John Newton has one of the most famous testimonies in Christian history.
It was an apostle Paul kind of transformation – a slave ship captain turned hymn-writing abolitionist. Almost everyone knows something about his life – even if the only thing is that he wrote arguably the most famous hymn ever, “Amazing Grace.”
Yet there are other pieces and parts of his life and theology that aren’t as well-known. That’s why it was a delight to read Tony Reinke’s powerful book, Newton on the Christian Life, and see him unpack how Newton’s theology intersected with so many areas of a Christian’s life.
One unexpected gem was finding a paragraph of advice John Newton wrote for young people – one young person, in fact, his cousin, when Newton was 74.
What Reinke shared from Newton’s letter was this:
“Youth is the time to lay the foundation of good habits, which may be useful to us in future life. I much wish you to gain a habit of punctuality with respect to time, and the want of this is very inconvenient to the person who fails, and give trouble to others; if you follow my advice, you will find the advantage long before you are so old as I am. I began to aim this almost fifty years ago, and I have seldom, if ever, been five minutes, behind my time, unless unavoidably prevented, for nearly fifty years past.”
In other words, be punctual. And let me say... this is not the advice I was expecting.
Why Punctuality Is So Important
Sure, this isn’t the only thing Newton said to young people, but he thought it was important enough to share.
At first glance, this advice might seem peevish. Yeah, being on time is nice, but is it really necessary? And aren’t most young people late anyway? It’s a different time, a different culture, a different world.
But Newton wouldn’t agree. Punctuality wasn’t a cultural issue to him; it was a gospel issue.
He believed this bad habit was symptomatic of a larger spiritual problem. Reinke explains how Newton saw this:
“Punctuality was an essential component to gospel simplicity … [which] shows in single-minded dedication to the glory of God and requires speaking the truth in love, doing to others as they should do to you, and observing a strict punctuality in dealings.”
Newton himself says in a different letter:
“[The late Christian] would do well to remember, that truth is a sacred thing, and ought not to be violated in the smallest matters, without an unforeseen and unavoidable prevention. Such a trifling turn of spirit lessens the weight of a person’s character.”
The bigger issue for Newton was truth. Faithfulness. Loving one’s neighbor. Ultimately, it came down to Christian character.
He believed punctuality is a habitual byproduct of these deeper spiritual realities.
That’s why he thought it was so dearly important for young people to learn to be truth-tellers. Christians must be people of their word.
And what better time to form these gospel habits than as a young person? That’s what Newton did. And he was punctual for over 50 years!
A Commitment Is A Commitment
We sometimes think chronic lateness is irremediable. It’s not. It can’t be. We could talk about practical strategies like setting all your clocks forward 15 minutes or downloading apps on your phone, but if you are constantly late, something bigger is going on. Something that needs more than an app to fix.
Tony Reinke says this about Newton’s beliefs:
“A commitment is a commitment. If a man’s word is important, how much more important is a Christian man’s word?”
Christians should not be habitually late. That reveals a lack of love for one’s neighbor and a dishonesty about commitment.
(And please know: I really mean habitually. Almost everyone has been late. Sometimes there are circumstances that are out of our control. But lateness should not be a regular habit.)
Fellow young people, John Newton calls us to seek to be punctual. But I believe God calls us to seek to be punctual – because that’s a reflection of our faithfulness and honesty.
As we enter this new year and you consider healthy habits, seek to be on time. When you meet your friends for coffee, get ready for church, think about your parents’ curfew, go to work, or any other time commitment you’ve made, seek to be on time.
It’s going to be counter-cultural. It’s going to weird people out. But it’s going to honor God.
And that’s why John Newton cared so much about it.