On Millstones, the Sea, Sin – and Amazing Grace!

“Millstones…” Isn’t it strange how our train of thought takes an unusual tangent, when we are disturbed by something we hear on the news? The particular item I refer to is that of a recent report on the clerical abuse of children throughout Ireland. This abuse spanned a period of many years we are told – who knows how long? Well actually, God knows. In fact there is nothing He doesn’t know, hence the term that we use to describe His nature – “omniscient.” Every word spoken in secret, every evil and clandestine behaviour on the part of man (or woman) – He knows it all, and some day everything shall be exposed!  (Matt. 12v36; 1Cor. 4v5; Rev. 20v12).

“But whoso shall offend one of these little ones which believe in me, it were better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and that he were drowned in the depth of the sea,” Jesus tells us in Matthew 18v6. Having had an opportunity to view millstones in an old converted mill, I was impressed by how solid and massively heavy they were. There is no way that they could be lifted by ordinary human hands! Many would be of the opinion that these abusers deserved ‘a millstone necklace, and to be subsequently launched into the sea.’ As a mother, I felt justifiably furious by the idea that people in positions of ‘spiritual’ authority would use those positions to abuse children, given that we can never even begin to estimate the psychological damage sustained by the victims.

Then I thought of those millstones again – and the sea, and someone who had been a sailor. This person had taken advantage of his position to abuse African slaves on board ship, during the vile slave trade of the 18th century.

The seas were often treacherous on his long journeys back to his native England, but it was on one such journey that the Lord spoke to John Newton. On March 9th 1748 he happened to pick up and read a Christian book that he found in his cabin. Already disturbed by the contents of this book, the infamous slave trader became terrified the following day when the ship was caught up in a violent storm. Sadly, one man was swept overboard and the vessel severely damaged by the crashing waves. However the Lord used this terrifying situation to bring John Newton to his knees. He became acutely aware of his sin, to such an extent that he was convinced that he could not be forgiven. For weeks his ship drifted at sea, violently tossed to and fro by the angry waves; furthermore the crew were rapidly running out of rations. But during this time John Newton searched the scriptures, with a desire in his heart to get right with God. Then, miraculously, the winds abated and the ship found a safe haven in Irish waters, anchoring on the shores of the lovely Lough Swilly, County Donegal.

Here the locals helped the crew to repair the damaged ship and John Newton came to see that God’s grace and mercy is extended to the most ‘hopeless’ sinner – even him. Soon others noticed the changed life of this man who “once was blind – but now could see.” How marvellous that one who once blasphemed the Saviour’s name was inspired to write some of the most beautiful poetry and hymns in the English language. Perhaps the best known of these today is “Amazing Grace.” Written in 1772, it lived on to touch hearts over the centuries and continues to be sung even at secular events today. His numerous other hymns include: “How Sweet the name of Jesus Sounds” and “In evil long I took delight.”

Having been a drunken infidel, sunk in the mire of the deepest sins known to mankind, John Newton had put His trust in Jesus who still calls out to all who will hear His voice today: “For what is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul? Or what shall a man give in exchange for his soul?” (Matthew 16v26).

Whether a man wears the robes of a priest or bishop, or the rags of a debauched John Newton, is irrelevant to God, for He can see beyond the outward appearance, to the ‘inward man’ and his spiritual condition. In 1Samuel 16v7, we learn that… “Man looketh on the outward appearance, but the Lord looketh on the heart.” What is more, He is willing to forgive the most awful sins of mankind, providing that they repent and put their trust in the finished work of our Lord Jesus Christ at Calvary; He wants too, to heal the victims of abuse and crime.

Most of us have probably never sunk to the depths of depravity that John Newton sank to, but every one of us needs a Saviour, and not one of us will get to heaven without taking the humble route that John Newton took! Whether we wear a clerical robe, a salesman’s suit, a police uniform, or a judge’s wig – we must get right with God, if we have not already done so. We need to recognise the truth in those words in Romans 3v23… “For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God;” Then we must be willing to let God put matters right, by simply repenting of our sins and asking Him to take over our lives.

When we do this, it will be as if “our sins have been cast into the midst of the sea;” we read in many portions of scripture of the great mercy of God in this respect. While men may find it hard to forgive us, God does not remember our sins and hold them against us, when we are truly repentant, turning away from sin in His strength. “He will turn again, he will have compassion upon us; he will subdue our iniquities; and thou wilt cast all their sins into the depths of the sea.” (Micah 7v19). He is “not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance.” (2Peter 3v9) Not willing that a millstone be hanged around anyone’s neck, but rather that their sins would be cast into the sea! If the Lord can bring about dramatic changes in the life of a man like John Newton, there is no limit to what He can do with your life, whatever it has consisted of in the past! Please trust Him now – for your destination for all eternity depends upon it, and in this life God can use you for His glory, just as He used His servant, John Newton.

© Elizabeth Burke 2008

Link for hymn: “Amazing Grace”: http://www.cyberhymnal.org/htm/a/m/a/amazing_grace.htm

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