These simple words describe in rugged terseness and brief outline the life story of the writer of the famous hymn, "Amazing Grace".
John Newton, the celebrated English preacher and hymn-writer, realized that he was a trophy of divine grace. A while before his death, a fellow minister came in to have breakfast with him. Family prayers followed the meal. Mr. Newton's sight had almost failed, and he was unable to read. He sat and listened to his friend as he read the 15th chapter of 1 Corinthians. When this tenth verse was read, "But by the grace of God I am what I am," Mr. Newton began to speak:
"I am not what I ought to be. Ah! How imperfect and deficient! I am not what I wish to be. I abhor what is evil, and I would cleave to what is good. I am not what I hope to be. Soon, soon, shall I put off, with mortality, sin and imperfection. Though I am not what I ought to be, nor what I wish to be, nor what I hope to be, I can truly say, I am not what I once was, a slave to sin and Satan; and I can heartily join with the apostle and acknowledge, By the grace of God I am what I am."
John Newton's conversion is a true illustration of saving grace. When he was only seven years old, his pious mother was taken from him. However, she had taught him when just an infant to pray and had sowed in his young heart the seeds of the Gospel.
When a young man he went to sea on board a slave ship with his father and learned all the evil of the seaman's life. Still later, he was forced into the navy. He deserted, but was caught and stripped and beaten, until the blood flowed from his wounds. He had now become a hardened infidel. He fell in with African slave traders. He went on from bad to worse, until he himself was sold as a slave. He was reduced to utter poverty, starving and sinning and blaspheming.
One day he found a Gospel book on board, and he took it up and read it. He was thus led to ask the question, "What if these things should be true?" The thought terrified him, and he closed the book. He had had a sight of the holiness of God. He went to his hammock that night as usual, having contrived to put the solemn question out of his mind. However, in the dark of the night he was awakened by the dash of waves. A storm had arisen, a terrible sea was sweeping over the vessel, and the cabin was fast filling with water. The cry arose, "The ship is sinking!" All was confusion and terror.
John Newton's life came up before him as on a cinema screen. He saw himself a guilty sinner in the hands of a holy God. For four solid weeks the vessel was tossed to and fro, he being sometimes at the helm and sometimes at the pumps, wave upon wave breaking over him. In the midst of his danger, he began to cry, "My mother's God, the God of mercy - have mercy on me!"
That storm was to John Newton what the earthquake was to the jailer at Philippi. It got him to his knees. It brought his sins before him. It brought before him his eternal ruin. It brought him to the Cross where he saw the love of God being poured out in the blood of Christ.
In evil long I took delight,
Unawed by shame or fear,
Till a new object struck my sight,
And stopped my wild career.
The "new object" which met his eye, as he stood at the helm and walked the deck with the waves dashing over him was the Crucified Christ. The cross and the Son of God there bearing his sins stood out before him in the brightness of Divine love, for thus he writes:
I saw one hanging on a tree,
In agony and blood;
He fixed His languid eyes on me,
As near His cross I stood.
As it was with Simon Peter, when the Lord turned and looked upon him, so was it with John Newton. In both cases, the look of love melted the sinner down.
Sure, never, till my latest breath,
Can I forget that look:
It seemed to charge me with His death,
Tho' not a word He spoke.
That look of love, holy love, went through and through his conscience, making him feel his sin in all its vileness. Sin, which had hitherto been treated by him as a mere trifle, or being altogether overlooked, now presented itself in all its terrors. He was doomed; he was lost; what should he do?
My conscience felt and owned the guilt,
And plunged me in despair;
I saw my sins His blood had spilt
And helped to nail Him there.
He is overwhelmed. He is in despair as he sees how his sins had nailed Christ to the cross. But as he looks, he sees something more in that look and hears that voice of pardon coming from the cross.
A second look He gave, which said,
"I freely all forgave:
This blood is for thy ransom paid,
I die that thou may'st live."
The sight of the crucified Saviour not only wrought conviction of sin, but brought peace to his heart. Here John Newton saw the love of God supplying the sacrifice which His holiness demanded, the Son of God stepping into the place of ungodly men and at the hands of justice suffering the wrath and condemnation due to man on account of sin. By trusting in that finished work the "African blasphemer" was saved. Truly, this is "Amazing Grace!"
Amazing grace! how sweet the sound,
That saved a wretch like me!
I once was lost, but now am found,
Was blind, but now I see.
The grace of God which softened and saved and raised up John Newton as a witness is unmerited and free. God is no respecter of persons. His grace extends to you. "For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: Not of works, lest any man should boast." (Ephesians 2:8-9).
The precious blood which cleansed John Newton's crimson stains was shed for you. "But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship one with another, and the blood of Jesus Christ his Son cleanseth us from all sin." (1 John 1:7). "And he is the propitiation for our sins: and not for ours only, but also for the sins of the whole world." (1 John 2:2).
The Word of God thus assures you of salvation if you will but believe on His Son. "And they said, Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved, and thy house." (Acts 16:31). Then like John Newton, you will be able to sing:
'Twas grace that taught my heart to fear,
And grace my fears relieved;
How precious did that grace appear
The hour I first believed!
Thro' many dangers, toils and snares,
I have already come;
'Tis grace hath bro't me safe thus far,
And grace will lead me home.