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Redemption Stories: John Newton

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The most popular hymn of all time is likely “Faith’s Review and Expectation.” That was the song's original title. You and I know it as “Amazing Grace.” The writer, of course, was John Newton.

Early mercies

John Newton was born in London on July 24, 1725. His father, John Sr., was a sea captain. He was a moral man but not “under the impressions of true religion,” according to his son. John’s mother, Elizabeth, was a woman of faith who diligently pointed him to Christ. 

In his memoirs, he talked about the spiritual investments his mother made in his life:

“She stored my memory, which was then very retentive, with many valuable pieces, chapters, and portions of Scripture, catechisms, hymns, and poems. My temper at that time seemed quite suitable to her wishes; I had little inclination for the noisy sports of children but was pleased in her company, and always as willing to learn as she was to teach me.”

John Newton’s mom died from tuberculosis when he was 6 years old. As time passed, he strayed far from his mother’s teachings, embracing a life of much wickedness.

We teach our children the wonderful truths about our King, as we cry out to God to give them hearts that are ready to receive those truths. Sometimes it’s years before that happens. Such was the case for John Newton.

Newly found faith

God has a way of getting our attention. He used a fierce storm in the Atlantic to cause Newton to recognize his desperate need for the true and living God. John Piper said, “[Newton] spent all the rest of the voyage in deep seriousness as he read and prayed over the scriptures.” Soon the foul-mouthed, slave-trading sailor would turn to embrace the God he had long rejected.

I saw One hanging on a tree, 

In agony and blood.

He fixed His loving eyes on me, 

As near His cross, I stood.

 

O, can it be, upon a tree

The Savior died for me? 

My soul is thrilled, my heart is filled,

To think He died for me!

(“Looking to the Cross” by John Newton)

Changing course

In the years to come, God would powerfully use John Newton to advance His kingdom of truth and righteousness.

Newton served as a pastor. He led the congregation in the Buckinghamshire parish of Olney for 16 years and after that, he served for over 20 years at St. Mary Woolnoth in London.

He penned hundreds of hymns. You may be familiar with “Let Us Love and Sing and Wonder” or “How Sweet the Name of Jesus Sounds.” Then there is “Glorious Things of Thee Are Spoken.” Those are some of my favorites. 

He also wrote quite a few letters. He took pen and paper and with pastoral tenderness, invested in the lives of men and women he had crossed paths with. Here’s one example:

June 1773

Dear Sir,

I must content myself with the idea of the pleasure it would give me to sit with you half a day under my favorite great tree, and converse with you, not concerning the comparatively petty affairs of human governments—but of the things pertaining to the kingdom of God. How many delightful subjects would suggest themselves in a free and retired conversation! The excellency of our King, the permanency and glory of His kingdom, the beauty of His administration, the privileges of His subjects, the review of what He has done for us, and the prospect of what He has prepared for us in the future—and if, while we were conversing, He should be pleased to join us (as He did the disciples when walking to Emmaus), how would our hearts burn within us! … But we cannot meet. All that is left for me is to use the liberty you allow me of offering a few hints upon these subjects by letter, not because you don't know them—but because you love them. 

(You can read the rest of the letter here.)

I encourage you to spend some time reading his letters; many of them serve as heartwarming devotionals.

John Newton's life gives us much to think about.  

As Christians, you and I can relate to God’s rescue of Newton. We too have been delivered “from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of His beloved Son (Colossians 1:13).” Praise God for such infinite love for undeserving sinners like us.      

Worthy is the Lamb who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing (Revelation 5:12).

We can be thankful for mothers like Elizabeth who bring their children’s needs to the throne of grace. Surely God heard and responded to Elizabeth’s cries for her son. We pray for our children, and we can have confidence that our wise and loving Father will respond in a way that’s best. We must rest in that reality.   

Finally, I’m inspired by John Newton’s zeal for investing in the lives of others through his hymns, his pastoral work, and his letters. His diligence might cause us to reflect on our own passion for kingdom matters. Newton used his time, skills, and abilities for the Lord, and you and I have that same responsibility … and privilege.  

But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 3:13–14).

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There are many books that have been written about John Newton. You might consider Through Many Dangers: The Story of John Newton by Brian H. Edwards or John Newton: From Disgrace to Amazing Grace by Jonathan Aitken. 

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