Finding God in the Story of Amazing Grace
- Tuesday, February 20, 2007
Elizabeth Newton, by her son's own account, was a "pious, experienced Christian"1 – a woman whose life was built around a solid vertical core. She was a genuine believer whose knowledge of God went deeper than mere doctrinal orthodoxy and whose experience of the Savior's love was warm and immediate and inextricably interwoven with the details of everyday existence.
That in itself simply had to rub off on young John. No doubt it would have even if his mother had never said a word to him about it. There is, after all, a great deal of truth in the old maxim that faith is more effectively caught than taught. But Mrs. Newton wasn't the kind to be content with such assurances. No; she personally directed every aspect of her son's education. She saw to it that the seeds of God's righteousness, truth, and mercy were planted deep in the soil of his soul from the earliest moments of childhood.
And so, almost from the time her son could speak, Mrs. Newton began to teach him. She took his training firmly in hand with enthusiasm, devotion, and fervent prayer. The results were impressive. At three her boy was already learning to read. By four he had practically mastered the skill. At five he was memorizing Scripture, enduring the rigors of the Catechism, and filling his mind with the words and melodies of the hymns of Isaac Watts. By six he was ready to embark on the study of Latin. And all because of the industry and care of a loving mother whose heart's desire was that her son might someday serve the Lord as a minister of the Word.
But then tragedy struck. Elizabeth died before John turned seven, the victim of her own weak constitution and the ravages of consumption (or tuberculosis), one of the deadliest and most feared maladies of the day. As a result, by the time John was twenty-one, his closest companions would have been hard pressed to detect even the slightest traces of his mother's influences upon him. Among other things, anger at God over her death drove him to abandon the path she had taught him to tread. But that, as we shall see, wasn't to be the end of the story.
Though in young manhood, Newton did his level best to "sin away" every last vestige of these early impressions, he never fully succeeded. "They returned again and again," he tells us, "and it was very long before I could wholly shake them off; and when the Lord at length opened my eyes, I found a great benefit from the recollection of them."2 In other words, Mrs. Newton's chickens eventually came home to roost.
The well-worn and oft-quoted words of Proverbs 22:6 immediately come to mind: "Train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old, he will not depart from it." It is true, of course, that many godly parents have suffered greatly because of their wayward sons' and daughters' ill choices. As wise as this saying may be, it doesn't necessarily mean it's an unqualified promise or absolute guarantee. But neither should the life-giving principle it conveys be too easily dismissed. It does, after all, make a very real difference how a child is raised. Moses acknowledged this in his instructions to the people of Israel:
"And these words which I command you today shall be in your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, when you walk by the way, when you lie down, and when you rise up." Deuteronomy 6:6-7
It needs to be said that, allowing for anomalies and departures from the rule, this kind of investment generally yields a rich dividend, a dividend that can manifest itself in surprising ways. Consider the case of young Samuel, whose course in life was fixed when his mother Hannah "lent him to the Lord" (1 Samuel 1:28); or Timothy, whose "genuine faith … dwelt first in [his] grandmother Lois and [his] mother Eunice" (2 Timothy 1:5). We know that God can use anyone or anything to draw hearts to Himself and prepare a pathway for His people. And yet there is no substitute for the tender affections of a godly mother. Newton himself felt this keenly: "[My father] was a man of remarkable good sense, and great knowledge of the world; he took great care of my morals, but could not supply my mother's part."3
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