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The Fruit of John Newton's Life

By Charles Colson
Breakpoint Ministry -- While John Newton is best-known as the author of the famous hymn, "Amazing Grace," his life teemed with spiritual fruit. A new biography on his life by Jonathan Aitken gives us a peek into a prodigious legacy of the man who described himself with one simple sentence: "I am a great sinner, but Christ is a great Savior."

While Newton is certainly remembered today for "Amazing Grace," in his own day he was known for his bestselling autobiography called An Authentic Narrative. A notorious blasphemer, a rebellious shipman, a trafficker in slaves, Newton showed the people of his time how Christ can save the most wretched among us.

Though Newton was a prolific author, preacher, and hymn-writer, perhaps his most profound legacy is the fruit of his friendships. In his lifetime, many referred to Newton as the friend of William Cowper. Cowper became one of the most beloved poets in the English language. He also gave us some of the most beautiful and theologically astute hymns to enter our hymnals. But had it not been for the friendship of John Newton, it is doubtful that Cowper would have had such a body of work.

Cowper, you see, suffered throughout his life from terrible depression. But the window of his most productive years opened when his friendship with Newton began. It was then Cowper collaborated with Newton on the Olney Hymnal, producing such works as, "There is a Fountain Filled with Blood," "God Moves in Mysterious Ways," and "Jesus, Where'er Thy People Meet." As one biographer noted, "Cowper, throughout [his] life, lacked personal initiative." The encouragement from Newton, however, was enough to spur Cowper to produce some 60 hymns. And when Cowper later sunk into such a depression that he nearly took his own life, it was his friendship with Newton that stayed his hand.

Newton also played a vital role as friend and mentor in the life of William Wilberforce. You know, of course, that Wilberforce led the charge to abolish the British slave trade and ultimately slavery itself in England. When Wilberforce came to faith, he turned to Newton for advice. It was Newton who encouraged him not to abandon politics for the clergy, but to use his political skills for good. It was Newton who encouraged him to take up that Great Object of abolishing the slave-trade. And it was Newton who encouraged him to persevere when Wilberforce considered giving up the fight in 1796, a story beautifully recreated in the marvelous DVD movie Amazing Grace.

Well into his later years, Newton continued to bear fruit in his friendships. He established the Eclectic society, a gathering of pastors and lay leaders that became the inspiration for the Church Missionary Society. He helped bring a young writer by the name of Hannah More to faith. She went on to start the modern Sunday School movement. And he met for breakfast frequently with a young man by the name of William Carey, who would become a missionary to India and a catalyst for the modern mission's movement.

Newton would not have considered himself a great saint, but a great sinner used by God. His life reminds us all of the profound impact that deep spiritual friendships can have. And it encourages us, as Hebrews, teaches "to spur one another on toward love and good deeds." Who knows what may come of it? The abolition of slavery, great literature, and hymns, for one.

From BreakPoint, Copyright Prison Fellowship Ministries. "BreakPoint with Chuck Colson" is a radio ministry of Prison Fellowship Ministries. Reprinted with permission of Prison Fellowship, P.O. Box 17500, Washington, DC, 20041-0500." Heard on more than 1000 radio stations nationwide.

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