As we close the year 2023, we may look back with questions.  We may wonder why some things happened.  We may question God. We may question His love when circumstances were less than we expected. If we take the time, we can follow the path God has taken us and, in so doing, see His loving hand. Today’s lesson focuses on a man whose life’s circumstances were far from ideal.  Yet, the difficult path was the path of grace. This brief lesson will not cover the theological aspect of grace, but the personal, practical view of how God’s grace penetrated a man’s heart and brought him to a place of repentance and contentment.

A Difficult Beginning

At the age of 7, John Newton lost his mother to tuberculosis.  His father, a shipmaster, spent many hours away from home.  When John was in his late teens, his father pressed him to serve in the British Royal Navy.  With an unsettled heart and rebellion against the Navy’s severe discipline, it didn’t take long before John abandoned his post and deserted the Navy altogether.  When he was caught, he endured a brutal beating and was promptly discharged from the Navy for dereliction of duties.

Needing to work, he took a job with a slave trader from off the coast of Africa, but life on the African island was inhumane. He was treated with such cruelty that, in his memoirs, he referred to that time as the lowest point of his life.  After more than a year, he made his way off the island by taking a job on a slave-trading ship.  

Peril at Sea

Peril at Sea

While on the journey across the North Atlantic and headed for home, the ship encountered a violent storm during the night. Newton awoke amidst massive waves, gale-force winds, and torrential rain. John began bailing water to help save the troubled ship.  The storm was so severe that one crew member was washed overboard.  With a troubled, fearful heart, John resolved that night he would surely perish. But in the providence of God, the ship arrived safely at England’s shore. 

That horrendous night impacted John Newton for the rest of his life.  With each passing year, he marked the anniversary date of the terrible storm that almost took his life.  Of that dreadful experience, he later wrote it was “the hour I first believed.”

The Blessing of Love

Eventually, John Newton was blessed to marry the love of his life, Mary Catlett, and adopted her two orphaned nieces. It was his love for Mary that kept him from committing suicide when he was on the island off the North African coast.  With contentment at home, John continued in the slave trading business but soon realized his choices brought him no peace.  In 1754, John experienced sickness and poor health and then abandoned the slave market altogether.  Recalling the faith of his mother, he took a position as a curator in a church in Olney, Buckinghamshire.

Maturing Faith

In the process of time, Newton’s faith matured.  In 1772, at the age of 47, he penned the words to the now-famous hymn we so fondly sing today, Amazing Grace. At the end of that year, on December 31st,1772, John Newton prepared the following day’s sermon to be delivered on New Year’s Day, January 1, 1773.  In his sermon, he included the words of his hymn, Amazing Grace, to be sung as a memorial for God’s hand of blessing in his life.

During the successive years, John Newton would feel deep remorse for his involvement in slave trafficking. Repentant for his former actions and resolved to make a difference in his world, he acted on his beliefs. Aggressively standing against the trade in which he had once been involved, he wrote pamphlets and resolutely spoke against the slave trade at parliamentary meetings. Through the combined efforts of those like John Newton, Parliament eventually abolished the British maritime slave market. Graciously, God gave his servant the privilege of seeing the results of his labor before lovingly taking him home nine months later.

John Newton's Amazing Grace

In Conclusion

For the slave trader, John Newton, God’s grace brought him to a place of personal reconciliation with his Creator.  In God’s wisdom, He reached inside John’s rebellious heart and awakened him to spiritual tenderness and the reality of his mortality.  Grace was the instrument God used to bring John Newton into His Kingdom and ultimately changed the course of his life.  Without that kind of grace, John Newton would have remained estranged from God and on a path of destruction.

God’s grace came to John Newton on the wings of a troubled life, but it came.  Grace carries a depth of meaning we cannot fathom, but we can, however, daily look for evidence of His grace and understand that without it, we, too, would be sailing in torrential seas, feeling like there was no hope.  As we close 2023, we close 250 years of John Newton’s Amazing Grace, but we also open a new year of God’s amazing grace in our lives.

More to come ~

We will study God’s grace in another lesson, but for today, let us remember that there is never a moment when God’s grace is not absolutely overwhelmingly amazing. 

Copyright © 2023 – Sheilah Smith 

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