There are a few persons in history with whom I identify rather strongly. One of these is John Newton (1725-1807). I studied at the University of Arkansas for seven years to get a PhD (completed everything but the dissertation, 58 graduate hours, successfully passed three four-hour written examinations and my orals, but no degree) in 18th Century British Literature which is the period from 1700 to 1800 and encompasses almost all of John Wesley’s life (founder of Methodism) and that of John Newton. Wesley was born into a clergy home as his father was an Anglican priest as John would later become. John had been an Anglican priest for twelve years before he became what he called a “real” Christian after his Aldersgate experience where he said he felt “his heart strangely warmed.” I can identify with that as I had returned to going to church regularly, taught Sunday School, and had been a part-time pastor for six years and a seminary student for two before I felt my “heart strangely warmed” and became a real Christian. Unlike Wesley, I had not grown up in a clergy household and had lived a rather dissolute life in Los Angeles before returning to the church in 1982.
So, while I identify with Wesley in some ways, I more closely identify with John Newton who had been a slave trader before his conversion, yet he continued with the slave trade for years after becoming a Christian. Like Wesley, and like me, his real conversion came later. According to historians, “Although he continued to work in the slave trade, he had gained sympathy for the slaves during his time in Africa. He later said that his true conversion did not happen until some time later: ‘I cannot consider myself to have been a believer in the full sense of the word, until a considerable time afterwards.’”
Why is John Newton so important to me, and why do I identify with him so much? This is the man who over thirty years after he left the slave trade finally began to work against it. As an ally of William Wilberforce, he lived to see the laws of England changed in 1807 abolishing the slave trade in Africa. It would be another twenty years before all of England abolished all slavery everywhere, but it started with a lot of help from John Newton, who had been a slave trader himself. You all know of John Newton because in 1779 he wrote a hymn called, "Faith's Review and Expectation," which has become known by the words in the first line, “Amazing Grace.” Yes, it was a former slave trader who was slowly going blind, but had become an Anglican priest like Wesley (wanted to become a Methodist, but they wouldn’t have him) who wrote one of the most famous hymns of all time. One of the reasons I can identify with John Newton so strongly is the one line in his hymn which says “. . . and saved a wretch like me.” I don’t think you can truly appreciate the power in this hymn if you don’t understand what wretchedness is and have felt it yourself. Wesley never understood this and maybe that’s why the Methodists rejected Newton. I do, however, understand fully and literally the wretchedness of which Newton wrote. I never thought I could be forgiven for how I had lived and didn’t really believe it until 1990—nine years after I returned to church and six years after serving as a pastor. It is that understanding that “a wretch like me” could be saved that turned my life around. Like Newton, it took years to complete the process (and it is still continuing) but I love that hymn because I understand just how “amazing” grace can be. I remember a fellow seminary student wanting to change the words to “Amazing Grace” to omit the word “wretch” and substitute “soul” instead. I told her that if she didn’t understand “wretchedness,” she didn’t understand why grace was so amazing. We never changed the words while I was at Boston University—there were too many others studying for the ministry who also understood what it meant to be wretched. I do not believe that you have to be as I was or as John Newton was to enjoy and feel touched by “Amazing Grace” and God bless you for living the kind of life that didn’t require you to drop into lowliness in order to find holiness. However, for John Newton and for me, we were both like the man in the “Prodigal Son” story who had been very far from our Father’s love and were both strangely warmed by His embrace when we came back home. While I was at Boston University I heard someone say something that I have made my own ever since. Whenever someone asks how I am, I always answer, “Better than I deserve.” That my friends, is grace, and it is truly amazing. Below is a link to a great music video of that powerful hymn. There are more words on the screen than John Newton wrote, and I hope you read them all. It is only five minutes of your time, so I hope you click on it and enjoy it once more, maybe to have your life renewed or changed—it is that powerful. (do watch it on full screen for the best effect)