In 1779 a London pastor named John Newton wrote a hymn hymn that he titled Amazing Grace, which today is considered by many to be the most loved hymn in all of history.
The hymn begins with the words, “Amazing grace! How sweet the sound—that saved a wretch like me!”
“A wretch like me”—to many today, this word seems a bit dramatic. When’s the last time you’ve heard anyone refer to themselves as a wretch? The word is so unpopular that some of you may not even know what it means. The dictionary defines the word wretch as “an unfortunate or unhappy person or a despicable or contemptible person. Synonyms are scoundrel, villain, rogue, swine, criminal, good-for-nothing, …”
For John Newton, however, the word wretch was, if anything, not strong enough. Many of you probably know at least part of Newton’s story; he was the only child of a sea captain father and a Christian mother who taught him the Bible at an early age. Unfortunately, she died when Newton was seven; he spent the next two years in boarding school before his father remarried and took him to live with his new stepmother. At age 11, he went to sea with his father, making six voyages with him before his father retired, at which time the young John Newton signed on with a merchant ship. At age 19, on his way to visit friends, Newton was kidnapped and forced into service on a Royal Navy ship—he did not do well with navy discipline; he tried to desert but was captured and publicly flogged.
Newton was so broken by this event that he considered suicide by throwing himself overboard. But eventually he recovered physically and mentally and convinced his superiors to exchange him into service on a slave ship. The ship carried goods to Africa, where they were traded for slaves, who would then be taken to colonies in the Caribbean and North America.
But the rebellious young Newton didn’t get along well with the rest of the crew so they left him in West Africa with a slave trader who brutally abused him. Finally Newton was rescued by a sea captain who knew his father. It was on his return trip to England that Newton experienced a spiritual conversion, what he later referred to as his “great deliverance.”
He wrote in his journal that one night there was a violent storm that tossed the ship around. As the ship began to break apart, the situation seemed hopeless; certain that the ship was sinking, John remembered the words of Proverbs 1:26, “I will laugh at your calamity; I will mock when terror strikes you.” He cried out, “Lord, have mercy on us.” And at that moment, the cargo shifted, stopping up the hole, and the ship drifted to safety.
For the rest of his life, John Newton remembered that day, May 10, 1748, as the date of his conversion although he said it was only much later that he could consider himself to be a believer in the full sense of the word.
Prior to that night, he had lived with complete moral abandon. He later wrote, “I sinned with a high hand and made it my study to tempt and seduce others to do the same.”
Newton continued in the slave trade for a time after his conversion although from that point on, he was careful to be sure that the slaves under his care were treated humanely.
At the age of 30, Newton left the sea for an office job and, now married and settled in England, he began to hold Bible studies in his home. He came to know the great preacher and founder of Methodism, George Whitefield and the Wesley brothers. As he grew in faith, Newton became increasingly disgusted with the slave trade—and also with the part that he had played in it. Eventually he was ordained and spent the rest of his life serving as pastor of a London church. It was there that he met William Wilberforce, who would one day become a leader in the campaign for the abolition of slavery.
Newton continued to preach until the last year of his life, despite the fact that he was blind by that time. He never forgot who he once had been and what God had done for him. Not long before his death at the age of 82, Newton preached, “My memory is nearly gone, but I remember two things: that I am a great sinner and that Christ is a great Savior!”
When he died in 1807, this worst of sinners, this wretched man, was secure in his faith that amazing grace would lead him home.
Until his conversion, John Newton was nothing but trouble. Nobody liked him—nobody wanted to be around him. Every ship he signed on to was happy to get rid of him. But on the night of his conversion, his identity as a sinful rebel was replaced by a new identity—now John Newton was a child of God. He understood the words Paul wrote to the Ephesian church: “At one time you were in darkness, but now you are light in the Lord” (Ephesians 5:8).
I wonder how many people had given up on him—had decided that he was good for nothing, beyond hope. I wonder how long it took some of them to believe that he really had changed. How long did he have to “walk as a child of the light” before those who knew him before stopped thinking that it was an act, that he was doing what he did because of what he hoped to gain.
John Newton, after that night on a sinking ship, knew that he was a wretch in need of a Savior—and he knew that he had been saved only by the amazing grace of God.
In John’s gospel, we’re still in the midst of the “festival of light,” this celebration that was intended to remind them of their deliverance from slavery as God led them out of Egypt into the Promised Land. Israel was led out of Egypt by the presence of the Lord in the pillar of fire, a pillar of great light (Exodus 13:21; Nehemiah 9:12; Psalm 78:14). Now Jesus is saying that those who follow Him “will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life” (John 8:12). He’s promising a salvation much greater than a temporary deliverance from an earthly enemy—He’s promising salvation from the forces of rebellion against God that lie behind every form of evil in the world. And this deliverance is not just a rescue from darkness and a brief glimpse of the light—it’s an ongoing life apart from darkness through possession of the light of life.
And then Jesus declares that He is the divine presence, the light, come into the world to save not just the Jews, but all people everywhere, from the bondage of sin. He’s promising salvation to wretches like you and me. He says in v8:8, “Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.”
The world lies in darkness and death because through its rebellion against God, it has broken contact with the one source of light and life. And now here is Jesus offering this light and life to all who will believe in Him and follow Him. He’s offering freedom from our bondage to sin—and many of them don’t even seem to be able to hear Him.
They have no idea that they’re wretches in need of salvation. In fact, many of them have decided that Jesus is the wretch. They look at Him and see only what they think they know about Him. Back in 1:45-46, when Philip told Nathanael that he had found “him of whom Moses in the Law and also the prophets wrote, … Nathanael said …, ‘Can anything good come out of Nazareth?’”
The Jews listening to Jesus in chapter 8 clearly know that He’s from Nazareth, a town that apparently had a very bad reputation. In 8:41, they say, “We were not born of sexual immorality.” Everyone knew that Mary was pregnant before the wedding—and everyone thought they knew what this meant.
Many of them thought Jesus was the wretch who needed help—others, however, were listening to what He said and were beginning to believe, or at least to hope, that He was speaking truth.
Into the midst of this, we have the healing of the blind man. One of the signs of the messianic age is the receiving of sight by the blind. Everyone knew the OT prophecies:
Isaiah 29:18 “In that day the deaf shall hear the words of a book, and out of their gloom and darkness the eyes of the blind shall see.”
Isaiah 35:5 “Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then shall the lame man leap like a deer, and the tongue of the mute sing for joy.”
And now Jesus heals a blind man. Jesus is the only one in all of Scripture who was able to bring sight to the blind. But the response of many to this miraculous event is denial. Jesus heals a man who has been blind from birth, a man who looks exactly the same as he did before Jesus healed him—and they’re arguing about who he is.
Jesus wants them to recognize their own blindness. He wants them to see how ridiculous they are—but they’re so caught up in their own ideas about who the Messiah should be, where He should come from, what He should look like, that they can’t even see Him standing right in front of them.
They’re so convinced of their own rightness, their own lack of wretchedness, that they think they don’t need a Savior.
They’re not the ones in bondage to sin—even Jesus’ disciples want to know: “Who sinned? This man or his parents, that he was born blind?”
Jesus’ response makes it clear that we shouldn’t be concerned about assigning blame. He knows that we’re all wretches in need of the amazing grace of God. And so Jesus said, “It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God must be displayed in him. We must work the works of him who sent me” (v 3-4).
“We must work the works…” Jesus will lead the way, but we must follow Him in the work of bringing sight to the blind. The existence of human suffering and blindness is a call to work, not simply to wonder why. Jesus in His response is anticipating the coming ages when the risen Lord will be at work in the world through His people.
In chapter 8:12, Jesus declares that He is the light of the world. Now in chapter 9, we see Jesus demonstrate this by literally bringing light to this blind man. Still, many of those present fail to see. The Pharisees question the man and his parents and then bring the man back for more questioning, a pattern very much like that which occurred when Jesus earlier healed the man at the pool of Bethesda. Yet in spite of the man’s testimony, in spite of the fact that previously he was blind and now he could see, all they could see was their conviction that he was a sinner. And so in the end, when the man said, “’Never since the world began has it been heard that anyone opened the eyes of a man born blind. If this man were not from God, he could do nothing.’ They answered him, ‘You were born in utter sin, and would you teach us?’” (9:32-33).
They had God’s word going all the way back to Job that we can never understand why God allows bad things to happen—but still, they refused to give up their belief that sickness was the result of sin. That the man was blind because he deserved to be blind. Because if they were to let go of their belief that sin always resulted in sickness or some other visible punishment, then they would have to consider that they, too, might be sinners in need of a Savior.
Instead they focused on the fact that Jesus healed on the Sabbath–again. No one says, “Hallelujah! Praise God that this man who was blind can now see!”
How often does this happen in our world today? We have only to turn on the evening new to hear politicians criticize the opposing party even when they do things that move the country forward—criticize them either because it wasn’t done the right way or it didn’t go far enough.
How often does this happen even in the church? How often does something good happen but still we hear complaints that “it wasn’t done the right way.”
The Jews in our gospel were so focused on the fact that Jesus wasn’t doing things the way they thought things should be done that they couldn’t even see God at work—couldn’t see Him standing right in front of them.
They were wretches in need of a Savior just as much as the blind man, just as much as John Newton, just as much as you and me—but to acknowledge this would require them to change their identity.
How about you? Do you know that you’re a wretch in need of a Savior? A wretch in need of the amazing grace that comes only through Jesus Christ?
For the Pharisees, Jesus wasn’t following Moses—their understanding of Moses—so they were certain He could not be from God. These were men who revered the Scriptures and were zealots for pious behavior and practices, such as prayer and fasting. They were often in worship and gave generously and sacrificially to God’s work. Yet they were among the principal instruments used by Satan to hang Jesus on the cross.
They are not an extinct breed.
Whenever we’re unable to rejoice in the saving and renewing of lives simply because the instrument used wasn’t someone that we think is living the way they should, whenever we find that we have lost our sense of joy in the grace of God by which alone we know Him and live before Him, we need to beware. The only security against becoming a Pharisee is grace, which is perhaps the reason the Lord may from time to time allow us to stumble in our Christian walk so that we may have an opportunity to rediscover it.
Luther: “There is no cure for spiritual pride like a little overeating, oversleeping or overdrinking.”
Luther knew that all of us are sinners—wretches in need of salvation. He also understood that we have a tendency to think that we’re better than others, often on the basis of how we look on the outside. Surely people who have good health and good jobs and a nice home and food to eat and children who are doing the right things are being blessed by God for their own goodness—have you ever thought this?
And if we believe deep in our hearts that this is true, then just as surely, people who don’t have their act together on the outside—maybe their kids are in trouble all the time, maybe their house is in need of repair or their yard is a mess, maybe they don’t seem to have any regular employment—surely they’re just reaping the results of their own bad choices and behavior. Right?
Surely if they’re kicked off the ship because nobody likes them, surely if they’re born blind, that means that God doesn’t like them any better than I do and they deserve everything that’s happening to them—right?
Brothers and sisters in Christ, let’s search our own hearts and minds and souls this morning and ask ourselves: have we ever thought this way?
Because Jesus, when His own disciples indicated that this is the way they thought, said, “It is not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be displayed in him.”
If there are people around you who are struggling, who are suffering, who need help, Jesus is saying, they’re there so that you can help them. So that you can display the works of God in them.
God allowed John Newton to come near to death in order to get His attention, to make him realize that he was a wretch in need of grace. Jesus came into the world to show us that every single one of us is a wretch in need of His amazing grace. And He came into the world to make that grace freely available to any of us who would recognize our own wretchedness and believe in Him. Follow Him.
Will you accept what He offers—even when it makes no sense, even when you can’t understand it? Or will you cling stubbornly to your own wrong ideas, preferring the familiar darkness to giving up what you think you can’t live without?
Although John Newton, at the end of his life, was physically blind and unable to see, spiritually his eyes had been opened years earlier.
The choice is yours.
Let us pray.