A Hymn of Hope
This month’s hymn is John Newton’s “Approach My Soul the Mercy Seat.” You may not be familiar with this particular hymn, but you will know at least one of Newton’s other works. His most famous hymn was originally titled “Faith’s Review and Expectation.” It is now affectionately titled “Amazing Grace.” Newton knew a thing or two about grace. He was raised by a faithful mother who prayed for him and taught him the scriptures. But her death when Newton was only seven was a devastating blow to the young boy and to his budding faith. He became angry at God. A few years later, John joined his father at sea and became exposed to every lust and iniquity known to man in thought, word, and deed. For whatever reason, his speech was exceedingly profane. By his own admission, Newton was not satisfied with the existing curses and blasphemies, and, being an inventive man, he began to create his own insults and blasphemies against God. Nor was Newton content with his own iniquity, but soon began to lead others into his anti-Christian way of thinking. He was a vile man, who led other men into the path of his own perdition.
A Great Storm
Through an array of circumstances, John Newton found himself traveling back to England from the West Indies in May of 1748. While on board the Greyhound, Newton came across a copy of Thomas à Kempis’ book The Imitation of Christ. For some unearthly reason, the blasphemer picked up the book and began to read it. He came across this passage:
Since Life is of short and uncertain Continuance, it highly concerns you to look about you, and take good heed how you employ it. O the Hardness of Men’s Hearts! O the wretched Stupidity! that fixes their whole Thoughts and Care upon the present . . . whereas in truth, every Work, and Word, and Thought, ought to be so ordered, as if it were to be our Last; and we instantly to Die, and render an Account of it.
Newton began to meditate on this passage. He asked himself, “What if these things should be true?” The next night the Greyhound, encountered a violent storm. Many of the crew and all of the livestock were washed overboard. As the winds died down and the rain let up, the crew made a frantic attempt to repair the worst damage to the ship. Few held out any hope of survival. Newton surveyed the damage and wondered if the storm would return. He reports as follows:
About nine o’clock, being almost spent with cold and labor, I went to speak to the captain, who was busied elsewhere. As I was returning from him, I said, almost without meaning, ‘If this will not do, the Lord have mercy on us.’ This (though spoken with little reflection) was the first desire I had breathed for mercy for many years.
Turning to God
Newton was surprised at his own words and wondered why he had said them. After blaspheming God for so many years, it shocked him to hear his own voice speak the name “Lord” in sincerity. But, as was true for so many of us who now claim the name of Christ, this initial thought toward God was only the beginning of a turn and not the culmination. For the next few years Newton’s life waxed and waned in contemplation of God, but at age 23, having come down with a serious fever, John Newton turned his eyes fully on God and put all his trust in Christ. Biographer John Dunn comments on this time in Newton’s life:
Again he went down with fever. But it was during this time, weak and almost delirious, that he resolved to cast himself upon the Lord as never before, to have Him to do with him as He should please. As he lay prostrate, slowly but clearly there came to him a sight of Calvary. He began to see and understand what happened on the Cross as he had never known it before. The dying agony of the Saviour and His vicarious suffering was there before him, and he suddenly knew that it was his sin—John Newton’s sin—that had necessitated Christ’s death. Ever since the storm, Newton had considered God to be a righteous judge who would remit punishment if he could but give satisfaction. But now, he saw that God was the great Giver! He has given His one and only Son. As this sight burst upon him he was suddenly free from all his old legalistic efforts to appease an angry God. He knew he was forgiven. He knew he was a justified man. He knew that he belonged to Christ. Over the course of several days his burden of conscience was entirely removed and both peace and health were restored.
John Newton eventually left his career on the sea, and moved back to England. He taught himself Greek and Hebrew, and though he had no formal education, entered the ministry as a priest in the Established Church. He became a companion of George Whitefield, and the closest friend to hymn writer William Cowper. Together Newton and Cowper published The Olney Hymns, one of the most popular hymn collections of their day.
John Newton was a blasphemer and an enemy of God. But in his mercy, God rescued Newton and made him a son. As a result, Newton’s sermons and hymns were full of the reality of our sin and the undeserved grace of God through Jesus’ shed blood on our behalf. At the end of his life, Newton told William Jay of Bath, “My memory is nearly gone, but I remember two things — that I am a great sinner, and that Christ is a great Saviour.”
Much of what I have reported regarding the life of John Newton would be considered common knowledge, but the more specific facts were gleaned from an excellent biography written by John Dunn. If you are interested in a fuller account of Newton’s life, I commend it to you. The essay can be viewed at the link below.
Approach My Soul the Mercy Seat
This great hymn by John Newton highlights the truth he held so dear – that we are great sinners and Christ is a Great Savior. As I have worked on this post and the song itself, I have realized that I do not see my sin for the grave matter that it is. Our view of our own sin and our view of God are closely related. If we have a high view of who God is, we will likely have a sober view of our sin. Conversely, if we are indifferent to our sin, we will not see our great need for a “Great Savior.” Would you join me this month in contemplating the depth of our sin, and the amazing grace of God? I hope my rendering of John Newton’s “Approach My Soul the Mercy Seat” will aid you in this endeavor, and lead you to the “one name under heaven whereby we must be saved,” the Lord Jesus Christ.
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Words by John Newton 1779
Music Copyright 2010 Eric Parker/BMI
Eric Parker – guitars and vocals
Brett Nolan – keys, percussion, engineering