What it means to live under grace is illustrated by the life of John Newton. Newton was born in London, half a century before the American Revolution, to a mother of superb spiritual qualities and a nondescript father. His mother died when he was six. Five years later he went to sea with his father who was a ship’s captain. He became a midshipman and for a time led a wild existence, living in utter disgrace. He rejected the God of his mother, he renounced any need of religion and he lived an irresponsible and sinful life. Eventually he became a slave trader, crossing the ocean several times as captain of slave ship, responsible for terrible human degradation among the captives he had crowded on board. But grace was always a factor in his life. He survived a deadly fever in Africa, and his ship survived a terrible storm which almost killed him.
Finally, dissatisfied with his life, he began reading the writings of Thomas a Kempis. Somehow, the Holy Spirit began stirring inside his soul, awakening him from sin, urging him toward salvation until he finally gave his heart to Christ. He was so thoroughly converted, in fact, that he felt a call from God to enter the ministry. He was eventually ordained in 1781 and accepted a pastorate in Olney, England.
But Newton’s disgraceful past never left his memory and he was completely dumbfounded over the privilege of living joyously free under the divine grace of God. In an intense moment of inspiration, when he was thinking of the wonder of the grace of God which had saved even a wretch like him, he wrote the hymn, "Amazing grace, how sweet the sound."
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