In the age of the tall sailing ships, the lives of sailors were often in peril. If one was washed overboard in the driving tempests of a storm, the ship couldn’t turn about to save him. He’d be lost at sea.
Sailors, in fact, fastened nets along the sides of ships to strain them out from crashing waves. The safety nets were their only hope if knocked off their feet and sloshing about on deck.
At sea, the sailors had to fight to save their ships during storms, because if ships sank, the crews were left to the fate of drowning and being eaten by sea creatures. There were no radios for signaling SOS, and there were no helicopters for search and rescue.
The life-sustaining nature of the ship is among the reasons ships were often named with feminine names, had mastheads of female figures and thought of as mothers. The ships provided sustenance and security for sailors.
Sailors were a raucous bunch who postured with skill, muscle and foul language. Many were hard as stone. Among the hardest of those who “cussed like a sailor” was John Newton, a sailor on the slave ship Greyhound.
Newton was a wretch — bad to the bone. The slave trader seemed to pride himself on his foul mouth. He was blasphemous against God and taught other sailors not to believe in God. Religion was not for him; he was strong on his own and didn’t need it. He had become blind to the truth of the universal need for salvation.
Back on the seashore, though, there was a praying mother. She prayed that God would help her son remember the Scriptures she had taught him at her side.
Leaving the story there for a moment…
In ministerial training, a seasoned professor told our class, “Guys, you’ve got to get congregants aware of their needs before you can meet their needs with the message of salvation.”
He meant that our sermons must heal people’s blindness to evil and to the frailty of mortality, so they could see their need for a savior. Whether a homily is based on a text or a biblical character, the underlying theme of the sermon was this: 1) All men are sinners. 2) You’re a man; and therefore, 3) you need to be saved.”
As the favorite of hymns, “Amazing Grace,” has it: “I once was lost, but now am found. Was blind, but now I see.”
The Rev. Billy Graham used the formula taught by my professor. He preached on the consequences of sin (get people lost) and the invitation of salvation (get respondents found), and he invited people, even the worst of the worst, to step out for redemption.
John Newton was once about to sink in a relentless storm. Becoming too exhausted to man the pumps, he was strapped to the helm to hold her steady.
While the wind and waves raged, breaking off planks from the ship, his mother’s Scriptures came to mind. In the mess, he realized he was a mess. “Was blind, but now I see.” The grim reaper was swinging his sickle to rip out Newton’s life while he was without God or his Son.
Later, Newton was to pen, “T’was grace that taught my heart to fear.” Face to face with mortality, he finally saw, via Scripture, his vulnerability and need for God, the embrace of the immortal.
Full of fear struck by impending doom, believing the ship might sink into the abyss, thinking he might be lost at sea, thinking he might become food for the monsters of the deep, Newton opened his eyes to his need, acknowledged God, repented of his wretched ways and asked Christ to come into his heart (March 21, 1748).
In that very moment, he felt the euphoric relief of salvation. “T’was grace that taught my heart to fear and grace, my fear RELIEVED.” Mama’s prayers were answered.
The storm finally subsided, and the hulk of a ship remained afloat.
Newton became an old man who attended Bible studies and wrote hymns. He wrote the most favorite hymn of the English-speaking world: “Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me. I once was lost, but now am found. T’was blind but now I see.”
The hymn is on 11,000 music albums and said to be sung 10 million times each year.