In 1800 John Newton felt his body failing him. He was almost blind, he was becoming increasingly deaf, and his mind was not as sharp as it had been. He wrote what he thought would be his last letter to his good friend William Bull. In the letter he asks for Bull to pray for him, saying:
I have known good men in advanced life garrulous, peevish, self-important, with some symptoms of jealousy, and perhaps envy, towards those who are upon the increase while they feel themselves decreasing.
Newton also had hoped that once the Lord had clearly “laid him aside” that he would graciously remove himself and rejoice at others that are beginning ministry. Though never garrulous, peevish, or any of those other loathsome vices it does appear that Newton had a difficult time stepping aside.
In 1804 he absolutely botched the wedding of his Bull’s son Thomas. He had to stop and start over several times. Even on occasion having to ask the congregation what he was supposed to do next. Yet even up until 1806 he was still preaching though everyone seemed to be encouraging him against it.
Newton kept a very strong opinion that he could still deliver sermons. “I cannot stop. What! Shall the old African blasphemer stop while he can speak?” But clearly he couldn’t still preach. As William Bull noted, “Everybody else shakes his head and laments that he preaches at all…His understanding is in ruins, yet its very ruins are precious”.
The old African blasphemer wanted to glorify God with every day of his life. Even though he could barely see or even remember much he knew two things, “That I am a great sinner and Christ is a great savior”. He desired to be a fool for Christ until the day that he died.
Honestly, I’m not sure what to take from this little historical tidbit. Part of me wants to say that we ought to follow Newton in being absolutely spent for the glory of God. Even if we stumble and bumble through sermons because our mind and our eyes are shot if we are desiring to glorify Christ then he’ll use broken and weak vessels.
But the other part of me thinks that Newton should have stepped down and that he wasn’t being a very good shepherd. If a shepherds hands are so feeble that he can barely feed his flock wouldn’t it be loving to give way to a more apt shepherd? Is it possible that sometimes the most God glorifying thing we can do is step down and let another take our place?
What do you think?