John Newton is the author of perhaps the most well-known hymn in the English language, “Amazing Grace.” In addition to being a hymn-writer, Newton was also a pastor, author, and friend to such history-shaping Christians as William Wilberforce, George Whitfield, and John Wesley. God worked in and through him to impact thousands while he was alive and millions after he died.
Yet if you met John Newton when he was a child, teenager, or even a young man in his twenties, you wouldn’t have been impressed by him. You almost certainly would have been appalled by him, maybe even afraid of him. You definitely wouldn’t have wanted to spend any time with him. Newton’s mother died when he was six, and when his dad remarried, his stepmother, unfortunately, showed almost no interest in him. His father was a sailor, and Newton began to sail the seas with him when he was 11 years old, learning the life and habits of rough men who had no thought of God or living for God.
When Newton was 18, he was conscripted into the navy against his will, so he acted out in rebellion. He was arrested several times and publicly whipped for his behavior. When he was 20, the captain of his ship was so sick of him that he left him on some small islands off the African coast where he lived in destitute conditions for almost two years. That time came to an end when by some miracle, a ship happened to stop there, saw smoke coming from the island he was on and found him. The captain of the ship just so happened to know Newton’s father and allowed him to come aboard.
A year later, Newton was still at sea on that boat when a terrible storm hit. It was March 21, 1748, a day we know because Newton celebrated the anniversary of that day every single year for the rest of his life. It was a storm like Jonah experienced: men were being washed overboard, and everyone expected the ship to go down. Newton was working the pumps when all of a sudden he caught himself praying, “Lord, have mercy upon us.” Two days later the storm calmed down and Newton began to think about what he had prayed, and how God had seemingly answered his prayer.
Newton managed to find a Bible on board and read from Luke 11:13, which states, “If you then, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask Him?” Newton knew he needed the Spirit of God in his life. He knew that he was far from God and in need of a Savior so he prayed for God to make good on his promise to make him a new person and give him the Holy Spirit.
While Newton was saved by Jesus Christ that day, he was still caught up in a lifestyle of sin. For example, he later became the captain of a slave-trading ship and bought and sold human beings. It would take him several years of maturing in Christ to renounce his former lifestyle and to wholly give himself over to God. Fifteen years after that storm, Newton became a pastor and an outspoken opponent of slavery and the slave trade. He continued to pastor right up until his death at the age of 82.
Late in his life, when he wrote “Amazing Grace,” Newton remarked that he did so because he was continually overwhelmed by the fact that God has used a terrible and unworthy sinner such as himself to make a difference in other people’s lives. Yet this is exactly the kind of thing that God loves to do. No matter who you are or what you have done, God can make a significant, lasting, eternal change in your life and use you to do great things for him in the lives of others. We are all wretches in desperate need of God’s grace, and the wonderful thing is that when we come to God in faith, acknowledging our need for healing from the Great Physician, we will receive his grace, and find life.