Though few modern Christians have heard of it, The Hound of Heaven is a poem that was widely admired in the early 20th century. Despite the title, there are no explicit references to dogs or hunting in this 182 line work, and the author (an Englishman by the name of Francis Thompson) apparently titled it this way simply because the image of a hunting dog on the scent of a fleeing prey embodied for him the ‘dogged’ persistence with which God pursues sinners until they are finally captured by His Grace.
This image of a relentlessly pursuing God is a startling notion for some who are more comfortable with taking credit for their personal decision to follow Christ. Yet, scripture is very clear that it is God who first chooses and then claims us by the persistence of His Grace. When Jesus invited Himself to dine at the home of Zacchaeus (Luke 19:1-9) it was Jesus who called him out of the tree where he had hidden himself, and it was the work of the Holy Spirit who had induced him to climb the tree in the first place. What may seem to us to be our personal choices are, on closer inspection, simply submission to God’s patient orchestration of our salvation.
This dogged pursuit by our gracious God is truly the heart of the salvation story of any Christian, but it is especially apparent in the stories of the many famous Christians who came to faith reluctantly (e.g., Acts 9). Though there is no reason to think that Francis Thompson wrote The Hound of Heaven with anyone other than himself in mind, the poem aptly describes how relentlessly God pursued a fellow Englishman named John Newton a century earlier.
As a young man, John Newton was distinguished primarily by his insubordinate behavior. Serving as a seaman on a slave ship, his captain (a man well used to the profanity of sailors) noted that he had never heard the likes of Newton’s filthy tongue: “not only using the worst words [he] had ever heard, but creating new ones to exceed the limits of verbal debauchery.” Ultimately Newton’s behavior became so offensive that he was chained with the slaves, and eventually sold as a slave himself for a time before he was rescued by his father and resumed his life as a sailor. A violent storm in which he nearly died eventually led him to ask whether the God he had so often ridiculed and profaned might actually be calling him.
But Newton’s conversion was not immediate. He continued to sail on slavers and repeatedly relapsed into a degenerate lifestyle. He even served as captain of his own slave ship until his health failed and he was forced to retire from sea-faring. Forced into a change in life style, Newton finally succumbed to the pressure of God’s persistent call, becoming a renowned preacher and ardent opponent of slavery. In short, Newton’s voyage of submission to God’s Grace very much resembled that of a wild animal that was eventually ‘run to ground’ by a patiently pursuing hunter.
Why is the story of John Newton notable? No, he was not the Newton who was a famous physicist (that was Isaac) nor did he have anything to do with the popular fig cookie. Rather, he was the man who gave us Amazing Grace, probably the most familiar Christian hymn of our times, whose title and lyrics express his awe of God’s incredible persistence in rescuing a ‘lost and blind’ sinner like him – and like us!
Unlike Newton, who actively disdained Christ and His church, our efforts to flee from God’s grace may take the form, not of open hostility, but of passive resistance. Rather than cursing God as he did, we may dishonor Him with tepid lip-service rather than the full-hearted commitment that He is entitled to. Whereas Newton desperately fled from accepting God’s Grace, we are more prone to crouch in thickets of apathy and excuses, hoping that God will not see fit to bother us with demands on our lives. But this passive form of resistance can be even more insidious than John Newton’s because it seems more ‘respectable’ – and thus less fatal. Yet, whether the sin that we confess is that of running away or hiding, we can be sure that the ‘Hound of Heaven,’ the Triune God of Father, Son, and Spirit, will continue to pursue us until we are finally and fully His.
“And I pray that you … [may] grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ” (Ephesians 3:17-18)