Saturday, September 13, 2008

amazing grace

Last week I watched the film Amazing Grace and would certainly highly recommend it. While it was about the British abolitionist Wilberforce, Albert Finney played the minor role of John Newton, Wilberforce’s spiritual mentor and the author of the hymn Amazing Grace.

This made me curious about John Newton. I went to the SLU library and found a recent, short biography about Newton by Steven Turner also titled Amazing Grace. Much to my surprise I found that the tales told in America about Newton are less than accurate. John Newton was a captain of only three slave ships and had previously been on the crew of only one. He was about to captain a fourth slave ship when ill health forced his retirement. However, all the voyages occurred after he came to know Christ as his savior.

Newton did become a leading voice for the abolition of slavery but only in his latter years, after he wrote his famous hymn. It was a process for him to get through the rationalizations for slavery offered in the mid-18th century and come under conviction for his part in the ghastly commerce.

You may be thinking that I just spoiled a wonderful story of God’s grace and mercy. Actually, I think the true story is more powerful. His true sins were more than awful enough for him to realize what a wretch he was. He grew up knowing the Gospel and purposely turned against it, becoming an enemy of Christ and a blasphemer as a young man. Newton also recognized God’s frequent interventions on his behalf but never fully repented.

While I do not have time, room, or ability to go into it here, John Newton’s true testimony was and is powerful. It preached, as some would say. He wrote it down in a series of letters that were published. His effectiveness as a speaker and writer led the wealthy evangelical Lord Dartmouth to arrange for him to become curate of a small church, despite the Church of England’s requirements for a university degree. Newton later accepted a position in a London church.

Why do we need a slave ship captain, tortured by horrors beyond understanding, to repent? What makes that story so compelling? Please think about it. A little self-reflection wouldn’t hurt. Is it more extreme and therefore more dramatic? However, might the harm of such drama be that it minimizes our own sins?

That is, it has us thinking “a wretch like him” instead of “a wretch like me.”

Be blessed,
RB

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