John Newton first went to sea at the age of just 11. His godly mother had died when he was only 6 and his father was a ship’s captain. After that first voyage he kept on going to sea, and over the years he had many adventures and many difficulties, but his own foolishness lay behind most of the difficulties. It was no doubt in answer to his mother’s prayers that God at last met with him and changed his heart, bringing him to believe on Jesus Christ as the only Saviour of sinners.
Newton became a captain, but later God called him to be a preacher of the gospel. He became a minister in the little town of Olney before moving to London. But perhaps the most useful work he ever did was to write letters, lots of them, containing much helpful advice which was based firmly on the Bible. Many of these letters were later printed in magazines and books and so they have been useful to many people, not just those to whom they were originally sent. During more than 30 years, Newton wrote a series of letters to a younger man, John Ryland, who also became a minister; these have recently been published in a book with the title, Wise Counsel.
Ryland would not have been surprised to find the ex-captain thinking in ways which reflected his seagoing experience. Several times Newton referred to the work of a pilot, the man at the helm of the ship, who steered her in the right direction. But in his mind was a series of pictures. The ship was himself or Ryland or anyone else sailing on the sea of time, and the sea may get very rough because of difficulties or troubles. All the more reason then for a skilful pilot, someone who can guide people safely through all the difficulties of life.
In 1785 Newton looked back on the time, 35 years earlier, when he married his wife Mary. He compared their setting out on married life to a sailor 'who should put to sea without either pilot or compass'. A successful voyage would look very unlikely if there was no one on board with the skill to steer the ship and if there was no compass to indicate the direction in which they should sail. So Newton confessed that, back in 1750, 'we knew and thought but little of the Lord'. God is the pilot we need to steer us safely through life, with all its difficulties and temptations and hardships. And the Bible is the compass we need so that we would know the direction to take through life so that we may reach the harbour of heaven at last.
Before long, we might say, a perfect Pilot came on board. In Newton’s language: 'The Lord . . . thought of us . . . and hitherto he has helped us'. God came to Newton and his wife; he showed them that they were sinners and that Jesus Christ is a glorious Saviour; he made them willing to believe in Christ. They became willing to submit to the Lord to guide them through the whole stretch of ocean – some of it rougher and some of it smoother – that lay before them in this life. They not only became willing to have the Lord as their pilot but also to take the Bible as their compass – to receive direction from God’s Book and live holy lives. And God did take care of them as they sailed towards heaven.
Whatever stage of life we may be at, we need this Pilot. Without him we will drift through life and in the end be dashed on the rocks of God’s wrath and swept away into a lost eternity. We should be perfectly clear in our minds that, if we are left to ourselves, that is how our lives will end. Without Newton’s pilot we cannot possibly find the harbour; we will miss the way into heaven. It is the Lord alone who can guide us safely through this world and bring us at last to the harbour where we can rest in perfect blessedness for ever.
In 1782 Ryland was experiencing some difficulties. Newton pictured him as sailing through stormy seas. But the ex-captain knew that the Lord could help, even in a time of trouble. He wrote to encourage his friend: 'Cheer up. The skill of the pilot is best evidenced in a storm; so is the Lord’s wisdom and faithfulness towards his children.' He knew that God will never forsake those who trust in him. He knew too that when times are difficult and God fulfils his promise to help his children, then it is most obvious that God has acted wisely and that he remains faithful.
But it is also at such times, Newton pointed out, that 'the sincerity of their hearts towards him' is most obvious. Times of trouble may make those who are not sincere give up their religion. But when God’s true children keep following him in such times of difficulty, it helps to show that they are sincere, that they really do trust in him, that they are not hypocrites.
Do you sometimes get the feeling that everything happening around you is out of control? Yes, it may well be out of your control, but you can be sure that God is in control of everything, even when the storms of life are at their fiercest. Then, says Newton, 'many a poor sailor is shipwrecked'. He has no pilot; he has no compass. But Newton was sure that 'the poor believer' will reach the port to which he is sailing. He went on: 'It is good sailing with an infallible Pilot at the helm, who has the wind and weather at his command'. A human pilot may steer his ship skilfully through tremendous storms but he cannot possibly have any control over the weather. But because God is in control of everything, we will be perfectly safe if we trust him. And he will guide us safely to the port of heaven at last, no matter how difficult some parts of the voyage may be.
In another letter, Newton was thinking of himself and other believers as passengers in a ship. Indeed the Church of God was in the ship too. It should be obvious that the Church often has to sail through difficult storms, sometimes through severe persecution. But will the ship sink? No, says Newton, 'we need not fear sinking'. Why? Because 'the infallible Pilot will guide us safely through the storm'. God can make no mistake; he knows everything; he is aware of every danger; and he can steer the ship safely past them all – even the dangers that are hidden from everyone else. This ship will never sink, no matter how severe the storm.
But are you in this ship? You might want to keep away from the ship where the Church of God is. You might see things in the Church that are not as you think they should be – perhaps things that in fact are not at all what they should be. But can you find a better ship? Can you find one that is guaranteed to take you safely into the port of heaven? Can you find any other ship that has a compass – at least one that works properly, that points in the right direction? No, you can be perfectly sure that if you drift away from the Bible and the Church, you will be shipwrecked at last on the rocks of God’s wrath and sink into a lost eternity.
Newton had sailed for many years under the care of the infallible Pilot when he said this: 'I am not what I ought to be – ah, how imperfect and deficient! I am not what I wish to be – I abhor what is evil, and I would cleave to what is good!' He was painfully conscious of sin, but he could see in himself something which showed him that he was indeed sailing towards heaven – he hated sin, especially his own sins.
We have thought of the Bible as a compass showing us the direction in which we should sail through life. But let us think of the Bible also as a telescope and let us picture Newton putting this telescope to his eye and looking into the future. As he did so, he said, 'I am not what I hope to be – soon, soon shall I put off mortality [the part of him that would die], and with mortality [I shall put off] all sin and imperfection'. And he summed up:
Yet, though I am not what I ought to be, nor what I wish to be, nor what I hope to be, I can truly say, I am not what I once was; a slave to sin and Satan; and I can heartily join with the Apostle, and acknowledge, ‘By the grace of God I am what I am’.
Yes, John Newton was on the way to heaven.
Taken with permission from the April 2010 Young People’s Magazine issued by the Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland