John Newton's Letters
Extract of a letter to a student in divinity
The subject of your last is important. I can sympathize with your concern,
having known much of it myself, and therefore willingly devote my first
opportunity to reply. But shall I indeed condole with you? or shall I rather
congratulate you on the perplexity you complain of? I know it is not
pleasing; but I hope it will be sanctified and profitable to you.
Though I am no enemy to the acquisition of useful
knowledge, I have seen many instances of young men who have been much hurt
by what they expected to reap advantage from. They have gone to the
academy humble, peaceable, spiritual, and lively; but have come out
self-wise, dogmatically, censorious, and full of a wisdom founded upon the
false maxims of the world. I have been ready to address them with that
line of Milton: "If you are heóBut ah! how fallen!"
I do not mention this as the necessary fault of
the institution, but as the frequent effect of notions too hastily picked
up, when not sanctified by grace, nor balanced by a proportional depth of
spiritual experience. I am therefore glad to hear, that, notwithstanding
the advantages you have had in the pursuit of your studies, you feel an
inward conviction, that you still need something which you cannot receive
from men or books, in order to complete your fitness for the ministry:
that you may be "a workman who needs not to be ashamed," and enabled rightly
to divide (to distinguish and distribute) the word of truth.
It seems to me a point of more curiosity than use, to
inquire too nicely into the modus of the Holy Spirit's assistance in the
composure and delivery of sermons. If we cannot exactly state the boundaries
between what we may deem the result of our own thoughts, and the needful
influence of the Holy Spirit, it seems a safe way to give him the honor of
the whole, and to attribute nothing to ourselves but our infirmities. If we
have a capacity, means for improvement, diligence to make use of those
means, and if that diligence is attended with any degree of success; may we
not acknowledge that the former links of this chain are the effect of his
goodness and favor, no less than the latter?
To the question, How far is it lawful to expect this
assistance of the Holy Spirit? I answer, It is lawful very far, even to lay
the whole stress upon it, so as to be firmly persuaded that we can neither
meditate nor speak to purpose without it; that if we have not this
assistance, whatever else we have, or may think we have, we shall but
"darken counsel by words without knowledge." For this, I think, I have
warrant in Joh. 15:5. If any person supposes he has so far mastered a system
of divinity, that though he can indeed do better with the Spirit's
assistance, yet he can make a tolerable shift without it, I envy him not
this attainment. But if the question intends, How far a depend-once upon
the Holy Spirit may lawfully supersede the use of means? I answer, Not
in the least. The blessing and the means are so closely united, that they
cannot be separated. The blessing may be surely expected, if diligently
sought in the use of proper means, and we have no just reason to expect it
without them. But to clear up the whole, let it be considered, What may
deserve the name of diligence in this matter? and what are the proper means?
By diligence, I understand spiritual diligence.
Such an active, improving, industrious habit, as is peculiar to a heart
impressed with some real abiding sense of the love of God, the worth of
souls, the shortness of time, and the importance of eternity. Without this
turn of mind, though a man should spend sixteen hours every day in his
study, he may be a mere trifler. The greatest part of his application will
be spent on what is least necessary; and his knowledge will chiefly prove of
that sort which puffs up, without communicating any real benefit: Gen.
41:21; Psa. 127:2.
The chief means for attaining wisdom, and suitable gifts
for the ministry, are the holy Scriptures, and prayer. The one is the
fountain of living water, the other the bucket with which we are to draw.
And I believe you will find, by observation, that the man who is most
frequent and fervent in prayer, and most devoted to the word of God, will
shine and flourish above his fellows. Next to these, and derived from them,
is meditation. By this, I do not mean a stated exercise upon some one
particular subject, but a disposition of mind to observe carefully what
passes within us and around us, what we see, hear, and feel, and to
apply all for the illustration and confirmation of the written word to us.
In the use of these means, and a humble dependence upon the Lord in all the
changing dispensations we pass through, our spiritual experience will
enlarge: and this experience is the proper fund of our ministerial capacity,
so far as it may be considered inherent in us: Pro. 16:23; Mat. 13:52; 1Jo.
These means are of universal importance. The wisest can
do nothing without them, the weakest shall not use them in vain. There are
likewise subordinate means, which may be healthful, and should in general be
attended to: yet they ought not, I apprehend, to be considered as a sine
qua non in a minister's call and fitness. The first preachers had them
not, and some in the present day are enabled to do well without them.
Under this head, I principally intend all that comes
under the usual designation of literature. A competent acquaintance
with the learned languages, history, natural philosophy, &c. is very
desirable. If these things are held in a proper subservience, if they do not
engross too much of our time, nor add fuel to the fire of that
self-importance which is our great snare; they may contribute to
increase and enlarge our ideas, and facilitate our expressing ourselves with
propriety. But these attainments (like riches) are attended with their
peculiar temptations; and unless they are under the regulation of a sound
judgment, and a spiritual frame of mind, will prove (like Saul's armor to
David) rather cumbersome than useful in preaching. The sermons of preachers
thus qualified are often more ingenious than edifying, and rather show
off the preacher, than commend the Gospel of Christ.
As you desire my advice with respect to your future
studies, I shall comply without hesitation or ceremony. The original
Scriptures well deserve your pains, and will richly repay them. There is
doubtless a beauty, fullness, and spirit, in the originals, which the best
translations do not always express. When a word or phrase admits of various
senses, the translators can only preserve one; and it is not to be supposed,
unless they were perfectly under the influence of the same infallible
Spirit, that they should always prefer the best. Only be upon your guard
lest you should be tempted to think, that, because you are master of the
grammatical construction, and can tell the several acceptations of the words
in the best authors, you are therefore and thereby master of the spiritual
sense likewise. This you must derive from your experimental knowledge, and
the influence and teaching of the Spirit of God.
Another thing which will much assist you, in composing
and speaking properly and acceptably, is logic. This will teach you
what properly belongs to your subject, and what may be best suppressed; and
likewise, to explain, divide, enumerate, and range your ideas to advantage.
A lax, immethodical, disproportionate manner, is to be avoided. Yet beware
of the contrary extreme. An affected starchiness and over-accuracy will
fetter you, will make your discourses lean and dry, preclude an useful
variety, and savor more of the school-lamp, than of that heavenly fire which
alone can make our meditations efficacious, and profitable either to
ourselves or our hearers. The proper medium can hardly be taught by rule;
experience, observation, and prayer, are the best guides.
As your inquiry seems chiefly to be, how to fill up your
outlines. I would advise you to study the living as well as the dead, or
rather more. Converse much with experienced Christians and exercised souls.
You will find advantage in this respect, not only from the wise, but from
the weak of the flock. In the course of your acquaintance, you will meet
with some in a backsliding state, some under temptations, some walking in
darkness, others rejoicing in the light, &c. Observe how their spirits work,
what they say, and how they reason in their several cases; what methods and
arguments you find most successful in comforting the feeble-minded, raising
up those who are cast down, and the like, and what answers they return.
Compare these with the word of God, and your own heart. What you observe of
ten people in these different situations, may be applied to ten thousand.
For though some circumstances vary, the heart of man, the aids of grace,
and the artifices of Satan, in general, are universally the same. And
whenever you are to preach, remember, that some of all these sorts will
probably be before you, and each should have something said to their own
The tempted and distressed will be most probably
relieved by opening the various states and exercises of the heart, and by
showing, from scriptural and other examples, that no new thing has befallen
them. The careless and backsliders, who have made a profession,
should be reminded of that blessedness they once spoke of, and warned of
their danger. Those who are now upon the mount, should be cautioned to
expect a change, and to guard against security and spiritual pride. To the
dead in trespasses and sins (some such will be always present), it is
needful so preach the spirituality and sanction of the law, that they may be
stirred up to seek to Jesus. Of him all awakened souls love to hear much.
Let Jesus therefore be your capital subject. If you discuss some less
essential topic, or bend all your strength to clear up some dark text,
though you should display much learning and ingenuity, you will probably
fall short of your main design, which I dare say will be to promote the
glory of God, and the good of souls.
You will likewise find advantage, by attending as much as
you can on those preachers whom God has blessed with much power, life, and
success in their ministry. And in this you will do well not to confine
yourself to any denomination or party, for the Spirit of the Lord is not
confined. Different men have different gifts and talents. I would not wish
you to be a slavish admirer of any man. Christ alone is our Master and
Teacher. But study the excellencies of each: and if you observe a fault
in any (for no human models are perfect), you will see what you are yourself
Your inquiries respecting my own experience on this
subject, must be answered very briefly. I have long since learned, that
if I was ever to be a minister, faith and prayer must make me one. I
desire to seek the Lord's direction, both in the choice and management of
subjects; but I do not expect it in a way of extraordinary impulse, but in
endeavoring to avail myself, to the best of my judgment, of present
circumstances. The converse I have with my people, usually suggests what
I am to preach to them. At first, my chief solicitude used to be, what I
should find to say: I hope it is now, rather that I may not speak in vain.
For the Lord has sent me here, not to acquire the character of a great
speaker, but to win souls to Christ, and to edify his people. As to
preparation, I make little use of books, excepting the Bible and a
concordance. Though I preach without notes, I most frequently write more or
less upon the subject. Often when I begin, I am at a loss how I shall
proceed; but one thing insensibly offers after another, and, in general, I
believe the best and most useful parts of my sermon occur de novo
while I am preaching. When I can find my heart in frame and liberty for
prayer, every thing else is comparatively easy.
I should be very glad if anything I have offered may
afford you satisfaction. The sum of my advice is this: Examine your heart
and views. Can you appeal to Him who knows all things, concerning the
sincerity of your aim, that you devote yourself to the work of the ministry,
not for worldly regards, but with a humble desire to promote the Redeemer's
kingdom? If so, and his providence has thus far concurred with you, trust
him for your sufficiency of every kind, and he will not disappoint you, but
will be near to strengthen you according to your day. Depend not upon any
cisterns you can hew out for yourself, but rejoice that you have liberty to
come to the fountain that is always full, and always flowing. You must
not expect a mechanical sufficiency, such as artificers acquire by habit and
exercise in their business. When you have preached well nineteen times, this
will be no security for the twentieth. Yes, when you have been upheld for
twenty years, should the Lord withhold his hand, you would be as much at a
loss as at first. If you lean upon books or men, or upon your own faculties
and attainments, you will be in fear and in danger of falling continually.
But if you stay yourself upon the Lord, he will not only make good your
expectations, but in time will give you a proper confidence in his goodness,
and free you from your present anxiety.
One thing more I must mention as belonging to the
subject: That a comfortable freedom for public service depends much upon the
spirituality of our walk before God and man. Wisdom will not dwell with a
trifling, an assuming, a censorious, or a worldly spirit. But if it is
our business, and our pleasure, to contemplate Jesus, and to walk in his
steps, he will bless us: we shall be like trees planted by a constant
stream, and he will prosper the work of our hands.