A Beautiful Scandal
There is a lot to like about the story of John Newton. And Simonetta Carr and Amal tell and illustrate it beautifully (Reformation Heritage Books, 2018). Newton first told the story himself in an 18th century best-seller. A young man with a dead mother and hard-to-please father pursues riches and adventure at sea. After several brushes with death Newton--who married the love of his life--left the sea to pursue poetry and preaching. Along the way he adopted needy relatives, and hosted struggling writers; he even befriended a few domesticated hares. Just months before his death he received news that warmed his soul: the British slave trade, against which he had fought for decades, had been abolished.
But another fact about Newton nearly ruins the story. He himself had been a slave trader. As both captain of a slave ship and later as an investor in the same, Newton profited from the sale of human beings. He willingly participated in the inexcusable degradation of precious lives of people created in the image of God. He is responsible for the misery and death of unknown scores of beautiful people.
Newton, the slave-trader who died as a well-respected minister in the Church of England, is the perfect picture of the kind of person we naturally hate.
The obvious questions flood our minds. How could such a vile person regain the dignity he lost in a dirty trade with the devil? Is it possible that the God who grieved over the death of Newton's victims could ever smile upon that lost, blind, guilty wretch? Could anyone like Newton be spared the eternal consequence of damnation for his sins? How could such a man get a second chance at life? And why should any of us care about his sin-ravaged story?
John Newton had racked up more moral debt than he could ever repay. His only hope was for God's Son to own Newton's sins and give him a righteousness that satisfied divine justice. Newton heard this message of hope in the gospel, the Bible's plainest theme. And by a heaven-sent faith he believed it and received new life in God.
Newton summarized his paradoxical life in his famous hymn. "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."
Newton's story is a beautiful scandal. Like Paul, he increasingly woke to the nightmare of his sin personified by the beautiful black faces of his victims. But God's grace had introduced a new reality: undeserved pardon. The man who should have died a thousand deaths for his sin died at peace in the hope of new life because of the single death of the Savior Jesus.
That story isn't just good news for Newton. It is the only relief for the rest of us whose sins are not as unlike Newton's as we would have others believe.
Read Simonetta Carr's John Newton. Weep over his sins and yours. And with Newton sing with the hope that God's word secures:
And when this flesh and heart shall fail, and mortal life shall cease, I shall possess within the veil a life of joy and peace.
William Boekestein Pastors Immanuel Fellowship Church in Kalamazoo, MI. His latest book is A Colorful Past: A Coloring Book of Church History.