John Newton, the Story of God’s Amazing Grace
In his most famous hymn, John Newton described himself as a “wretch” who was spiritually “lost” and “blind” until the grace of God found him and gave him spiritual sight. Born in Wapping, London, in 1725, he was the only child of a devout Christian mother and a seafaring father. But before he was seven, his mother died.
At the age of eleven, Newton left school and followed his father to become a sailor. Eventually he engaged in the despicable slave trade, capturing natives from West Africa and selling them in the markets of the world. By this time, his rejection of Christianity was complete. Swearing and blasphemies were part of his everyday language.
But on March 10, 1748, at the age of twenty-two, Newton encountered a fierce storm at sea. Greatly alarmed and fearful of shipwreck, new words were heard on his lips, “The Lord have mercy upon us.” “I began to pray: I could not utter the prayer of faith; I could not draw near to a reconciled God, and call him Father: my prayer was like the cry of the ravens, which yet the Lord did not disdain to hear. I now began to think of that Jesus that I had so long derided.” The grace of God had put fear into this man’s heart and he was converted to faith in the Lord Jesus Christ.
Sensing the call of God to be a preacher of the Gospel, Newton became an ordained minister of the Anglican Church in the little village of Olney, near Cambridge, England. In addition to his preaching, he introduced simple heartfelt hymns rather than the usual psalms in his services. When enough hymns could not be found, Newton began to write his own, often assisted by his close friend William Cowper. In 1779 their combined efforts produced the famous Olney Hymns hymnal. “Amazing Grace,” stanzas 1-4, was from that collection. Later John P. Rees (1828-1900) added Stanza 5 to the hymn.
Newton was tender in telling the truth, and he was patient to teach the doctrines of grace. He noticed that one of the most “Calvinistic” texts in the New Testament called for tenderness and patience with those who disagreed with him over theology because the decisive work is God’s. “And the servant of the Lord must not strive; but be gentle unto all men, apt to teach, patient, in meekness instructing those that oppose themselves; if God peradventure will give them repentance to the acknowledging of the truth; and that they may recover themselves out of the snare of the devil, who are taken captive by him at his will” (2 Timothy 2:24-26). One of his fiercest opponents was the liberal clergyman Thomas Scott. Despite Scott’s provocation, Newton remained friendly and tenderhearted. In 1777, Scott experienced some difficulty and he chose to call upon the evangelical preacher. Scott said, “His discourse so comforted and edified me, that my heart, being by this means relieved from its burdens, became susceptible of affection for him.” This affectionate relationship led Scott into the full experience of saving grace and evangelical truth. When Newton was called to London, it was Scott who succeeded him as the pastor at the Olney church and he wrote a distinctly evangelical book, The Force of Truth.
Explaining his tender disposition, Newton said, “I have been thirty years forming my own views; and, in the course of this time, some of my hills have sunk, and some of my valleys have risen: but how unreasonable within me to expect all this should take place in another person; and that, in the course of a year or two.” He also said, “Though a man does not accord with my view of election, yet if he gives me good evidence that he is effectually called of God, he is my brother.”
Until the time of his death in 1807 at the age of eighty-two, John Newton never ceased to marvel at the grace of God that transformed him so completely. In his last will and testament, Newton wrote, “I commit my soul to my gracious God and Saviour, who mercifully spared and preserved me, when I was an apostate, a blasphemer, and an infidel, and delivered me from the state of misery on the coast of Africa into which my obstinate wickedness had plunged me; and who has been pleased to admit me (though most unworthy) to preach his glorious gospel.” Shortly before his death he is quoted as proclaiming with a loud voice during a message, “My memory is nearly gone, but I remember two things: That I am a great sinner and that Christ is a great Saviour!” John Newton took no credit for his salvation: it was all of God’s amazing grace!