t would be hard to imagine a more remarkable journey to grace than the one John Newton took. A hard-living, reckless, profligate young sailor in the 18th-century British slave trade, Newton openly blasphemed God and actively influenced others to abandon their faith. His life led steadily downward until he wound up enslaved and abused by the slaves themselves in Africa. Certainly, he would never have made anyone’s list of “Most likely to become a minister and a hymn writer.” Maybe that’s one reason he began his best-known hymn with the words, “Amazing Grace!”
Newton’s autobiography is a treasure well worth reading in full; no summary (especially the kind you get in books like 534 Stories of Great Hymns) can really do justice to all its subtle and amazing twists and turns. Today, though, instead of recapping his life story or studying his hymns, I want to bask in a lesser-known selection from his writing.
As a writer, Newton was full of humility, home-spun insight, the vigor of old-fashioned English prose, and a sublime consciousness of his dependence on God’s grace. I can’t read him without coming away more inspired. To Newton, the idea that his redemption was none of his own doing was not a mere theological dogma but a matter of practical experience. God’s amazing grace, as Newton recognized, is not just for saving us–“‘Tis grace that brought me safe thus far, and grace will lead me home.”
So here’s a letter John Newton wrote to Lord Dartmouth about living by grace.
February 23, 1775
I assent to our Lord’s declaration, “Without me you can do nothing,” not only upon the authority of the speaker, but from the same irresistible and experimental evidence, as if he had told me that I cannot make the sun to shine, or change the course of the seasons. Though my pen and my tongue sometimes move freely, yet the total incapacity and stagnation of thought I labor under at other times convinces me that, in myself, I have not sufficiency to think a good thought; and I believe the case would be the same, if that little measure of knowledge and abilities, which I am too prone to look upon as my own, were a thousand times greater than it is.
For every new service, I stand in need of a new supply, and can bring forth nothing of my supposed store into actual exercise, but by his immediate assistance. His gracious influence is that to those who are best furnished with gifts, which the water is to the mill, or the wind to the ship, without which the whole apparatus is motionless and useless.
I apprehend that we lose much of the comfort which might arise from a sense of our continual dependence upon him, and, of course, fall short of acknowledging as we ought what we receive from him, by mistaking the manner of his operation. Perhaps we take it too much for granted, that communications from himself must bear some kind of sensible impression that they are his, and therefore are ready to give our own industry or ingenuity credit for those performances in which we can perceive no such impression. Yet it is very possible that we may be under his influence when we are least aware of it; and though what we say, or write, or do, may seem no way extraordinary, yet that we should be led to such a particular turn of thought at one time rather than at another, has, in my own concerns, often appeared to me remarkable, from the circumstances which have attended, or the consequences which have followed.
How often, in the choice of a text, or in the course of a sermon, or in a letter to a friend, have I been led to speak a word in season! and what I have expressed at large, and in general, has been so exactly suited to some case which I was utterly unacquainted with, that I could hardly have hit it so well, had I been previously informed of it. Some instances of this kind have been so striking as hardly to admit a doubt of divine agency. And indeed, if believers in Jesus, however unworthy in themselves, are the temples of the Holy Ghost; if the Lord lives, dwells, and walks in them; if he is their life and their light; if he has promised to guide them with his eye, and to work in them to will and to do of his own good pleasure, –methinks what I have mentioned, and more, may be reasonably expected.
That line in the hymn, “Help I every moment need,” is not a hyperbolical expression but strictly and literally true, not only in great emergencies but in our smoother hours and most familiar paths. This gracious assistance is afforded in a way imperceptible to ourselves, to hide pride from us, and to prevent us from being indolent and careless with respect to the use of appointed means; and it would be likewise more abundantly, and perhaps more sensibly afforded, were our spirits more simple in waiting upon the Lord. But alas! a divided heart, an undue attachment to some temporal object, sadly deadens our spirits (I speak for myself), and grieves the Lord’s Spirit; so that we walk in darkness and at a distance, and, though called to great privileges, live far below them.
But methinks the thought of him who is always near, and upon whom we do and must incessantly depend, should suggest a powerful motive for the closest attention to his revealed will, and the most punctual compliance with it. For so far as the Lord withdraws from us we become as blind men; and with the clearest light, and upon the plainest ground, we are liable, or rather sure, to stumble at every step.
… How great and honorable is the privilege of a true believer! That he has neither wisdom nor strength in himself is no disadvantage; for he is connected with infinite wisdom and almighty power. Though weak as a worm, his arms are strengthened by the almighty God of Jacob, and all things become possible, yea easy to him, that occur within the compass of his proper duty and calling.
The Lord, whom he serves, engages to proportion his strength to his day, whether it be a day of service or of suffering; and though he be fallible and short-sighted, exceeding liable to mistake and imposition, yet, while he retains a sense that he is so, and with the simplicity of a child asks counsel and direction of the Lord, he seldom takes a wrong step, at least not in matters of consequence, and even his inadvertence are overruled for good. If he forgets his true state, and thinks himself to be something, he presently finds he is indeed nothing; but if he is content to be nothing, and to have nothing, he is sure to find a seasonable and abundant communication of all that he needs. Thus he lives, like Israel in the wilderness, upon mere bounty; but, then, it is a bounty unchangeable, unwearied, inexhaustible, and all-sufficient.
Moses, when speaking of the methods the Lord took to humble Israel, mentions his feeding them with manna as one method. I could not understand this for a time. I thought they were rather in danger of being proud, when they saw themselves provided for in such an extraordinary way. But the manna would not keep; they could not hoard it up, and were therefore in a state of absolute dependence from day to day: this appointment was well suited to humble them.
Thus it is with us in spirituals. We should be better pleased, perhaps, to be set up with a stock or sufficiency at once, such an inherent portion of wisdom and power as we might depend upon, at least for common occasions, without being constrained by a sense of indigence, to have continual recourse to the Lord for everything we want. But His way is best. His own glory is most displayed, and our safety most secured, by keeping us quite poor and empty in ourselves, and supplying us from one minute to another, according to our need.
This, if anything, will prevent boasting, and keep a sense of gratitude awake in our hearts. This is well adapted to quicken us to prayer, and furnishes us with a thousand occasions for praise which would otherwise escape our notice.
But who or what are we, that the Most High God should thus notice us! should visit us every morning, and water us every moment! It is an astonishing thought, that God should thus dwell with men! that he, before whom the mightiest earthly potentates are less than nothing and vanity, should thus stoop and accommodate himself to the situation, wants, and capacities of the weakest, lowest, and poorest of his children! But so it hath pleased him. He seeth not as man seeth.
–I am, &c.
There is no such thing as a bad performance of “Amazing Grace,“ but there is such a thing as an incredible one. Singing acapella, opera star Jessye Norman reduced a crowd of rock ‘n’ roll fans at Wembley Stadium to awestruck silence. (This is the performance Philip Yancey wrote about, and you should read that book too.)
For more reading:
Degrees in Glory Another letter on grace, answering the question, “Who will be the greatest in heaven?”
Olney Hymns by John Newton and William Cowper
Out of the Depths Newton’s autobiography
Letters of John Newton (book on Amazon.com)
Eric M. Pazdziora is sure his wife Carrie would be surprised if you visited her blog and subscribed and started leaving comments every now and again. (It’s her birthday and he didn’t tell her he was doing this. It’s also a great blog that you’d like anyway.) Her voice is also featured on the just-released CD New Creation of Eric’s settings of hymns about grace. For more information on that and Eric’s other writings and music, visit his website at ericpazdziora.com.