This post is written by Jeremy Writebol and is published as a companion to Unit 12, Session 4 of The Gospel Project for Adults Vol. 4 (Summer 2022): From Unity to Division.
Toward the end of his life, the pastor and hymn writer, John Newton, was visited by a friend. In the course of the conversation, one of the last things Newton would say summed up the scope of his life. “My memory is nearly gone, but I remember two things: That I am a great sinner and that Christ is a great Savior.” For Newton, this was no throw-away line. It was the lived experience and truth that he had come to know under the “Amazing Grace” of God.
John Newton’s Unrighteousness
As a young man Newton lived chasing the values and wicked pursuits of the world. A litany of his depravity would cause many to blush, but his notorious life of wickedness earned him the role of captain on a slave-trade ship. He was a merchant of his fellow man, trafficking human beings to be sold as property across the Atlantic Ocean. And then God’s mercy profoundly invaded his life. While in a violent storm at sea, he encountered the truths of God’s love and mercy, and he came to faith in Christ. Mercy and love broke in on his desperately wicked heart and changed the entire course of his life.
I like to tell people about John Newton when they express to me how sure they are that God could never love or forgive them. The expansive love of God has the capacity to show mercy and save even the worst of sinners.
The apostle Paul, if he was alive during Newton’s times, would probably say his story exceeds Newton’s. Unlike Newton, Paul wasn’t a morally repugnant human being. If anything, he was an utterly devout and upright saint. He had the Jewish Scriptures memorized and he could probably quote the best Jewish theologians of his time. He was trained in the best religious school in the world. His résumé of moral uprightness was without blemish (see Phil. 3:4-6). He terrorized the new Christians by tossing them in jail, overseeing their persecution, even approving of their murder. His self-righteousness and unrighteousness were unmatched.
That is until the grace of God broke into his heart and Jesus rescued him from a life of self-righteous arrogance and pride. Paul described it this way, “This saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance: ‘Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners’—and I am the worst of them” (1 Tim. 1:15; emphasis added). And yet he uncovered why God was so gracious to him. In the very next verse he proclaimed, “But I received mercy for this reason, so that in me, the worst of them, Christ Jesus might demonstrate his extraordinary patience as an example to those who would believe in him for eternal life” (1 Tim. 1:16).
A Greater Savior
The point is this, whether you are the most immoral and violently wicked person in the world or the most upright, proud, and self-righteous spiritual performer in the world, God’s mercy extends to the John Newtons and the Pauls of Tarsus and absolutely everyone in between, including you. Can you sing “Amazing Grace,” John Newton’s famous hymn, without realizing what God has done to save a wretch like me? Paul broadcast that “when the kindness of God our Savior and his love for mankind appeared, he saved us” (Titus 3:4-5). What wonderful good news, what incredible love, what amazing grace God has shown us. We are great sinners, but Christ is a greater Savior!
 Jonathan Aitken, John Newton: From Disgrace to Amazing Grace (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2007), 347.
Jeremy Writebol is the Lead Campus Pastor at Woodside Bible Church in Plymouth, Michigan. He is also the Executive Director of Gospel-Centered Discipleship (GCD). He has served in pastoral ministry full- time for over twenty years and is the author of several books. He is married to Stephanie and is the father of Allison and Ethan.