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Hymn Writers and Their Hymns: John Newton

December 29, 2014

I Asked the Lord that I Might Grow

John Newton (1725-1807) is a man most notable for all he did to forward the evangelical spirit of the church in his time. He is known to many today for his hymns, though, in his time was mostly known for his preaching ministry. In fact, Newton wrote many of his hymns for the purpose of supplementing his sermons. The most characteristic of his hymns are those which depict, in the language of deep humiliation, his mourning for the abiding sins in his life and the sense of the withdrawal of God’s presence (a theme we see in scripture but isn’t often sung about), yet never losing assurance of his acceptance in Christ.

One of the remarkable hymns from Newton’s pen is, I Asked the Lord That I Might Grow:

I asked the Lord that I might grow
In faith, and love, and every grace;
Might more of his salvation know,
And seek more earnestly his face.

‘Twas he who taught me thus to pray;
And he, I trust, has answered prayer:
But it has been in such a way
As almost drove me to despair.

I hoped that in some favored hour,
At once he’d grant me my request;
And, by his love’s constraining power,
Subdue my sins, and give me rest.

Instead of this, he made me feel
The hidden evils of my heart,
And let the angry powers of hell
Assault my soul in every part.

Yea more, with his own hand he seemed
Intent to aggravate my woe;
Crossed all the fair designs I schemed,
Blasted my gourds*, and laid me low.

“Lord, Why is this?” I trembling cried;
“Wilt thou pursue thy worm to death?”
“’Tis in this way,” the Lord replied,
“I answer prayer for grace and faith.”

“These inward trials I employ
From self and pride to set thee free,
To break thy schemes of worldly joy,
That thou mayst seek thy all in me.”

Newton’s prayer was answered not in a way he expected, but in a way that did him the most good, for sure. In Paul Miller’s A Praying Life, he says, “We know that to become a Christian we shouldn’t try to fix ourselves up, but when it comes to praying we completely forget that. We’ll sing the old gospel hymn, ‘Just as I Am,’ but when it comes to praying, we don’t come just as we are.” Sin gave Newton (like it does us) the illusion that it is small, but the Holy Spirit laid him low.

This hymn is in some places titled, “Prayer Answered by Crosses”. You can hear the brakes screech when in verse four he writes, “Instead of this he made me feel / The hidden evils of my heart”. I’m sobered every time I read this hymn as it wells up within me the seriousness of sin and reminds us how the Lord afflicts us that he might comfort us.

If I had to guess what passage Newton was preaching on when he wrote this hymn, it would be Hebrews 12:7-11:

It is for discipline that you have to endure. God is treating you as sons. For what son is there whom his father does not discipline? If you are left without discipline, in which all have participated, then you are illegitimate children and not sons. Besides this, we have had earthly fathers who disciplined us and we respected them. Shall we not much more be subject to the Father of spirits and live? For they disciplined us for a short time as it seemed best to them, but he disciplines us for our good, that we may share his holiness. For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.

What humbling grace is given to us! May we seek God to restore us in this way so that we can live in line with the truth of the gospel rather than in accordance with a fantasy world in which we must earn God’s favor and manipulate Him to do whatever we want. May God destroy our idols and restore our sanity by showing us that we already have what we are trying to get from our idols!

* “Blasted my gourds” has been revised to “humbled my heart” in modern uses.

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