Storms Are the Triumph of His Art
I am still oozing Newton. John Newton, that is, who wrote "Amazing Grace" after God saved him from a life—as he says—of being "a wretch" on the high seas for 13 years, and then becoming a pastor who faithfully loved two flocks for 43 years in Olney and London, England.
John Newton was a great and tender warrior against despair in other people's lives. He had been so hopeless and so beyond recovery in his sin that his own salvation constantly amazed him. If anyone should have despaired it was he. But God saved him. On March 21, 1748 a storm at sea wakened him from his folly. From that night at age 23 to the year he died at age 82 he marked the day of his awakening on board the Greyhound with fasting and prayer and thankful rededication of his life to Jesus. As an old man he wrote, "The 21st in March, is a day much to be remembered by me, and I have never suffered it to pass wholly unnoticed since the year 1748. On that day the LORD sent from on high, and delivered me out of the deep waters" (Works, I, pp. 26-27).
He wrote his own epitaph to capture the wonder of his conversion and undeserved ministry:
JOHN NEWTON, Clerk, Once an Infidel and Libertine, A Servant of Slaves in Africa, Was, by the rich mercy of our Lord and Savior JESUS CHRIST, Preserved, restored, pardoned, And appointed to preach the Faith He had long labored to destroy, Near 16 years at Olney in Bucks; And . . . years in this church. . . . (Works, I, p. 90)
Newton's amazing rescue from utter wretchedness and hardness of heart and blaspheming ways made him a rescuer of hopeless people all the rest of his life. His first biographer and friend, Richard Cecil, closes his memoir of Newton by pleading with young people to mark the error of despair. We should see that the case of a praying man cannot be desperate—that if a man be out of the pit of hell, he is on the ground of mercy. We should recollect that God sees a way of escape when we see none—that nothing is too hard for him—that he warrants our dependence, and invites us to call on him in the day of trouble, and gives a promise of deliverance. (Works, I, p. 126)
Newton had a favorite poet who died almost a hundred years before Newton was born. His name was George Herbert. He was born in 1593 into a wealthy Welsh family, lost his father when he was three, became a "public orator" in 1620 and a member of Parliament in 1625. But in 1630 he gave it all away to become a simple parish rector (pastor) in Bemerton. For the rest of his life he loved and served a flock as Newton did. Newton loved Herbert's poetry. Small wonder, when you read this verse from his poem "The Bag," which captures Newton's message and life so well:
Away, Despair! My gracious Lord doth hear:
Though winds and waves assault my keel,
He doth preserve it: he doth steer,
Ev'n when the boat seems most to reel:
Storms are the triumph of his art:
Well may he close his eyes, but not his heart."
(Works, I, p. 127)
Oh let us learn from John Newton and George Herbert the precious truth of Jesus' words, "It is not those who are well who need a physician, but those who are sick. I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance" (Luke 5:31-32). Let us listen as Paul adds, "It is a trustworthy statement, deserving full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, among whom I am foremost" (1 Timothy 1:15). And finally, to double our hope, give heed to Hebrews 6:18, "By two unchangeable things in which it is impossible for God to lie, we who have taken refuge . . . have strong encouragement to take hold of the hope set before us."