Wednesday, January 30, 2019

John Newton is mortifying!

In Sunday School we are studying the Puritan classic, John Owen’s The Mortification of Sin. This book can be misread as related to the Law v. Grace, or the Legalism v. Antinomianism debate. Maybe that’s true in an Aristotelian “formal vice material cause” analysis but, honestly I can’t say, given that I never made any sense out of Aristotle. In any case it is a mistake to view the book that way. This book is intended for believers, and the endpoints of the legalism-antinomian spectrum represent heresy.

To repeat myself, Owen’s book is instruction for believers, not for heretics. It addresses the reality that we will struggle with sin, and gives us causes, signs, and symptoms indicative of the state and quality of our struggle. But it is not a fire and brimstone “stop sinning our you will go to hell” approach. It is a practical and a sound theological guide that teaches you to look outward to the Triune God for strength, not inward to your own innate and inadequate ability. It is not a Christian bookstore self-help book, and the only real danger is reading it as such.

John Newton, 1725-1807

You know him. If for nothing else, he wrote Amazing Grace, a hymn on just about everyone’s top-ten list. So popular it has even been popularized and sung by non-Christians. (I’m not sure how Newton would have felt about that. I think it’s a good thing.)

I don’t know if I read The Mortification of Sin before I read a biography of John Newton or after, but I have always connected the two in my mind. To me, John Newton is the poster child for Owen’s book.

I think it is helpful and encouraging, when reading The Mortification of Sin, to have an example (other than yourself) in mind. For me John Newton is the paradigm.

Here is a timeline bullet biography (incomplete) of this great Christian man, cobbled together from memory and help with dates from an obviously inerrant Wikipedia biography:

  • 1725 Born in London, to a shipmaster father and a Nonconformist mother 
  • 1736 (age 11) he makes his first trip to sea 
  • 1743 Newton is captured and forced (pressed) into service in the British Royal Navy. At one point he tried to escape and was demoted and given 96 lashes. 
  • 1744 Newton transfers to the slave ship Pegasus that traded goods for West African slaves, to be delivered to the New World. 
  • 1745 The crew of the Pegasus purposely abandoned the unlikable Newton in West Africa where he (can you spell that thingy that ain’t real: “karma”) essentially became a slave of the people of whom he had been making slaves. 
  • 1748 Newton is rescued and returns to England on the ship Greyhound. On this voyage Newton has a Luther-esque encounter with natural danger. The ship almost sinks in a severe storm causing Newton to call out to God (a God he had never acknowledged) for rescue. The cargo shifts and plugs a hole in the ship, preventing its sinking. 
  • 1748 (March 10) Because of that rescue, Newton recalls this moment as his conversion to evangelical Christianity. He begins to read the bible. 
  • 1748 After his conversion, Newton “mortifies” the sins of profanity, gambling, and drinking.
  • 1748 Newton, now a Christian, resumes his work as a slave trader. 
  • 1748-1749 While in West Africa on a slave trading mission, Newton acknowledges his lack of sanctification. He becomes deathly ill with fever, professes his full belief in Christ, and asks God to take control of his destiny. He would point to this as the first time he was at peace with God. 
  • 1750-1754 Newton makes three more slave-trading voyages. 
  • 1754 Newton suffers a stroke and gives up his seafaring. He maintains a financial interest in slaving. 
  • 1755 Newton begins study to become an Anglican priest. 
  • 1764 Newton is ordained as an Anglican priest. 
  • 1779 Newton publishes Amazing Grace
  • 1788, 34 years after he retired from active participation in slaving, Newton, now a respected Anglican cleric, publishes Thoughts Upon the Slave Trade, in which he describes the horrific conditions of the slave ships. He apologizes for "a confession, which ... comes too late ... It will always be a subject of humiliating reflection to me, that I was once an active instrument in a business at which my heart now shudders." 
The mortification of the sin of slave-trading (derivatively forbidden by Jesus’ commandments and Paul’s letter to Philemon, and expressly forbidden in 1 Tim 1:10) took a while. A long while.
John Owen would understand perfectly. And would have added a hearty: amen.


  1. Goes to show that God has his perfect timeline for sanctification/mortification but it will happen since it doesn't depend on us. If it did, we'd be sunk.