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God Saved a Wretch Like Him

John Newton (1725–1807)

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Founder & Teacher, desiringGod.org

Throughout his 82-year life, John Newton was a depraved sailor; a miserable outcast on the coast of West Africa; a slave-trading sea captain; a well-paid surveyor of tides in Liverpool; a beloved pastor of two congregations in Olney and London for 43 years; a devoted husband to Mary for 40 years until she died; a personal friend to William Wilberforce, John Wesley, and George Whitefield; and finally, the author of the most famous hymn in the English language, “Amazing Grace.”

Why am I interested in this man? Because one of my great desires is to see Christians become as strong and durable as redwood trees, and as tender and fragrant as a field of clover — unshakably rugged “in the defense and confirmation of the gospel” (Philippians 1:7), and relentlessly humble and patient and merciful in dealing with people.

Tender Hearts, Tough Roots

It seems to me that we are always falling off the horse on one side or the other in this matter of being tough and tender, durable and delightful, courageous and compassionate — wimping out on truth when we ought to be lionhearted, or wrangling when we ought to be weeping. How rare are the Christians who speak with a tender heart and have a theological backbone of steel.

“He could not get over the wonder of his own rescue by sheer, triumphant grace.”

John Newton did not always get the balance right. But though he had feet of clay, like every hero other than Christ, his great strength was “speaking the truth in love” (Ephesians 4:15). He carried in his heart a tenderness that loved the lost, lifted the downcast, welcomed children, and prayed for enemies. And his tenderness had roots as tough as a redwood’s.

I begin with a brief telling of his life, because for Newton, his life was the clearest testimony to the heartbreaking mercy of God he ever saw. His remembrance of his own salvation was one of the deepest roots of his habitual tenderness. He could not get over the wonder of his own rescue by sheer, triumphant grace.

Moral Ruin and Misery

John Newton was born July 24, 1725, in London to a godly mother and an irreligious, seafaring father. His mother died when he was six. Left mainly to himself, Newton became a debauched sailor — pressed into naval service against his will when he was eighteen. His friend and biographer Richard Cecil said, “The companions he met with here completed the ruin of his principles” (Memoirs of the Reverend John Newton, 1:9). Of himself, Newton wrote, “I was capable of anything; I had not the least fear of God before my eyes, nor (so far as I remember) the least sensibility of conscience” (Memoirs, 1:12).

When he was 20 years old, he was put off his ship on some small islands just southeast of Sierra Leone, West Africa, and for about a year and a half he lived as a virtual slave in almost destitute circumstances. The wife of his master despised him and treated him cruelly. He wrote that even the African slaves would try to smuggle him food from their own slim rations. Later in life he marveled at the seemingly accidental way a ship put anchor on his island after seeing some smoke, and just happened to be a ship with a captain who knew Newton’s father and managed to free him from his bondage. That was February 1747. He was not quite 21, and God was about to close in.

The Precious Storm at Sea

The ship had business on the seas for over a year. Then on March 21, 1748, on the ship’s journey home to England in the North Atlantic, God acted to rescue the “African blasphemer.”

“He carried a tenderness that loved the lost, lifted the downcast, welcomed children, and prayed for enemies.”

Newton awoke to a violent storm as his room began to fill with water. He was assigned to the pumps and heard himself say, “If this will not do, the Lord have mercy upon us” (Memoirs, 1:26). It was the first time he had expressed the need for mercy in many years. He worked the pumps from three in the morning until noon, slept for an hour, and then took the helm and steered the ship till midnight. At the wheel, he had time to think back over his life and his spiritual condition.

At about six o’clock the next evening it seemed as though there might be hope. “I thought I saw the hand of God displayed in our favor. 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. . . . The comfortless principles of infidelity were deeply riveted. . . . The great question now was, how to obtain faith” (Memoirs, 1:28).

Slave Trader Turned Preacher

For six years after this time, Newton said he had no “Christian friend or faithful minister to advise me.” He became the captain of a slave-trading ship and went to sea again until December 1749. In his mature years he came to feel intense remorse for his participation in the slave trade, and he joined William Wilberforce in opposing it. Thirty years after leaving the sea, he wrote an essay, Thoughts upon the African Slave Trade, which closed with a reference to “a commerce so iniquitous, so cruel, so oppressive, so destructive, as the African Slave Trade!” (Memoirs, 6:123).

In 1764 Newton accepted the call to be the pastor of the Church of England parish in Olney and served there for almost sixteen years. Then he accepted the call at age 54 to St. Mary’s Woolnoth in London, where he began his 27-year ministry on December 8, 1779. His eyes and ears were failing, and his good friend Richard Cecil suggested he cease preaching when he turned 80, to which Newton responded, “What! Shall the old African blasphemer stop while he can speak?” (Memoirs, 1:88).

John and Mary had no children of their own, but adopted two nieces. When Mary died seventeen years before John, he lived with the family of one of these nieces and was cared for by her as if he were her own father. Newton died on December 21, 1807, at the age of 82.

Newton’s Tenderness

We turn now to John Newton’s tenderness, displayed first in the spontaneous love he felt for nearly everyone he encountered. According to Cecil, “Mr. Newton could live no longer than he could love” (Memoirs, 1:95). His love to people was the signature of his life. He loved perishing people, and he loved his own flock of redeemed people.

Whoever . . . has tasted of the love of Christ, and has known, by his own experience, the need and the worth of redemption, is enabled, Yea, he is constrained, to love his fellow creatures. He loves them at first sight. (Memoirs, 5:132)

It’s the phrase at first sight that stands out in this quote. Newton’s first reflex was to love lost people.

“Newton’s first reflex was to love lost people.”

Newton also displayed a clear mark of Christlike tenderness in his love for children. “Let the children come to me; do not hinder them” (Mark 10:14) is the badge of tenderness that Jesus wore. When Newton came to Olney, one of the first things he did was begin a meeting for children on Thursday afternoons. He met with them himself, gave them assignments, and spoke to them from the Bible. At one point he said, “I suppose I have 200 that will constantly attend” (John Newton, 143).

We see perhaps the most remarkable instance of Newton’s tenderness in his care for William Cowper, the mentally ill poet and hymn writer who came to live in Olney during twelve of Newton’s sixteen years there. Newton took Cowper into his home for five months during one season and fourteen months during another, when the poet was so depressed it was hard for him to function alone. In fact, Cecil said that over Newton’s whole lifetime, “His house was an asylum for the perplexed or afflicted” (Memoirs, 1:95).

What would most of us have done with a depressed person who could scarcely move out of his house? William Jay summed up Newton’s response: “He had the tenderest disposition; and always judiciously regarded his friend’s depression and despondency as a physical effect, for the removal of which he prayed, but never reasoned or argued with him concerning it” (John Newton, 41).

Now, where did such tenderness come from? What were the roots that sustained such patience, mercy, and love?

Physician in Bedlam

Few things will tend to make you more tender than to be much in the presence of suffering and death. “My course of study,” Newton said, “like that of a surgeon, has principally consisted in walking the hospital” (Memoirs, 1:100). His biblical assessment of the misery that he saw was that some, but not much, of it can be removed in this life. He would give his life to bring as much relief and peace for time and eternity as he could. But he would not be made hard and cynical by irremediable miseries like Cowper’s mental illness.

“In order to maintain love, we must have an unshakable hope that our sadness will work for our everlasting good.”

“I endeavor to walk through the world as a physician goes through Bedlam [the famous insane asylum]: the patients make a noise, pester him with impertinence, and hinder him in his business; but he does the best he can, and so gets through” (John Newton, 103). In other words, his tender patience and persistence in caring for difficult people came, in part, from a very sober and realistic view of what to expect from this world. Life is hard, and God is good.

This sober realism about what we can expect from this fallen world is a crucial root of habitual tenderness in the life of John Newton.

Saved Wretch

Newton comes back to his own salvation more than anything as the source of tenderness. Till the day he died, he never ceased to be amazed that, as he said at age 72, “such a wretch should not only be spared and pardoned, but reserved to the honor of preaching thy Gospel, which he had blasphemed and renounced . . . this is wonderful indeed! The more thou hast exalted me, the more I ought to abase myself” (Memoirs, 1:86).

Newton expressed this sentiment most famously in his hymn “Amazing Grace”:

Amazing grace! — how sweet the sound —
That saved a wretch like me,
I once was lost, but now am found,
Was blind, but now I see.

The effect of this amazement is tenderness toward others. The “wretch” who has been saved by grace “believes and feels his own weakness and unworthiness, and lives upon the grace and pardoning love of his Lord. This gives him an habitual tenderness and gentleness of spirit. Humble under a sense of much forgiveness to himself, he finds it easy to forgive others” (Memoirs, 1:70).

Glad-hearted, grateful lowliness and brokenness as a saved “wretch” was probably the most prominent root of Newton’s habitual tenderness with people.

Peaceful Beneath God’s Providence

In order to maintain love and tenderness that thinks more about the other person’s need than our own comforts, we must have an unshakable hope that the sadness of our lives will work for our everlasting good. Otherwise, we will give in, turn a deaf ear to need, and say, “Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die” (1 Corinthians 15:32). Newton found this peace and confidence in the all-governing providence of God over good and evil. He describes his own experience when he describes the believer:

His faith upholds him under all trials, by assuring him that every dispensation is under the direction of his Lord; that chastisements are a token of his love; that the season, measure, and continuance of his sufferings, are appointed by Infinite Wisdom, and designed to work for his everlasting good; and that grace and strength shall be afforded him, according to his day. (Memoirs, 1:169)

This unshakable confidence that the all-governing providence of God will make every experience turn for his good steadied, strengthened, and sustained Newton so that he didn’t spend his life murmuring, but singing: “’Tis grace has brought me safe thus far, and grace will lead me home.”