“The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance,
that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners,
of whom I am the foremost” (1 Tim. 1:15).
Randy Alcorn tells the story in his book If God is Good of going to speak at a certain place where a woman led the congregation in singing the classic, Amazing Grace before he spoke.
But to his dismay, when she sang the first line, she changed the word wretch in the line (“that saved a wretch like me”) to, “that saved a soul like me.” The word wretch was changed to the more palatable term soul. No reason was given for the change. No doubt, she felt that wretch was too negative a word to describe her.
The author of that classic hymn, John Newton would have disagreed entirely. A former slave-owner who abused women and tortured his slaves, he was delivered from his wretched state and received forgiveness of his sins. Penning the words of the hymn, Newton thought of his former state and felt the word wretch was not too strong to describe it. Grace was amazing for Newton, precisely because it saved wretches like Newton from God’s certain judgment and his bondage to sin.
I often reflect on that whenever I stand in a modern congregation and sing this classic hymn. While I have never heard anyone substitute soul or some other word for wretch, the term does seem shallow when sung by modern Western congregations. After all, most Westerners (including many Christians) believe that their real problem is their lack of self-esteem or the need to rid themselves of negative feelings when it comes to evaluating their sinful nature or personal conduct. I just heard this morning a response made by one of America’s most well-known pastors. When asked by a reporter, why he never talked about sin or hell in his sermons, he said most people are beat up all week and need to hear something positive about themselves. They need (according to him) to leave church feeling better about themselves and built up.
It goes without saying, this belief is a total denial of the Gospel. I have no doubt the man is sincere, but to avoid the topic of sin altogether and claim to be still preaching the Gospel is ludicrous. The Gospel is the good news that I need a Savior—someone to deliver me from my wretchedness. If I’m not a wretch but a person who simply needs to feel better about myself, then the Gospel is much ado about nothing. For it states very clearly that sinners are in such a desperate state, they cannot save themselves. Nothing less than the God-Man, Christ Jesus’ death on a Roman cross could save us from our plight.
While we have not replaced the word wretch with soul when singing the hymn today, it (wretch) feels archaic when it comes off our lips. That’s because sin is rarely mentioned anymore from our pulpits and is all but lost in our theology. When we do use it, we almost always limit it to certain atrocious acts such as beating up grandmothers. All but gone is the biblical emphasis on the corruption of our nature; the doctrine of Original Sin. Our real corruption though is in the fact that “nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out” (Romans 7:18). David himself, when reflecting upon his sin with Bathsheba and arranging the death of her husband looked beyond his actions to the real reason for his sin: “Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me” (Psalm 51:5). Here, David reaches back to the fact that he was born a sinner by his connection to his father, Adam.
I was thinking about this in terms of pastoral ministry; I literally have had thousands of requests over the years for me to pray for people struggling with feelings of rejection. I can not remember even one time a person coming and confessing to the Lord their sin of idolatry; that they care more about what people think of them rather than what God thinks (which is why they feel rejected). We are far more focused on getting rid of the effects of our rejection without dealing with its cause.
We are paying a steep price for the loss of our wretchedness as sinners, for it is only as we are aware of our true state that the Gospel becomes the “power of God for salvation to everyone who believes” (Romans 1:16). If I think Jesus came to help me with my problems, he becomes little more than a life-coach; someone who comes to give me keys to living a successful life. Or he comes as a second Moses who gives me a shot in the arm and tells me to strengthen my will power and give it a try. But Jesus is neither a life-coach nor a second Moses; he is a Savior who came to save wretches like me.
Paul, in his statement to Timothy, refers to himself in the present tense as the ‘foremost of sinners.’ This is no mock humility or spiritual verbiage to impress people. He was deeply aware of his personal wretchedness before God, evidenced by his former lifestyle of persecuting the Church. But he extolled amazing grace and would have gladly sung the first line of the hymn, “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me.” How about you? When you sing that line, do you readily take your place as the wretch you are?