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THE LIFE OF JOHN NEWTON, PART 2
Last Sunday afternoon I began telling the story of John Newton, who is best known today for his great hymn, Amazing Grace. For more than two hundred years, the song has reached people in a way none other has. The folk singer, Judy Collins, said it carried her through the depths of her alcoholism. Johnny Cash often sang it in his prison shows, and never without heads nodding in agreement or bowed in thankful worship.
The song's power does not lie in its tune or its poetry or even in its theology, but in something far deeper. The word I'm looking for is authenticity. Amazing Grace rings true to life because it is true to life. John Newton did not get the hymn out of his books, but out of his life. First, his life without God, and then his life with God.
A week ago we looked at Newton's life without God. From his birth in 1725 to a few weeks short of his twenty-third birthday, he lived in appalling wickedness. After reading an infidel book, he quit believing the Bible, and in the company of rough and profane sailors, he became the worst of a bad lot. Of that time in his life, he later wrote-
I was capable of anything; I had not the least fear of God before my eyes, nor the least sensibility of conscience.
He specialized in profanity, taking the Lord's Name in vain, and mocking everything holy. When he met a sailor who had some feeling for the Lord, he made it his business to talk or laugh him out of it.
Near the end of his wild career in sin, he served with a young man named Job Lewis who professed faith in Christ and tried to live by His Word. Newton got busy arguing with the man and ridiculing his beliefs until he gave them up. Years later, when Newton was a saved man, he met his old friend, and was at great pains to undo his evil work. Six weeks later, Job Lewis was dead, and one who was with him at the time said,
He left this world in rage and despair, pronouncing his own fatal doom without any appearance that he either hoped or asked for mercy.
This is the kind of man John Newton was for twenty-two years. But God saved him in a storm on the North Atlantic, and he became a new man in Christ. We stopped last week with his conversion, now we'll move on to his life with God, which lasted sixty years on earth-and now nearly two hundred more in heaven.
For six years John Newton was a solitary Christian. Though a handful of sailors were somewhat 'religious', none of them knew Christ or the pardon of sin. This left John with his Bible and prayer, but without the fellowship and teaching all believers need.
One day he met an older captain named Alexander Clunie. Seeing he was so different than the other skippers he knew, Newton shyly asked him if he were a Christian. He said he was, and, from that day on, he began to tutor John in the ways of the Lord.
At the time, John believed every pastor preached the Gospel. Clunie told him otherwise, and urged him to listen for two doctrines in particular: the deity of Christ and the trustworthiness of the Bible. If the preacher made Christ into a fine man-and nothing more-he should not be listened to! If he corrected the Bible or simply ignored it-don't go back to his church!
Captain Clunie belonged to the Congregational Church, and he firmly believed in the Five Points of Calvinism and-at the time-an unusual form of Church Government. Had he cared more for his party than for Christ and his friend, Clunie might have poisoned John against many fine Gospel preachers and churches. But he didn't do that. He didn't tell him to stay away from men who preached Episcopal church government or General Atonement. For these things-though mistaken in his (and my) opinion-are secondary matters. The primary things are Christ and His Word. If a man is faithful to our Lord and the Bible that reveals Him to us, his preaching will do us good!
While John should not listen to every preacher, he must listen to faithful preachers-and as often as he can. Here Captain Clunie was borrowing from Ephesians 4, which tells us that pastors and teachers are gifts of Christ to the church, and that we will not grow in knowledge or holiness until we become as faithful in hearing the Word as they are in preaching it!
A sea captain was gone much of the time, of course, but when he was home, Newton attended every service of the church-some of which began at five o'clock in the morning, outdoors, and in the winter!
Captain Clunie introduced John to his pastor, Samuel Brewer, and then two men had a wonderfully shaping influence on the Newton's early Christian life.
In the likely event I wasn't clear, the two lessons he learned under these dear men were: (1) Hear the Word of God as often as you can, and, especially, when the pastors (2) Majors on the majors and minors on the minors.
Not long after John became a Christian he was offered the command of a ship. At one time he would have jumped at the chance, but now he declined the offer because, he said, One has to learn to obey orders before he presumed to give them. After one voyage as first mate, John was made captain and given a ship called The Duke of Argyle. The captain, his mate, a surgeon, and twenty-seven men sailed to Africa to work in the.the slave trade.
If this sounds unsavory to you, Newton felt that way as well. But not yet. In 1751, slaving was practiced all over the world, and hardly anyone (but the slaves) objected to it. Both Europeans and Africans made a lot of money off it, and since things had always been this way, it seemed no worse than trading cattle, coffee, or copper.
By the standards of the time, Newton was a humane captain, firm but fair to his men and, better to the slaves than most. He didn't allow his men to molest the women, for example.
John was in this line of work for six years (I think), but then something happened. At the time, it seemed awful, but later, he viewed it as the Lord's mercy. While sipping tea with his wife and a friend, John suffered an epileptic seizure. The doctor was called for, he was put to bed for some weeks, and told, in no uncertain terms: 'No more sailing for you!'
Because he and his wife were careful with their money, they had enough to live on for a time, but John was now in his late twenties, and, as far as he could tell, with no way of making a living.
THE TIDE SURVEYOR
If Newton did not know what to do with himself, the Lord did. A Christian friend heard a rumor the Tide Surveyor in Liverpool was about to quit his job, and he put in John's name to replace him. The strange thing is: the man did not intend to quit, and if he had given his notice, a nearby lord had another candidate for the job. After the surveyor made it clear he was staying on, he died the next day, leaving no one to take his place but John Newton.
Newton got the job, and it was just what he needed. A Tide Surveyor was a kind of Inspector and Customs Agent. He boarded ships, saw what they carried, and either levied a tax for the legal cargo or confiscated what wasn't legal. Most men got rich at this work because they took bribes. John didn't, but he still made a good living.
And, more important to our story, he had plenty of spare time. What would he do with it? For one thing, he read a famous book called The Rise and Progress of Religion in the Soul by Philip Doddridge. The book begins with
--The Careless Sinner Awakened
--The Sinner Arraigned and Convicted
--News of Salvation by Christ
As he read on, he got past the conversion experience into the believer's life, and there he found a chapter titled, The Established Christian Urged to Usefulness.
If you read old Christian books, you'll find the word, useful, time and again. The old authors thought the goal of one's life was not to be happy, but to be useful-to do something for God and others.
TOWARD THE MINISTRY
On reading this, Newton began to wonder what he was doing for the Lord. The book urged him to honestly survey his gifts and his opportunities, for they pointed him to his calling.
What was he good at? He was good at words. What did he have time to do? He had time to read. John began to 'hit the books' and to hit them hard. He had a smattering of Greek, Latin, and French, and he began perfecting them. He also learned Hebrew and Syriac on his own (which has got to be a miracle!). Having gotten the tongues, he began reading the best Divinity books in all of the above, but most of all, the Bible.
At this time, a man came to town who would have a huge influence on Newton's future life. He was the most famous man in England at the time: George Whitefield. Whitefield was the greatest preacher of that age, often gathering tens of thousands to hear the Word of God in Britain and in America.
George was a Church of England man, but unlike so many of that Church (at the time) he was not bigoted toward other brethren, and he didn't preach the Church, but Christ! He became Newton's friend, and a model for what pastors ought to be. John was so devoted to the great preacher that he got a nickname-Little Whitefield, they called him.
John Newton never matched Whitefield as a preacher-no comparison! But he was every bit his equal as a pastor and as a man of God.
In Leeds, a Methodist pastor named Mr. Edwards invited John to preach his first sermon. At tea that day, the pastor asked John if he needed some time to prepare himself to preach and John told him.he didn't. An hour later, he found out he did! Entering the pulpit without a note in his hand, or a thought in his head, he got up, spoke up, and, in two or three minutes, ran out of things to say! The pastor got up and finished the sermon for him, as Newton hung his head in shame.
If John was embarrassed by his first effort at preaching, he pledged to do better the next time (if the unlikely event there were a next time!) A second chance came, and this time, instead of stepping up without an outline, he got up with a full manuscript, which he read and without ever lifting his eye from the page!
This was almost as bad as the first one, but, preaching is like baseball, and you've got three strikes before you're out.
Strike three never came for Newton, for he found the happy medium of preparing his sermons carefully, taking a short outline with him into the pulpit, but most of all, by praying fervently for the Lord to give him utterance.
Which He did.
From a technical standpoint, John was never a great preacher (or even a good one, to be truthful). But what he lacked in organization, he made up for with a deep love for Christ and the people who heard him.
Newton's first pastorate was in Olney, a small town in the English midlands. When he arrived, he found the people had not been well taken care of by their previous pastors, and the children, in particular, had been badly neglected.
At once John began visiting the people and empathized with them in their poverty, and other problems. As for the kids? He paid attention to them, learned their names, told them funny stories, and set up a Sunday School for them. Patiently he taught them the Bible, the Catechism, and the hymnal.
Speaking of the hymnal, the Church Hymnal was not easy for the children-or their parents-to understand and sing. Instead of forcing them to sing, you might say, in an unknown tongue, he went to work writing hymns for them (including Amazing Grace). In his sixteen years in Olney he wrote more than 300 hymns, some of which are still sung in the Church.
The Olney Hymnal is divided into three books: Select Texts of Scriptures, On Occasional Subjects, and On the Progress and Changes of the Spiritual Life.
Book 1 taught the Word, Book 2 systematized the Word, and Book 3 applied the Word. By singing these hymns, the people would learn (1) What the Bible says, (2) What the Bible means, and (3) How to live by the Bible.
Newton wrote most of the Olney Hymns himself, but sixty some odd were written by his friend and neighbor, William Cowper. After writing these songs, Cowper turned to secular verse and became one of England's most celebrated poets.
His is a sad story, which I cannot tell today, except as it throws light on his pastor, John Newton.
William Cowper came from a family with a long history of mental illness. His mother died when he was a young boy and a close friend took his own life. His father, whom it seems, meant well, but did ill, gave his son an article advocating suicide, for the purpose of showing him how foolish and sinful it is. But William read it the other way around and began to brood over the matter.
His father sent him to law school, for which he was entirely unfit, and where he didn't make a friend for three years and dwelt only on death and damnation.
At twenty six he tried to kill himself, and failed five times. He first took poison, but it made him sick and he vomited it up. Then he tried to slit his wrist, but the knife broke. Three times he tried to hang himself, but the hook came loose or the rope snapped. Finally he was committed to an asylum.
There, amid the brooders and the screamers, he spotted a Bible (not his own), and turned to Romans 3:25, without meaning to-
Whom God set forth to be a propitiation by His blood, through faith, to demonstrate His righteousness, because in His forebearance God had passed over the sins that were previously committed.
Through growing up in a Christian family and Church, Cowper saw that God could have mercy on him and forgive him and save him-all for Christ's sake. The dark cloud lifted, and it wasn't long until he left the hospital for Olney to meet Mr. Newton.
The two men hit it off from the start and loved each other the rest of their lives. Newton, seeing Cowper was a fragile and insecure person, spent time every day with him and, knowing he had a tendency to brood, he put him to work. William became John's assistant at church, he labored with the Sunday School, and-most of all-he wrote hymns, for which he was eminently suited. In these happy days, he wrote (in my opinion) his finest hymn (and the one Spurgeon chose for his own tomb)-
There is a fountain filled with blood,
Drawn from Immanuel's veins,
And sinners plunged beneath that flood,
Lose all their guilty stains.
The dying thief rejoiced to see
That fountain in his day,
And there have I, as vile as he,
Washed all my sins away.
E're since by faith I saw that stream
Thy flowing wounds provide,
Redeeming love has been my theme
And shall be till I die.
Dear dying Lamb, Thy precious blood
Shall never lose its power,
Till all the ransomed Church of God
Be saved to sin no more.
These were good days for William Cowper. But they would not last. For his problem-I believe--was organic and not spiritual. If the Gospel heals a broken spirit, it does not heal a broken leg.or a broken mind. And this is what Cowper had.
Six years into their friendship, Cowper went into a deep depression, and he stayed there until his death many years later. These were discouraging times for the man, of course, and for his loving pastor. But his pastor-like his Savior-loved him to the end. What did Newton do for his depressed friend? He and another friend tell us--
For nearly six years I walked pensively with him through the valley of the shadow of death.
He stayed with his friend, spending hours with him every day. Had John had a more practical bent, he would have found more productive things to do than sitting by a madman, doing nothing. But love is not practical, it's longsuffering. And that's what Newton did for his friend-he suffered along side of him and for a very long time.
William Jay, a famous pastor, knew both men and said of Newton-
He had the tenderest disposition; and always regarded his friend's depression as a physical effect, for the removal of which he prayed, but never reasoned or argued with him.
Like Job's friends, Newton sat long with his friend and prayed for his recovery. But unlike Eliphaz and Company, he didn't try to explain everything to a man whose mind was not up to it.
In one of his books, Jay Adams says he has on his study wall a plaque reading, Problems are for solving! If you know his writings, you know most of the problems are solved by blaming people and calling them to repentance. There is some truth in this method--but only some. Other problems are for living with until they are solved by the Resurrection of the Body!
Newton knew this, and instead of scolding Cowper for his despair, or even trying to reason him out of it-he wept for his friend.
William Cowper was not the only man Newton cared for. About the same time he was getting to know the renowned poet, he met another man who would also become famous. His name was Thomas Scott. If William Cowper was a good, but fragile man, Scott was the opposite: a bad man (at first) and hard as nails.
Thomas Scott was a pastor in the parish next to Newton's. He was a brilliant man and highly educated (at Cambridge). He was also a heretic and a shepherd who couldn't care less for his sheep. He liked nothing more than to mock what he called Methodism or Enthusiasm, which is another way of saying, Evangelical Christianity.
Finding an Evangelical in the next parish, Scott began writing Newton and trying to debate the doctrines of the Trinity, the Deity of Christ, the Authority of the Bible, and the Necessity of the New Birth.
John firmly replied with what he believed, but he refused to quarrel. Seeing he couldn't win a debate with a man who wouldn't debate, Scott broke off the correspondence, and went back to playing cards, hunting, feasting, reading poetry, and the other things genteel pastors were supposed to do.
But then something happened. A man became fatally sick in Scott's parish, and John Newton paid him a visit. At first, Scott was offended, but then he began to admire Newton for doing what he himself should have done. He still didn't believe Newton's doctrines, but he respected his character.
For months the pastors corresponded and as he read John's letters, Scott began to feel what he would later call The Force of Truth. When struck with a personal crisis, he turned to John Newton, and his words were so loving and wise that Thomas Scott repented of his former beliefs and became one of the leading Evangelical scholars of his day, and a pastor after Newton's own heart.
How do you win a heretic to Christ? When the Jehovah's Witness or Mormon comes to your door, what do you do? If you follow the popular apologists, you memorize a few proof texts and win the argument. This is easy enough to do, for they seldom know anything about the Bible, apart from their own favorite pet verses.
But is this what we're trying to do-win the argument? If it is, we shouldn't waste our time because it's already been won! The Nicene Creed answered these heretics in 325 AD!
Our goal is to win the people who knock on our doors. We do that Newton's way-by speaking the truth in love, with an emphasis, I might add, on love. If they're willing, befriend them, take them out for coffee, invite them over for dinner-and not to carry on the argument, but to love your neighbor as yourself.
ST. MARY'S WOOLNOTH, LONDON
After sixteen years in Olney, the Newtons moved to St. Mary's Woolnoth, London. This was a mixed parish, with immensely rich people to one side of the church and desperately poor to the other.
Newton did here what he did in Olney, except on a larger scale. More than 2,000 came to hear him every Sunday, and he was a preacher much in demand all over London and the whole country.
He served this church until his death nearly thirty years later. In his later years he became nearly blind and deaf, and his memory faded. His dear friend Richard Cecil urged him to quit the pulpit, but John replied-
What? Shall the African blasphemer stop preaching while he can yet speak?
He never did, preaching to the last months of a long life, and then dying on December 21, 1807, at the age of 82.
In telling John Newton's story, I have left out some of his best qualities-or only hinted at them. I'll make up for that now, as briefly as possible, and be done.
In the first place, John Newton was a grateful man. He never got over what the Lord had done for him. In his twenties, he wrote a book describing his conversion and full of praise to God. In his last will and testament, he said-
I commit my soul to my gracious God and savior, who mercifully spared and preserved me, when I was an apostate, a blasphemer, an infidel, and delivered me from the state of misery of 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.
To John Grace was Amazing because it-
Saved a wretch like me!
This wonder of what God had done for him-of all people-made him merciful to others-this is the second quality. As bad, stupid, or stubborn as they were, he had once been worse himself! He said of the believer (and of himself)-
He believes and feels his own weakness and unworthiness, and lives upon the grace and pardoning love of his Lord; this gives him a habitual tenderness and gentleness of spirit.
Underline those words: 'habitual tenderness and gentleness of spirit'! How can we be harsh and impatient with others if the Lord has been so gentle and patient with us?
We are only hard on others when we forget how soft the Lord has been on us!
Newton's gentleness was felt in every part of his life. I should have said more about the way he treated his wife and adopted daughters, not to mention his servants and others who might have been taken for granted-but were not.
But let me close with the gentleness he extended to people who did not agree with his doctrines. Newton was a solid Calvinist-
These views are essential to my peace.they are friendly to holiness.I must not be ashamed of them.
But even though he believed these doctrines, he never forgot why he believed them, how long it took him to believe them, and what effect they must have on their presentation.
Why did John Newton believe in Calvinism?
I am a friend of peace; and being deeply convinced that no one can profitably understand the great truths and doctrines of the Gospel any further than he is taught of God.
John believed in the doctrines of grace because God taught them to him. This is precisely what the Bible says about doctrine-
Blessed are you, Simon, son of Jonah, for flesh and blood have not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven!
How long did it take him to formulate his theology?
I have been thirty years forming my own views.and how unreasonable it is in me that I should expect all this should take place in another person, and that in the course of a year or two.
Finally, how are the doctrines of grace to be presented to people who don't believe them?
The Scripture that teaches us what we are to say, is equally explicit as to the temper and spirit in which we are to speak. Though I had knowledge of all mysteries, and the tongues of an angel to declare them, I could hope for little acceptance or usefulness, unless I was to speak in love.
In summary, he says about the pugnacious spirit so many Calvinists have-
Of all the people who engage in controversy, we who are called Calvinists, are most expressly bound by our own principles to the exercise of gentleness and moderation.The Scriptural maxim, that 'the wrath of man does not work the righteousness of God' is verified by daily observation. If our zeal is embittered by expressions of anger, invective, or scorn, we may think we are doing service to the cause of truth, when in reality, we shall only bring it into discredit.
This, in short (or long!) is the life and ministry of John Newton. May the Lord of the Church gift us with such men again. Amen!
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