Of the many assignments I received in college, one that I remember vividly was to write my own epitaph. Not my obituary but my epitaph – the words that would mark my headstone and final resting place on earth.
Pretty daunting, right? Especially for an 18-year-old kid.
I don’t remember what I wrote, but now, many years later, the words do matter – while I still have time to make them come true.
Loving Husband, Father, and Grandfather.
Herald of the Gospel.
Servant of Christ.
If you were given the opportunity to compose your epitaph, what would you write? Over 200 years ago, one man accepted the challenge and left a legacy – with his life and with his words – that endures to this day.
John Newton was born in England in 1725. As he grew, he did so without any real religious beliefs or convictions. He began his seagoing career as an apprentice aboard a ship, was later pressed into service with the Royal Navy, and subsequently became a slave trader. During his far-from-illustrious career, he was chained like a slave aboard his own ship and actually enslaved for a time on a plantation in Sierra Leone. He openly opposed faith in God, mocked others who professed their faith, and denounced God as a myth.
In 1748, John’s ship encountered a violent storm in the North Atlantic. Pleading for God’s mercy, he and his remaining shipmates eventually landed in Ireland. After this harrowing experience, he began to reflect on what had transpired, asking himself whether he was worthy of God’s mercy or even capable of being saved from the bondage of sin.
In 1754, John ended his career as a slave trader as well as his seafaring life altogether, and he subsequently began studying Christian theology. He went on to write about his experiences in the slave trade and about his conversion, and he was ordained by the Church of England in 1764. In 1772, at the age of 47, he penned the words to what is now considered one of the greatest Christian hymns of all time:
Amazing grace! (how sweet the sound)
That sav’d a wretch like me!
I once was lost, but now am found,
Was blind, but now I see.
’Twas grace that taught my heart to fear,
And grace my fears reliev’d;
How precious did that grace appear,
The hour I first believ’d!
Thro’ many dangers, toils, and snares,
I have already come;
’Tis grace has brought me safe thus far,
And grace will lead me home.
The Lord has promis’d good to me,
His word my hope secures;
He will my shield and portion be,
As long as life endures.
Yes, when this flesh and heart shall fail,
And mortal life shall cease;
I shall possess, within the veil,
A life of joy and peace.
The earth shall soon dissolve like snow,
The sun forbear to shine;
But God, who call’d me here below,
Will be forever mine.
John Newton passed into eternity in 1807 at the age of 82. On his deathbed, he whispered to a friend, “My memory is nearly gone. But I remember two things: that I am a great sinner, and that Christ is a great Saviour.” A portion of his epitaph, which he wrote, declares:
once an infidel and libertine,
a servant of slaves in Africa,
was, by the rich mercy
of our Lord and Saviour
preserved, restored, pardoned,
and appointed to preach the faith
he had long laboured to destroy.
From trader of slaves to servant of Christ, and from enemy of the faith to preacher of the Gospel, John Newton’s life demonstrates that with the grace of Almighty God, all things are – and will always be – possible.
-- Dr. John Morris