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John Newton


1st Corinthians 6:9-11


John Newton began school when he was seven years old.  He left school two years later.  At age eleven he went to sea with his father, who was captain of a merchant ship. He wasn’t long finding out how rough life was at sea, among sailors, in the 1700s.  Samuel Johnson, English man of letters, knew well the horrible state of English prisons, yet Johnson insisted that life on a ship was worse than life in a prison: the food was worse, the company was worse, the accommodation was worse, and in addition there was the constant danger of drowning.

Sailors ate food in various stages of rot (thanks to the dampness) from the moment the ship put to sea.  If their biscuits were only moderately rotten, the biscuits contained insects called weevils that tasted bitter.  If the biscuits were more rotten, they contained large maggots with black heads, and these tasted fatty and cold.  During one seven-year period in the mid-1700s, the British Navy raised 185,000 men for sea duty. Two-thirds of them died of disease, often disease related to malnutrition.  Many died also from syphilis.

Not surprisingly, sailors were regarded as the scum of the earth. They were brutal, vicious, morally dissolute.         Newton , we should note, felt entirely at home with these fellows.  He prided himself on being without moral restraint.         What’s more, he never missed an opportunity of urging such lack of restraint upon others. He was especially proud of the fact that that he was so very vile and vulgar that other sailors, scarcely paragons of virtue themselves, couldn’t stand him.

When Newton was nineteen or twenty years old a British press gang captured him – kidnapped him, in other words – and took him on board a warship.  At this point in the history of Britain , warships always needed men. Volunteers were few, with the result that the government paid roving gangs of thugs to kidnap any unwary young men (the latter were usually found in taverns) and deliver them to Royal Navy warships.

Newton quickly learned that while living conditions on board merchant ships were deplorable, living conditions on board warships were worse.  A common sailor could be beaten for smiling at an officer.  Every officer carried a small whip with which to strike sailors.  If a sailor ever struck an officer, however, the sailor was hanged immediately before the entire crew.

After several months’ service on a warship Newton waited until the ship was in port; then he deserted.  He had walked only a few miles when another press gang overtook him and dragged him back to the ship.  The captain had him flogged mercilessly.  He was carried below decks where the ship’s doctor poured vinegar into his wounds, along with alcohol, salt water and hot tar.  Newton lapsed into a coma and nearly died.

By now the captain of the warship was fed up with the twenty-year old incorrigible, and transferred him to a merchant ship engaged in the slave trade.  Soon Newton was working for a European slave trader on the African coast.   Before long the trader suspected Newton of dishonesty. Whenever the trader went inland for several days (usually to unload trade goods and procure slaves from inland regions), he chained Newton to the ship’s deck, leaving him with one pint of rice per day, fresh water, and a pile of chicken entrails. Newton baited fish-hooks with the entrails, caught a few fish, and ate them raw. One day a passing merchant ship unchained him and hired him on as a sailor.  Newton was at sea once again.

At age twenty-five he became captain of a slave ship. Over the next four years he made three round trips.         A round trip consisted of three legs: first leg, from England to Africa, the ship stocked with trade goods for the African natives, as well as with chains, neck collars, handcuffs and thumbscrews (a torture device) that were to be used by African natives (be it noted) who were selling into slavery fellow-Africans from rival tribes who had been defeated in tribal warfare and were now, in effect, prisoners of war. The second leg of the trip was the voyage from Africa to the Caribbean with slaves in the hold. The third leg was the trip back to England with molasses and rum. Each round trip took a year and three months.

Needless to say, the most reprehensible part of the trip was the long middle-passage from Africa to the Caribbean . The slave holds on ships were pens only two feet high. The slaves were laid out side-by-side like fireplace logs, then chained to one another, 600 per ship. There were no toilet facilities and no ventilation.  The stench was indescribable.   It was said that if you were downwind of a slave ship you could smell it twenty miles away. In good weather the slaves were brought up on deck (still chained to one another), hosed down with sea water, then rinsed lightly with fresh.   Corpses were dumped overboard as instant fish food.  Occasionally ship captains threw healthy slaves overboard in order to collect insurance. As a means of keeping sailors reasonably content, captains allowed them to rape black women at will. Newton himself was no stranger to this activity.  As captain of the slave ship, he had his pick of any African woman and his pick of any number of them.  Concerning his slaving days he later wrote laconically, “I was sunk into complacency with the vilest of wretches.”

How did it all end?   Six years before he was to leave the slave trade (i.e., two years before he had even entered it) Newton ’s ship had been caught in a violent storm off Newfoundland . He and his crewmates pumped until they nearly collapsed.   Their ship barely made it back to England . He began to think about the manner in which his life was unfolding.   He became aware that as repugnant as he was to many people, he was vastly more repugnant to God. He tells us that at this point he prayed for the first time in years.

Six years, including all his slaving days, were to pass before the seed sown during the near-fatal storm was to bear fruit. Six years it took for the seed to germinate, grow, mature, become fruitful.  But when the fruit appeared it was magnificent.  He came to throbbing faith in Jesus Christ, and never looked back. Now his long-cherished cynicism, vulgarity and unbelief fell away from him like filthy clothing that one never wants to see again.

Having had only two years of formal schooling, Newton set about educating himself. Latin, Greek, Hebrew, Syriac: he taught himself them all and mastered them.  In no time his written English was the envy of those who appreciate fine prose. (While living in Africa he had mastered the first six books of Euclidean geometry, tracing the geometric figures in the sand.) And of course the public quickly discovered that his poetic gifts – he had never done anything with them, never having had anything to poeticize about – soon found expression in hymns the church will never be without. (We should note that the hymn Newton wrote in gratitude for his wife, Mary Catlett, on their first anniversary contained twenty-six stanzas.)

Newton applied to the Anglican ministry, but was turned down on the grounds that he lacked a university degree.         A sympathetic bishop, however, recognizing Newton ’s faith, brilliance and abilities, ordained him.  By now he was thirty-nine years old and had been away from the slave trade for ten years.

People flocked to hear him preach, but not because he was an outstanding speaker. In fact his preaching was clumsy. They sought him out, however, inasmuch as they knew him to be transparent to the grace and power and purpose of God. In short, they knew he could help them in their own venture in the Christian life. His modest-sized book (now in paperback), Letters of Christian Counsel, has guided earnest Christians for 200 years.

Newton spent the rest of his life campaigning against the slave trade.  Until he died he remained haunted by the misery he had unleashed in the world. He came to speak of the slave trade as “a business at which my heart now shudders.”

Towards the end of his life Newton was blind and forgetful, senile in fact, frequently forgetting in mid-sentence where it was supposed to end, and unable to recover the thread of his sermon. Several people suggested that he give up preaching.  “What?” he hurled at them, “Shall the old African blasphemer stop while he can speak?” In 1806 he preached his last sermon at a benefit service for widows and orphans of the Battle of Trafalgar.  He died on 21st December 1807 .


What can we take home today from our acquaintance with John Newton?

[1] First, we must understand that there is such a thing as ungodliness, and it does result in human degradation; and such degradation ought not to be disguised or labelled anything else, for the sake of truth.

We used to live in a truth culture.  A truth culture asks two questions: What is? (i.e., what’s the nature of ultimate reality) and What is right? (i.e., what ought we to do in light of what ultimate reality is.)  Now, however, we live in a therapy culture.  A therapy culture asks one question only: How does it feel?  A therapy culture disdains any discussion of truth and the claims of truth. Christians, however, will never endorse a therapy culture to the detriment of a truth culture.

In a therapy culture the gospel is merely a matter of feeling, a matter of taste.  Some people have a taste for “religion”; others have little or no taste for “religion.” And in any case there’s no disputing taste.

Christians know, however, that where truth is denied the claims of truth are ignored.  Where God as the ens realissimum is disdained then there is no obligation on anyone; all we need do is indulge ourselves since the only consideration is how it all feels.

Consider the following.

FIRST GENERATION: people are possessed of authentic faith and they do attempt to honour claim upon them of the God they worship.  They may not always do what is right, but they know what is right.

SECOND GENERATION: living faith has disappeared.  Jesus Christ is too specific, too concrete, too relentless and too demanding. Faith is jettisoned, but a sincere moral concern is upheld.  If you ask these people why humans in general ought to be ethically concerned they can’t answer profoundly.  They can only say something unhelpful such as “Because we should; that’s all.”

THIRD GENERATION: here both living faith and moral concern have disappeared.  All that remains is narcissism: everything in the universe exists to serve me, my pleasure, and my comfort.  What doesn’t serve me, my pleasure and my comfort has no claim upon me.

The guiding principle here isn’t “What ought I to do?” Rather it’s “What can I get away with?”  The most glaring feature of this outlook is an enormous sense of entitlement. I am entitled to, have a right to, anything and everything that’s going to maximize my pleasure and comfort.

Friederich Nietzsche, the philosopher whom every first-year university student wants to read, said “If God is dead (and for Nietzsche God was dead) then everything is permitted.”  Narcissistic entitlement can’t wait to get God dead.

God, however, refuses to die.  Instead he acts. In the first chapter of his Roman letter the apostle Paul asserts that God gives people who repudiate him the consequences of that repudiation.  Three times in Romans 1; in verses 24, 26, and 28, Paul writes chilling words: “God gave them up; God gave them up to their impurity, to the dishonouring of their bodies among themselves; God gave them up to dishonourable passions; God gave them up to a base mind and to improper conduct.” We must be sure to note that Paul never says “God gave up on them.” God doesn’t give up on people. The truth is, because God doesn’t give up on them; because God cares about them more than they care about themselves, God gives them up.  Gives them up to what? Gives them up to, hands them over to, the consequences of their repudiation of him.

Many folk, I have found, dismiss as infantile all notions of God’s anger, God’s judgment.  They assume that the church upholds the notion that something innocent in itself – card-playing, for instance – is deemed to be “sin”. Sin is said to mobilize God’s judgement. Therefore God’s judgement is mobilized by something trivial.  People snicker.

The point to be remembered is that it isn’t something trivial that mobilizes God’s judgement.  It isn’t even that conduct which we rightly label “sins” that mobilizes God’s judgement. It’s human defiance of God, disobedience to God, contempt for him, facile dismissal of him – this is what mobilizes God’s judgement.  What we label “sins” is the consequence of God’s judgement.  It’s our prior, deep-seated unbelief that provokes God and precipitates his judgement. Once his judgement is operative, God hands us over to the consequences of our unbelief: “sins”.   His purpose in handing us over; his purpose in giving us up to “sins”, the consequence of our unbelief; his purpose here is a wake-up call.

And didn’t his wake-up call wake up John Newton? In his shallow years of unbelief Newton boasted that he could out-gross the grossest; he could out-debauch the most debauched. His doing so, of course, occurred just because God had given him up to… ­­ – without ever having given up on him.  The wake-up call worked. One day Newton became as disgusted with himself as many others were with him.  Because God had given him up to the disgusting consequences of his unbelief he knew that God had never given up on him.  He repented, repudiated his repudiation of God, and “came home.”

What does Newton teach us? – that ungodliness ends in degradation; that degradation doesn’t arouse God’s anger but is rather the consequence of God’s anger visited upon unbelief. We must understand that just because God doesn’t give up on us he does give us up to the consequences of our repudiation of him, and all of this for the sake of jarring us awake to the nature and scope of our folly.


[2] Finally, and pre-eminently, Newton recalls us to the truth that Jesus Christ can re-start, revolutionize any person’s life. Newton didn’t finish his adult life as he began it.  The degradation into which he plunged he didn’t splash around in for the rest of his life. He proved that the grace of God is “amazing” just because there is no one, however, wretched, who can’t be put on her feet, pointed down a new road, knowing a new Lord, living from a new relationship, singing a new song, and facing a new future.

In a few minutes Rachel Miller is going to sing “Amazing Grace” for us. I don’t care to hear it sung – usually. It’s not because I disagree with anything in the hymn.  I endorse the theology of the hymn without reservation.  I don’t care to hear it sung, rather, because it’s been sentimentalized. It has become folk music, sung mindlessly out of social familiarity without any appreciation of what it’s about. It’s usually sung in contexts that have nothing to do with faith – like the halftime show at a football game. It pains me to hear Newton ’s wonder at God’s amazing grace reduced to entertainment.

But of course here in Schomberg, at worship, we aren’t singing it as entertaining folk music. We are singing it because we have been sobered afresh as we have pondered the truth that God’s grace is amazing just because it is God’s.  Grace isn’t our invention, our prescription, another human attempt at self-medication that ends in self-poisoning.  We extol God’s amazing grace just because we know that his grace, and his grace alone, can do what nothing else and no one else can accomplish; namely, transmute, transplant the human heart.

Everything we do in church-life; every cent we donate; every jab we cheerfully absorb: we do it all for one reason.         We want to continue holding up that amazing grace whereby anyone’s life can begin again; anyone can be turned around, now victorious where she had always known defeat.  Everything we do here we do for the sake of this.

I often think that the church today has largely lost confidence right here.  It hasn’t always been so. Whenever the church has surged ahead it has always done so riding the wave of its experience of God’s grace and the capacity of that grace to make the profoundest difference to life.

When the apostolic church surged ahead, one of the places its surge appeared was in Corinth , a city infamous for its debauchery.  The Christians in Corinth had emerged from that background. Paul reminded them, “Don’t be deceived; neither the immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor sexual perverts, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers nor robbers will inherit the kingdom of God . And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God.” (1st. Cor. 6:9-11) “Such were some of you.” Were, but are no longer; were, but are not now; were, and need never be again.

I see no reason to doubt or dispute that such a grace-wrought turnaround can happen instantaneously.  I also see no reason to think it has to happen instantaneously.  It took six years for Newton ; six years from the time he was stabbed awake until he had repudiated everything that contradicted his grasp of the gospel.  And if it takes sixty years for some of us?  All that matters is that it occur.

For then our children, or our children’s children, will say of us, “They were washed; they were sanctified; they were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God.”


                                                                                                Victor Shepherd 


November 2006