Can you name the hymn sung at a memorial service for George Floyd, the funeral for congressman and civil rights leader John Lewis, and the inauguration of President Joe Biden? I’ll give you a hint. The song was written by a former slave ship captain. At a time when our culture is quick to cancel Washington, Jefferson, and Lincoln, why honor John Newton by singing his signature hymn? That popular and widely sung hymn begins, “Amazing grace how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me?” Admittedly Newton’s favorability survives, in part, due to widespread ignorance of history. Nonetheless, it is difficult to cancel someone who made self-cancelation a way of life.
Woe to Cancelers
We see a growing trend of canceling (i.e. ostracizing) those whose views run contrary to the fashionable social agenda. The victims even include historical figures whose words or actions put them at odds with the cancel culture. This is not a new thing, just a new name given to self-righteousness. It is antithetical to the gospel- centered life.
However, without a biblical understanding of sin and righteousness, the self-righteous person is a blind lumberjack swinging at anything that blocks his path. Human pride clouds his judgment, skews his limited perspective, and renders him oblivious to his own culpability. We see this kind of delusion in the Pharisees of Jesus’ day.
Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you build the tombs of the prophets and decorate the monuments of the righteous, saying, ‘If we had lived in the days of our fathers, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.’ Thus you witness against yourselves that you are sons of those who murdered the prophets…. Therefore, I send you prophets and wise men and scribes, some of whom you will kill and crucify, and some you will flog in your synagogues and persecute from town to town.Matthew 23:29-31, 34
Listening to God
Like the Pharisees, we can cluck our tongues at past generations. But each generation has sinful blind spots of its own. God sends faithful men and women to shine the light of his Word on the sins of the day and call their generation to repentance.
Now, there is some value in recognizing the sins of the past. Nevertheless, I act hypocritically when I ignore the voice of Scripture addressing my sins and the injustices of my generation. Where have I joined in willful blindness and deafness to the commands of God? Where have I evaded my responsibility, trying to justify myself, like the man who asked Jesus, “Who is my neighbor?” (Luke 10:29). The slave owner of the past said he had the right to do as he wished with his own property. The pro-choice advocate of today says the woman has the right to do as she pleases with her own body. Both fail to love another human being created in the image of God. Lord, where am I guilty of the same thing?
“But Now I See”
When you exclude the opportunistic elements of the cancel culture, there remains a legitimate yearning for righteousness. However, by building its tower of righteousness on the rubble of disgraced monuments, the cancel culture merely awaits the day of its own disgrace and demise. Only the gospel of Jesus Christ answers the need of righteousness for this and every generation.
Like every Christian, John Newton experienced the grace of God that led him to self- cancelation and faith in the righteousness of Jesus Christ (Phil. 3:3-11). That transforming grace continues to expose our sinful blindspots while simultaneously producing repentance, the cleansing of forgiveness, and humble obedience. Only as self- canceled, forgiven sinners can we address the needs of our generation with meekness and grace.
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