The Clatter of Thunder (John Newton)


You have all probably heard of John Newton, the famous British preacher and the author of many of our traditional hymns, including that timeless classic, "Amazing Grace". What a man of God he must have been!

You be surprised, however, to learn that John Newton wasn't exactly a saint when he was young. He considered himself an atheist, and he promoted his views without hesitation. His hobby was to make fun of God and His Word, and every breath he took was filled with blasphemous curses. He took great pride in being known as "the Great Blasphemer". His pastimes included drinking and frequenting prostitutes. No employer liked him, and no one could see any potential in him. Or no human, that is!

Later in his life, John would realize that even in the darkest days of his existence, God was pursuing him, trying to reach out to him to bring meaning to his life. He reported numerous times in his past when he had been mysteriously saved from fatal accidents and circumstances. Once, while in a drunken stupor, John was ready to jump off the deck of his ship in the middle of an unknown ocean. It was after midnight, and as he stood at the rail, ready to jump, a sailor came up on deck and saved him. John attributed this to luck however, and he was unmoved by it.

Sometime later, while serving as a quarter deck on a naval British ship, the HMS Harwick, he deserted ship. He was caught, and when he was brought back, he was put in irons for two days and fed on stale bread and water. Throughout this entire confinement period, he cursed and fumed with hatred. He was then brought up on deck to be flogged. The captain had planned to use the cat-o-nine-tails a dozen times on him; however John's heart hardened, and with each thud, he hissed and cursed at the assembled sea men with renewed vigor. Angered, the captain ordered the floggings to continue. It was only when his curses became weaker and weaker and he eventually slipped into unconsciousness, that the beating stopped. John received over one hundred floggings that day. His recovery was long, and when he was again fit to return to duty, he found himself stripped of his rank (which had only been obtained through the help of his dad). Despite all of his suffering and the shame he had endured, never once did he call out to God. Instead, his heart became even more hardened.

One bad decision led to another, and John eventually found himself on board the Guinea Snow Pegasus. It didn't take long for him to earn a bad reputation amongst his new captain and crew. There happened to be a businessman aboard the Snow Pegasus, a certain Mr. Claw who had made a fortune selling slaves. Driven by the dream of great riches, John began trying to persuade Mr. Claw to employ him.

Mr. Claw already knew how unreliable John was, but he hired him anyway. How disappointed John was when he learned that he would receive no pay, and since there had been no legal document of hire drawn up, there was nothing he could do about it. To make things worse, Mr. Claw didn't trust him at all. Because of this distrust, whenever he was away, he would chain John to a boat with less than a pint of rice for nourishment. John's life was worse than that of a slave. Despite the way he was treated however, he continued to rebel against God and society.

John was eventually released from Mr. Claw's "employment", and he found himself working for a Mr. Williams. To his surprise, Mr. Williams actually entrusted to him the management of one of his factories. Though he treated John decently however, giving him everything that would be expected, John continued to disregard any reverence for his Maker.

John's dad eventually managed to have one of his friends locate his son and bring him back to England. While on his way home, his ship faced a terrible storm. A raging gale churned the sea, creating mountainous waves that savagely tossed the vessel around like a toy. The wind succeeded in tearing timbers from the hull, and the boat began to list in the water. The sailors were kept busy trying to bail out seawater with buckets and pumps, all the while trying to keep from being washed overboard by the waves themselves. Somehow the ship survived the next few days, but with no respite from the storm in site, everyone was convinced that they would perish.

Meanwhile, John was filled with dread. Every time the ship descended into a billow, he trembled at the thought of what would happen to him if he died. God seemed suddenly real to him. He knew that his life had been such that if God truly DID exist, he would surely end up in hell. One day the exhausted captain offered him the helm. While attempting to keep the tossing ship under some kind of control, he had the opportunity to reflect upon his past, and long-submersed scriptures from childhood emerged from his subconscious. One in particular grabbed his attention: Prov 1:24-33

"But since you rejected me when I called and no one gave heed when I stretched out my hand, since you ignored all my advice and would not accept my rebuke, I in turn will laugh at your disaster; I will mock when calamity overtakes you - when calamity overtakes you like a storm, when disaster sweeps over you like a whirlwind, when distress and trouble overwhelm you.

"Then they will call to me but I will not answer; they will look for me but will not find me. Since they hated knowledge and did not choose to fear the LORD, since they would not accept my advice and spurned my rebuke, they will eat the fruit of their ways and be filled with the fruit of their schemes. For the waywardness of the simple will kill them, and the complacency of fools will destroy them; but whoever listens to me will live in safety and be at ease, without fear of harm." NIV

John was overcome with the sense that he was the worst sinner who had ever lived. He felt a certain affinity with the tattered remains of the ship's sails. He realized that his life was also in shreds, and he was struggling to hang on in the same way the mangled sails dangled from the broken masts. Hell became a reality, and he was filled with remorse.

The storm did finally relent, and when it did, John concluded that God was having mercy on him. A tiny gleam of hope emerged in his heart: Maybe there was hope for such a wicked man! The captain didn't expect to ever reach land however, and John became convinced that he was Jonah and God was punishing everyone because of him. In anguish, he began uttering pleas and prayers, and although his attempts were feeble, God heard him. The ship didn't sink, and the passengers and crew managed to escape sure death. After several days of uncertain sailing, they finally reached the coast of Ireland.

God had mercy on John, and as a result, his life changed radically. No more swear words or sacrilegious remarks were heard from his mouth, and although for the upcoming months he would still delight in the company of harlots, he eventually became convinced through the nudging of God's Holy Spirit that this, too, was wrong. He completely put away his past life and began anew, with the Holy Spirit as his guide. He became a powerful minister, proclaiming God's love to anyone he encountered.

You are all familiar with the words of one of his most famous hymns. These words were written from his heart, for they were based on his own past experiences:

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

My friend, God loves you! You may consider yourself a hard-core atheist, just like John, but there are events in your life you cannot explain. God is pursuing you. Every opportunity He has, He tries to reach out to you. Because He loves you, He will never try to force you to accept Him into your life. You can decide to run away from Him, however, the time will come when running away will be impossible. You will come to an impasse in your life. You will be confronted by death. May it never be too late for you to realize the depth of God's love! Salvation can only be obtained by accepting Jesus' offer. He died for you, so that you will not have to face eternal death. He rose up from the dead, conquering death and offering life to all those who would believe Him. Accept His offer before it is too late. The storms of life may never quiet down, but you have a Friend who is willing to stand by you no matter what!

"For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are-yet was without sin. Let us then approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need." (Heb 4:15-16 NIV)

Rob Chaffart

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