John Newton (1725–1807)

Article by John Piper

Founder & Teacher, desiringGod.org

Throughout his 82-year life, John Newton was a depraved sailor; a miserable outcast on the coast of West Africa; a slave-trading sea captain; a well-paid surveyor of tides in Liverpool; a beloved pastor of two congregations in Olney and London for 43 years; a devoted husband to Mary for 40 years until she died; a personal friend to William Wilberforce, John Wesley, and George Whitefield; and finally, the author of the most famous hymn in the English language, “Amazing Grace.”

Why am I interested in this man? Because one of my great desires is to see Christians become 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 gospel” (Philippians 1:7), and relentlessly humble and patient and merciful in dealing with people.

Tender Hearts, Tough Roots

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. How rare are the Christians who speak with a tender heart and have a theological backbone of steel.

John Newton did not always get the balance right. But though he had feet of clay, like every hero other than Christ, his great strength was “speaking the truth in love” (Ephesians 4:15). He carried in his heart a tenderness that loved the lost, lifted the downcast, welcomed children, and prayed for enemies. And his tenderness had roots as tough as a redwood’s.

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