The life of John Newton might be best described by two things: the Prodigal Son and Proverbs 22:6. John Newton was born in 1725 to John, a distant ship-captain father, and Elizabeth, a religious dissenter mother. His mother did well, teaching her son Scripture and theology and bringing him to an Independent church. Sadly, she died when he was only seven, leaving him to struggle through the harsh years of boarding school, living with a new mother, and learning how to relate his strict father. From the time he was eleven to seventeen, John’s father brought him onto his ship, after which he signed to a new ship.
This time was short-lived. After he was captured while visiting friends, John was coerced to join the Royal Navy where the great extent of his disobedient, profane, and rebellious nature came to the forefront of his character. He often abused his freedom and even deserted his post for a visit to a miss “Polly,” a woman who would later become his wife. He was severely punished for desertion: flogged and reduced to the lowest rank on the ship. Not longer after, he moved to a slave ship.
This time also did not go well for him. He would often crudely mock the captain and did not endear himself to his shipmates. Newton was a degenerate. In response to his behavior, he was starved, imprisoned, chained, and eventually enslaved on Sierra Leone, where he stayed until 1748 when his father heard of it and a ship chanced to find him. On that ship, Newton also gained a reputation for profanity to the point of chastisement by the other shipmates. Yet it was during this time that Newton had a moment of reflection when, during a storm where the men were doing all they could not to capsize, Newton exclaimed, “If this will not do, then Lord have mercy on us!”
Newton and the crew ended up in Ireland soon after, during and before which time he began to read Christian works and Scripture once again. Newton would mark March 10, 1748 as the day when he began to avoid most profane things in his life, though he continued in the slave trade. It was not until he found himself on a new ship, hitting a new low, and nearing death once more in his life that he recognized his debauchery and knew that the Lord truly needed to be the Lord of his life.
In an attempt to restore some things in his life, Newton sought out and married his childhood sweetheart, Mary “Polly” Catlett, in 1750, though her family was reluctant due to his past character. Newton began to seriously change his attitude during this time. A few years later, in 1754, he ceased sailing and slave-trading. Nearly a decade later Newton would write that he was not “a believer in the full sense of the word, until a considerable time afterwards” because of his continuation in the slave trade for so long.
He and Polly then moved to Liverpool in 1756 where he was a customs agent. He began to teach himself the biblical languages and theology, joining a church in the process. His passion for Christ was so strong that he was encouraged to become a priest, an idea which was firmly struck down. Not dissuaded, he and a friend began to write devotions and was given the Olney parish in 1764. Most of his time was devoted to the poor. It was here that he, along with another friend, wrote a huge collection of hymns, later published as Olney Hymns. They wrote many of these for their weekly prayer meetings, one of which was “Amazing Grace,” written in 1772. The tune to which we know this hymn today, however, was not put to these lyrics until William Walker joined them in 1835.
Newton was moved to a new church in London in 1779. During this time and before, he became an active influence in the lives of some prominent Christians, including Thomas Scott of the Church Missionary Society and William Wilberforce, who used his influence in Parliament to serve God and eventually lead the abolition of slavery in Britain. In fact, in 1788, Newton became an outspoken abolitionist, noting that it was this which was the basest of the corruptions in his life. Together with Wilberforce, Parliament passed the Slave Trade Act of 1807. Newton died later that year on December 21, seeing the end of that evil which he had participated in and Christ had forgiven him for.
“Amazing Grace” is a hymn of confession, thanks, and comfort. It is not only a reflection of John Newton’s life as the hymn also reflects the lives Christians everywhere. There is little wonder why this hymn has been so loved for so long.
Amazing grace! (how sweet the sound)
That sav’d a wretch like me!
I once was lost, but now am found,
Was blind, but now I see.
How sweet is the sound of that phrase! How amazing is God’s grace for men. For while we were still enemies of God, He died for our sins. How desperate we were, how wretched! What is a wretch? A wretch is not only a “vile, despicable person” but also an exile, a “banished person,” someone in need of but with little hope of redemption. That is what we were: a wretch. We were vile in God’s sight (Eph. 2, 1 Tim. 1:12-17, Titus 3:3-7). Yet God in His mercy sent His Son to redeem and adopt us as sons (Eph. 1:3-14, Col. 1:10-14). Just as Newton’s life was a living example of the prodigal son and the blind man, so too were we lost and blind, needing guidance and rescuing (Mar. 10:51-52, Luk. 15:11-32, Jhn. 9:25). Thanks be to God for His wonderful gift to men!
‘Twas grace that taught my heart to fear,
And grace my fears reliev’d;
How precious did that grace appear
The hour I first believ’d!
Now that God has shown us His grace, His favor, and now that we are in His kingdom, we recognize that all honor, reverence, and holy fear is due our gracious Lord. Thus, our heart is taught to fear the Lord because beforehand, we did not recognize how irredeemable we were and that God is worthy of all praise and fear (Eph. 1:3-10, Heb. 12:28-29). Yet also, we have fears relieved. What are these? We are relieved because God has shown us His grace and mercy (Rom. 8:1-4). We are no longer enemies with God, nor do we fear death any longer (Rom. 3:21-26, 5:1-6:10). Our hope is in Christ, not ourselves, and that is truly a precious thing to hold onto (Acts 15:11, Rom. 11:6).
Thro’ many dangers, toils, and snares,
I have already come;
‘Tis grace hath brought me safe thus far,
And grace will lead me home.
As Newton recognized, so too do we see the danger in our lives that we have gone through and how often the world and the devil tried to snare us and keep us from Christ and His mercy (1 Pet. 5:8). How often has it been that God kept us from harm? For it was not on our own merit or strength that we have made it as far as we have, just as it is not by our actions that we have achieved salvation (1 Sam. 7:12, 1 Chron. 17:16, Psa. 18:2, 74:12, 141:8, 2 Cor. 12:8-10). No, it was by the grace and mercy of the Lord that we have gotten here in our life, and it will be by that same favor that we will make it to the end of our earthly life and to the eternal life with Christ (Phil. 3:13-14, 4:13).
The Lord has promis’d good to me,
His word my hope secures;
He will my shield and portion be
As long as life endures.
Not only has the Lord shown us undue favor, not only has He safely led us through our lives, whether or not we knew it, He also promises us good things all of our life (Psa. 23, Jas. 1:16-18). All good things are from Him. This is not to say that we will not endure hardship or that persecution and suffering will not come, but God promises us peace, love, and hope all the days of our life (Rom. 8:35-39). Moreover, He is our protector. As a father might protect his children, so God is our shield and His Word our defense (Psa. 5:12). He will not abandon us to this hopeless world but will be our peace and assurance forever (Psa. 16:5, 119:57, Heb. 6:17-20).
Yes, when this flesh and heart shall fail,
And mortal life shall cease;
I shall possess, within the veil,
A life of joy and peace.
And what a comfort this grace and love from God is, for we know that this mortal body will perish one day (Psa. 73:26). Yet we do not despair. Even though our bodies waste away, we know Him in whom we have put our trust and that we will be joined with Him on that last day (2 Cor. 4:1-5:5, 2 Tim. 1:12). We are redeemed, though vile and wretched we were. We are shielded, though we deserve death. We have grace and hope, though like unruly children we wander. We have a God who loves us and will give us that which He has promised: eternal life with joy and peace (Luk. 12:32. Jhn. 3:16-21, 1 Thes. 5:9-10).
The earth shall soon dissolve like snow,
The sun forbear to shine;
But God, who call’d me here below,
Will be forever mine.
This verse in not typically included in most publications because of the first line: Scripture does not say that the earth will dissolve like snow. But we do know that God’s Word is sure (Matt. 24:25, Mar. 13:31, Luk. 21:33). Thus, even if the earth were to end, even if the sun were to cease shining, God’s promises will endure, and we will forever be with Him (Psa. 145:13, Rom. 8:36-39). Therefore, we have nothing to fear, even the end of our mortal lives and all we know, for our trust is in God, not in earthly things (Psa. 56:4, Rom. 15:13, 1 Cor. 1:8, 2 Cor. 4:13-15, Heb. 13:6). This assurance comes because God chose to give His grace to us, and that is amazing.
Blessings to you and you,
Aitken. John Newton: From Disgrace to Amazing Grace.
“Amazing Grace! (how sweet the sound).”
Newton and Cowper. Olney Hymns.
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