[Some years ago, while attending a Bible Camp, I heard this song sung to the tune of 'House of the Rising Sun'. It was amazing. Next time you hear that song on the radio, block out the lyrics, and sing Amazing Grace to yourself. You will never be able to hear that song, without thinking about this one]
The amazing grace of Christmas morn
The Christ born in a manger 2,000 years ago lives nonetheless, and continues to change the hearts of sinners and transform the wicked.
This is the real story of Christmas, and nothing illustrates the redeeming power of the message of Christmas with greater clarity than the story of an English slaver named John Newton:
Newton was born nearly 300 years ago into a seafaring family in Liverpool. He was a bright child and his mother was a godly woman whose faith was the crucial element of her life. She died when he was only 7, but at the end of his life, he recalled the sweetest remembrance of childhood, the soft and tender voice of a mother at prayer.
His father married again at once, and John left school four years later to go to sea with his father. He quickly adopted the vulgar life of common seamen, though the memory of his mother's faith remained with him.
"I saw the necessity of religion as a means of escaping hell," he would recall many years later, "but I loved sin."
One day on shore leave, he was seized by a press gang and taken aboard a navy ship, HMS Harwich, where life was even coarser. He ran away, only to be captured and taken back to the Harwich to be put in chains, stripped and publicly flogged. "The Lord had by all appearances given me up to judicial hardness," he would recall. "I was capable of anything. I had not the least fear of God, nor the least sensibility of conscience. I was firmly persuaded that after death, I should merely cease to be."
The captain of the Harwich traded him to the skipper of a slaving ship, bound for West Africa to take aboard a human cargo. "At this period of my life," he later reflected, "I was big with mischief and, like one afflicted with a pestilence, was capable of spreading a taint wherever I went." John's new captain took a liking to him, however, and took him to his plantation on an island off the African coast, where he had taken as his wife a young African princess. The wife was jealous of John's friendship with her husband, and was pleased when it was time for them to sail once more. But John fell ill, and the captain of the slaving ship left John in his wife's care.
The ship was no sooner over the horizon than she ordered him taken from their house and put in a dank hut, gave him a board for a bed and a log for a pillow, leaving him in delirium to die.
Miraculously, he did not die. John was kept in chains, in a cage like an animal, and fed swill from the wife's table. Word spread through the district that a black woman was keeping a white male slave, and many came to watch her taunt him. They threw limes and sometimes stones at him, mocking his misery.
He would have starved if a few of the slaves, brought from the interior to await a ship to take them to the Americas, had not shared their scraps of food with him.
After five years, the captain returned, and when John told him how he had been treated, he branded John a thief and a liar, and when they sailed again, John was treated harshly. Cold and hungry, his health steadily failed. He was given only the entrails of animals butchered for the crew's mess. "The voyage quite broke my constitution," he would recall, "and the effects would always remain with me as a needful memento of the service of wages and sin."
Like Job, he became a magnet for adversity. His ship was wrecked in a great storm, and only their cargo of wood and beeswax saved them. He thought of praying, but despaired that God had mercy left for him after his life of indifference to the Gospel. "During the time I was engaged in the slave trade," he would later write, "I never had the least scruple to its lawfulness." The arrogant and unrestrained blasphemer, the mocker of the faith of others, was driven to prayer. "My prayer was like the cry of ravens, which yet the Lord does not disdain to hear."
He was saved once more, and made his way back to England, where he began to reflect on the mercies God had shown him in his awful life, and he fell under the influence of two great evangelists, George Whitefield and John Wesley. He was born again into a new life in Christ, and began to preach the Gospel he now understood.
When he died at 82, two days short of Christmas in 1807, he left a dazzling testimony to the power of the Christmas story. "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 that state on the coast of Africa into which my obstinate wickedness had plunged me." This is the testimony that, set to music, would become the favorite hymn of Christendom:
"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.
"'twas grace that taught my heart to fear
and grace my fears relieved.
How precious did that grace appear,
the hour I first believed.
"Through many dangers, toils and snares
I have already come
'tis grace hath brought me safe thus far
and grace will lead me home."
Wesley Pruden is editor in chief of The Times.
Source: The Washington Times, Internet edition, 12-25-98 /"www.washtimes.com