What a believer would do — if he could

(Letters of John Newton)

"For the flesh lusts against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh. These are contrary the one to the other — so that you cannot do the things that you would!" Galatians 5:17


This is a humbling but an accurate account of a Christian's attainments in the present life, and is equally applicable to the strongest and to the weakest. The weakest need not say less — the strongest will hardly venture to say more.

The Lord has given His people a desire aiming at great things — but they cannot do as they would. Their best desires are weak and ineffectual, not absolutely so — but in comparison with the noble mark at which they aim. So that while they have great cause to be thankful for the desire He has given them, and for the degree in which it is answered — they have equal reason to be ashamed and abased under a sense of their continual defects and the evil mixtures which taint and debase their best endeavors!

It would be easy to make out a long list of particulars, which a believer would do if he could — but in which, from first to last, he finds a mortifying inability. Permit me to mention a few, which I need not transcribe from books, for they are always present to my mind.

He would willingly enjoy God in prayer. He knows that prayer is his duty; but 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 and opens His gracious ear to the supplications of sinful worms upon earth! The believer can bid others to expect a pleasure in waiting upon the Lord, different in kind and greater in degree than all that the world can afford. By prayer he can say: "You have liberty to cast all your cares upon Him who cares for you. By one hour's intimate access to the throne of grace — you may acquire more true spiritual knowledge and comfort, than by a week's converse with the best of men, or the most studious perusal of many books." 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 to be 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! He has been drawing near to God with his lips — while his heart was far from Him. Surely this is not doing as he would, when (to borrow the expression of an old woman here,) he is dragged before God like a slave, and comes away like a thief!

Though we aim at this good — evil is present with us!

Alas! how vain is man in his best estate! How much weakness and inconsistency, even in those whose hearts are right with the Lord! 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 to rely on Him, who is our Wisdom, Righteousness, Sanctification and Redemption! The more vile we are in our own eyes — the more precious He will be to us! 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 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! Yes, they 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 until then — we shall be able to do the thing that we would! When we see Jesus — we shall be transformed into His image, and be done with sin and sorrow forever!