I’ll take another dose of that, please

The Church has had greater intellects but I doubt she’s ever had a better counselor than John Newton.

In a letter to Lord Dartmouth, Newton addresses the universal plight of every Christian–that our actual lives fall far short of our convictions and desires. Newton illustrates the disparity between our desires and practice by considering the essential practices of prayer and Scripture reading.

Concerning prayer:

[The Christian] would willingly enjoy God in prayer. He knows that prayer is his duty; but, in his judgment, he considers it likewise as his greatest honor and privilege. In this light he can recommend it to others, and can tell them of the wonderful condescension of the great God, who humbles himself to behold the things that are in heaven, that He should stoop so much lower, to afford his gracious ear to the supplications of sinful worms upon the earth. . . And in this light he would consider it and improve it for himself. But, alas; how seldom can he do as he would! How often does he find this privilege a mere task, which he would be glad of a just excuse to omit! and the chief pleasure he derives from the performance, is to think that his task is finished…

And Scripture reading:

He believes it to be the word of God: he admires the wisdom and grace of the doctrines, the beauty of the precepts, the richness and suitableness of the promises; and therefore, with David, he accounts it preferable to thousands of gold and silver, and sweeter than honey or the honeycomb. Yet, while he thus thinks of it and desires that it may dwell in him richly, and be his meditation night and day, he cannot do as he would. It will require some resolution to persist in reading a portion of it every day; and even then his heart is often less engaged than when reading a pamphlet.

What are we to make of these pitiful performances in our Christian lives? Rather than make light of our sin Newton would have us make much of Christ:

But though we aim at this good, evil is present within us: we find we are renewed in part, and have still cause to plead the Lord’s promise, to take away the heart of stone, and give us a heart of flesh.

…Alas! how vain is man in his best estate! How much weakness and inconsistency, even in those whose hearts are right with the Lord! and what reason have we to confess that we are unworthy, unprofitable servants!

It were easy to enlarge in this way, would paper and time permit. But, blessed be God, we are not under the law but under grace. And even these distressing effects of the remnants of indwelling sin are overruled for good. By these experiences the believer is weaned more from self, and taught more highly to prize and more absolutely rely on him, who is appointed to us of God, Wisdom, Righteousness, Sanctification, and Redemption. The more vile we are in our own eyes, the more precious He will be to us; and a deep repeated sense of the evil of our hearts is necessary to preclude all boasting, and to make us willing to give the whole glory of our salvation to where it is due. Again, a sense of these evils will (when hardly anything else can do it) reconcile us to the thoughts of death; yea, make us desirous to depart that we may sin no more, since we find depravity so deep-rooted in our nature, that, like the leprous house, the whole fabric must be taken down before we can be freed from its defilement. Then, and not till then, we shall be able to do the thing that we would: when we see Jesus, we shall be transformed into his image, and have done with sin and sorrow forever. [John Newton to Lord Dartmouth, Letter 1, February 1772 in Letters of John Newton, pp 88-92]

That is good medicine for the soul and I need more.

Although I am in the wilderness

Help me to see that although I am in the wilderness
it is not all briars and barrenness.

I have bread from heaven, streams from the rock,
light by day, fire by night,
thy dwelling place and thy mercy seat.

I am sometimes discouraged by the way,
but though winding and trying it is safe
and short;

Death dismays me, but my great high priest
stands in its waters,
and will open me a passage,
and beyond is a better country.

While I live let my life be exemplary,
When I die may my end be peace.

The Valley of Vision, “Shortcomings”

The terrible necessity of tribulation

Let Him but sheathe that sword for a moment and I behave like a puppy when the hated bath is over…

I am progressing along the path of life in my ordinary contentedly fallen and godless condition, absorbed in a merry meeting with my friends for the morrow or a bit of work that tickles my vanity today, a holiday or a new book, when suddenly a stab of abdominal pain that threatens serious disease, or a headline in the newspapers that threatens us all with destruction, sends this whole pack of cards tumbling down. At first I am overwhelmed, and all my little happinesses look like broken toys. . . . And perhaps, by God’s grace, I succeed, and for a day or two become a creature consciously dependent on God and drawing its strength from the right sources. But the moment the threat is withdrawn, my whole nature leaps back to the toys. . .

Thus the terrible necessity of tribulation is only too clear. God has had me but forty-eight hours and then only by dint of taking everything else away from me. Let Him but sheathe that sword for a moment and I behave like a puppy when the hated bath is over–I shake myself as dry as I can and race off to reacquire my comfortable dirtiness, if not in the nearest manure heap, at least in the nearest flower bed. And that is why tribulations cannot cease until God either sees us remade or sees that our remaking is now hopeless.

— C. S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain

Newton’s encouragement for dark days

The ship was safe when Christ was in her, though He was really asleep. At present I can tell you good news, though you know it: He is wide awake, and his eyes are in every place. You and I, if we could be pounded together, might perhaps make two tolerable ones. You are too anxious, and I am too easy in some respects. Indeed I cannot be too easy, when I have a right thought that all is safe in his hands; but if your anxiety makes you pray, and my composure makes me careless, you have certainly the best of it. However, the ark is fixed upon an immovable foundation; and if we think we see it totter, it is owing to swimming in our heads. Seriously, the times look dark and stormy, and call for much circumspection and prayer; but let us not forget that we have an infallible Pilot, and that the power, and wisdom, and honor of God, are embarked with us.

–John Newton, “To the Rev. John Ryland.” Letter I. 31 July 1773. Letters of John Newton

Flatterers everywhere

If I were a Protestant Pope, I would issue a papal decree requiring all the faithful to read Pilgrim’s Progress.

And as [Christian and Hopeful] were thinking about the way, behold, a man black of flesh, but covered with a very light robe, came to them, and asked them why they stood there. They answered, they were going to the Celestial City, but knew not which of these two ways to take.

FLATTERER: Follow me; I am going there.

So they followed him in the way that but now came into the road, which by degrees turned and turned them so from the city that they desired to go to, that in a little time their faces were turned away from it, yet they followed him. But by and by, before they were aware, he led them both within the compass of a net in which they were both so entangled that they knew not what to do; and with that the white robe fell off the black man’s back. Then they saw where they were. Wherefore there they lay crying some time for they could not get themselves out.

CHRISTIAN: Now do I see myself in an error. Did not the Shepherds bid us beware of the Flatterer? As is the saying of the wise man, so we have found it this day: “A man that flatters his neighbor, spreads a net for his feet” (Prov 29:5).

HOPEFUL: They also gave us a note of directions about the way, for our more sure finding thereof; but therein we have also forgotten to read, and not kept ourselves from the path of the destroyer. Here David was wiser than we, for, “Concerning the works of men, by the word of thy lips, I have kept me from the paths of the destroyer” (Psalm 17:4).

A few takeaways:

  1. Flattery is a danger to all of us. We’re not told what Flatterer said to mislead the pilgrims so maybe the point isn’t the content of the flattery but its results; not so much how they were deceived but that they were deceived. Flattery doesn’t work from a fixed script. It’s revised and edited for the man and his times. We’re always susceptible.
  2. Flatterer has the form of godliness. He appears to be a fellow traveler: he meets the pilgrims on the path to the King’s City, he’s dressed in Christian garb, and he professes to share the same destination. The most dangerous flattery comes from the one who professes to be one of us.
  3. Flatterer works at the fork in the road. He appears as the pilgrims are trying to decide which path to take and their indecision is his opportunity to lure them off the path. Reject the smooth talk; read (and trust) your directions.
  4. Flattery leads us astray “by degrees.” Turning our faces away from the King and his City rarely, if ever, happens in one step but through a series of smaller steps–a misinterpretation here, a deluded sentiment there–until we find ourselves caught in the net.
  5. Only one path leads home. In a subtle but profound line Bunyan says the pilgrims followed Flatterer “in the way that but now came into the road.” Two things are worth noting here: (i) the errant path was a late addition (ii) the errant path came into the road from the outside. Beware the novel ideas and reinventions that worm their way into the faith once for all delivered to the saints.
  6. The flatterer’s net is avoidable. Read, read, read–Scripture, of course.

 

Newton: Christian life easier said than done

The Christian calling, like many others, is easy and clear in theory, but not without much care and difficulty to be reduced to practice. Things appear quite otherwise, when felt experimentally, to what they do, when only read in a book. . . . So, to renounce self, to live upon Jesus, to walk with God, to overcome the world, to hope against hope, to trust the Lord when we cannot trace him, and to know that our duty and privilege consist in these things, may be readily acknowledged or quickly learned; but, upon repeated trial, we find that saying and doing are two things. We think at setting out that we sit down and count the cost; but alas! our views are so superficial at first, that we have occasion to correct our estimate daily. For every day shows us some new thing in the heart, or some new turn in the management of the war against us which we are not aware of; and upon these accounts, discouragements may arise so high as to bring us (I speak for myself) to the very point of throwing down our arms, and making either a tame surrender or a shameful flight. Thus it would be with us at last if the Lord of hosts were not on our side. . . But if He is the Captain of our salvation, if his eye is upon us, his arm stretched out around us, and his ear open to our cry, and if He has engaged to teach our hands to war and our fingers to fight, and to cover our heads in the day of battle, then we need not fear, though a host rise up against us; but lifting up our banner in his name, let us go forth conquering and to conquer (Rom 16:20).

–John Newton, “To William Cowper,” Letter I. 30 July 1767. Letters of John Newton.

When slavery is freedom

Either we must live our lives in the clutches of soul-destroying Powers or we are delivered into the “obedience of faith.”

No one is capable of being captain of his own soul, master of her own fate. Each of us is worked upon by unconscious impulses of which we are not even aware and over which we have little control. Paul, unlike the typical American, does not think in terms of autonomous human beings. Paul proudly identifies himself as a “slave of Christ” (Gal 1:10). If the apocalyptic scenario is a picture of true reality, then no one is “free” in the domain of this world as it is. Either we must live our lives in the clutches of soul-destroying Powers or we are delivered into the “obedience of faith” (Rom 1:5; 16:26). Paradoxically, the new life in Christ can be called both slavery (the service of God) and freedom. This seeming contradiction of slavery and true freedom, which lies at the heart of the gospel, is beautifully invoked in the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer in words addressed to Christ, “whose service is perfect freedom”. . .

Being a “slave of righteousness” and a “slave of obedience” will sound intolerable to most modern ears. It takes hard mental work to enter Paul’s thought-world and understand that these phrases do not describe a bondage to a harsh puritanical code imposed upon us by a tyrannical outside force. He means the opposite. The gospel of Christ means precisely deliverance from tyrannical outside forces into a realm of light and life where “the obedience of faith” is the only natural and joyful way to be.

–Fleming Rutledge, The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ, 368-369.

Newton’s encouragement for dark days

The ship was safe when Christ was in her, though He was really asleep. At present I can tell you good news, though you know it: He is wide awake, and his eyes are in every place. You and I, if we could be pounded together, might perhaps make two tolerable ones. You are too anxious, and I am too easy in some respects. Indeed I cannot be too easy, when I have a right thought that all is safe in his hands; but if your anxiety makes you pray, and my composure makes me careless, you have certainly the best of it. However, the ark is fixed upon an immovable foundation; and if we think we see it totter, it is owing to swimming in our heads. Seriously, the times look dark and stormy, and call for much circumspection and prayer; but let us not forget that we have an infallible Pilot, and that the power, and wisdom, and honor of God, are embarked with us.

–John Newton, “To the Rev. John Ryland.” Letter I. 31 July 1773. Letters of John Newton

Newton: the Lord only afflicts for our good

We could do much worse than start the week off with some wisdom from John Newton.

…be not discouraged; the Lord only afflicts for our good. It is necessary that our sharpest trials should sometimes spring from our dearest comforts, else we should be in danger of forgetting ourselves, and setting up our rest here. In such a world, and with such hearts as we have, we shall often need something to prevent our cleaving to the dust, to quicken us to prayer, and to make us feel that our dependence for one hour’s peace is upon the Lord alone.

–John Newton, “To the Rev. William Rose,” Letter II. 21 December 1776. Letters of John Newton.

GoT holiness?

Note to self: There are some things in life you simply cannot question–the supremacy of SEC football, the vile depravity of the NE Patriots, and the suitability of a Christian’s entertainment.

Enter Kevin DeYoung’s  seemingly innocuous admission that he didn’t understand why so many conservative Christians devote themselves to Game of Thrones (GoT) when the series has so much explicit sexual content:

It seems to me sensuality–of a very graphic nature–is a major part of the series. And still, a good number of conservative Christians treat the series as must-see TV.

I don’t get it.

Tweeting the link to that post brought on a small flurry of comments on Facebook, most of them critical . . . of DeYoung. I must admit to being a little stunned and that was before I was directed to the comments section for the original post. I thought I had stumbled into bizarro world.

Having recovered from my stupefaction I’d like to offer a measured response to critics of the article. My modest objective is to show that DeYoung’s implied question (i.e. Why would a conservative Christian watch GoT?) is not pharisaical sin-sniffing but well within the bounds of what should be normal self-examination. I’ll proceed in two stages. First, I’ll volunteer some clarification on what the article did/didn’t say. Second, I’d like to address some of the early responses to the article.

One more thing and this is crucial. I’m going to assume that any Christian reading this post would at least agree that the graphic sexual content in GoT is sinful even if we don’t agree on the appropriate response. So if, as a Christian, you don’t believe this kind of material stands against the biblical imperatives concerning holiness and immorality, then we’ll just be talking past each other.

What the article didn’t say

(1) Real Christians don’t watch GoT. Some of the reactions to the post made it seem as if DeYoung had taken it upon himself to separate the sheep from the GoaTs.™ Far from it. As he stated from the outset: “I’m always amazed that a number of people I respect–smart people, serious Christians, good conservative thinkers–are obviously watching (and loving) the series” [emphasis added]. If DeYoung’s position were that no real Christian would watch GoT he wouldn’t be so perplexed.

(2) It is forbidden for real Christians to watch GoT. No doubt DeYoung would advise Christians to steer clear of the series but that’s a far cry from anathematizing the series and all who would watch it.

A rejoinder to the early responses

(1) What about holiness? Strange that with so many readers dismissing DeYoung’s concerns I never saw anyone deny his basic premise that “sensuality–of a very graphic nature–is a major part of [GoT].” I actually find the whole thing a bit discouraging–not the criticisms so much as the belligerent indifference.

Where is the longing for purity and its reward (Mat 5:8)? Who considers that we’re in a war for our souls (1Pet 2:11)? What does the pursuit of sanctification look like when I’m parked in front of a TV (Heb 12:14)? Responding to these questions with charges of legalism sounds more like deflection than reflection.

(2) Sin is deceitful and never satisfied. I don’t know that I could improve on this classic statement from John Owen. I’m a fool to think that I can safely manage my lusts as I indulge them.

(3) ‘Live and let live’ isn’t a Christian mantra. Christian community is in a state of disrepair when mutual accountability is held in suspicion. No doubt the Christian life holds some truths in tension. On the one hand, I am not the judge of a fellow servant (Rom 14:4; James 4:12); on the other hand, I’m not to passively watch my brother drift away (Heb 3:13; Jam 5:19-20; Jude 23). No man is an island, least of all the man in Christ.

(4) On the power of the remote. An experienced remote manager can save himself a lot of trouble so long as he remains alert and conscientious. Our remote has been used as a censoring device on numerous occasions while streaming TV shows and movies so I’m well aware that a simple flick of the finger can negate the baring of much flesh. Self-filtering is obviously better than taking it all in.

But two caveats are in order. First, as my wife & I were recently reminded when we tried to watch the first season of Homeland, sexual content often appears without warning. We simply can’t anticipate every sexcapade an episode has in store and, considering the amount of sexually explicit content in GoT, we’re practically guaranteed to see the baring of flesh despite our best efforts. Second, even if we could eliminate every objectionable scene, no one assumes that that’s what all Christians are doing while they’re watching the show–as it airs.

(5) On criticizing a show you haven’t watched. Living in the information age means we don’t always have to watch something to know what’s in it. Yes, if I want to critique the cinematography or the acting or the story I need to watch the show. But it should go without saying that I don’t need to watch soft porn in order to find it objectionable, so it’s hard to understand how not watching GoT due to the sexual content diminishes a man’s concern over said content–especially when we all agree it’s there.

All of that to simply say this: Watch what you will knowing that we all must give an account, but please don’t act as if it doesn’t matter what you watch.