Posted by: rcottrill | January 22, 2016

Oppressed with Unbelief and Sin

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Words: John Newton (b. July 24, 1725; d. Dec. 21, 1807
Music: Germany, William Gardiner (b. Mar. 15, 1770; d. Nov. 16, 1853) from Sacred Melodies, 1815.

Links:
Wordwise Hymns (John Newton’s conversion)
The Cyber Hymnal (none)
Hymnary.org

Note: As of my writing of this blog, the hymn does not appear on the Cyber Hymnal. But it is worthy of note. Like a number of Pastor Newton’s hymns, it seems very much a personal testimony. It was published in Olney Hymns, the book he produced in 1779, with friend and poet William Cowper. Quite a number of Long Metre tunes (8.8.8.8) would fit it. Germany, the one I’ve chosen is commonly used with Jesus, Thy Blood and Righteousness.

The life of John Newton is likely better known than that of most other hymn writers. In his younger years he was a seaman, and was involved in transporting kidnapped African men and women to be sold as slaves on this side of the Atlantic. In addition to this reprehensible business, Newton was a blasphemer of such vile extremes that his profanity even terrified the hardened but superstitious sailors with whom he sailed.

The Lord finally got his attention in a violent storm at sea. So destructive did it seem that Newton thought at any moment he would be killed. When he cried out, almost without thinking, “Lord have mercy on us!” he was stunned by what he had said. A wicked man who only used God’s name to swear, how could he expect mercy? He deserved only the judgment of God. But he found in the Lord amazing grace.

The hymn is headed with the text Second Corinthians 12:9. It would be well for us to note two verses in the passage, as Newton applies them in a special way. In the context, we learn that the Apostle Paul has been troubled by some kind of physical malady (vs. 7). Exactly what this was is unknown, but he apparently felt it was hindering his ministry. He prayed on three occasions that the Lord would heal him (vs. 8), but no healing came. Instead:

“He [the Lord] said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for My strength is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore most gladly I will rather boast in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me. Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in needs, in persecutions, in distresses, for Christ’s sake. For when I am weak, then I am strong” (II Cor. 12:9-10).

Here is God’s answer to a Christian praying for healing. But John Newton took the promise of grace, applying it to himself as a greatly distressed seeking sinner, crying out for God to save him. Grace, which Newton wrote about so wonderfully in his most famous hymn, Amazing Grace, can be defined most simply God’s undeserved, unearned favour and blessing.

It is by His grace we are saved, through faith in Christ, not because of any merit or works of our own (Eph. 2:8-9). But we need grace to live the Christian life too. In that case, it becomes the “favour” of divine enablement or empowerment granted to us. And we are invited to “come boldly to the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (Heb. 4:16).

It’s in the latter sense that Paul seems to use the term grace. But Newton’s application of it to saving grace (and beyond) certainly makes sense too. And we get a powerful and moving sense of the extremity of his despair in this hymn. He was delivered from the storm, but then what? We see him here as he struggled for several days with his own guilt, and sought to find an answer.

As a point of interest, notice the words “fightings without, and fears within” in the first stanza. More than four decades after Olney Hymns was published, Charlotte Elliott used almost the same wording in stanza three of her great hymn, Just as I Am–“Fightings and fears within, without, / O Lamb of God, I come.” Perhaps a reading of Newton’s work suggested it to her, but the struggle is not unique to either one. Newton’s hymn says:

1) Oppressed with unbelief and sin,
Fightings without, and fears within;
While earth and hell, with force combined,
Assault and terrify my mind.

2) What strength have I against such foes,
Such hosts and legions to oppose?
Alas! I tremble, faint, and fall,
Lord save me, or I give up all.

3) Thus sorely pressed I sought the Lord,
To give me some sweet, cheering word;
Again I sought, and yet again,
I waited long, but not in vain.

Then comes the joyous turning:

4) O, ‘twas a cheering word indeed!
Exactly suited to my need;
“Sufficient for thee is My grace,
Thy weakness my great pow’r displays.”

5) Now despond and mourn no more,
I welcome all I feared before;
Though weak, I’m strong, though troubled, blessed.
For Christ’s own pow’r shall on me rest.

6) My grace would soon exhausted be,
But His is boundless as the sea;
Then let me boast with holy Paul,
That I am nothing, Christ is all.

Questions:
1) Have you, or has anyone you know, gone through the struggles of the soul pictured in the hymn?

2) What Scripture meant the most, in your (or their) journey toward the light?

Links:
Wordwise Hymns (John Newton’s conversion)
The Cyber Hymnal (none)
Hymnary.org


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