John Newton lived an amazing life. Born in 1725 as the son of a Merchant Ship Commander his life was spent at sea from the time he was a mere eleven years old. When he was 19, he was pressed into her majesty's service aboard the HMS Harwich - a British Man-of-War. Finding conditions of military service harsh, he deserted and was soon recaptured. As punishment, he was assigned aboard a slave ship where a friend of his father's found him and asked him to serve on his ship - a slave trader. Soon he captained his own ship and began transporting slaves from Sierra Leone to Great Britain.
One dark night, during a particularly violent storm, he was convinced that the ship would be sunk. Though he had been trained as a child in religion, life had long since convinced him that he had no room in his life for God. But this night, he cried out to the Lord for mercy and later, as he reflected on his prayer and the ship's deliverance, he admitted that this had been "his great deliverance." That day was May 10, 1747, a date he remembered each year as the "day of his humiliation when he submitted his will to that of a higher power."
Though he continued in the slave trade for several more years, he was known to have been kind to and treated the slaves on his ship with more dignity. It wasn't until sometime later, after he had become a minister of the Gospel that he repudiated slavery all together.
When Paul wrote the letter to the Galatians, he chided them that even though they had experienced grace in their salvation, they had fallen back into a way of life and practice that was law-based, not grace-based. "After beginning with the Spirit are you now trying to attain your goal by human effort? Does God give you his Spirit and work miracles among you because you observe the law or because you believe what you heard?" (Galatians 3:3,5)
It is when we are in the storms of life that we realize our helplessness and we cry out to God for mercy. And God in faithful, abiding love hears and answers our prayers. God gives us grace so that we can say with John Newton "tis grace hath brought me safe thus far." However, once the storm is passed, that is when we - or at least I - tend to think that God's grace is no longer needed and that we can safely navigate through life on our own "compass and wind."
A new friend of mine was recently injured in a motorcycle accident. In that accident, he suffered a broken neck and spinal cord damage in roughly the same level that I experienced 13 plus years ago. Living through this trial with him, I have reflected a lot recently on the mystery of "why and how" God's sovereign grace restored and healed me to the extent he did. I don't have an answer to that question and it haunts me. Yet I believe somehow, God's grace not only saw me through that time in my life, it calls to me yet today, reminding me that my life belongs not to me but to the Lord. "Tis grace hath brought me safe thus far."
It's also grace that will lead us safely home. God's grace is not like a chicken pox vaccine or a tetanus shot; kind of a one time cures all salve. Yes, Christ Jesus' work on the cross was a once for all sacrifice through which we have life with God. But that grace needs to be applied daily. We live in grace. Paul reminds us that "the righteous will live by faith: faith in Christ, and by the faithfulness of Christ. It is our daily bread. It is the air we breathe. It is the substance, hope and gift that energizes and equips us to live lives that make a difference in the world.
Think of your own life of faith as we continue our journey through Galatians. What is the balance of power in your priorities and life-choices between grace and law or works. Are you motivated, like the Galatians had been seduced into believing, that the Christian life is defined by the things we do make ourselves look religious or make us feel better about ourselves.
The Gospel is all about the grace of God and what Jesus has done for us. In gratitude then - not in an effort to win brownie points or rack up "spiritual frequent flyer miles" - we seek to live lives that reflect God's grace in the world to others.
If we live under law, the reflection others see is of joyless obedience. If we live under grace the reflection of Jesus people see is that of God's love for the world and of joyful gratitude.
John Newton, during the later years of his life, served as rector first for the church at Olney in Buckinghamshire. In 1780 he became rector of St Mary Woolchurch in London. His preaching was powerful and the church became so crowded that people often couldn't find a seat. It was there, under the preaching of grace by Newton, that William Wilberforce was touched and became a leader in the movement to abolish slavery.
Grace truly had brought Newton safe through that May 10 storm at sea and through to the end of his life. And it was his confidence, that in spite of being blind and in old age, grace would lead him safely home.
Having begun by grace, am I one who reverts back to law and works as if to somehow earn God's favor? I pray not. I pray that somehow I would live by faith in every circumstance and that my life would reflect, not my effort but the marvelous grace of God through the finished work of Christ.