Happy Birthday, John Newton


In London, July 24th, 289 years and one day ago, John Henry Newton was born. You may or may not recognize the name, but you know his most famous creation: Amazing Grace, probably the most beloved hymn in the English language. In honor of Newton’s birthday, here is the condensed version of his life story. (For the full account, read John Newton: From Disgrace to Amazing Grace by Jonathan Aitken.)

Newton’s father was an unbelieving sailor while his mother was a devout Christian, and those two influences would characterize the remainder of Newton’s life. Elizabeth Newton wanted her son to one day enter the ministry, but she died in 1732 and by the age of eleven Newton joined his father’s ship. From that point on Newton’s life was spent at sea, first in his father’s ship, then the Royal Navy, and finally a slaving vessel . Newton consistently rebelled against authority, however, and his employment by slave trader Amos Chow ended with Newton himself a virtual slave to Chow and his African mistress, “a servant of slaves in West Africa” as Newton’s epitaph remembers. Newton was rescued by a merchant ship, the Greyhound, and left Africa for England in the spring of 1748. But God had something in store for Newton than a peaceful return voyage.

On March 10th, a violent storm struck the Greyhound off the coast of Donegal, Ireland. Newton awoke in the middle of the night to a ship on the verge of sinking. In fear for his life Newton called out to God. The Greyhound survived, and Newton never forgot the experience.

You might expect at this point a dramatic life-alteration, a “was blind but now I see” type conversion. Not quite. Something had changed in Newton’s heart, but it took years for Newton to begin walking as a faithful Christian. In fact, after this encounter with God Newton became the captain of several slaving vessels. Still, that stormy night marked the beginning of God’s pursuit of Newton – and God always gets his man. Gradually Newton began to realize the extent of what God had done for him in Christ, and what that meant for his life and conduct. He retired from the sea in 1754 and entered the ministry in 1764. Over the next 43 years, Newton pastored congregations in Olney and London. He wrote numerous hymns; Amazing Grace was created to go along with a New Year’s day sermon in 1773. He also wrote several books, including a narrative of his conversion; wrote a vast quantity of letters of spiritual advice; and influenced numerous younger ministers and Christians, including statesman William Wilberforce, the man God used to lead the movement to abolish the slave trade. Newton died December 21st, 1807 at the age of 82.

From “servant of slaves,” slave-trader, and slave of sin to slave of Christ and son of God. Newton’s story is more colorful and dramatic than most of ours – but only from one perspective. In God’s sight, in the eyes of the angels who rejoice in heaven over one repentant sinner, every conversion – whether in a sinking ship or a kneeling by your bed in the quiet of the night – is a miracle of God’s power comparable only to the creation of the world itself (see 2 Cor. 4:6). Because of that, every Christian knows the thrill of singing, with Newton and every other son and daughter of the Lord:

Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound!
That saved a wretch like me.
I was once lost, but now am found;
Was blind, but now I see.


Cutting Through The Chaos Of the Holidays

come lord jesus

Another year has passed. The holiday season is upon us, and if your life is anything like mine that means busyness is also upon us. On top of ordinary life come Christmas parties, vacations to see family, gift shopping, decorating – not to mention consuming the requisite quantities of eggnog and Santa-shaped sugar cookies. For the most part these once-a-year festivities are joyous…but they’re chaotic, too.

But let’s pause for a moment to cut through the chaos. Another year has passed. Once again we proclaim that Christ has come. Once, many years ago, in the fullness of time, the Son of God took on human flesh. Infinity joined with finitude. Omnipotence joined with weakness. Years would pass. In the weakness of that human flesh, Jesus would grow from infant to adult. And yet, in the weakness of that human flesh, and for the first and only time in human history, Jesus would offer perfect obedience. The second Adam would succeed where the first had failed.

Then, when the years of his life were complete, in a moment foreknown before the foundation of the world, the Son became the sacrifice. On Golgotha, God provided the lamb. Jesus died for our sins. And God accepted the sacrifice.

Three days would pass. Then, for the first but not the last time in human history, resurrection conquered death. The Lamb who was slain was raised as the Lion of Judah. Sin lost its dominion and the grave lost its sting. The new age has dawned. Redemption accomplished.

Years would pass, decades into centuries into millennia. Until one day, in the power of the Spirit, from the lips of ordinary humans, the message of this redemption came home to me. With saving power I heard that the Son of God loved me and gave himself for me – and for you too, if you receive him by faith.

More years will pass. An unknown number of Christmases will come and go. Until one day, in power and glory, before the watching eyes of the cosmos, this same Jesus will return to judge the living and the dead – and me, and you. We will stand before him. And one plea will be sufficient: Jesus died for me.

The holidays are busy, even chaotic. So is life in a fallen world. But underneath it’s very simple. Christ came. Christ died. Christ rose. Christ is coming. Until then, him we proclaim.

Come Lord Jesus!

Photo by Tim Green aka atoach

I Scarce Can Take It In…

The “Divine Exchange” never ceases to amaze me.

Jesus exchanged his “divine bank account” for mine.  God credited my sinful life to Jesus, as if he had lived my life,  and God credited Jesus’ perfect life to me as if I had lived his life of flawless obedience.  But not only did God count Jesus’ obedience to me, but he gives me all the rewards for that obedience.  I scarce can take it in…

And now we may say, Lord, the condemnation was yours, that the justification might be mine; the agony yours, that the victory might be mine; the pain was yours, and the ease mine; the stripes yours, and the healing balm issuing from them mine; the vinegar and gall were yours, that the honey and sweet might be mine; the curse was yours, that the blessing might be mine; the crown of thorns was yours, that the crown of glory might be mine; the death was yours, the life purchased by it mine; you paid the price that I might enjoy the inheritance. — John Flavel, The Fountain of Life

Let this wonderful truth fill you with joy and thanksgiving today.

If Leonardo DiCaprio Got Saved

Permit me to dream for a moment. Imagine if Leonardo DiCaprio got saved. Then he could star in a Christian remake of the movie “Titanic”, and when he stood at the front of the boat and said, “I’m the king of the world!”, Rose would say, “No you’re not, Jesus is.” Then he would repent of sins right there on the Titanic and start an on-boat evangelistic ministry called “Big Boat, Bigger God”. Then, when he died at the end of the movie it wouldn’t be nearly as sad, because he would be in heaven.

Millions would probably see the movie, especially if it was in 3D, leading to a worldwide revival and the spread of the gospel. Maybe DiCaprio and Kirk Cameron would team up to make a couple of movies. Maybe Steven Spielberg would get saved through DiCaprio’s influence. Who knows.

Do you ever wonder why stuff like this doesn’t happen more often? Why don’t more celebrities and shakers and movers get saved? 1 Corinthians 1:26-29 gives us some insight into this:

For consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God.

God doesn’t gravitate toward the people that the world gravitates toward. He gravitates toward the weak, the lowly, the ordinary, and the unimpressive. He calls those whom the world ignores. If God primarily saved rich, powerful, and beautiful people, those people might have some reason to boast before God. But God saves unimpressive, weak people, so that there might not be any boasting in his presence. And when God saves these people and uses them to spread the gospel, it demonstrates the power of God, not the power of the people.

D.A. Carson described the Corinthian church as, “…a low class operation with a few sophisticated exceptions.” I find that quote to be very encouraging, because it pretty much describes my church too. We are a low class church, with me at the head of the pack. Sure, we have a few exceptions. We have couple doctors, a few professors, and a few folks with lots of money. But not many. Our worship team is not overly impressive either. No one is going to think that they accidentally walked into a U2 concert when they come to our church. Our preaching isn’t anything to boast about either. We strive to do our best, but we’re not like Piper or Driscoll.

But God likes to work through ordinary, unimpressive people. God likes to use worship teams that occasionally train wreck and miss transitions. God likes to use ordinary preachers. God loves to use ordinary church members to do extraordinary things.

So I love my ordinary, low-class church. We’re just a bunch of weak people that love Jesus, and I love seeing God work through us. When we succeed as a church, it certainly won’t be because of our brilliance or influence. It will be because we serve a mighty God who does great things through weak people.

A Memo From God to Stephen RE: Universalism


TO: Stephen

RE: Universal Salvation Plan

It has come to my attention that, in your weaker moments, there are times when you wonder if there could have been some other way of salvation other than through Jesus Christ, perhaps something less exclusive and less “harsh”, you might say. In light of these “difficulties”, I would like to invite you to submit your own plan of salvation to me. This will give you the opportunity to tell me how you would do things if you were God.

Please make sure that your salvation plan includes all of the items. Anything less will be considered insufficient.

1) Satisfaction of my infinite justice. Your salvation plan must include a way to satisfy my infinite justice and righteousness. Make sure that my justice is satisfied for all the billions of massive sins committed by humanity, such as holocaust, rape, murder, genocide, and sex trafficking, as well as all the billions of “minor” sins of committed by humanity, such as cursing, grumbling, worry, and materialism. Your salvation plan must include full payment and atonement for all these wicked deeds.

2) Satisfaction of my infinite love. In addition to satisfying my justice, your salvation plan must include a way of satisfying my infinite love. Even though every man and woman has engaged in all out war against me, I love them with a love deeper than you could ever imagine. Your salvation plan must encompass the depths of my love and demonstrate to the world that I love them oh so very much.

3) The undoing of all evil. In case you haven’t noticed, the world that I made has been seriously messed up, and you and your fellow humans are responsible. You might not be able to hear it, but creation is groaning right now, waiting for redemption. Your salvation plan better include a way to satisfy the groanings of creation and to undo all the evil that has been unleashed on the world. You must repair the broken relationships, bring harmony between creation and humanity, and ultimately restore things to the way I originally intended.

4) The transformation of sinners. Please be sure that your salvation plan includes a way for people who hate me to be instantly transformed into people that love me. Make sure that this transformation occurs apart from anything they could possibly do.

5) The mixing of the sacred and the profane. Your salvation plan must include a way to bring together the incredibly sacred (ME!) and the incredibly profane (YOU!). When others have tried this in the past, things haven’t gone so well. Remember Nadab and Abihu? You need to do better than them or you will end up being consumed by holy fire.

6) The preservation of my glory. This is crucially important. In all elements of your salvation plan, I must get all the glory. Humans cannot get one drop of glory or credit in salvation. If they do, the whole thing is off. Because I am God, I get the glory. Have I made myself clear?

These are the first six requirements of the salvation plan. Once you have submitted a plan that adequately meets all these requirements, I will send you the next six, and so on. Please submit your plan by next Friday. I look forward to seeing your proposed solution.

FROM: Stephen

TO: God

RE: Universal Salvation Plan

I now shut my mouth.

Do We Choose God Or Does God Choose Us?

So which is it? Did I choose God or did He choose me?

It’s a sticky question – one that has divided people for centuries. If God chose me, does that mean that I don’t have any free will? Does that mean that my choices aren’t really choices at all? Does that mean that I’m nothing more than a puppet on a divine string?

On the other hand, if I chose God, does that mean that God isn’t really sovereign? Does that mean that salvation is the one area that falls outside of God’s total, sovereign control?

It’s tricky. So what does the Bible say? Surely the Bible makes one or the other clear.

Well, sort of. Scripture makes it clear that God chooses us for salvation. And scripture makes it clear that we choose God. It’s not either or, it’s both. John 1:12-13 is a perfect example of this.

But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.

Who received the right to become children of God? It was those who believed in Jesus. Those who made a real choice to put their faith in Jesus Christ. This isn’t a trick verse. Those who believed in Jesus made a real choice to really believe in Jesus as the Son of God. So yes, we choose God. No doubt about it.

But something else is going on here. Those who believed in Jesus were born again. How? Not of blood, meaning not of any sort of natural birth. They also weren’t born again by the will of the flesh or the will of man. I understand this to mean that they weren’t born again because of anything they did. They absolutely could not cause themselves to be born again. Being born again is something that God and only God does.

Now, here’s the crucial question: did they choose God and then were born again, or were they born again and then chose God? Acts 16:14 is very helpful in answering this question. Speaking of Lydia, it says, “The Lord opened her heart to pay attention to what was said by Paul.” In other words, God made her spiritually dead heart come alive so that she could hear and respond to the gospel message. Another helpful verse is John 6:65, where Jesus says, “This is why I told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted him by the Father.”

So do we choose God? Absolutely. We make a real to choice to repent of our sins and choose to follow God. But, scripture is also clear that God chooses us before we choose him. The Bible doesn’t try to reconcile these two truths, but instead presents them side by side.

The Dangerous Holy Spirit

It’s dangerous when the Holy Spirit gets involved. People who have no intention of getting saved suddenly find themselves crying out for mercy.

In their book, A God-Sized Vision: Revival Stories That Stretch and Stir, Colin Hansen and John Woodbridge relate the following story about the Great Awakening:

The Weekly History contained an account of a Boston slave owner who walked in on his slave preaching to himself, imitating Whitfield’s dramatic style. The owner, no fan of the revival, was so amused that he called together his friends for some after-dinner entertainment.

“Supplying his friends with pipes and glasses all around, he instructed his slave to mount a stool in the center of the room and preach as he had the day before,” historian Frank Lambert explains. “As he began, the company laughed heartily, but when he warned of the new birth, ‘the Negro spoke with such Authority that struck the Gentleman to Heart’. To their host’s dismay, the men began to listen intently, and many, as a result of the day’s ‘entertainment’, became ‘pious sober Men'”.

The Holy Spirit enjoys such surprises.

Hope For Hard Cases

Who’s the hardened sinner in your life? You don’t really need to think about it.

It’s the son or daughter that you’ve been praying for for years. It’s the neighbor who gets wasted every Friday night. It’s your old college buddy who is now so rich that he doesn’t need God. It’s your mom, who at the age of 70 doesn’t appear to be changing any time soon. It’s the name that has been on your prayer list for the last decade.

It can be discouraging to pray for someone, share the gospel with them, love them, serve them, and not see any fruit. After a while we stop wondering when God will save them and start wondering if God can save them.

I think the Apostle Paul was meant to give us faith for the salvation of hardened sinners. In 1 Timothy 1:12-13, Paul writes:

I thank him who has given me strength, Christ Jesus our Lord, because he judged me faithful, appointing me to his service, though formerly I was a blasphemer, persecutor, and insolent opponent.

Pre-Christian Paul made most sinners look like saints.

He was a blasphemer. He had a vendetta against Christians. He was insolent, arrogant, bloodthirsty, and angry. How many people imagined this guy getting saved?

But when Jesus decides to save someone, nothing can stop Him. Paul was on his way to collect, arrest, and possibly kill as many Christians as possible. Instead, he finds himself laying on the ground hearing the voice of Jesus. This is irresistible, powerful, eye-opening, heart-rending grace. Paul was a great sinner, Jesus was a greater Savior.

God can save your hardened son in a split-second. He can break down the walls of a drunken neighbor and melt the heart of a bitter mother. Don’t stop praying. Don’t stop asking.

God saved Paul, He saved you, and He can save the hardened sinner in your life.

Originally published in October, 2009

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Spirituality vs. Jesus

Spirituality invites you to explore your inner self. Jesus invites you to explore his glory and forget yourself.

Spirituality invites you to find yourself. Jesus invites you to lose yourself.

Spirituality is a journey that ultimately results in you “saving” yourself. Following Jesus is a journey that begins when you stop trying to save yourself.

Spirituality leads to self-expression which results in self-fulfillment. Jesus calls you to die to yourself and find your fulfillment in him.

Spirituality begins when you resolve to “try harder”. Following Jesus begins when you give up.

Spirituality says you’re worth it. Jesus says that he’s worth it.

Spirituality allows you to take charge of your life. Jesus commands you to acknowledge him as King of your life.

Spiritual gurus dispense “wisdom”.

Jesus saves sinners.

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