Newton, John. “Prayers Answered by Crosses.” Olney Hymns, 1779.

Introduction

In his preface to the Olney Hymnbook, John Newton writes, “As the workings of the heart of man, and of the Spirit of God, are in general the same in all who are the subjects of grace, I hope most of these hymns, being the fruit and expression of my own experience, will coincide with the views of real Christians of all denominations. But I cannot expect that every sentiment I have advanced will be universally approved.” Newton was referring to his strong Calvinistic views. It came out in his writing and preaching, and it certainly came out in his hymns. Newton had a rock-solid grip on the sovereignty of God in all things. As the LORD would say, “I form light and create darkness; I make well-being and create calamity; I am the LORD, who does all these things” (Isa. 45:7). Newton knew that God had, as the 1689 Baptist Confession of Faith elucidates, “decreed in himself, from all eternity, by the most wise and holy counsel of his own will, freely and unchangeably, all things, whatsoever comes to pass,” including human suffering.

The hymn entitled “Prayers Answered by Crosses” (or otherwise known as “I asked the Lord that I might grow” after the first line in the hymn) is a gripping and heart-stirring piece of music written, as is stated above, by deep Christian experience. Newton articulates with simple rhyme the very heart of sanctification by affliction. William Cowper, his longtime friend, assisted Newton in writing the Olney Hymbook. Cowper, however, fell mentally ill and died and was unable to complete the project with his friend. Newton picked up the pieces and penned, in this writer’s opinion, a sermonic hymn akin to the shattering, shaping and sanctification of saintly Job. One can almost hear the dialog between the LORD and Satan. “Does Job fear God for nothing?” Satan asks, “But stretch out your hand and touch all that he has, and he will curse you to your face.” And the LORD said to Satan, “Behold, all that he has is in your hand. Only against him do not stretch out your hand” (Job 1:9,11-12a). This is the intense predicament in which we find Newton writing this most beloved hymn.
The hymn contains seven stanzas in a simple ABAB style where every other line’s final syllable rhymes, a style commonly found in the Shakespearean sonnet. Each line in the stanza is composed of no more than eight words. It is written in the historical present form and in a very conversational way.

Stanza I

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.

The hymn begins with recalling a former prayer. Newton asks the Lord for growth in the Christian life. He asks the Lord for it in five areas: faith, and love and every grace, that he might know more of the salvation of the Lord and seek more earnestly his face. The prayer contained nothing particular, yet it contained the sum of all godly living – loving God with all that we are and loving our neighbor as ourselves. Faith, love and every grace are needed to walk in an upright way in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation. Not only that they are necessary for being salty in a rotting world. Newton’s request was for the benefit of not only himself but for those around him. He also asks to know more of the salvation of the Lord and for grace to seek God’s face. Echoes of Ps. 105:4, “Seek his face always,” stir in the reader’s heart. Newton welds together both the knowledge of the Lord and the love of the Lord. He desires to know more of the salvation of the Lord, the inner workings of the gospel of grace, and at the same time to seek, more earnestly, God’s face. Seeking the face of God is seeking to love him for him alone, not what He gives. It is a delight in God because of God alone. He recognizes a deficiency and asks for this seeking to be granted “more earnestly” than it had been before.

Stanza II

‘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.

God taught him to pray this way. Reminiscent of Matt. 6 where the Christ taught his disciples to pray, Newton recognized that this was the pattern. The above-mentioned elements in the first stanza are what contain the heart of Christian prayer. Newton recognized that if this was the way to pray, as taught by God, then he could trust that God would answer those prayers. When we pray according to the will of God, God answers prayer. It was how the prayer was answered that brought Newton into a humble frame. As he says it almost drove him to despair. It seems, as the following stanza will show, this providence took Newton by surprise.

Stanza III

I hoped that in some favored hour,
At once He’d answer my request;
And by His love’s constraining pow’r,
Subdue my sins, and give me rest.

The surprise of the providence can be seen in the fact that Newton hoped that, by asking for growth in grace, faith, and love, God would answer his request in a more favorable way. He hoped that by the constraining power of God’s love that his sin would be subdued and he would receive rest from toil over it. This is reminiscent of 2 Cor. 5:14-15 where the Apostle explains that it is the love of God shown in the cross of Christ that compels him to obedience that “those who live might no longer live for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised.” What is striking about this stanza is the way in which Newton desired to grow in grace. It was “in some favored hour” and “at once” that he desired God to work. Every Christian desires to grow in grace in favorable times, yet rarely is this the case. Rarely do our sins just go away by some supernatural work. The flesh is tricky and can turn even the grace of God into an idol (Rom. 6:1). God chose another way to sanctify Newton.

Stanza IV

Instead of this, He made me feel
The hidden evils of my heart;
And let the angry pow’rs of hell
Assault my soul in every part.

Instead of growth at once in a favorable hour, God chose to expose Newton’s sin. God chose heart work. Further God’s goal of sanctifying Newton was brought about by demonic power being allowed to assault Newton’s soul in every part. Here, echoes of Job cannot be missed (Job 1:6-22) and here Newton’s full-orbed understanding of the utter sovereignty of God shines. He understood that nothing happened to him outside of the control of Almighty God, whether good or bad (Rom. 8:28). Not only this he could detect the difference between the weighty feeling of the evil of his own heart and a demonic assault (Jam. 1:14; Eph. 6:12). It seems that this was not Newton’s first experience with this sort of thing. A keen observation like this seems to only come with much experience.

Stanza V

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.

An important, yet not explicitly stated, theological point is made here. Newton makes a distinction between the angry powers of hell and God’s own hand. This is important because, though Newton is quite right that God’s own hand can and does aggravate woe, God cannot be charged as the author of evil. Newton recognized further the difference between the hidden evils of his heart, the angry powers of hell, and God’s own hand. Again, a keen observation, yet what is the lesson? “Many are the plans in the mind of a man, but it is the purpose of the LORD that will stand” (Prov. 19:21). God crossed the seemingly good plans of Newton and, like Jonah, took away the comfort Newton once had from God’s own hand (Jon. 4:6).

Stanza VI

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.

In a possible play on words from Jonah 4, Newton cries out to the Lord in recognition that God is majestic and he is but a worm (it was a worm that destroyed Jonah’s comfortable gourd tree). Finding no comfort, Newton wonders if whether or not God will pursue him to the point of death, which is not an altogether inconceivable conclusion (1 Cor. 11:30; Prov. 29:1). The God of the Bible kills people. The answer to Newton’s question is surprising yet settling. It is in this way, the way of exposing sin, soul assault, and aggravating woe that God answers prayer for grace and faith. God would not have Newton to own grace and faith in name only, the bare husk, but to own by the hard tilling of the soil the full ear of grace and faith. What is sown is one thing, what is reaped is another. “What is sown is perishable; what is raised is imperishable. It is sown in dishonor; it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness; it is raised in power. It is sown a natural body; it is raised a spiritual body” (1 Cor. 15:42b-44a). Growth in grace and faith, in other words, resurrection life, or stated another way, resurrection from the dead, does not begin at death. It begins now (Col. 3:1). We must now begin to bear the image of the man of heaven (1 Cor. 15:49). This comes through hard providence.

Stanza VII

These inward trials I employ,
From self, and pride, to set thee free;
And break thy schemes of earthly joy,
That thou may’st find thy all in Me.”

All of the trial Newton experience was inward. It was a spiritual battle. It was heart work. God used these things to wound yet to cure. He sought to do two overarching things. First to break off sin, and second to fill Newton’s heart with the joy of desiring God for God alone. Self and pride were weights of sin that slowed the progress of sanctification. Not only this but earthly joy had to be addressed. This is not so much joy in earthly things, as is fitting in due proportion (Ps. 111:2, etc.), but earthly joy as to its quality. Heavenly joy is what settles our hearts when earthly things come and go. All of this, Newton found, was for the benefit of enjoying God for God. God will have no competitors. No idol in the heart can stand. God must remove the world in order that the heart may more closely cling to him and desire him alone.

Conclusion

Just as a man whose muscles are never used grows weaker and weaker by the day, so grace, unexercised, languishes. Calm seas make for unskilled sailors. Untried grace makes for worldly saints. Newton knew by experience God’s chastising hand. He knew that it came from a loving father and not a wrathful judge. He knew that in all the pain God was sovereign. “Faithful are the wounds of a friend, profuse are the kisses of an enemy” (Prov. 27:6). In the end, it was the faithful wounds of a friendly God that made the heart of the man cleave more and more to the Everlasting Source of Joy!