Roger Ellsworth shares a story from My coffee-cup meditations about William R. Newell. The teenage Newell was so rebellious that he brought continual heartache to his parents. His father, a pastor, pleaded with R. A. Torrey, president of Moody Bible College, to accept his son as a student. Torrey refused.
The father continued to plead, and Torrey finally agreed. While he was at Moody, Newell encountered the Word of God in a new and powerful way and became a Christian.
What did God’s Word do for him? He gives us the answer in his well-known hymn, ‘At Calvary’:
‘By God’s Word at last my sin I learned,
Then I trembled at the law I’d spurned.’
It was for Newell both a terrible and a terrific moment. Terrible? Absolutely! It is a terrible thing to learn the truth about ourselves. And the truth is that we are all sinners, and sin is an awesomely horrible thing.
What is sin? It is refusing to conform to what God requires. It is refusing to live according to God’s laws. It is thumbing our noses in the face of our Creator and saying, ‘We will not live the way you want us to live. We will live the way we want to live’.
God is not only our Creator. He is also our Judge. We must all give account of ourselves to him (Romans 14:12; Hebrews 9:27). If we stand before him in our sins, he will most surely drive us from his presence.
For several years Newell had lived without regard to his sins or to the God that he was destined to meet. He had lived in ‘vanity and pride’. But in that terrible moment when he was confronted by God’s Word, he ‘trembled’ at the law, God’s law, that he had ‘spurned’.
To spurn something is to reject it with an attitude of contempt or disdain. Imagine it! Going through life without knowing anything about God’s laws, or knowing about them and not caring! Then it hits you one day that this God is real, that you have to meet him, and all your life you have been a ‘spurner’.
You go through the Ten Commandments, and you realise that you have broken each one again and again. You are a law-breaker who must stand before the lawgiver. It’s no wonder that Newell said he ‘trembled at the law’ he had ‘spurned’. How could he, a law-breaker, ever stand acceptably in the presence of the holy lawgiver?
But Newell’s terrible moment was also his terrific moment. When people realize that they are sinners and begin to tremble over their sins and the judgment to come, they are in a position to receive God’s remedy for law-breakers. That remedy? It is Calvary, the place where the Lord Jesus Christ was crucified.
By the grace of God, Newell came to understand that Jesus was not on that cross to pay for His own law-breaking because he, Jesus, never broke any of God’s laws (1 John 3:5). He was there to receive the penalty for our law-breaking — eternal separation from God — so all who received Christ would never have to pay that same penalty.
What an astounding thing! On the cross, the lawgiver took the penalty of law-breakers! And because Jesus took it, there is now no penalty for those who do as Newell did and turn to Christ.
In his hymn, Newell looks back over his life and expresses double amazement. He is amazed at how he had lived and amazed that there could be pardon for one who had lived as he had. Try to imagine the joy he felt when he penned these lines:
‘Mercy there was great, and grace was free;
Pardon there was multiplied to me;
There my burdened soul found liberty,
In John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress, the major character, Christian, came to the cross, gave three leaps for joy, and went on singing:
‘Thus far did I come laden with my sin,
Nor could aught ease the grief that I was in,
Till I came hither. What a place is this!
Must here be the beginning of my bliss!’
The greatest of all knowledge is to know ourselves to be sinners. It will be terrible when we come to know that, but that knowledge will lead us on to that which is terrific indeed: salvation through Christ.
Roger Ellsworth has served as pastor of several Baptist churches and is now retired and resides with his wife Sylvia in Jackson, Tennessee. He has authored many books on the Bible and Christian life, including his latest series, My coffee-cup meditations, from which this extract is taken with kind permission (http://www.mycoffeecupmeditations.com).