John Newton - The Forgotten Hero

The claim that "Christian doctrine is grace and Christian ethics is gratitude" has considerable truth. At this time of our giving review, I do not want to write about our showing practical gratitude in response to God's grace to us in Christ through giving money. Rather I want to write about John Newton, the great hymn-writer on grace. His most famous hymn, of course, is "Amazing Grace".

J.C.Ryle's Omission

A book I commend to people very warmly in J.C.Ryle's Christian Leaders of the 18th Century. I have tried to follow the example of Canon Christopher of St.Aldate's, Oxford who once said that "he had turned to Ryle's book during every summer vacation for thirty years."

The book, I believe, is important because the 18th century of those Christian leaders has some parallels with today. According to Ryle inside the churches "sermons everywhere were little better than miserable moral essays, utterly devoid of anything likely to awaken, convert, or save souls." And writing of the situation outside the churches, Joseph Butler, later Bishop Durham, said:

"it has come to be taken for granted that Christianity is no longer a subject of inquiry; but that it is now at length discovered to be fictitious. And accordingly it is treated as if, in the present age, this were an agreed point among all persons of discernment, and nothing remained but to set it up as a principal subject for mirth and ridicule, as it were by way of reprisals for its having so long interrupted the pleasures of the world."

But all that changed with the 18th century Evangelical Revival. Ryle decided to write about the leaders of that revival on the grounds that "to know the men whom God raised up to do his work in days gone by, will guide us in looking about for standard-bearers in our own days and days to come." So he wrote about Whitefield, Wesley, Grimshaw, Romaine, Rowlands, Berridge, Venn, Walker, Hervey, Toplady and Fletcher. For some reason he omitted John Newton. Perhaps his early life was too lurid!

John Newton (1725-1807)

Newton has been described as "one of the most colourful figures" in the 18th century Evangelical Revival. He wrote his own epitaph for his death in 1807 as follows:

"Once an infidel and libertine, a servant of slaves in Africa, by the rich mercy of Jesus Christ, preserved, restored, pardoned, and appointed to preach the faith he had long laboured to destroy."

Chris Idle, no mean modern hymn writer himself, gives us this cameo of his life:

"A violent storm at sea was the turning-point in John Newton's life. Motherless at six and sent to sea on his eleventh birthday, he soon became a teenage rebel. He was press-ganged into the navy and flogged for desertion. Newton became involved with the African slave-trade and came close to starvation while living in extreme poverty in Sierra Leone. But in March 1748, at the age of twenty-three, he was on board a cargo ship which was fighting for its life against heavy seas and rough weather. Worn out with pumping and almost frozen, he called out for God's mercy at the height of the storm, and was amazed to be saved from almost certain death. Newton's life had many twists and turns. Eventually he renounced his involvement with slave-trading and, at thirty nine, became a minister in the Church [of England]. He persuaded the young William Wilberforce to stay in politics and joined him in the fight to abolish the slave-trade."

So Amazing Grace is Newton's personal testimony. An understanding of his life makes the hymn come so much more alive:

"Amazing grace! how sweet the sound
That saved a wretch like me!
I once was lost, but now am found,
Was blind, but now I see.

'Twas grace that taught my heart to fear,
And grace my fears relieved;
How precious did that grace appear
The hour I first believed!

Through many dangers, toils, and snares
I have already come;
'Tis grace that brought me safe thus far
And grace will lead me home.

Yes, when this heart and flesh shall fail
And mortal life shall cease
I shall possess within the veil
A life of joy and peace."

Newton's Gift and Some of his Sayings

Newton was not a great up-front evangelist like many of Ryle's heroes. Rather he was a personal counsellor. Someone has called him "the great spiritual director of souls in the Evangelical Movement." Marcus Loane, a former Archbishop of Sydney, calls him "the letter writer par excellence of the Evangelical Revival." In one of his letters he speaks of how clergy differ in their gifts and theological interests: "So far as I can judge, anatomy is my favourite branch; I mean the study of the human heart with its workings and counter-workings as it is differently affected in a state of nature or of grace, in the different seasons of prosperity, adversity, conviction, temptation, sickness and the approach of death."

Thank God for his gift to the church of John Newton. Nothing compares to reading Newton himself. Banner of Truth publish an accessible collection of the Letters of John Newton. In the meantime here are few random quotes (downloaded from the web), but each one a gold-mine in different ways:

"'What Thou wilt, when Thou wilt, how Thou wilt.' I had rather speak these three sentences from my heart in my mother tongue than be master of all the languages in Europe."

"If ever I reach heaven I expect to find three wonders there: first, to meet some I had not thought to see there; second, to miss some I had expected to see there; and third - the greatest wonder of all - to find myself there."

"I am not what I ought to be. I am not what I want to be. I am not what I hope to be. But still, I am not what I used to be. And by the grace of God, I am what I am."

"The Lord afflicts us at times; but it is always a thousand times less than we deserve, and much less than many of our fellow-creatures are suffering around us. Let us therefore pray for grace to be humble, thankful, and patient."

"The love I bear Christ is but a faint and feeble spark, but it is an emanation from himself. He kindled it and he keeps it alive; and because it is his work, I trust many waters shall not quench it."

"When everything we receive from him is received and prized as fruit and pledge of his covenant love, then his bounties, instead of being set up as rivals and idols to draw our heart from him, awaken us to fresh exercises of gratitude and furnish us with fresh motives of cheerful obedience every hour."

"I am persuaded that love and humility are the highest attainments in the school of Christ and the brightest evidences that he is indeed our Master."

"God often takes a course for accomplishing His purposes directly contrary to what our narrow views would prescribe. He brings a death upon our feelings, wishes and prospects when He is about to give us the desire of our hearts."

"I endeavour to keep all Shibboleths, and forms and terms of distinction out of sight, as we keep knives and razors out of the way of children; and if my hearers had not some other means of information, I think they would not know from me that there are such creatures as Arminians and Calvinists in the world. But we [would] talk a good deal about Christ."

"I compare the troubles which we have to undergo in the course of the year to a great bundle of fagots, far too large for us to lift. But God does not require us to carry the whole at once. He mercifully unties the bundle, and gives us first one stick, which we are to carry today, and then another, which we are to carry tomorrow, and so on. This we might easily manage, if we would only take the burden appointed for each day; but we choose to increase our troubles by carrying yesterday's stick over again today, and adding tomorrow's burden to the load, before we are required to bear it."

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