God Saved a Wretch Like Him: John Newton (1725–1807)

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.”

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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.”

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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.”

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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.”

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“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.”

21 Servants of Sovereign Joy: Faithful, Flawed, and Fruitful

21 Servants of Sovereign Joy

Faithful, Flawed, and Fruitful

John Piper

This volume collects all twenty-one of John Piper’s biographical sketches, from Augustine and Athanasius to Spurgeon and Lewis.

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Where Is Jesus in the Old Testament? How to Find Him on Every Last Page

Ten years ago, I was leading a feedback group for young preachers. A youth pastor gave an exposition of Judges 14 for us to critique. At the very end, he spoke of “another Savior who came to deliver his people eternally.” He didn’t make anything of the point, and he didn’t mention the name “Jesus,” but he included the sentence.

During the feedback session, I asked him, “Why did you include that line at the end?” In a flash, another student answered with a line I’ve never forgotten: “Because we’re supposed to.”

The whole room groaned its approval. Everyone felt the same obligation. None of these preachers in training was sure why they ought to “shift gears to Jesus,” but apparently there was a rule. I see this everywhere among Christians. We feel we ought to view the Old Testament as Christian Scripture, but we’re not quite sure why or how. It seems like such a crunch of gears. But is it?

Perhaps we’d be helped by a simple framework for how Christ is at the heart of the Scriptures: he is patterned, promised, and present from Genesis onward.

Christ Patterned

The flood and the ark, the Passover and the Red Sea, the wilderness and the Promised Land, exile and return, war and peace, kingdom and kings, prophets and priests, the temple, its sacrifices, and its rituals, wisdom in death and in life, songs of lament and rejoicing, the lives of faithful sufferers and the blood of righteous martyrs — the Old Testament is extraordinarily Jesus-shaped.

The story as a whole and each of its parts are like a fractal. To step back from the details is to view portraits, at ever-increasing scale, of the same pattern — the suffering and rising Christ (as in 1 Corinthians 10:1–11). But even as Paul teaches us the gospel patterns of the Old Testament, he is at pains (in verses 4 and 9) to point out that Christ was not merely patterned — he also was promised and present to the Old Testament believers.

Christ Promised

Old Testament saints were not simply tiles in a mosaic, witnessing, unwittingly, to a gospel pattern of which they were ignorant. They too looked forward to the fulfillment of these patterns. How? Through the promises. This is how Jesus, Paul, and Peter saw it (Luke 24:25–27; Acts 26:22–23; 1 Peter 1:10–12). Each of them characterizes the Old Testament shape as proclaiming “Christ’s sufferings and glory,” yet, at the same time, each of them maintains that this message is what Moses and the prophets themselves “wrote,” “said,” “prophesied,” and “predicted.” All along, true faith was messianic faith, centered on Christ himself. He was the one held out and the one trusted by the faithful.

Christ Present

But more than just patterned and promised, perhaps the most underappreciated facet is that Christ also is present. It’s surprising how explicit the New Testament authors are about Jesus’s presence in the Old Testament:

  • The “I Am” in whom Abraham rejoiced was Jesus (John 8:56–58).
  • The Lord who motivated Moses was Christ (Hebrews 11:26).
  • The Redeemer who brought them out of Egypt was Jesus (Jude 5).
  • The Rock in the wilderness was Christ (1 Corinthians 10:4).
  • The King of Isaiah’s temple vision was the Son (John 12:40–41).

Jesus is not merely patterned and promised in the Old Testament; he is present. This is vital since the essential character of neither God nor faith has changed from the first covenant to the new. God has always worked in the Trinitarian pattern: from the Father, through the Son, by the Spirit. He did not begin to be triune — the Father did not begin to need a mediator — at Christmas (John 1:1–14). And faith has not changed fundamentally either. True faith does not merely resign itself to a divine plan, nor trust detached promises; faith embraces a promising Person.

Christ comes “clothed in the gospel,” as Calvin frequently wrote. We must remember the promises in which Christ is clothed, but let us never preach a set of clothes. It’s the person of the Son that stands at the center of saving faith.

As It Was in the Beginning?

The passages quoted thus far have been from the New Testament. Armed only with these, you can mount a strong case that the Hebrew Bible proclaims Christ. But perhaps, it might be argued, this Christian interpretation is found only by looking backward from the New. Is it possible to also read the Bible forward, from Genesis onward, and see the same Christ-centeredness? I believe so.

It’s my contention that Christ is either patterned, promised, or present on every page of the Hebrew Bible. More than this, in certain key passages, he is portrayed in all three ways at once. Below I select just three of these occasions and hope that it inspires you to see the whole Bible through these lenses.

Jesus Walks in Eden (Genesis 3)

Christ Patterned

Adam and Eve, ashamed at their sin, cower among the trees. Soon they are cloaking themselves in fig leaves. They attempt to manage their sin by hiding their badness and projecting a false goodness. Their Lord, though, has a different solution. He covers them, not with vegetation but with skins. We’re not told what innocent creature died to clothe the guilty, but Isaiah and Paul pick up the substitutionary pattern: we, the guilty, are robed by an alien righteousness — clothed in Christ, you could say (Isaiah 61:10; Galatians 3:27).

Christ Promised

When the judgments come crashing down in the garden, it’s astonishing how everything but the couple is cursed. Instead, God promises “the seed of the woman.” This implies a miraculous birth — women don’t have seed (Genesis 3:15, my translation). This offspring of the woman would crush the head of the house of the wicked, though at great cost to himself — his heel would be struck. Here we have a promise of the miraculous birth and victorious suffering of “the seed.” Martin Luther comments,

All the promises of God lead back to the first promise concerning Christ of Genesis 3:15. The faith of the fathers in the Old Testament era, and our faith in the New Testament are one and the same faith in Christ Jesus. . . . Time does not change the object of true faith, or the Holy Spirit. There has always been and always will be one mind, one impression, one faith concerning Christ among true believers whether they live in times past, now, or in times to come. (Commentary on Galatians)

Christ Present

Now we come to the often-overlooked facet of Christ’s presence. Who is this Lord who walks with his most favored creatures in the cool of the day (Genesis 3:8)? Jonathan Edwards puts words to the most common opinion of the church fathers, Reformers, and Puritans:

When we read in sacred history what God did, from time to time, towards his Church and people, and how he revealed himself to them, we are to understand it especially of the second person of the Trinity. When we read of God appearing after the fall, in some visible form, we are ordinarily, if not universally, to understand it of the second person of the Trinity. (History of the Work of Redemption, 20)

This does not answer all the questions we might have about Old Testament appearances. But what is clear is that the Son of God had not taken flesh before his incarnation in Mary’s womb, and so we must not think of an incarnate Jesus here or elsewhere in the Old Testament. But with Colossians 1:15 and John 1:18 in mind, Edwards insists that the Father is always mediated by the Son. Christ is not merely patterned and promised in the Old Testament; he is also present.

Jesus Speaks on Moriah (Genesis 22)

Christ Patterned

Here is the ultimate test of faith, but it has tested more than Abraham’s faith. This chapter has proved a stumbling block to many as they read God’s words to Abraham: “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains of which I shall tell you” (Genesis 22:2). It’s an utter scandal until you consider the pattern. Who is this son? He is the seed of Abraham, the hope of the world. All God’s promises are focused on this beloved son. If he is sacrificed, God would have to — somehow! — bring him back to life in order to save and bless the world.

Notice that he is to be sacrificed on a mountain in the region of what would become Jerusalem (Genesis 22:1–14; see 2 Chronicles 3:1). He carries the wood on his back as he trudges up the hill toward the atoning sacrifice (Genesis 22:6). All the while, Abraham believes that he will receive the son back from death (Genesis 22:5; see Hebrews 11:17–20). When you understand the pattern — the death and resurrection of the son — Genesis 22 becomes not a barrier but an almighty boost to faith.

Christ Promised

Watch how the author of Genesis 22 (traditionally considered to be Moses) speaks of the mountain: “Abraham called the name of that place, ‘The Lord will provide’; as it is said to this day, ‘On the mount of the Lord it shall be provided’” (Genesis 22:14). For hundreds of years, Israelites were pointing to that hill and believing in a future provision — a future atonement. They even knew where it would happen. For centuries, the Old Testament saints saw Christ promised in this event, and they set their hopes accordingly.

Christ Present

In Genesis 22:11, it’s the angel of the Lord who intercepts the judgment. In verse 15, he speaks again, and does so with a remarkable self-understanding. Who does this angel think he is? Though he is sent by the Lord, he speaks as the Lord: “By myself I have sworn, declares the Lord . . . I will surely bless . . . . I will surely multiply . . .” (Genesis 22:16–17). When we encounter everyday angels in the Scriptures, they insist on their utter difference from God (as in Revelation 22:9). But here is a unique messenger — literally, his name could be translated “the Sent One” — who insists that he is from the Lord and that he is the Lord. To use the language of the creeds, he is “God from God.”

On the subject of the angel’s identity, Calvin summarizes the history of Christian interpretation that went before him:

The orthodox doctors of the Church have correctly and wisely expounded, that the Word of God was the supreme angel, who then began, as it were by anticipation, to perform the office of Mediator. (Institutes, I.xiii.10)

In Genesis 22, this “God from God” stopped the sword of judgment from falling on Isaac. Two millennia later, the very same Mediator would climb the very same hill to intercept God’s judgment for his people.

Jesus Burns at the Bush (Exodus 3)

Christ Patterned

The burning bush has so many biblical resonances. Plants are often likened to God’s people (or to the king who represents them; Judges 9; Isaiah 5; John 15). The people’s sufferings in Egypt are commonly described as a furnace (Deuteronomy 4:20; 1 Kings 8:51; Jeremiah 11:4). Here at the burning bush, we see God’s people on fire in a furnace of affliction, and yet — here is the Christlike pattern — their King, the great “I Am,” descends into the burnings to be with his people and to lead them out. The pattern of the exodus is the pattern of the gospel.

Christ Promised

The exodus itself is the fulfillment of promises. In Genesis 12, we learn that the “seed of Abraham” will bless and rule the nations. The promise includes an ambiguity — is the “seed” plural (Israel) or singular (Christ)? In essence, the answer is yes. The “seed” is first the nation of Israel and, in the fullness of time, it is Christ — the Messiah who singularly represents the nation (Galatians 3:16). So as the promise develops, we read Genesis 15, where the Lord prophesies a suffering-and-rising pattern for the “seed of Abraham”: the seed will be enslaved and afflicted, yet through judgment the seed would come out to a greater glory (Genesis 15:13–15). This death and resurrection would first be endured by Israel, but as we watch the exodus, we are seeing a preview of the coming gospel drama. In other words, the whole of the exodus is a promise of Christ.

Christ Present

The divine name “I Am” is foundational to our understanding of God. “I Am” is preserved in the name “Yahweh,” which is used 6,800 times in the Hebrew Bible. The God of Israel is, most fundamentally, “him who dwells in the bush” (Deuteronomy 33:16). And who is he? He is the angel of the Lord who is himself the Lord (Exodus 3:2, 6, 14). John Owen explains that he is “the Angel of the covenant, the great Angel of the presence of God, in whom was the name and nature of God . . . this was no other but the Son of God.” No wonder Jude can look back on the exodus and say “Jesus . . . saved a people out of the land of Egypt” (Jude 5). Jesus Christ really is the God of Israel and the Hero of the whole Bible.

Jesus Is Lord of All

When the novice preachers groaned that “we’re supposed to” bridge to Christ, what was the issue? I believe it was this: They failed to see the magnitude of Christ, and they failed to see that the Old Testament is already, in its own context and on its own terms, Christian Scripture. It is already a proclamation of the Lord Messiah.

It’s certainly true that there are patterns to spot in the Old Testament. Gospel imagery was built up over centuries, layer upon layer. Jesus really is the true temple, lamb, priest, king, and prophet. He is a true and better Joseph, David, Jonah, and so on. This is all true. But it is not all of the truth.

There are vital promises to trace throughout the Scriptures — from Genesis 3:15 onward. Jesus is the seed — the seed of the woman, the seed of Abraham, the seed of David. He fulfills each promise of land, peace, blessing, and so on. This is all true. But it is not all of the truth.

In addition to these perspectives, we also should see the Son of God as present in the Hebrew Bible. This is a vital component lest we imagine a “crunch of gears” between the covenants. What straddles the Old and the New is not simply a plan or a promise; it’s a Person.

Jesus unites the Bible. He is not absent from the Old Testament, sitting on the bench, awaiting his fourth quarter winning play. He is the player-coach-manager directing all things. Throughout the Old Testament, he is the one and only Mediator of God Most High, marching purposefully toward his own incarnation. Jesus is Lord. He always has been.

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