Twice recently I’ve had the opportunity to speak on the subject of God justifying (declaring as righteous) sinful people who trust in Jesus Christ to rescue them from their sin and the divine judgment it deserves. An incident from the ministry of William R. Newell, a popular Bible teacher in the opening decades of the twentieth century, illustrates this profound truth beautifully.

William R. Newell as a younger man

William R. Newell as a younger man

In 1895, at the age of twenty-seven, Newell was invited by Dwight Moody to become the assistant superintendent of Moody Bible Institute under R. A. Torrey. Newell was a gifted Bible teacher, and large audiences flocked to attend the weeks-long, city-wide Bible classes that he taught in Chicago, St. Louis and Toronto.

Once while holding daily noon meetings in the Century Theatre in St. Louis, Newell spoke on Romans 4:5 from the old King James Version of the Bible: “To him that worketh not, but believeth in Him who justifieth the ungodly, his faith is reckoned unto him for righteousness.” After the meeting, Newell was approached by a middle-aged man who introduced himself by saying: “I am Captain G—. You are speaking to the most ungodly man in St. Louis.”

“Thank God!” Newell responded. “What!” the captain exclaimed, “Do you mean you are glad that I am bad?” “No, Newell replied, “but I am certainly glad to find a sinner who knows he is a sinner.” “Oh, you do not know the half!” declared the captain, “I have been absolutely ungodly for years and years and years.” “Did you hear me preach on ‘ungodly people’ today?” Newell asked.

The captain, who was obviously under deep spiritual conviction, proceeded to divulge: “I have been coming to these noon meetings for six weeks. I do not think I have missed a meeting. But I cannot tell you a word of what you said today. I did not sleep last night. I have hardly had any sleep for three weeks. I have gone to one man after another to find out what I should do, and I do what they say. I have read the Bible. I have prayed. I have given money away. But I am the most ungodly wretch in this town. Now what do you tell me to do? I waited here today to ask you that. I have tried everything, but I am so ungodly!”

“Now we will turn to the verse I preached on,” Newell said simply. Placing his Bible in the captain’s hands, he asked him to read the verse aloud.  “ ‘To him that worketh not, but believeth on Him that justifieth the ungodly,’ the captain began, then broke off from his reading and fairly shouted, “There! That’s what I am—ungodly.” “Then this verse is about you,” Newell assured him. “Read the verse again, please,” the evangelist gently persisted.

“ ‘To him that worketh not,’ ” the captain began again. This time Newell stopped him by pointing out: “There, the verse says not to do, and you want me to tell you something to do. I cannot do that.” “But there must be something to do,” the captain stated in distress, “If not, I shall be lost forever.”

William R. Newell as an older man

William R. Newell as an older man

“Now listen with all your soul,” Newell replied. “There was something to do, but it has been done!” He then explained how that God had so loved him, all ungodly as he was, that He sent Christ to die for the ungodly. God’s judgment had fallen on Christ, who had been forsaken by God as He paid the penalty for people’s sins there on the cross. “God raised up Christ,” Newell concluded, “and sent us preachers to beseech men, all ungodly as they are, to believe on this God who declares righteous the ungodly, on the ground of Christ’s shed blood.”

The captain suddenly leaped to his feet and stretched out his hand to the evangelist. “Mr. Newell,” he exclaimed, “I will accept that proposition!” The Lord had enabled him to understand that there was nothing he could do in terms of his own good works to make himself right in the sight of God. Instead, he needed to trust solely in Jesus and His substitutionary death for him on the cross, so his sins could be forgiven and he could be declared righteous in God’s sight through faith in Christ.

Those of us who have been justified (declared righteous) by God through faith in Jesus rightly overflow with praise and thanksgiving to God and Christ for graciously providing us with justification on that basis. Those who have not yet been justified are invited to receive it through faith in Jesus Christ as their personal Savior from sin.

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The above true story concerning William Newell is adapted from R. Kent Hughes’ 1,001 Great Stories and “Quotes” (Tyndale, 1998).

Copyright 2018 by Vance E. Christie

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