Tuesday, September 4, 2012

John Newton and my final words

A guy named John Newton spoke the words that I hope to be muttering on my death bed. He also wrote Amazing Grace. Everyone knows the hymn Amazing Grace. Even if you never attended a church, you could probably recognise the tune just from the snippets that regularly appear in film and television. It’s got to be one of the most recognizable songs in the world. My brother-in-law, who works in the funeral industry, tells me that often people who are adamant that they don’t want a “religious” service still want Amazing Grace played at some point.

Which is surprising because I can’t think of a more deeply religious song. “That saved a wretch like me” – people don’t often approve of being called a wretch. One of the things that bugs people about Christianity is the “holier than thou” thing. You know, people judging you because you are not good enough.

Obviously it’s the grace bit that people find comforting in this song. And that’s the difference between “holier than thou” and knowing God. God knows I’m a wretch and yet he’s extended to me grace – amazing, extravagant grace. John Newton was in fact a reformed slave trader. That was a serious history to carry around with you. He wasn’t pretending to be humble when he spoke of being lost and blind. He knew what he was. And yet he also knew he was found.

After his conversion, Newton was a well-known preacher and influential figure in the campaign to end the slave trade. In his final years though, his health declined, he lost his sight and his memory began to fail. It’s from this period of his life that my favourite Newton quote comes:  

“My memory is nearly gone, but I remember two things: that I am a great sinner, and that Christ is a great Saviour."

That's what I hope.  I hope that if I forget everything else, in my final hours I'll be remembering those two things. And if you happen to be there, remind me please.

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.

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