“Faith without works is dead.” James 2:26
Amazing Grace follows the incredible career of William Wilberforce (Ioan Gruffold), the political activist who led Britain’s Parliament to the abolition of slavery in the early nineteenth century.
So what does this historical experience have to do with one of Christianity’s most popular and timeless hymns?
Wilberforce, it turns out, was also a protégée of John Newton, the composer of “Amazing Grace” and a former slave trader himself (before his conversion experience, which led him to compose the infamous song). Earlier in his life, William considered following in his mentor’s footsteps and becoming a contemplative preacher for the rest of his life (instead of continuing on as a Member of Parliament). He wanted to live a life in God’s grace, and figured a life of meditation would be the way to do that.
But Newton (in the movie, played by Albert Finney) wouldn’t hear any of it, nor would his friend, political ally, and future Prime Minister William Pitt (Benedict Cumberbatch). Newton and Pitt challenged young William that he could live a life in God’s grace and at the same time, live a life in the political world. Thank God for the two of them, as well his wife Barbara Spooner (Romola Garai); because of their encouragement of William, slavery was finally abolished in Britain, leading the way for other social reforms overseas and the abolition of slavery in the United States a few decades later.
Had William lived out a life of faith without his works, a country might have missed an opportunity to come closer to the Reign of God.
But because one man lived out a life of faith through his works, the world was transformed.
In the New Testament, the epistle writer James tells his audience: “What good is it, my friends, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith alone save him?… For just as a body without a spirit is dead, so also a faith without works is dead.” (James 2:14,26). Wilberforce teaches us through his experience in this film that action must be a part of our life of faith.
If we are singing “Amazing Grace” in our churches, but going home and doing nothing with our faith, then our faith is dead.
If we are praying hours on end, but are never ourselves the answer to anyone’s prayer, then our faith is dead.
If we are speaking about the mysteries of faith, but don’t stand for justice, act with compassion, speak out for the poor, actively oppose war and violence, or comfort those in pain, then our faith is dead.
It hit me as I watched this movie: perhaps you and I are not supposed to wait for God’s grace in our lives which will save and set us free; perhaps, instead, you and I are supposed to be that grace for someone else. Wilberforce was the amazing saving grace for the slaves of the early nineteenth century, all because his faith was manifested in his good works. Imagine whose grace you and I might be.
And just as abolition was the issue William Wilberforce and for this movie, what might our issues be today? That is our question to wrestle with: What are you and I called to act upon? In what way will our faith be put into action? What is our passion that will transform the world?
Amazing Grace challenges us to find our voice, discover our passion, and use our faith to act on that so that we might transform the world in our own day.