Many people in life avoid hardship. Many lack integrity. A precious few resist temptation or bitterness when faced with enemies and strong opposition. Here are the stories of three such men.
About the Author
John Piper (DTheol, University of Munich) is the founder and teacher of desiringGod.organd the chancellor of Bethlehem College & Seminary. He served for thirty-three years as the senior pastor of Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis, Minnesota, and is the author of more than fifty books, including Desiring God;Don’t Waste Your Life;This Momentary Marriage;A Peculiar Glory;andReading the Bible Supernaturally.
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JOHN NEW TON
The Tough Roots of His Habitual Tenderness
John Newton was born July 24, 1725, in London to a godly mother and an irreligious, seafaring father. His mother died when he was six. Left mainly to himself, Newton became a debauched sailor — a miserable outcast on the coast of West Africa for two years; a slave-trading sea-captain until an epileptic seizure ended his career; a well-paid "surveyor of tides" in Liverpool; a loved pastor of two congregations in Olney and London for forty-three years; a devoted husband to Mary for forty years until she died in 1790; a personal friend to William Wilberforce, Charles Simeon, Henry Martyn, William Carey, John Wesley, and George Whitefield; and, finally, the author of the most famous hymn in the English language, "Amazing Grace." He died on December 21, 1807, at the age of eighty-two.
Durable as Redwoods, Tender as Clover
Why am I interested in this man? Because one of my great desires is to see Christians be as strong and durable as redwood trees, and as tender and fragrant as a field of clover — unshakably rugged in the "defense and confirmation" of the truth (Philippians 1:7) and relentlessly humble and patient and merciful in dealing with people. Ever since I came to Bethlehem Baptist Church as preaching pastor in 1980, this vision of ministry has beckoned me because, soon after I came, I read through Matthew and Mark and put in the margin of my Greek New Testament a "TO" (for tough) and a "TE" (for tender) beside Jesus' words and deeds that fit one category or the other. The impact on me was significant in shaping the course of my work. What a mixture he was! No one ever spoke like this man.
It seems to me that we are always falling off the horse on one side or the other in this matter of being tough and tender, durable and delightful, courageous and compassionate — wimping out on truth when we ought to be lionhearted, or wrangling when we ought to be weeping. I know it's a risk to take up this topic and John Newton in a cultural situation like ours where some readers need a good (tender!) kick in the pants to be more courageous and others confuse courage with what William Cowper called "a furious and abusive zeal." Oh, how rare are the Christians who speak with a tender heart and have a theological backbone of steel.
I dream of being one someday, and I long to be used by God in the ministry to produce such fruit. Oh, for Christians and pas tors whose might in the truth is matched by their meekness. Whose theological acumen is matched by their manifest contrition. Whose heights of intellect are matched by their depths of humility. Yes, and the other way around! — whose relational warmth is matched by their rigor of study, whose bent toward mercy is matched by the vigilance of their biblical discernment, and whose sense of humor is exceeded by the seriousness of their calling.
I dream of durable, never-say-die defenders of true doctrine who are mainly known for the delight they have in God and the joy in God that they bring to the people of God — who enter controversy when necessary, not because they love ideas and arguments, but because they love Christ and the church.
Lovers of Doctrine Who Spread Joy
There's a picture of this in Acts 15. Have you ever noticed the amazing unity of things here that we tend to tear apart? A false doctrine arises in Antioch; some begin to teach, "Unless you are circumcised ... you cannot be saved" (verse 1). Paul and Barnabas weigh in with what Luke calls "no small dissension and debate" (verse 2). So the church decides to send them off to Jerusalem to get the matter settled. And amazingly, verse 3 says that on their way to the great debate they were "describing in detail the conversion of the Gentiles, and brought great joy to all the brothers" (verse 3, italics added).
This is my vision: The great debaters on their way to a life-and-death showdown of doctrinal controversy, so thrilled by the mercy and power of God in the Gospel that they are spreading joy every where they go. Oh, how many there are today who tell us that controversy only kills joy and ruins the church; and how many others there are who, on their way to the controversy, feel no joy and spread no joy in the preciousness of Christ and his salvation. One of the aims of my life and this book is to declare that it is possible and necessary to be as strong and rugged for truth as a redwood and as tender and fragrant for Christ as a field of clover.
No Perfect Pastors
So now, with the help of the life of John Newton, I want to say it again. And make no mistake — our heroes have feet of clay. There are no perfect Christians — laypeople or pastors. Newton himself warns us:
In my imagination, I sometimes fancy I could [create] a perfect minister. I take the eloquence of _____, the knowledge of _____, the zeal of _____, and the pastoral meekness, tenderness, and piety of _____. Then, putting them all together into one man, I say to myself, "This would be a perfect minister." Now there is One, who, if he chose to, could actually do this; but he never did it. He has seen fit to do otherwise, and to divide these gifts to every man severally as he will.
So neither Newton nor we will ever be all that we should be in this life. But oh, how much more like the Great Shepherd we should long to be. Newton had his strengths, and I want us to learn from them. At times his strengths were his weakness, but that too will be instructive. The theme of this chapter is "the tough roots of John Newton's habitual tenderness." His great strength was "speaking the truth in love" (Ephesians 4:15). As you read, read for what you need, not for what so-and-so across town needs. On which side of the horse are you falling off?
I begin with a brief telling of his life, because for Newton, his life was the clearest testimony to the heart-breaking mercy of God he ever saw. Even at the end of his life he was still marveling that he was saved and called to preach the Gospel of grace. From his last will and testament we read:
I commit my soul to my gracious God and Savior, who mercifully spared and preserved me, when I was an apostate, a blasphemer, and an infidel, and delivered me from the state of misery on the coast of Africa into which my obstinate wickedness had plunged me; and who has been pleased to admit me (though most unworthy) to preach his glorious gospel.
This was one of the deepest roots of his habitual tenderness. He could not get over the wonder of his own rescue by sheer, triumphant grace.
His Childhood and Youth
Newton's mother was a devout Congregationalist and taught her only child, John, the Westminster Catechism and the hymns of Isaac Watts. But she died in 1732 when John was six, and his father's second wife had no spiritual interest. Newton wrote in his Narrative that he was in school only two of all his growing-up years, from ages eight to ten, at a boarding school in Stratford. So he was mainly self-taught, and that remained true all his life. He never had any formal theological education.
At the age of eleven he began to sail the high seas with his father. He made five voyages to the Mediterranean before he was eighteen. He wrote about his relationship to his father: "I am persuaded he loved me, but he seemed not willing that I should know it. I was with him in a state of fear and bondage. His sternness ... broke and overawed my spirit."
A Durable Romance
When he was seventeen he met Mary Catlett and fell in love with her. She was thirteen. For the next seven years of traveling and wretchedness he dreamed about her. "None of the scenes of misery and wickedness I afterwards experienced ever banished her a single hour together from my waking thoughts for the seven following years." They did eventually marry when he was twenty-four, and were married for forty years until she died in 1790. His love for her was extraordinary before and after the marriage. Three years after she died, he published a collection of letters he had written to her on three voyages to Africa after they were married.
Moral Ruin and Misery
He was pressed into naval service against his will when he was eighteen and sailed away bitterly on the Harwich as a midshipman. His friend and biographer Richard Cecil says, "The companions he met with here completed the ruin of his principles." Of himself he wrote, "I was capable of anything; I had not the least fear of God before my eyes, nor (so far as I remember) the least sensibility of conscience. ... My love to [Mary] was now the only restraint I had left." On one of his visits home he deserted the ship and was caught, "confined two days in the guard-house ... kept a while in irons ... publicly stripped and whipt, degraded from his office."
When he was twenty years old he was put off his ship on some small islands just southeast of Sierra Leone, West Africa, and for about a year and a half he lived as a virtual slave in almost destitute circumstances. The wife of his master despised him and treated him cruelly. He wrote that even the African slaves would try to smuggle him food from their own slim rations. Later in life he marveled at the seemingly accidental way a ship put anchor on his island after seeing some smoke, and just happened to be a ship with a captain who knew Newton's father and managed to free him from his bondage. That was February 1747. He was not quite twenty-one, and God was about to close in.
The Precious Storm at Sea
The ship had business on the seas for over a year. Then on March 21, 1748, on his way home to England in the North Atlantic, God acted to rescue the "African blasphemer." On this day fifty-seven years later, in 1805, when Newton was eighty years old, he wrote in his diary, "March 21, 1805. Not well able to write. But I endeavor to observe the return of this day with Humiliation, Prayer and Praise." He had marked the day as sacred and precious for over half a century.
He awoke that night to a violent storm as his room began to fill with water. As he ran for the deck, the captain stopped him and had him fetch a knife. The man who went up in his place was immediately washed overboard. He was assigned to the pumps and heard himself say, "If this will not do, the Lord have mercy upon us." It was the first time he had expressed the need for mercy in many years.
He worked the pumps from 3 in the morning until noon, slept for an hour, and then took the helm and steered the ship till midnight. At the wheel he had time to think back over his life and his spiritual condition. At about six o'clock the next evening it seemed as though there might be hope. "I thought I saw the hand of God displayed in our favor. I began to pray: I could not utter the prayer of faith; I could not draw near to a reconciled God, and call him Father ... the comfortless principles of infidelity were deeply riveted. ... The great question now was, how to obtain faith."
He found a Bible and got help from Luke 11:13, which promises the Holy Spirit to those who ask. He reasoned, "If this book be true, the promise in this passage must be true likewise. I have need of that very Spirit, by which the whole was written, in order to understand it aright. He has engaged here to give that Spirit to those who ask: I must therefore pray for it; and, if it be of God, he will make good on his own word."
He spent all the rest of the voyage in deep seriousness as he read and prayed over the Scriptures. On April 8 they anchored off Ireland, and the next day the storm was so violent they would have surely been sunk, had they still been at sea. Newton described what God had done in those two weeks:
Thus far I was answered, that before we arrived in Ireland, I had a satisfactory evidence in my own mind of the truth of the Gospel, as considered in itself, and of its exact suitableness to answer all my needs. ... I stood in need of an Almighty Savior; and such a one I found described in the New Testament. Thus far the Lord had wrought a marvelous thing: I was no longer an infidel: I heartily renounced my former profaneness, and had taken up some right notions; was seriously disposed, and sincerely touched with a sense of the undeserved mercy I had received, in being brought safe through so many dangers. I was sorry for my past misspent life, and purposed an immediate reformation. I was quite freed from the habit of swearing, which seemed to have been as deeply rooted in me as a second nature. Thus, to all appearance, I was a new man.
It was a remarkable change, but from his later mature standpoint, Newton did not view it as full conversion.
I was greatly deficient in many respects. I was in some degree affected with a sense of my enormous sins, but I was little aware of the innate evils of my heart. I had no apprehension of ... the hidden life of a Christian, as it consists in communion with God by Jesus Christ: a continual dependence on him. ... I acknowledged the Lord's mercy in pardoning what was past, but depended chiefly upon my own resolution to do better for the time to come. ... I cannot consider myself to have been a believer (in the full sense of the word) till a considerable time afterwards.
Captain, Epileptic, and Surveyor
For six years after this time he said he had no "Christian friend or faithful minister to advise me." He became the captain of a slave-trading ship and went to sea again until December 1749. In his mature years he came to feel intense remorse for his participation in the slave trade and joined William Wilberforce in opposing it. Thirty years after leaving the sea he wrote an essay, Thoughts upon the African Slave Trade, which closed with a reference to "a commerce so iniquitous, so cruel, so oppressive, so destructive, as the African Slave Trade!"
On February 1, 1750, he married Mary. That June his father drowned while swimming in the Hudson Bay. John went on three long voyages after the marriage and left Mary alone for ten to thirteen months each time. Then in November 1754 he had an epileptic seizure and never sailed again.
In the years between his seafaring and his pastorate at Olney he was a Surveyor of Tides in Liverpool and a very active ministerial layperson. He interacted with evangelicals from both the Anglican and Independent wings of the Awakening. He was especially taken by George Whitefield and "was even tagged with the epithet 'Little Whitefield' for his constant attendance upon the evangelist." He devoted himself to a rigorous program of self-study and applied himself to Greek and Hebrew and Syriac. He said, "I was in some hopes that perhaps, sooner or later, [Christ] might call me into his service. I believe it was a distant hope of this that determined me to study the original Scriptures."
Along with these he was reading "the best writers in divinity" in Latin and English and French (which he taught himself while at sea), but gave himself mainly to the Scriptures. The upshot theologically of this study, together with his personal experience of grace, is summed up by Bruce Hindmarsh: "By the early 1760's Newton's theological formation was complete, and there would be few significant realignments of his essential beliefs. He was a five-point Calvinist." But the spirit of his Calvinism was sweet and tender — as it should be!
Two Pastorates, No Children, and Heaven
In 1764 he accepted the call to the pastorate of the Church of England parish in Olney and served there for almost sixteen years. Then he accepted the call at age fifty-four to St. Mary's Woolnoth in London where he began his twenty-seven-year ministry on December 8, 1779. His eyes and ears were failing, and his good friend Richard Cecil suggested he cease preaching when he turned eighty, to which Newton responded, "What! Shall the old African blasphemer stop while he can speak?" The last time he was in the pulpit of St. Mary's was in October 1806, when he was eighty-one years old.
John and Mary had no children of their own, but adopted two nieces. When Mary died seventeen years before John, he lived with the family of one of these nieces and was cared for by her as if he were her own father. He died on December 21, 1807, at the age of eighty-two. A month before he died he expressed his settled faith:
It is a great thing to die; and, when flesh and heart fail, to have God for the strength of our heart, and our portion forever. I know whom I have believed, and he is able to keep that which I have committed against that great day. Henceforth there is laid up for me a crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, shall give me that day.
Newton's Habitual Tenderness
We turn now to the theme of this chapter, namely, "the tough roots of John Newton's habitual tenderness." This tenderness and these roots are seen in his remarkable pastoral ministry for over forty years.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Roots of Endurance"
Copyright © 2002 Desiring God Foundation.
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Table of Contents
INTRODUCTION The Biblical Roots of Endurance,
CHAPTER ONE John Newton The Tough Roots of His Habitual Tenderness,
CHAPTER TWO Charles Simeon The Ballast of Humiliation and the Sails of Adoration,
CHAPTER THREE William Wilberforce "Peculiar Doctrines," Spiritual Delight, and the Politics of Slavery,
CONCLUSION The Imperfection and All-Importance of History,
A NOTE ON RESOURCES Desiring God Ministries,
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Newton and Wilberforce are two of my spiritual heroes, and I'm stingy with that appellation--as I am with the five-star rating. All of Piper's biographical sketches are pearl. The conference version is available for streaming or download as MP3 for free at the Desiring God website.
This whole series is very good, each book surveying three individuals with a focus on some common theme. The biographies are, of necessity brief, but they are insightful and well written. At the end of each biographical sketch, Piper reflects on the person's life and character and how it reflects the theme of the book. In this case, he looks at John Newton, Charles Simeon, and William Wilberforce with a focus on their perseverance through trials and adversity.