John Newton’s song Amazing Grace has resonated deeply with millions of Christians through the centuries since he wrote it. Doubtless, this is because every believer identifies with the experience of being “found” when we were “lost,” and of being brought through “many dangers, toils, and snares” by the amazing grace of God. Also, every Christian knows what it is also to wrestle with the certain approach of death and to find confidence and joy in the expectation of eternity.
This is how Newton concludes his empathetic hymn: with the reminder that, although this life is short, eternity is long. And its pleasures are sweet indeed.
This Mortal Life Shall Cease
It is interesting—and should be instructive—that although centuries have passed since John Newton wrote Amazing Grace, life is still limited and death is still certain. The space age and the smartphone, while certainly changing our lives, have not unbound them. We can still sing with the personal conviction that “this flesh and heart shall fail, and mortal life shall cease.” Which should, in turn, remind us that the truths Newton wrote about were not merely personal or subjective feelings, but eternal realities.
For every human being, there is a limited number of seasons we will see, of opportunities we will have. And then this mortal life shall cease. The reality of death, and of the failing of mind and body which most of us will experience years before death, should change the way we look at life. We must live for things that will outlast us, and other failing human forms.
On the other hand, it is comforting to realize that the challenges and trials of this life are not eternal either. For every Christian, sorrow and pain will die along with their body. When their flesh and heart fail, so will the ability of this sin-cursed world to bother them any longer. This was comforting to an ex-slave trader with many regrets, who also suffered in many ways physically. As long as life persists, pain persists; but once this mortal life ceases, so will the grief. Then, and only then, “I shall possess… a life of joy and peace.”
Newton reminds us that the approach of death should re-prioritize life here and now. It gives eternal perspective to our daily lives. It should make us desire to use our life in eternal pursuits. It should also remind us as Christians that even the greatest sorrows are only temporary.
The Earth Shall Soon Dissolve
Not only will our human flesh and hearts one day fail, but even the earth itself will one day die: “the earth shall soon dissolve like snow.” Not only is each human life temporary, but all life on this earth will soon be finished. When Jesus comes again as a righteous judge, He will fold up the heavens and earth like a garment and put it away. The temporary will give place to the eternal.
This is sobering, and all the more so when Paul reminds us that “flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable” (1 Corinthians 15:50). We are not, in our very best situation on earth, suitable for heaven. The very holiest saints are not pure enough for Heaven; the very best athletes are not fit enough for heaven; the very best earth-treasures are not imperishable enough for heaven.
Take a helicopter pass over your life: what are the mountains, the big and defining objects that dominate the landscape of your thoughts, your time, your pursuits? Are you so invested in this world emotionally and financially that leaving this world is the worst thing you can imagine? Are the great treasures of your heart primarily earthly? If so, they are temporary. That is the point: whatever is perishable cannot inherit imperishable, will not survive the resurrection, will not belong in heaven.
This is not to say this physical universe is useless. Everything in Creation, including stars and sand and you, exists for the glory of God. But everything in Creation, therefore, is only truly meaningful when it is used to bring God glory. Physical things—including our bodies—have no value in and of themselves; they derive their value from their connection with the kingdom of God.
So we should not get so attached to things that are in their very nature passing. It is like falling in love with a snowman—come Spring, it will melt away, and you will inevitably be left heart-broken.
God Forever Mine
Because this earth and life are so passing, Newton reminds himself—and us—of what truly, eternally matters. This flesh and heart will one day fail, and even the earth will one day dissolve. “But God, who called me here below, will be forever mine.” God is the great treasure of the universe. Those who have Him, have Him forever. Those who enjoy Him will enjoy Him forever.
Jesus puts it this way: “…this is eternal life, that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent” (John 17:3).
It is common, as each year begins, for people to make New Year’s resolutions; this is not a bad practice. As we look back over the past year(s), it is appropriate to wonder if we accomplished what we should have, if our lives were as useful and happy as we would like them to be. As a result of that assessment, we should resolve by God’s grace to begin to address areas with the help of others where we feel like we have failed or come up short.
It is easy, however, when we go through such mental exercises of prioritizing, to have our list of priorities woefully skewed toward things that in and of themselves will never bring about true and lasting success. We might resolve to lose weight, or work harder, or learn a new skill, or spend more time with our family, or even read our Bible more in the coming year. And none of these things are bad, of course—unless, in striving for them, we miss the one thing that matters most.
Consider what Newton—and more importantly Jesus—says the most important thing is in all of life. Eternal life is knowing God in Jesus Christ! It is having God as “forever mine.” There is something more foundational to life than eating right, or exercise. There is something more central to Christianity than good works, more crucial than Bible reading or prayer or self-discipline or even heaven. Because the goal of all of these is the same, and the most important thing in all of life is knowing Jesus Christ.
Christ is the gospel. The good news is Jesus Himself. Salvation is found, not just in the absence of hell, but in knowing Jesus Christ. This is the tenor of Jesus’ own teaching (Matthew 11:28-29; John 7:37). The activity of true faith is drinking in Jesus and believing in Jesus which leads to the eternal, overflowing, abundant life. Every soul was created to worship God and so will only find true happiness in fulfilling its purpose, its design. Only the awakened, quickened soul thirsts for Christ, longs to be more and more in His presence.
Is this what has been missing from your life, Christian? Have you been drinking at the pool of providing for your family, or of personal relationships, or of pursuing social acceptance—but you are still thirsty? Even Bible-reading, spiritual disciplines, or charitable works are not themselves satisfying, except as they help us grow in personal knowledge and experience of Christ. Eternal life is knowing God in Jesus Christ!
Do you know Him? Not just the story about Him, or other people who know Him. Is Jesus Christ Himself your friend, your confidant, your hope of salvation, your satisfaction in the ups and downs of life? I trust, for those of you who are Christians, that you do know Christ personally, deeply, and meaningfully. But I want to encourage you, whether you are a Christian yet or not, to make it your resolution to set Christ as your great goal in everything you do.
Make knowing Christ your great goal this year, and every year. Set Christ on the trophy stand of your heart, and don’t let anything or anyone replace him as your great treasure. Even after 10,000 years in heaven, praising His name, it will seem like life in the Son has only begun.
Justin Huffman is a graduate of Reformed Theological Seminary and pastored churches in the States for over 15 years. He is currently lead pastor of Morningstar Christian Fellowship in Toronto, where he lives with his wife Chau and their four children. Justin is the author of the “Daily Devotion” app, as well as numerous books and articles, including his newest book Behold: an Invitation to Wonder. Connect with him at justinhuffman.org.