John Newton; How This Dead Guy Has Helped Me
This is a brief review I wrote from the book: “John Newton: From Disgrace to Grace” By Jonathan Aitken. Frankly, what I have written doesn’t do Newton’s life justice and there are many other helpful things from his life , I stress many, but perhaps it will intrigue others to look and be helped by what I have seen.
“You get yourself a hero who is dead, because live heroes can let you down; they are not tested long enough yet. Get yourself one or two good dead heroes and obey Hebrews 13:7. It is good and right to have dead heroes that though they are dead they still speak.” – John Piper on the benefit of biography
Truly this book was the most beneficial and encouraging book I have a read in a long while, save the Bible. God has used the life of John Newton as seen in this biography by Jonathan Aitken to renew a passion in me for serving others and bringing glory to God through Christ. I was so intrigued and inspired by Newton’s life in what I read that upon my completion of it I read another biography of Newton, “The Roots of Endurance”, by John Piper. These sentences themselves in part help to show the impact of this old and dead saint on my life in recent days. Newton through the words of Aitken have served me like a shot in the arm, and the simple but profound truth is this, I am most effective in influencing others when I am most inspired and passionate about living for and radiating the glory of God through Jesus Christ. God uses men and sometimes really old dead men, and Newton has renewed and elevated a desire in me to influence all people for things eternal. So because of Newton’s life others may be helped because I have been helped.
Newton of course is most known for the hymn, “Amazing Grace.” However, this hymn only became famous after years of faithful and effective pastoral ministry in Olney and London and eventually after his death. Nevertheless, the theme of “Amazing Grace” in Newton’s own life is one of the most redeeming applications for people of any age. In his teens and early twenties Newton was a self-proclaimed rebellious and bitter blasphemer, fornicator, British Naval deserter and slave trader captain of three ships carrying hundreds of helpless slaves. It took the near sinking of the ship (The Greyhound) that he was on in the Atlantic during a violent storm to awaken him to his need for forgiveness through Christ.
There are two truths that are universally helpful in light of these facts. First, an apparent theme of Newton’s life was that he just could not believe that the God who is holy and perfect would extend grace and mercy through Jesus to someone who was and continued to be so rank and raunchy with sin. This “Amazing Grace” that Newton wrote of energized and enabled his life and ministry. All of us would do well to reflect on the truth that our junk is the backdrop that makes the grace and mercy of God shine so amazingly bright. Late in Newton’s life he said, “My memory is nearly gone, but I remember two things: That I am a great sinner and Christ is a great savior.” Christ’s saving goodness and our depravity display a helpful balance (lacking all too often today) that all Christians should be able to thankfully marvel at.
Second, even after Newton’s initial conversion experience, he continued to struggle mightily as his relationship with God ebbed and flowed. For example, though he began to devote himself to the Bible and Prayer, he still regularly found himself blaspheming and even forcing himself on women slaves. The later sin is even more shocking when Newton reveals that he was passionately in love with his future wife, Polly Catlett. His early life after conversion was a roller coaster until he began to meet men of influence in his life who discipled him. The application of this is that many people are floundering and need someone to come alongside them and give them direction. Another application is that I ought not to get so easily discouraged with people who struggle. Newton says, “I have been thirty years forming my own views; and , in the course of this time, some of my hills have sunk, and some of my valleys have risen: but, how unreasonable within me to expect all this should take place in another person; and that, in the course of a year or two.” If we bear patiently with people, who knows that we might be helping the next John Newton.
In addition to the previously mentioned illustrations and applications, I have also found Newton helpful in too many ways to mention at length. Briefly though, I have found his life to be a ready illustration for teaching and encouraging others. I have found his example to be personally challenging and inspiring. I have found his quotes, hymns, and writings to be instructional as though he were a personal friend and teacher. As important as anything, I have found Newton to be an example of successful and consistent Christ-centered ministry through life-on-life encounters. His impact on the likes of Charles Simeon, William Wilberforce, William Carey, William Cowper and many other famous and enduring men of Christ have helped me see that person can have a profound influence on people and through people if they will discipline themselves to be made consistently available to others for God and His purposes. I am thankful that I have had the chance to walk with and listen to this dead man that still lives. I hope these highlights of the life of John Newton will encourage you to do the same.