By Charles L. Quarles, Dean of the Caskey School of Divinity at Louisiana College
John Newton wrote the hymn Amazing Grace in 1779.
His hymn was more than a theological reflection on the grace that he found described in Scripture; it was a profound expression of thanksgiving for the grace that he had personally experienced.
Newton knew that his salvation was entirely a tribute to God’s astonishing grace. Newton expressed this conviction in the title of his autobiography, An Authentic Narrative of Some Remarkable Particulars in the Life of *******.
The previous sentence is not a typo. Newton refused to use his name in the title of his own autobiography. In fact, he went to considerable pains to preserve his anonymity in telling his life story.
Newton wanted to state loudly and clearly that the amazing account he penned was not designed to promote his reputation, but to prompt others to praise God for His great grace.
A comparison of the hymn Amazing Grace with Newton’s autobiography shows conclusively that the hymn is likewise autobiographical.
I have previously highlighted the connection of the first and second verses of the hymn to Newton’s personal testimony. The third verse of the hymn is also a description of Newton’s own experience of God’s grace.
Grace brought Newton “through many dangers, toils, and snares.” I recently reread Newton’s autobiography placing sections under each of these three categories: dangers, toils, and snares. The exercise was illuminating.
Newton recounts a shocking array of dangers through which the Lord preserved him by His grace.
On the 10th of March, 1748, the ship on which Newton served was caught in a brutal storm. The ship was already in poor repair from a long and difficult voyage.
The sails were tattered, the cordage frayed. The hull was greatly weakened from the constant pounding of the waves.
Newton was awakened from a sound sleep when a huge wave filled the cabin with water that rose even above his hammock. The cry “all hands on deck” sent him scrambling up the ladder.
Newton’s ascent was stopped by the captain, who ordered him to grab a knife. He slid back down the ladder and a mate went up the ladder in his place.
The instant that the man stepped on deck, a towering wave crashed over the buckling deck and swept him overboard into the dark foaming tumult, never to be seen again. Newton had escaped certain death by a split second (Letter VII).
When Newton returned to port after barely escaping drowning, shipwreck, and starvation, he went bird hunting with a group. His gun accidentally discharged while the muzzle was next to his face.
The gun blast blew away the corner of Newton’s hat, but he survived otherwise unscathed. He mused, “When we think ourselves in the greatest safety, we are no less exposed to danger than when all the elements seem conspiring to destroy us. The divine providence, which is sufficient to deliver us in our utmost extremity, is equally necessary to our preservation in the most peaceful situation” (Letter IX).
On another occasion, Newton had an unexplained violent seizure that left him completely paralyzed for nearly an hour. This occurred two days before he was scheduled to set sail as captain of a slave ship.
Newton’s physicians advised him to resign his command the day before the ship left harbor. The voyage from which he was spared proved to be “extremely calamitous.” The captain who replaced Newton, most of his officers, and many of his crew, died at sea and the battered vessel limped home, barely making it back to port.
These and many other remarkable experiences taught Newton that God had graciously spared his life in the face of death numerous times to grant him an opportunity for salvation and to display him as a trophy of grace.
Newton recounted that God “protected and guided me through a long series of dangers, and crowned every day with repeated mercies. To him I owe it that I am still alive, … it was he who delivered me” (Letter VI). These thoughts prompted Newton to sing, “Through many dangers, toils, and snares, I have already come; twas grace hath brought me safe thus far ….”
Newton’s letters also give an account of the bitter toils that he endured.
While Newton was in port on the coast of Africa, he became an indentured servant to an English taskmaster to escape the abusive treatment he had received at the hands of the officers on his ship.
Newton soon discovered the treatment that he would receive at the hands of his new taskmaster was far worse that anything he suffered at sea.
His master’s wife was an African woman who detested Newton from the moment that she met him. He became severely ill almost immediately after she acquired him. She was furious that her new slave was unable to labor in her fields and she completely neglected his care.
Newton’s bed was a board; his pillow, a log; and his only sustenance, the scraps from her table. He was forced to fight off starvation by crawling into the fields at night, digging up roots, and eating the tubers. Eating these raw made him violently ill and further sapped him of his strength.
Newton would have starved to death had not other slaves stretched their chains to reach his mouth with their own meager rations.
When he traveled by ship with his master, Newton was shackled on deck from the time that the master left ship until the time that he returned. His only food was a single pint of rice on which he had to survive until the master returned, which sometimes took days.
Newton had no shelter from the blistering sun, the torrential rains, or the bitter gales. He barely survived this prolonged exposure to the elements. These experiences helped Newton identify with the plight of the prodigal son who sold himself to a pagan farmer, lived among the swine, and craved the slop that they devoured.
Newton admitted that his toils did not immediately lead to his conversion. He explained: “My haughty heart was now brought down, not to a wholesome repentance, not to the language of the prodigal; this was far from me, but my spirits were sunk” (Letter V).
However, after his conversion he commented: “In perusing the New Testament, I was struck with several passages, … but particularly the prodigal, Luke 15, a case, I thought, that had never been so nearly exemplified, as by myself; and then the goodness of the father in receiving, nay, in running to meet such a son, and this intended only to illustrate the Lord’s goodness to returning sinners, – this gained upon me … I saw that the Lord had interposed so far to save me, and I hoped he would do more” (Letter IX).
Newton recognized that God’s gracious providence brought him through these toils to teach him of the profound love of the Father who loves and runs after prodigals. “Through many dangers, toils, and snares, I have already come; twas grace hath brought me safe thus far . . . .”
Newton’s letters also give an account of the snares that Satan had carefully and cleverly laid for him to entrap him and prevent him from following Christ.
Newton warned that the believer lives “in a world that if full of snares, and occasions, suit to draw forth [his] corruptions; and he is surrounded by invisible spiritual enemies, the extent of whose power and subtilty he is yet to learn by painful experience” (Spiritual Letters on Growth and Grace, Letter XI).
While in Africa, the allurements of the black magic practiced by the natives nearly ensnared Newton. He became more and more infatuated by the mystical power of their practices and admitted, “In time perhaps, I might have yielded to the whole: I entered into closer engagements with the inhabitants, and should have lived and died a wretch amongst them, if the Lord had not watched over me for good” (Letter VI).
Satan’s efforts to ensnare Newton only intensified after his conversion. He wrote:
The enemy prepared a train of temptations, and I became his easy prey; and, for about a month, he lulled me asleep in a course of evil, of which, a few months before, I could not have supposed myself any longer capable. How much propriety is there in the apostle’s advice, “Take heed lest any of you be hardened through the deceitfulness of sin.” O who can be sufficiently upon their guard? Sin first deceives, and then it hardens. I was now fast bound in chains; I had little desire, and no power at all to recover myself. I could not but at times reflect how it was with me; but if I attempted to struggle with it, it was in vain. I was just like Samson, when he said, “I will go forth and shake myself as at other times;” but the Lord was departed, and he found himself helpless in the hands of his enemies. By the remembrance of this interval, the Lord has often instructed me since, what a poor creature I am in myself, incapable of standing a single hour without continual fresh supplies of strength and grace from the foundation head (Letter X).
Grace set Newton free from this snare. He would later thank the Lord that he:
was pleased to preserve me from what I knew was sinful. . . . The Lord was gracious to my weakness, and would not suffer the enemy to prevail against me”(Letter XI).
Newton humbly acknowledged that he was an easy prey for Satan’s snares when relying on his own supposed strength. He was completely dependent on the grace of God to protect him from temptation and deliver him from evil.
Both Scripture and experience taught Newton that: “Through many dangers, toils, and snares, I have already come; twas grace hath brought me safe thus far . . . .”
God’s frequent interventions to deliver him from dangers, toils, and snares assured Newton that God’s plan for him could not be thwarted. God would not fail to bring Newton to his destination and accomplish his purposes through his life.
At the end of a sea voyage during which Newton had frequent brushes with death, he wrote: “I was preserved from every harm; and having seen many fall on my right hand and my left, I was brought home in peace” (Letter XI).
Such experiences taught Newton that he could trust God to preserve him from spiritual threats and bring him to his heavenly home as well. Newton recognized that the same grace that protected him until the day of his conversion, would keep him secure to the day of his final redemption.
Newton “began to understand the security of the covenant of grace, and to expect to be preserved, not by my own power and holiness, but by the mighty power and promise of God, through faith in an unchangeable Saviour” (Letter XIII).
The Word and Newton’s own life story instructed him that “twas grace hath brought me safe thus far, and grace will lead me home.”
Newton’s testimony both through his letters and through his hymn should be an enormous encouragement to us. When we face dangers that seem to threaten our lives, our futures, or our sense of security, we need not fear. “Grace will lead me home.”
When a grim-faced doctor shares a shocking diagnosis and an even more alarming prognosis, we can have the confidence that “Grace will lead me home.”
When our toils seem more than we can endure and we lose heart in our labors for Christ, we can persevere when we remember: “Grace will lead me home.”
When we find ourselves ensnared by temptation and fall prey to Satan’s devices, we can rely on God to deliver us. “Grace will lead me home.”
Grace not only began our salvation by giving sight to the spiritually blind and teaching our hearts to fear; grace will complete our salvation by bringing us “thus far” and finally leading us home. Now that grace really is amazing!