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God, the Infallible Pilot

In the fall of 1782, a 57-year-old man walked the docks of Deptford, a South London port on the Thames river. Thirty miles inland from the sea, the port was the home of the Royal Navy Dockyards, and the man looked out over the war ships and merchant vessels as he reflected on his own seafaring past. It’s not possible to know all the memories passing through his mind, but he was likely reminded of his time spent aboard a Navy ship, a few merchant ships, and even African slave trading ships. His mind certainly reflected on the brutal and uncertain life of seafaring.

The man was John Newton, and he was now a pastor, though a very unlikely one.

Newton’s life on the wine dark sea was long over. He last voyaged to Africa 28 years earlier, and the fateful night on the ship Greyhound that nearly claimed his life was now a 35-year-old memory. Here on the shores of Deptford all was peaceful, calm, and safe, a nice port for ships to be refurbished, remodeled, and repainted to their original luster.

In the Dock

On this particular walk, Newton watched the celebration at the dockyard as one majestically refurbished ship was launched back into the water of the Thames. “She slipped easily into the water; the people on board shouted; the ship looked clean and gay, she was fresh painted, and her colors flying,” he recounted in a letter to his 13-year-old adopted daughter Betsy (of a scene very similar to the banner image of this post painted at Deptford).

“The ship was beautiful,” he wrote, “but I looked at her with a sort of pity. ‘Poor ship,’ I thought, ‘you are now in port and in safety; but ere long you must go to sea. Who can tell what storms you may meet with hereafter, and to what hazards you may be exposed; how weather-beaten you may be before you return to port again, or whether you may return at all!”

His beloved daughter Betsy was now off at a boarding school. She was in the calm and safe docks of life, being prepared for the open-sea uncertainties of adulthood. As Newton thought about the ship, he thought about his daughter’s life, and about life in general. She was now in “a safe harbor; but by and by you must launch out into the world, which may well be compared to a tempestuous sea. I could even now almost weep at the resemblance; but I take courage; my hopes are greater than my fears.”

The Infallible Pilot

Many Christian parents have since expressed these same prayerful tears for their own children. The open seas of life claim lives and ships, no matter how large or beautiful or celebrated. Shipwrecks are a harsh reality in a fallen world.

“I know there is an infallible Pilot, who has the winds and the waves at his command,” Newton wrote. “There is hardly a day passes in which I do not entreat him to take charge of you. Under his care I know you will be safe; he can guide you, unhurt, amidst the storms, and rocks, and dangers, by which you might otherwise suffer, and bring you, at last, to the haven of eternal rest.”

The phrase — infallible Pilot — is one of Newton’s favorites. Newton himself was a living testimony of the infallible Pilot of souls, and he loved to use the phrase to encourage many Christian friends who struggled with doubts and unbelief and weariness in this life.

The storms will come. The storms of life are real. And that broke Newton’s heart. But there was hope in the infallible Pilot for his precious and beloved daughter. Betsy had already tasted the open sea in the death of her parents. More trials were coming. In her adult life she would battle a storm of depression that would land her in the infamous Bedlam Hospital.

Newton saw the storm clouds gathering out at sea as he stood at the docks and thought of his daughter in the docks (boarding school). “Our voyage through life will sometimes be incommoded by storms, but the Lord Jesus is an infallible, almighty Pilot. The winds and the seas obey him. None ever miscarried under his care; and he takes charge of all who entrust themselves to him.”

Vain Mortals

Security in high seas will only be found in the One who commands the high seas.

By stilling the windstorm and the waves, Jesus revealed he was Yahweh himself, and more than qualified to pilot his people and to exercise sovereign rule over all the circumstances of their lives (Mark 4:35-41).

Such a Pilot was essential for life. As Newton knew firsthand, the ocean depths amplified human powerlessness. In fact Newton once ridiculed a small embellished ceremonial ship the Italians called the Bucentaur. Once a year it was loaded with dignitaries and religious leaders and sailed out to perform a peacemaking ceremony with the sea, something analogous to a mythical marriage complete with a gold ring tossed overboard. “When the honor and government of Venice are shipped on board the Bucentaur,” Newton once wrote, “the pilot is obliged by his office to take an oath that he will bring the vessel safely back again, in defiance of winds and weather. Vain mortals!”

Vain mortals cannot defy wind or weather or guarantee anyone’s safety on the sea. Christ, the God-man, can. Not only is the ship’s wheel in the hands of Christ, so also are the winds and the waves. Together, Christ wields power to orchestrate those winds and waves to carry out his ultimate design for our voyage of faith. 

For those who love God, “all things work together for good” (Romans 8:28). This promise is easier to affirm when you are dockside, rather than when you are trying to get a grip on the Pilot in a tossing and turning ship. For believers, life in the open sea is a daily test of faith. “Me-thinks I may sum up all my wants and prayers in one sentence,” Newton once lamented, “Lord, give me faith!”

The battle for faith was coming for Betsy. It is coming for us all. Our infallible Pilot will keep the ship afloat and on course when the storm slams into the hull. The storm will drop us to our knees and strengthen our grip. But that’s what the storms are for. Clinging to money and worldly securities leads to certain shipwreck. Our battle is to trust the infallible Pilot who guides and steers this rollicking ship over the deep blue sea, and into the port of eternal rest.