John Newton's Letters
The Christian and the world
My London journey, which prevented my writing in October, made me amends by
an opportunity of seeing you in person. Such seasons are not only pleasant
at the time—but afford me pleasure in the review. I could have wished the
half hour we were together by ourselves prolonged to half a day. The subject
you were pleased to suggest has been often upon my mind; and glad would I
be, were I able to offer you anything satisfactory upon it. There is no
doubt but first religious impressions are usually mingled with much
of a legal spirit; and that conscience at such a time, is not only
tender—but misinformed and scrupulous. And I believe, as you intimated, that
when the mind is more enlightened, and we feet a liberty from many fetters
we had imposed upon ourselves, we are in danger of verging too far towards
the other extreme.
It seems to me—that no person can adjust and draw the
line exactly for another. There are so many particulars in every situation,
of which a stranger cannot be a competent judge, and the best human advice
is mixed with such defects, that it is not right to expect others to be
absolutely guided by our rules, nor is it safe for us implicitly to adopt
the decisions or practices of others. But the Scripture undoubtedly
furnishes sufficient and infallible rules for every person, however
circumstance; and the throne of grace is appointed for us to wait upon the
Lord for the best exposition of his precepts. Thus David often prays to be
led in the right way, in the path of judgment. "Show me the path where I
should walk, O Lord; point out the right road for me to follow. Lead me by
Your truth and teach me, for You are the God who saves me. All day long I
put my hope in You." Psalm 25:4-5
By frequent prayer, and close acquaintance with the
Scripture, and a habitual attention to the frame of our hearts, there is a
certain delicacy of spiritual taste and discernment to be acquired, which
renders a proper judgement concerning the nature and limits of the
Adiaphora, (questionable things) as they are called, or how near we may
go to the utmost bounds of what is right, without being wrong, quite
unnecessary. Love to Christ is the clearest and most persuasive factor; and
when our love to the Lord is in lively exercise, and the rule of his Word is
in our eye—we seldom make great mistakes!
And I believe the over-doings of a young convert,
proceeding from an honest simplicity of heart, and a desire of pleasing the
Lord, are more acceptable in his sight—than a certain coolness of conduct
which frequently takes place afterward, when we are apt to look back with
pity upon our former weakness, and secretly to applaud ourselves for our
present greater attainments in knowledge, though perhaps (alas that it
should ever be so!) we may have lost as much in warmth, as we have gained in
From the time we know the Lord, and are bound to him by
the cords of love and gratitude, the two chief points we should have in our
view, I apprehend, are to maintain communion with him in our own souls, and
to glorify him in the sight of men. Agreeable to these views, though the
Scripture does not enumerate or infallibly decide for or against many things
which some plead for, and others condemn; yet it furnishes us with some
general rules, which, if rightly applied, will perhaps go a good way towards
settling the debate, at least to the satisfaction of those who would rather
please God than man. Some of these rules I will just mark to you: Rom.
12:1-2; 1Co. 8:13, and 1Co. 10:31; 2Co. 6:17; Eph. 4:30; Eph. 5:11, Eph.
5:15, Eph. 5:16; 1Th. 5:22; Eph. 6:18 : to which I may add, as suitable to
the present times, Isa. 22:12; Luke 21:34. I apprehend the spirit of these
and similar passages of Scripture (for it would be easy to adduce a larger
number) will bring a Christian under such restrictions as follow.
To avoid and forbear, for his own sake, whatever has a
tendency to dampen and indispose spiritual mindedness; for such things, if
they are not condemned as sinful per se; if they are not absolutely
unlawful; yes though they are, when duly regulated, lawful and right (for
often our chief snares are entwined with our blessings); yet if they have a
repeated and evident tendency to deaden our hearts to Divine things, of
which each person's experience must determine, there must be something in
them, either in season, measure, or circumstance, wrong to us; and let them
promise what they will, they do but rob us of our gold—to pay us with
pebbles. For the light of God's countenance, and an open cheerfulness of
spirit in walking with him in private, is our chief joy; and we must be
already greatly hurt, if anything can be pursued, allowed, or rested in, as
a tolerable substitute for it.
For the sake of the church, and the influence that
example may have upon his fellow-Christians, the law of charity and prudence
will often require a believer to abstain from some things—not because they
are unlawful—but because they are harmful to others. Thus the Apostle,
though strenuous for the right of his Christian liberty, would have abridged
himself of the use, so as to eat no meat, rather than offend a weak brother,
rather than mislead him to act against the present light of his conscience.
Upon this principle, if I could, without hurt to myself,
attend some public amusements, as a concert or oratorio, and return from
thence with a warm heart to my closet (the possibility of which, in my own
case, I greatly question); yet I should think it my duty to forbear, lest
some weaker brother than myself should be encouraged by me to make the like
experiment, though in their own minds they might fear it was wrong, and have
no other reason to think it lawful—but because I did it. In which case I
should suspect, that, though I received no harm—they would.
I have known and conversed with some who have made
shipwreck of their profession, who have dated their first decline, from
imitating others, whom they thought wiser and better than themselves, in
such kinds of compliances.
It seems that an obligation of this sort of self-denial,
rises and is strengthened in proportion to the weight and influence of our
characters. Were I in private life, I do not know that I would think it
sinful to hunt for partridge—but, as a minister, I no more dare do it, than
I dare join in a drunken frolic, because I know it would give offense to
some, and be pleaded for as a license by others.
There is a duty, and a charity likewise, which we owe to
the world at large, as well as a faithfulness to God and his grace, in our
necessary converse among them. This seems to require, that, though we should
not be needlessly singular—yet, for their instruction, and for the honor of
our Lord and Master, we should keep up a certain kind of singularity, and
show ourselves called to be a separated people: that, though the
providence of God has given us callings and relations to fill up (in which
we cannot be too exact)—yet we are not of this world—but belong to another
community, and act from other principles, by other rules, and to other ends,
than the generality of those about us.
I have observed that the world will often leave
professors in quiet possession of their notions, and sentiments, and places
of worship— provided they will not be too stiff in the matter of conformity
with their more general customs and amusements. But I fear many of them have
had their prejudices strengthened against our holy religion by such
compliances, and have thought, that, if there were such joy and comfort to
be found in the ways of God as they hear from our pulpits, professors would
not, in such numbers, and so often, run among them to get relief from the
burden of time hanging upon their hands.
As our Lord Jesus is the great representative of his
people in heaven, he does them the honor to continue a succession of them as
his representatives upon earth. Happy are those who are favored with most of
the holy unction, and best enabled to manifest to all around them, by their
spirit, tempers, and conversation, what is the proper design and genuine
effect of his Gospel upon the hearts of sinners.
In our way of little life in the country, serious people
often complain of the snares they meet with from worldly people, and yet
they must mix with them to get a livelihood. I advise them, if they can, to
do their business with the world as they do it in the rain. If their
business calls them abroad, they will not leave it undone for fear of being
a little wet; but then, when it is done, they presently seek shelter, and
will not stand in the rain for pleasure. Just so, providential and necessary
calls of duty, which lead us into the world, will not hurt us, if we find
the spirit of the world unpleasant, and are glad to retire from it, and keep
out of it as much as our relative duties will permit. That which is our
cross—is not so likely to be our snare. But if that spirit, which
we should always watch and pray against, infects and assimilates our minds
to itself—then we are sure to suffer loss, and act below the dignity of our
"Redeeming the time, because the days are evil."
Ephesians 5:16. The value of time is to be taken into the account.
Time is a precious talent, and our Christian profession opens a wide field
for the due improvement of it. Much of it has been already lost—and
therefore we are exhorted to redeem it.
Many things which custom pleads for, will not be suitable
to a Christian, for this one reason—that they are not consistent with the
simplest notion of the redemption of time. It is generally said—that we need
relaxation. I allow it in a sense—the Lord Himself has provided it; and
because our spirits are too weak to be always upon the wing in meditation
and prayer, He has appointed to all men, from the king downwards, something
to do in a secular way.
And when everything of this sort in each person's
situation is properly attended to, if the heart is in a right
state—spiritual concerns will present themselves, as affording the noblest,
sweetest, and most interesting relaxation from the cares and toils of life.
On the other hand, secular work will be the best relaxation and unbending of
the mind from pious exercises. Between the two, perhaps there ought to be
but little mere leisure time. A life, in this sense divided between God and
the world, is desirable, when one part of it is spent in retirement, seeking
after and conversing with Him whom our souls love; and the other part of it
employed in active services for the good of our family, friends, the church,
and society, for His sake. Every hour which does not fall in with one or
other of these views, I apprehend is lost time.
The day in which we live seems likewise to call for
something of a peculiar spirit in the Lord's people. It is a day of
abounding sin, and I fear a day of impending judgment. The world, as it was
in the days of Noah and Lot, is secure. We are soon to have a day of
apparent humiliation; but the just causes for it are not confined to one
day—but will exsist, and too probably increase, every day. If I am not
mistaken in the signs of the times, there never was, within the
annals of the English history, a period in which the spirit and employment
described Eze. 9:4, could be more suitable than the present, "Go throughout
the city—and put a mark on the foreheads of those who grieve and lament over
all the detestable things that are done in it." The Lord calls for mourning
and weeping—but the words of many are stout against him! New kinds of evil
are invented almost daily; and the language of those who bear the greatest
sway in what is called the polite circle, I mean, the interpretative
language of their hearts, is like that of the rebellious Jews, Jer.
44:16-17, etc., "As for the word which you have spoken—we will not hearken
unto you at all!"
In short, things are coming to a point, and it seems to
be almost putting to the vote whether the Lord or Baal is God.
In this state of affairs, methinks we cannot be too explicit in avowing our
attachment to the Lord, nor too careful in avoiding an improper
relationships with those who are in confederacy against him. We know not how
soon we may greatly need that mark of providential protection which is given
to those who sigh and cry for our abominations.
Upon the whole, it appears to me, that it is more
honorable, comfortable, and safe (if we cannot exactly hit the golden mean),
to be thought by some too scrupulous and precise—than actually to be found
too compliant with those things which, if not absolutely contrary to a
Divine commandment, are hardly compatible with the genius of the Gospel, or
conformable to the mind which was in Christ Jesus, which ought also to be in
his people. The places and amusements which the world frequent and admire,
where occasions and temptations to sin are cultivated, where the law of what
is called custom is the only law which may not be violated with
impunity, where sinful passions are provoked and indulged, where the fear of
God is so little known or regarded—that those who do fear him must hold
their tongues though they should hear his name blasphemed—can hardly be a
Christian's voluntary chosen ground. Yet I fear these characters will apply
to every kind of social amusement or assembly in the kingdom.
As to family connections, I cannot think we are
bound to break or slight them. But as believers and their friends often live
as it were—in two elements, there is a mutual awkwardness,
which makes their interactions rather dry and tedious. But upon that account
they are less frequent than they would otherwise be, which seems an
advantage. Both sides keep up returns of civility and affection; but as they
cannot unite in sentiment and leading inclination, they will not contrive to
be very often together, except there is something considerable given up by
one or the other; and I think Christians ought to be very cautious what
concessions they make upon this account. But, as I said at the beginning, no
general positive rules can be laid down.
I have simply given you such thoughts as have occurred to
me while writing, without study, and without coherence. I dare not be
dogmatic; but I think what I have written is agreeable both to particular
texts and to the general tenor of Scripture.