath away. I no longer saw Him as grieving over those who would not let Him save them. Now, I saw Him seated on His throne, working all things according to the counsel of His will.
My understanding of man also began to change. Whereas, before I thought of man as occupying the driver's seat, controlling his destiny through the use of his free will, I now understood that his sinful nature had enslaved his will so that he would choose only to reject God. I went from having a little God and a big man, to having a big God and a little man.
Additionally, I had to make some serious adjustments in my understanding of my role in evangelism. Up to this point, I fancied that getting someone converted was a relatively simple matter -- all I had to do was put the right arguments and Scripture texts together persuasively enough. I now understood that man's condition is so sinful that only a miracle of grace will ever convert him. Furthermore, I began to look not just for a decision, raised hand, or sinner's prayer, but for evidence of God's work of grace upon a man's heart. My job, I now saw, was simply to present the gospel as purely and sincerely as I could; it was God's job to actually convert the sinner.
I also experienced a dramatic change in my attitude toward my salvation. In years past, I had thought that though God had saved me by His grace, I had to keep myself saved by my obedience and good works. I figured that my making it to heaven, depended a great deal on me. I worried that if I did not keep up a rigorous lifestyle of prayer, Bible reading, church attendance and good works, I might lose my salvation and end up in hell. Although I believe in the importance of pursuing a holy life, I now enjoy a strong confidence in God to finish the work He has begun, and to keep me to the end. I realize that it is not so much my grasp on Him, but His grasp on me that ultimately matters.
God has quite literally overwhelmed me with His grace. I have a new vision of God, myself, evangelism, my salvation, and much, much more. It has helped me to see how greatly God loves me, and has enabled me to rest secure in His purposes. In short, it has transformed my life. I can truthfully say that it has had nearly as great an impact on my life as my conversion. In fact, I find the grace of God so wonderful, that I have written this book so that others will come to understand it and thereby appreciate their salvation more deeply than ever before.
A word of caution though - this process will involve struggle. An individual will have to re-examine his cherished beliefs in the light of God's Word. He may have to let go of a part of his belief system. That can be very painful. However, I am convinced that he will never regret the time and energy he invests in working through these issues.
Chapter 2 >