Clouds and bushes

John Newton’s other hymn

John Newton (1725-1807) was a preacher, a hymn writer, and at one time a ship’s captain. One of his hymns, entitled “How Sweet the Name of Jesus Sounds” is a song of great beauty and biblical truth. One of my favorite lines in it is this:

“Weak is the effort of my heart, and cold my warmest thought,
But when I see thee as thou art, I’ll praise thee as I ought.”

Of course Newton was speaking of the judgment day, but I have always thought that worship grows more deep in proportion to the degree that we see God as he is (Isaiah 6:1-4); conversely shallow worship occurs when we see factors other than God, factors such as the selection of songs, the talent of the preacher and so on.

But perhaps I should remind you that John Newton wrote another hymn, too.

Newton wrote a song he entitled “Hungry and Faint and Poor.” It is a song intended to begin worship. Note his wonderful expression of need and dependence:

“Thy word invites us nigh, or we would starve indeed.
For we no money have to buy, nor righteousness to plead.”

I wonder how many people are starving in the manner Newton suggested – starving for lack of God’s word (Amos 8:11).

But I’m here to tell that John Newton wrote another song.

He wrote a hymn called “Glorious Things of Thee Are Spoken.” It speaks of nations and kingdoms, but mostly of God’s kingdom, distinctive because it alone is eternal. My favorite line in this song?

“Savior since of Zion’s city, I through grace a member am,
Let the world deride or pity, I will glory in thy name.”

We become part of God’s kingdom by grace. Some might not appreciate the archaic language Newton utilized. He couldn’t help it. That’s the way they spoke in those days. One day your language will seem old and “uncool.” I should tell you that I am so cool that I can sing songs with archaic language and still be cool.

But Newton wrote another song. Did you know that?

John Newton did not discover gravity. That was Isaac Newton, apparently no relation. John Newton was involved in some activities that would later make him hang his head in shame. The ship he captained did not contain food or medicine; it conveyed human cargo, for he was a slave trader. There is no calculating the suffering for which Newton was responsible. Conditions on slave ships were grisly and cruel. In his later years he would reflect on his sin and wonder how God could forgive him. No ordinary mercy would suffice; only God’s grace, amazing grace, could have forgiven John Newton.

And, you guessed it, that was the other song Newton wrote. It is perhaps the most loved hymn of all: “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound,” Newton cried out, “that saved a wretch like me.” It was grace, he reflected, that left him cold with fear, and “grace that fear relieved.”

God wasn’t nice to us; still less did he ignore our minor flaws. He poured grace over us, a gift profoundly needed. It was, in a word, nothing short of amazing.

“For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing, it is the gift of God” (Ephesians 2:8, ESV).

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Stan Mitchell

Stan has preached since 1976, in Zimbabwe, California, Texas and Tennessee. He serves as preacher for the Red Walnut Church of Christ in Bath Springs, TN. He is currently Professor of Bible at Freed-Hardeman University. He is married to the former Marjorie McCarthy, and has one daughter, Tracy Watts. He is the author of four books: The Wise Get Wiser, the Foolish More Foolish: The Book of Proverbs, Give the Winds a Mighty Voice: Our Worship in Song, and Equipping the Saints for Ministry. He has recently published another book, "Will Our Faith Have Children: Developing Leadership in the Church for the Next Generation.

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