Mention the name of John Newton and most will know him as the writer of the classic hymn Amazing Grace. The traditional story is that John Newton was the captain of a slave trade boat. Upon his conversion to Christianity he left the trade and subsequently wrote the legendary hymn. Imagine my surprise when I discovered this isn’t at all what really happened. What actually happened is far more interesting and has numerous lessons about God’s grace and the human sinner.
In their new book, The Justice Calling, Bethany Hoang and Kristen Johnson issue a clarion call to take seriously the issues of justice in our world. It is a powerful book. But as I said it was the story of John Newton that gripped me in surprising ways. After Newton’s conversion he did not free any slaves. The hymn was written a decade before Newton began to speak out against slavery. The authors continue: “Newton was known to walk the decks of his ship talking to God in prayer and even thanking God for the good fortune of his opportunity to be in the lucrative slave trade with a strong staff, affording him ample time for introspection . . . as Newton walked the decks in prayer to the God to who he had given over his life through Jesus Christ, slaves lay chained below his feet in fetid quarters.” (p. 140) “His personal journal details his torture of slaves alongside his gratitude to God for enabling him to be in such a trade. In fact, Newton only left the slave trade because it became too physically taxing.” (p. 141)
None of this is written to tarnish the reputation of Newton. Quite the contrary. It can help us make sense of the church today. The authors explain: “Like Newton, the church’s faults are concurrent with its claim to follow Jesus, and yet by the power of the Holy Spirit the church can live more and more faithfully as God’s holy people, set apart by the pursuit of justice and righteousness.” (p. 142) Like Newton, the church has failed to respond as it should to the issues of justice.
I think this story of Newton should be of great encouragement to Christians today who think God can’t use them because of their sin. Christians who reflect on their own transformation and don’t see the radical change they hear about from others should not despair that it’s too late for them or think that God has not been working in their lives. He has. It’s not too late. We can still answer the call to whatever He is calling us to. Each of us has our own “Amazing Grace” hymn to write. Start writing yours today.