Summary: Sermon #2 in the Hymn-writers series focuses on the lives and music of Charles Wesley, John Newton, and William Cowper.
Charles Wesley 1707-1788, John Newton 1725-1807, William Cowper 1731-1800
Amazed by Grace
CHCC: July 6, 2008
This summer I’m preaching some sermons about the history of church music. Last time I preached we talked about the changes that came in church music when Isaac Watts started writing songs like WHEN I SURVEY THE WONDROUS CROSS and O GOD OUR HELP IN AGES PAST. Before Watts, most English and American congregations sang only from the Psalms … and the style of singing was more of a chant than a melody.
Watts’ hymns met with plenty of opposition from church members who believed it was wrong to sing anything other than the Psalms. They didn’t approve of what they called “human” lyrics. They didn’t like what they called “worldly” melodies. Some of them refused to sing these new songs of faith. But those people didn’t prevail. And I don’t know about you, but I’m glad most Christians were willing to sing these new songs!
You see, Watts opened the door for what became a flood of new Christian music. He opened the door for hymnwriters like the 3 men I want to talk about this morning: Charles Wesley, John Newton, and William Cowper (pronounced: Cooper). Now, I did some research on Charles Wesley and John Newton so I could decide which one to talk about. I found out about William Cowper because Newton collaborated with him to create a hymnbook.
In the process, I saw that these were three VERY different guys. Wesley was brought up in a wonderful Christian home. Newton went to sea at age 11 and lived a rough life full of adventure. Cowper lived a quiet life that was full of tragedy and sorrow.
It was what they shared in common that caused these three very different men to write hymns of faith that people still sing today. All three men were touched by God’s Amazing Grace. When I read about their lives, I discovered that each man had what he considered a “conversion” experience. In all three cases, they came face to face with the Grace of God. This is what inspired the songs that they wrote.
I decided to talk to you about all three of these men because their stories are OUR stories. You see, one of these men was a religious man … a good fellow who was trying to be good enough for God by his own good deeds. One was a "bad" guy … so bad he though he was beyond the reach of God. And one was a sad guy … a man who lived with loss and battled with depression. All of them needed the same thing: God’s Amazing Grace. When you hear their stories, see which one YOU identify with.
1. The Religious Man - Charles Wesley
Charles Wesley was the youngest boy of 19 children born to Samuel and Susana Wesley. (Only 10 of the 19 survived infancy.) At the age of 28 Charles was ordained and left England with his older brother John Wesley to do mission work in America. Charles didn’t last long on the mission field. When he returned to England a year later, he was sick, discouraged, and depressed.
Up to that time, Charles Wesley relied on the doctrines of someone named Rev. William Law. This man had the right name because he taught that salvation could come through obedience to the Law of God. But while Charles was seriously ill, he spent time with two Godly men who talked to him about salvation by grace rather than by our own works.
Charles says that his eyes were opened to the fact that in himself he was not capable of being GOOD enough to earn his own salvation. He’d lived the best life he could. In fact, Charles and his brother John were called “Methodists” because of the methods they had developed for the disciplines of prayer and good deeds. (In case you didn’t know it, John and Charles were the early leaderes of the Methodist church.)
There was nothing wrong with the Methods, but trying to be good enough was an impossible task. Charles Wesley said that his life changed forever on May 21, 1738 when he stopped counting on his own self-righteousness and put ALL his trust in Jesus Christ alone for his salvation. For the rest of his life, Charles pointed back to that day as the moment when he trusted fully in God’s Grace through Christ.
Charles continued to live a good life … as he had before. But now he lived with peace and joy that he had never experienced before. He began to travel all over England, Wales, and Ireland, preaching this wonderful Gospel of Grace. And it was after this conversion experience that Charles Wesley started writing hymns. The songs just seemed to pour out of him. He carried note cards with him so he could write down lyrics as soon as they came to mind. Some of his songs were written while he was on horseback or in a carriage. In all, Charles Wesley wrote almost 7,000 hymns. Dozens of them are still in use today … hymns like: