“But where sin abounded, grace did much more abound” (Romans 5:20b).
The biography of John Newton is one of the most well-known in church history. It is the story of how God transformed a blasphemous sailor and slave trader into a godly pastor and influential abolitionist.
John Newton is the author of the most famous hymn ever written in the English language – “Amazing Grace.” The lyrics tell of a sinner who was once lost, blind, and wretched before being found and rescued through no effort or merit of his own. As profound as they are personal, the words capture both the misery of sin and the joy of salvation. They express, in just a few short verses, the spiritual experience of the author — a man whose personal testimony is a remarkable witness to the amazing grace of God.
What many people do not know is that John Newton experienced the eighteenth-century slave trade from two opposite perspectives. Not only had he been the captain of a British slave ship (an occupation he would later deeply regret), but he had also been a slave himself, under the control of a cruel and abusive master, for fifteen months while living in Africa. Experiencing slave life firsthand, both as a slave and a merchandiser of slaves, gave Newton unique insights into the world of slavery — insights that would impact him profoundly, both as a social reformer and a theologian.
In 1788, thirty-four years after leaving the slave trade, Newton publicly denounced it (and apologized for his part in it) in a pamphlet entitled, “Thoughts upon the Slave Trade.” The pamphlet was widely read and contributed greatly to the British abolitionist movement of the late 1700’s.
Newton’s influence, along with his friendship to William Wilberforce, helped the abolitionist cause in Britain reach its goal. In February 1807, just ten months before Newton died, Parliament finally passed the Slave Trade Act, making that horrific trade illegal in the British Empire. The fact that Newton lived to see this notable victory is a fitting climax to his legacy. Newton’s epitaph, which he wrote before he died, underscored his profound appreciation for that to which he owed everything — God’s amazing grace:
JOHN NEWTON, Clerk, once an Infidel and Libertine,
a Servant of Slaves in Africa, was, by the rich mercy
of our Lord and Saviour,
preserved, restored, pardoned, and appointed to preach
the faith he had long laboured to destroy.
Having been rescued from the slavish bonds of sin, Newton was eager to obey Christ with all of his heart. Elsewhere he wrote these words:
Farewell world, thy gold is dross.
Now I see the bleeding cross.
Jesus died to set me free,
From the law and sin and thee.
He has dearly bought my soul,
Lord accept and claim the whole.
To Thy will I all resign,
Now no more my own but Thine.
If you have been redeemed by the blood of Christ, you have been bought with a price. You are not your own. You belong to Christ. You are His own possession (See I Corinthians 6:19-20).