Isaac Watts, John Newton and William Cowper were three of the great hymn writers of the church. Watts’ well known hymns were
Jesus shall reign where’er the sunThough Cowper battled terrible depression, there is a wonderful assurance that comes to us when we sing his hymns:
Joy to the world, the Lord is come
O God our help in ages past
When I survey the wondrous cross
God moves in a mysterious wayNewton’s best known hymn is “Amazing Grace.” The reason I’ve cited these three hymn writers together is that each of them wrote at least one hymn describing himself a worm.
O for a closer walk
There is a fountain filled with blood
In mercy, not in wrath, rebukeOriginally Watts wrote
Thy feeble worm, my God!
Alas! and did my Saviour bleed?
And did my Sov’reign die?
Would he devote that sacred Head
For such a worm as I?
Cowper’s hymn referring to worms is not as well known:
When darkness long has veil'd my mind,
And smiling day once more appears,
Then, my Redeemer, then I find
The folly of my doubts and fears…
But, O my Lord, one look from Thee
Subdues the disobedient will,
Drives doubt and discontent away,
And Thy rebellious worm is still.
We sing their hymns with great gusto because we love the tunes and we love to sing. But do we share their view of our spiritual status?
While the word “worm” is not used in Newton’s “Amazing Grace”, we are compelled to sing time and again
Amazing grace! How sweet the sound,According to English dictionaries, the word “wretch” can have two meanings. A wretch is either someone who is a poor unfortunate or a criminal.
That saved a wretch like me!
The words on Newton’s tombstone are
John Newton, Clerk, once an infidel and libertine, a servant of slaves in Africa, was, by the rich mercy of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, preserved, restored, pardoned, and appointed to preach the faith he had long laboured to destroy.Newton was born in 1725. His father was a sea captain. His father got him the position of slave overseer on a Jamaican plantation his infatuation. Before sailing he had to visit the home of his mother's cousin and became infatuated with her fourteen year-old daughter Mary, also known as 'Polly'. He lingered at his aunt’s home too long and missed the ship to the West Indies. When he returned, his father decided that his punishment should be to sail as a common seaman.
On John's return from that voyage his father got him an officer's berth, but before sailing the boy was given permission to visit his mother’s cousin and family. Once again John overstayed his leave and missed his ship again. Though initially angry, his father found him another ship but before he could join, he was caught by a press gang. Through his father’s intervention however he was promoted from seaman to midshipman enabling him to escape the dreadful conditions below decks. But whenever allowed ashore before the ship sailed, Newton overstayed his leave.
Just before the ship sailed when Newton was ordered to fetch fresh supplies thinking of the long period of separation from Polly he deserted. Two days later he was arrested, publicly stripped and whipped, and when fit for duty again he returned not as midshipman but at the lowest rank of seaman.
In an exchange of seamen, he was able to leave the warship and join a slave ship. Raiders would capture poor men, women and children from the interior parts of the African continent, bring them to 'factories' or warehouses on the coast to be bought by slave traders. His new employer was married to a highborn black woman. She was an extremely important person and she expected to be the mistress of the island. Newton had somehow fallen out with the black woman and she kicked him out of his comfortable hut into an empty slave shelter and his rations were cut to a handful of boiled rice. Half-starved Newton relied on roots pulled up and eaten raw and occasionally on food brought by African slaves. Later, when accused of cheating by another trader, it was believed and his situation worsened. He appealed to his father to rescue him.
Conditions improved when Newton’s employer let him go and he began to work for another trader, who treated him decently. Newton was given responsibility in the trade in gold and other commodities. Things were looking up and Newton began to enjoy the life. But when his father intervention’s worked, the thought of seeing Polly drew him back to England.
The ship 'Greyhound' spent nearly a year working her way south, trading. Newton didn’t work on board, and was thoroughly disliked. He ridiculed anyone who was a Christian by persuasion. One night he became drunk and almost drowned trying to recover his hat, which had blown overboard. Eventually with her holds full the 'Greyhound' began the long journey of seven thousand miles without touching land once!
The Hand of God
One of the few books on board was George Stanhope’s The Christian's Pattern, a prosaic paraphrase of The Imitation of Christ by Thomas a Kempis. Newton was reading this on the voyage home. When the ship was caught in a storm and rode it, he reflected on
the extraordinary turns in my life; the calls, warnings, and deliverances I had met with... about six in the evening (I heard) that the ship was freed from water, there rose a gleam of hope. I thought I saw the hand of God displayed in our favour; I began to pray.Though they survived the storm the crew was in danger of starving because everything had either been washed overboard or destroyed when the casks of provisions smashed. They had, just enough food for a week if it was rationed strictly. On the fifth day a cry of 'Land Ahoy' went up but the damaged ship was unable to stay on course. The wind blew continuously for a fortnight preventing the ship reaching shore. Conditions became unbearable. Newton was regarded to be the Jonah on board and was threatened with a fate to similar to the prophet’s. Finally the wind changed and they were brought safe home. Newton commented:
About this time I began to know that there is a God that hears and answers prayer.John Newton never saw his father again, who had been appointed Governor of Fort York in America and three years later drowned in a swimming accident.
Newton served next as first mate on a slaver. During that voyage to West Africa, Newton studied Latin using a Latin Bible and one of Horace's Odes in a magazine.
Marriage Changed Newton
After completing that assignment when offered a command for the next sailing season, he accepted. Calling on Polly he proposed marriage. Polly refused him twice, but finally accepted and they married on 1st February 1750.
They got off to a shaky start because Polly was timid and reserved, but later on John could write to her,
the prospect cleared up and by quick stages I attained that consciousness of your affection which I would not exchange for empire or the riches of the whole globe.When Newton sailed as captain on in August 1750, he had charge of some 30 sailors. He was determined to set a good example. As the commander of a slave-ship, he had a number of women under his absolute authority, and knowing the temptations he faced, he curbed his libido by abstaining from meat and strong drink during the voyage.
Marriage to Polly had affected his behaviour at sea. On the previous voyage on a slave-ship his behaviour was not so moral. Apart from normal young male libido at work, crews were actively encouraged by the owners and captains to have intercourse with the female slaves because pregnant slaves would fetch a higher price at auction, particularly if it were obvious that the child had been conceived at sea since a mulatto baby would fetch a higher price than a dark-skinned one. Light-skinned slaves were prized as house servants, which fetched higher prices than field hands.
What a Great Saviour
After returning in July 1751, a year later he sailed in a new ship, appropriately called 'The African'. That voyage ended in August 1753 but six weeks later sailed again for West Africa. The trading was poor and Newton carried only 87 slaves to St Kitts (St. Christopher's) in the West Indies, instead of the usual 220.
While in St. Kitt's, Newton met Alexander Clunie, a sea captain who was not involved in the Triangular Trade (selling black people kidnapped from the African continent to slave in America to gain other commodities and profit for European owners). They soon became friends. Under Clunie’s influence, Newton's understanding of his faith grew, until it was no longer an intellectual exercise but heart-religion. After 'The African' docked in August 1754 Newton never returned to the sea.
While working as a tide surveyor he studied for the ministry, and for the last 43 years of his life preached the gospel in Olney and London. At 82, when his memory was failing, Newton said,
My memory is nearly gone, but I remember two things, that I am a great sinner, and that Christ is a great Saviour.Newton understood grace well. That brief message of his says it all. That is why I say, “Be a BBG. Be a beggar before God.”
What’s Your Expectation
Like I said, though we enthusiastically sing songs like “Amazing grace” and “Alas! and did my Saviour bleed? And did my Sov’reign die,” we don’t feel like worms or wretches. These old song writers remind us that is what we are for all stand before God enthroned. Usually, a throne represents royal power and royal pomp. God is the only Sovereign who sits on a “throne of grace” (Heb. 4:16). When anyone stood before an earthly throne, power would stream toward them from it. When you stand before the throne of grace what is your expectation? That’s the question. You see, if you don’t want grace, there’s no point in standing before the throne of grace. God’s throne dispenses grace and nothing else.
What is grace? The textbook definition is that it is unmerited favour. When I was learning Hindi, I would not get enough marks to pass. Whereas the pass mark was 40 out of 100, invariably I needed one or two marks to be able to cross over into the promised land. I was almost there, but I didn’t qualify. But I couldn’t march up to the teacher and say that I deserved to be given those one or two marks. I had no right to them. It was entirely up to the teacher’s sense of grace.
Back to the question: when you stand before God’s throne of grace what is your expectation? Do you expect payment or a handout? Payment is what you get when you have done your job well. No one can legally deny you payment. But a handout is for beggars.
Our Lord Jesus told a story showing us that there are just two kinds of people before God. The two kinds are not Christians and non-Christians (though I suggested dropping the term, in this context it is appropriate to use), nor the religious and the wicked. Jesus said that one kind is confident of their own rightness. When they stand before God, their claim is, “I’m good; I’ve done good.” They don’t ask for grace. Their prayer is answered. They don’t get grace. But the other kind say, “I’m no good; I need mercy.” They ask for grace and grace is what God gives out to anyone and everyone (Luke 18:9-14).
Let’s face it. We are more like the Pharisee than we think. There is a striking resemblance. We’re good. We know we are good. And we do look down on others for their lack of religiosity like ours.
One reason we don’t like grace is that grace is unfair. Jesus told a story about that. A landowner hired people to work his farm. He hired batches of people at different times of the day. At the end of the day, he paid the last lot a full day’s wage. They didn’t demand it. He wasn’t forced to do it. It was done out of the generosity of a good heart. But the ones who worked all day, felt it was unfair that he paid the last lot the same as them (Matt. 20: 1-15).
How can God treat me the same as the repentant prostitute, the repentant thief and the repentant murderer? I’m better; I’m good, and I’ve done good.
But the message of the Bible is that God has only one thing to give: grace. It’s all grace. And there’s only one way to receive grace: Be a BBG. Be a beggar before God.