Lessons from the life of John Newton
by John Crotts, Faith Bible Church
Wise King Solomon wrote, “Whoever walks with the wise becomes wise, but the companion of fools will suffer harm” (Proverbs 13:20).
Basically Solomon taught that you become like the people that you hang around. Your closest friends always mentor you for better or for worse.
In addition to choosing to surround yourself with the wisest friends you can find, you can also walk with wise men and women from other times and places by reading good biographies. These godly men and women have experienced God’s Spirit leading them through all kinds challenges. There will always be connections to your life.
Over the past few years I have made friends with John Newton. Although he lived long ago in a country far away, the Lord Jesus Christ mercifully saved him and used him to spread the message of God’s mercy to others. John Newton fleshes out so many lessons I need to put into practice as a gospel-centered Christian.
The people who know John Newton’s name often only know one or two things about him. They recognize that he wrote one of the most popular hymns ever, “Amazing Grace.” The other thing they sometimes know is that he was a slave ship captain before he wrote that hymn. Those facts are true, but there is so much more to his story.
“Amazing Grace” was written for his country congregation -- based on a sermon he was going to preach, but its theme marked Newton’s entire life. He never got over that fact that God saved him. His godly mother had tried to direct his young heart to love Jesus. But when she died, he rebelled against the Lord. His rebellion was so severe he became an evangelist for evil among the other crew on the ships he sailed.
John Newton deserved to go to hell forever and he knew it.
When a massive storm at sea drove him to cry out for God’s mercy, he really doubted whether God had enough grace for a wretch like him. God showed John Newton favor, because hundreds of years before God crushed his Son on the cross in the place of sinners -- even the worst sinners.
Three days later God raised Jesus from the dead. For those who turn from their sin and trust only in what Jesus accomplished, God offers to trade all of their sins for all of Jesus’ righteousness. John Newton experienced that exchange. It literally put a song in his heart, that he never stopped singing!
The gospel changed John Newton in remarkable ways.
There are three important lessons we can learn by walking with this friend from far away. First, the gospel humbled Newton, causing him to be friends with Christians from many backgrounds and denominations.
If they preached about Jesus and the cross, they had a friend in the slaver saved by grace. He loved John Wesley, the Arminian, and George Whitefield, the Calvinist. Although he was a minister in the Church of England, he occasionally canceled his services to encourage his church to go hear a great Baptist pastor who was in town.
Second, the gospel emboldened Newton, causing him to tell many people about what Jesus Christ had done for him. John Newton was a pastor in the small town of Olney, England for 16 years, followed by 28 years pastoring in downtown London. He didn’t hold back on telling his story to the world in his “Authentic Narrative,” which was his conversion story, describing his life until just before entering the ministry.
Finally, the gospel motivated Newton, causing him to risk his respected reputation by helping William Wilberforce pull back the covers which blinded polite English society to the horrors of the slave trade. In addition to mentoring Wilberforce, Newton joined the front lines of the fight by describing his experiences as captain of a slave ship in print and before leaders in the British government.
The work Jesus did in setting Newton’s heart free from the penalty and slavery to sin so changed him that he willingly helped to rescue tens of thousands of future Africans who would have been captured and sold as slaves. Eventually those seeds led to slavery itself being abolished in the British Empire and later in the United States.
The years of struggle, turning from his sins to Jesus, deeply impressed John Newton that God’s massive grace needed to affect all of his being and all of his dealings with others. Newton’s mind, will and emotions were transformed by a growing understanding of the significance of God’s wonderful mercy.
Christians today are too easily satisfied with a surface appreciation of God’s grace to them. If you think of your sin as a smallish problem that God took care of a long time ago, your life and ministry today will never be properly affected and shaped by utter amazement at God’s grace. Certainly we learn of this as we read the inspired pages of the Bible, but we can also learn more about this by seeing it fleshed out in the lives of those gripped by grace.
John Newton was such a man!