Telling Parting Words: John Newton vs. Mr. Rogers

Author Greg Koukl Published on 02/01/2019

A person’s final words are often telling.

Consider the last words spoken by John Newton—Newton, 18th-century infidel, libertine, and slave trader; later, Newton, rector of London’s St. Mary Woolnoth, mentor and political inspiration of abolitionist William Wilberforce, author of the most beloved hymn in history, “Amazing Grace.”

For all his undeniable moral greatness, John Newton’s parting words were, “I am a great sinner, but Christ is a great Savior.”

Consider another honorable soul, the much-loved Fred Rogers—Rogers, Presidential Medal of Freedom winner, ordained United Presbyterian minister, gentle and loving mentor to generations of preschool children through his long-lived television series, Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood.

In the twilight of his years, reflecting on Jesus’ judgment parable of the sheep and the goats in Matthew 25, Fred Rogers asked his wife, Joanne, “Am I a sheep?”

John Newton, after a lifetime of noble accomplishment, confident only of his own badness and of Christ’s merciful goodness on his behalf. Fred Rogers, after a lifetime of loving, self-sacrificial service, certain only of his uncertainty—unsure of his own goodness, thus unsure of his own salvation.

Two lives; two virtuous legacies, yet two entirely different understandings of God’s grace.

It saddened me when I learned of the doubts of the decent, upright, conscientious Mr. Rogers. His wife, Joanne, had answered him, “Fred, if anyone is a sheep, you are.” It was not the right answer. Something vital was missing.

I want you to think of the words of this, the first Bible verse I ever learned more than 45 years ago: “For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, so that no one may boast” (Eph. 2:8–9). This verse—and the many like it—informs everything for me as a Christian. It always has.

I am 68 years old, and the twilight of my own life is slowly approaching—not close, I trust, but within sight. I am nowhere near as noble, as self-sacrificial, as persistently and irrevocably loving as Mr. Rogers was. No matter. That is not what counts in the final reckoning. Here is what matters:

When the kindness of God our Savior and His love for mankind appeared, He saved us, not on the basis of deeds which we have done in righteousness, but according to His mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewing by the Holy Spirit, whom He poured out upon us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that being justified by His grace we would be made heirs according to the hope of eternal life. (Titus 3:4–7)

And this:

Since we have confidence to enter the holy place by the blood of Jesus...let us draw near with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for He who promised is faithful. (Heb. 10:19–23)

And this:

For He rescued us from the domain of darkness, and transferred us to the kingdom of His beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins. (Col. 1:13–14)

Do passages like these (and there are a multitude of them) instruct your heart the way they do mine? Feast on these words. Regularly. There is life in them. Relief from self-doubt. The source of great hope, the only hope, for even the worst of us—and the best of us. These are the verses Joanne Rogers should have comforted her husband with—those that focus on Christ’s magnificent merits, not our own, feeble by contrast.

I have already chosen the epitaph for my tombstone. You’ll find it in Psalm 130:3–4. It reflects not Rogers’s sad uncertainty, but Newton’s proper confidence:

If You, Lord, should mark iniquities, O Lord, who could stand?
But there is forgiveness with You, that You may be feared.

Are you a great sinner? You know you are. So am I. And if God should mark our iniquities, then we are all done for—John Newton, Fred Rogers, you, me. But Christ is a great Savior. Never forget this. It is our only hope as darkness encroaches.