John Newton

By: jdcharles63
Date: 03/02/2019

Many years ago at the Art Gallery I saw a special display of modern art, in which some of the more interesting exhibits were made of old rubbish.

The ones I liked most were some wall mounted works made from things that can cause painful injuries, like rusted galvanized iron, barbed wire, and splintered wood; these dangerous things had been arranged to form very pleasing patterns.  Those artworks reminded me of the story of John Newton, who wrote that wonderful hymn, Amazing Grace, almost 250 years ago.

 John Newton initially became a Christian during a storm at sea while he was a sailor.  His initial journey of faith was not one we would now see as a model example.  He worked on a slave ship, and he was promoted to be captain of a slave ship.  Years later, ill health forced him to leave his seafaring work, and with his growing Christian convictions, he studied and eventually became a priest in the Church of England.

Although slavery was legal and socially accepted, be was given a painful burden of guilt for his past role in it, and for the many thousands of slaves who died on his ship. This haunted him and drove him to action.  Some critics of today have condemned his role in the slave trade while he held Christian beliefs, as hypocrisy.  And even at the time, he felt compelled to explain his past by saying he was not a proper Christian until he left the slave trade.

But I suggest that none of us may readily use our deeds to show when we became a “proper Christian”.  For as we are given more of God’s vision, we see more clearly how all our acts fall short of God’s requirement of perfect holiness, even if they are legal and socially acceptable. As stated in Leviticus 19:2, “You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy”.

 The essential step in the Christian path is to recognize our helpless state of sin, to see there is no other way but to trust in God’s mercy in Jesus, and to truly want him to rule our unruly lives.  We need to bring a repentant and grateful heart to God, to read his word, and seek the guidance of his Spirit amongst the noise and chaos of this world.

We may not be taken away from our difficult lot in life, and the way ahead may seem confused and unclear for a long time, as it was for John Newton.

 He wasn’t given relief from his increasingly painful burden of guilt until he published the details of what he had seen in the slave trade.  And his booklet was crucial in changing popular opinion in Britain to end slavery.

 So, God took the pain of John Newton’s past and turned it into a triumph, in God’s own good purpose.

God gives us a wonderful promise in I John 1:9, “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.”

 Our past stumbling, wrong turnings or willful sin, may leave us with rubbish in our lives, or a painful burden, just like a load of rusted barbed wire as used in those artworks.

 But the wonderful gift which Jesus won for us, which we celebrate here at his table, is that when we truly repent and confess our sin to God, and want him to direct our path, he can take the painful rubbish of our sin and failures, and rearrange all of that to become part of his plan, for his kingdom, just as he did for John Newton.

 The best that any piece of human artwork can do is to change outward appearances, to create the illusion of something pleasant.  But at this table we celebrate the reality that through Jesus death and resurrection, all of our lives which we offer to him, including the weak, ugly and painful parts, are completely transformed.

 We cannot see it, as the big picture is beyond us, but we can trust in God’s promise that we we are being made into his perfect artwork.


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