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.

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: 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.

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.

John Newton on Christian growth

The Christian oak shall grow and flourish forever.

The work of grace is not like Jonah’s gourd, which sprang up and flourished in a night, and as quickly withered, but rather like the oak, which, from a little acorn and a tender plant, advances with an almost imperceptible growth from year to year, till it becomes a broad, spreading, and deep-rooted tree, and then it stands for ages. The Christian oak shall grow and flourish forever. When I see any soon after they appear to be awakened, making a speedy profession of great joy before they have due acquaintance with their own hearts, I am in pain for them. I am not sorry to hear them afterwards complain that their joys are gone, and they are almost at their wits’ end; for without some such check, to make them feel their weakness and dependence, I seldom find them turn out well; either their fervour insensibly abates, till they become quite cold and sink into the world again (of which I have seen many instances), or, if they do not give up all, their walk is uneven, and their spirit has not that savour of brokenness and true humility which is the chief ornament of our holy profession. If they do not feel the plague of their hearts at first, they find it out afterwards, and too often manifest it to others. Therefore, though I know the Spirit of the Lord is free, and will not be confined to our rules, and there may be excepted cases; yet, in general, I believe the old proverb, “Soft and fair goes far,” will hold good in Christian experience. Let us be thankful for the beginnings of grace, and wait upon our Saviour patiently for the increase. And as we have chosen him for our physician, let us commit ourselves to his management, and not prescribe to him what He shall prescribe for us. He knows us, and He loves us better than we do ourselves, and will do all things well.

-John Newton, “Letter to Miss M. Barham,” September 3, 1776

Pensive doubting fearful heart

“For a moment I withdrew,
And thy heart was filled with pain,
But my mercies I’ll renew,
Thou shalt soon rejoice again.
Though I scorn to hide my face,
Very soon my wrath shall cease.
‘Tis but for a moment’s space,
Ending in eternal peace.”

“When my peaceful bow appears,
Painted on the watery cloud,
‘Tis to dissipate thy fears,
Lest the earth should be overflowed.
‘Tis an emblem too of grace,
Of my covenant love a sign.
Though the mountains leave their place,
Thou shalt be forever mine.

Though afflicted, tempest-tossed,
Comfortless awhile thou art,
Do not think thou canst be lost,
Thou art graven on my heart.
All thy walls I will repair,
Thou shalt be rebuilt anew,
And in thee it shall appear,
What a God of love can do.

–John Newton

Pensive doubting fearful heart

Pensive, doubting, fearful heart,
Hear what Christ the Savior says.
Every word should joy impart,
Change thy mourning into praise.
Yes, he speaks, and speaks to thee,
May he help thee to believe!
Then thou presently wilt see,
Thou hast little cause to grieve.

“Fear thou not, nor be ashamed,
All thy sorrows soon shall end.
I who heaven and earth have framed,
Am thy husband and thy friend.
I the High and Holy One,
Israel’s GOD by all adored,
As thy Savior will be known,
Thy Redeemer and thy Lord.”

–John Newton