Peace in a Changing World
John Newton, 1725-1807
Constant change affects our bearings, and we need to know that everything is going to be alright in the end. Nothing remains unquestioned – not even our faith – and the old moral certainties are evaporating. It has always been the same; but we notice it more now because of the vast technological advances of recent history. Change is accelerated so that consistent and rapid adaptation has to be made, as many times in one short life-span now than in three or four generations in earlier days. Small wonder we flounder. Nevertheless, we do have bedrock. God in Christ Jesus remains totally in control, and totally dependable in His love for us. We can be anchored in Him, and that is the ultimate meaning of saving faith – nothing else but God’s grace upholding us through to the end.
Over two hundred years ago, John Newton discovered this. His sea-faring father put him to sea at the tender age of eleven. Despite the early influence of his profoundly Christian mother, who died when he was six, Newton abandoned himself to a life of vice, moral laxity, and irreligion. But he never totally forgot God, who brought him back to Himself through a series of remarkable interventions over the years. This slave-trader and blasphemer became the renowned evangelical rector of Olney in Buckinghamshire, and the author of some of our best-loved hymns. In addition, he was one of William Wilberforce’s strongest allies in the campaign against slavery.
Newton had first-hand experience of the changes and chances of life, with its ups and downs, contrasts, dangers, fears, hopes – like the changing moods of the unpredictable sea. God alone was constant: Newton’s salvation was sheer, unmerited grace – and he knew it. Nobody would have been more surprised than John Newton himself at the way one of his hymns took off – not only among Christians, but in the pop and football worlds as well. “Amazing Grace” – amazing indeed. That grace which had been so strongly at work in Newton’s life was still working in full power through his writings:
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.
Years after his life-changing conversion following the miraculous escape of his ship and the crew from a severe gale, John Newton was still marvelling at God’s mercy to a sinner like himself. Such a totally undeserved blessing had began to turn his heart back to God, and quietened his inner turmoil after a few, perhaps inevitable, backslidings. But in all of these he was never to forget totally the One who had intervened so dramatically to stop him in his tracks.
’Twas grace that taught my heart
And grace my fears relieved;
How precious did that grace appear,
The hour I first believed!
Newton, like St Paul, was a chosen instrument for Our Lord to reveal the depth and power of His redeeming and persevering love. Both men responded absolutely in the end, in keeping with their character, and went on to spend themselves totally in God’s service. We too can know that grace once given is never recalled. Though we might spurn Him, God remains faithful.
A Sister of the Community of the Holy Cross