John Newton's Letters
August 11, 1775
My dear Friend,
I thank you for your letter. Your objections neither displease nor weary me.
While truth is the object of your inquiry, the more freedom you use
with me the better. Nor do they surprise me; for I have formerly made
similar objections myself. I have stood upon your ground—and I continue to
hope you will one day stand upon mine! As I have told you more than once, I
do not mean to dictate to you, or to wish you to receive anything upon my
recommendation; but, in the simplicity of friendship, I will give you my
thoughts from time to time upon the points you propose, and leave the
outcome to the Divine blessing.
The term Arminian, as at present applied, is very
indiscriminate, and takes in a great variety of people and sentiments, among
whom, I believe, there are many who hold the fundamental truths of the
Gospel, and live a life of faith in the Son of God. I am far from supposing
that God will guide every sincere person exactly to adopt all my sentiments.
But there are some sentiments which I believe essential to the very state
and character of a true Christian. And these make him a Christian; not
merely by being his acknowledged sentiments—but by a certain peculiar manner
in which he possesses them.
There is a certain important change which takes place in
the heart, by the operation of the Spirit of God, before the soundest and
most orthodox sentiments can have their proper influence upon us. This work,
or change, the Scripture describes by various names, each of which is
designed to teach us the marvelous effects it produces, and the Almighty
power by which it is produced. It is sometimes called a new birth, John 3:3;
sometimes a new creature, or new creation, as 2 Co. 5:17; sometimes the
causing light to shine out of darkness, 2 Co. 4:6; sometimes the opening the
eyes of the blind, Acts 26:18; sometimes the raising the dead to life, Eph.
2:5. Until a person has experienced this change, he will be at a loss to
form a right conception of it. This is not being convinced of a mere
opinion—but receiving a principle of Divine life and light in the soul. And
until this is received, the things of God, the truths of the Gospel, cannot
be rightly discerned or understood by the utmost powers of fallen man, who,
with all his wisdom, reason, and talents, is still but what the Apostle
calls the natural man, until the power of God visits his heart! 1Co.
This work is sometimes wrought suddenly, as in the
case of Lydia, Act. 16:14; at other times very gradually. A person
who before was a stranger even to the form of godliness, or at best content
with a mere religious form, finds new thoughts arising in his mind, feels
some concern about his sins, some desire to please God, some suspicions that
all is not right. He examines his views of religion, hopes the best of them,
and yet cannot rest satisfied in them. Today, perhaps, he thinks himself
fixed; tomorrow he will be all uncertainty. He inquires of others; weighs,
measures, considers; meets with sentiments which he had not attended to;
thinks them plausible; but is presently shocked with objections, or supposed
consequences, which he finds himself unable to remove.
As he goes on in his inquiry, his difficulties increase.
New doubts arise in his mind; even the Scriptures perplex him, and appear to
assert contrary things. He would sound the depths of truth by the plummet of
his reason—but he finds his line is too short! Yet even now the man
is under a guidance, which will at length lead him right. The importance of
the subject takes up his thoughts, and takes off the relish he once had for
the things of the world. He reads, he prays, he strives, he resolves.
Sometimes inward perplexities and outward temptations bring him to his wit's
end. He almost wishes to stand where he is, and inquire no more—but he
At length he begins to feel the inward depravity,
which he had before owned as a mere opinion. A sense of sin and guilt cut
him out new work. Here reasoning will stand him in no stead. This is a
painful change of mind; but it prepares the way for a blessing. It silences
some objections better than a thousand arguments; it cuts the web of his own
wisdom and attainments; it makes him weary of working for life; and teaches
him, in God's due time, the meaning of that text, "To him who works
not—but believes in him who justifies the ungodly—his faith is counted for
Then he learns, that Scriptural faith is a very
different thing from a rational assent to the Gospel; that it is the
immediate gift of God, Eph. 2:8; the operation of God, Col. 2:12; that
Christ is not only the object—but the author and finisher
of faith, Heb. 12:2; and that faith is not so properly a part of that
obedience we owe to God, as an inestimable benefit we receive
from him for Christ's sake, Phi. 1:29; which is the medium of our
justification, Rom. 5:1, and the principle by which we are united to Christ
(as the branch to the vine), John 17:21. I have described a path in which I
have known many led, and in which I have walked myself.
The Gospel, my dear sir, is a salvation appointed for
those who are ready to perish—and is not designed to put them in a way to
save themselves by their own works. It speaks to us as condemned already,
and calls upon us to believe in a crucified Savior—that we may receive
redemption through his blood, even the forgiveness of our sins. And the
Spirit of God, by the Gospel, first convinces us of unbelief, sin, and
misery; and then, by revealing the things of Jesus to our minds, enables us,
as helpless sinners, to come to Christ, to receive him, to behold him; or,
in other words, to believe in him, and expect pardon, life, and grace from
him; renouncing every hope and aim in which we once rested, "and accounting
all things loss and rubbish for the excellency of the knowledge of Christ."
John 6:35; Isa. 45:22; with John 6:40; Col. 2:6.
In some of my Omicron's Letters, you will find my
thoughts more at large upon these subjects than I have now time to write
them. You will see in it the sentiments of a man of great learning, sound
reasoning, an amiable and irreproachable character, and how little he
accounted of all these advantages when the Lord was pleased to enlighten his
Though we have not exactly the same view of human
depravity—yet as we both agree to take our measure of it from the Word of
God, I trust we shall not always differ about it. Adam was created in the
image of God, in righteousness and true holiness, Eph. 4:24. This moral
image, I believe, was totally lost by sin. In that sense, he died the
day, the moment, he ate the forbidden fruit. God was no longer his joy and
delight; he was averse from the thoughts of his presence, and would (if
possible) have hid himself from him. His natural powers, though
doubtless impaired, were not destroyed. Man by nature, is still capable of
great things. His understanding, reason, memory, imagination, etc.
sufficiently proclaim that the Hand that made him is Divine. He is, as
Milton says of Beelzebub, majestic though in ruins. He can reason,
invent, and by study, attain a considerable knowledge in natural things. The
exertions of human genius, as specified in the characters of some
philosophers, poets, orators, etc. are astonishing. But man cannot know,
love, trust, or serve his Maker—unless he is renewed in the spirit of his
God has preserved in him likewise, some feelings of
benevolence, pity, some sense of natural justice and truth, etc. without
which there could be no society. But these, I apprehend, are little more
than instincts, by which the world is kept in some small degree of order.
But, being under the direction of pride and self, do not deserve the name of
virtue and goodness, because the exercise of them does not spring from a
principle of love to God, nor is directed to his glory, or regulated by the
rule of his Word—until a principle of grace is superadded.
You think that I will not say, "that God, judicially in
punishment of one man's sin, added these corruptions to all his posterity."
Let us suppose, that the punishment annexed to eating the forbidden fruit,
had been the loss of Adam's rational powers, and that he should be degraded
to the state and capacity of a brute. In this condition, had he begotten
children after the Fall in his own likeness, his nature being previously
changed, they must have been, of course, brutes like himself; for he could
not convey to them those original powers which he had lost. Will this
illustrate my meaning?
Sin did not deprive him of rationality—but spirituality.
His nature became earthly, sensual, yes devilish; and this fallen nature,
this carnal mind, which is enmity against God—is not subject to his law,
neither indeed can it be, Rom. 8:7—we universally derive from him. Look upon
children—they presently show themselves averse from good—but are exceedingly
propense to evil. This they can learn even without a master; but ten
thousand instructors and instructions cannot instill good into them, so as
to teach them to love their Creator—unless a Divine power acts in their
hearts. This is just as it is with the earth, which produces weeds
spontaneously. But if you see a fruit filled garden—you are sure that it was
planted or sown there, and did not spring from the soil by itself.
I know many hard questions may be started upon this
subject; but the Lord in due time will clear his own cause, and vindicate
his own ways. I leave all difficulties with him. It is sufficient for me
that Scripture asserts, and experience proves, that it is thus in fact; Rom.
3:9-21; Job. 14:4.
Thus, we have not only forfeited our happiness by
transgression—but are by our depravity, incapable of it—and have no more
desire or taste for such a state as the Scripture describes heaven to be,
than a man born deaf can have for a concert of music. And therefore our Lord
declares, that, unless a man is born again—he not only shall not—but
cannot see the kingdom of God! Hence a twofold necessity of a Savior:
his blood for the pardon of our sins; his life, Spirit, and grace, to
quicken our souls, and form us anew for himself, that we may feel his love,
and show forth his praise.
Paul, before his conversion, was not sincere, in the
sense I hope you to be. He thought himself in the right, without doubt, as
many have done when they killed God's servants, John 16:2. He was blindly
and obstinately zealous. He did not enter into the merits of the Christian
cause, or inquire into facts with that attention which sincerity would have
put him upon. You think that his sincerity and zeal were the very things
that made him a chosen instrument: he himself speaks of them as the very
things that made him peculiarly unworthy of that honor, 1Co. 15:9; and he
tells us, that he was set forth as a pattern of the Lord's long-suffering
and mercy—that the very chief of sinners might be encouraged, 1Ti. 1:15-16.
Had he been sincerely desirous to know whether Jesus was the Messiah, there
was enough in his character, doctrines, miracles, and the prophecies
concerning him—to have cleared up the point. But he took it for granted he
was right in his opinion, and hurried blindly on, and was (as he said
himself) exceedingly mad against them.
Such a kind of sincerity is common enough. People
believe themselves right, and therefore treat others with scorn or rage.
They appeal to the Scriptures—but first lay down their own preconceived
sentiments for truths, and then examine what Scriptures they can find to
countenance them. Surely a person's thinking himself right, will not give a
sanction to all that he does under that persuasion.
Ignorance and obstinacy are in themselves
sinful, and no plea of sincerity will exempt from the danger of being
under their influence: Isa. 27:11; Luke 6:39.
It appears to me, that, though you will not follow any
man implicitly, you are desirous of discovering your mistakes, supposing you
are mistaken in any point of importance. You read and examine the Word of
God, not to find weapons with which to defend your sentiments at all
events—but to know whether they are defensible or not. You pray for God's
light and teaching; and in this search you are willing to risk, what men are
commonly much afraid of hazarding— character, interest, preferment, favor,
etc. A sincerity of this kind I too seldom meet with; when I do, I account
it a token for good, and am ready to say, "No man can do this—unless God is
with him." However, sincerity is not conversion; but I believe
it is always a forerunner of it.
I would not be uncharitable and censorious, hasty and
peremptory, in judging my fellow-creatures. But if I acknowledge the Word of
God—I cannot avoid forming my judgment upon it. It is true, I cannot look
into people's hearts; but hearts and principles are delineated to my hand—in
the Scripture. I read, that no murderer has eternal life in him; I
read likewise, "If any man loves not the Lord Jesus Christ, let him
be accursed;" and therefore I conclude, that there are speculative
errors as heinous in their guilt, as destructive in their effects, as
murder—and that the most moral, upright man—if he loves not the Lord
Jesus Christ, is in the sight of God, the Judge of all—as displeasing to Him
as a murderer!
It has pleased God, for the peace and support of society,
to put a black mark upon those sins which affect the peace and
welfare of our neighbor, such as adultery and murder. But undoubtedly the
sins committed immediately against himself must be more heinous than
any which offend our fellow-creatures. The second commandment, Mat. 22:39,
is like the first; but it depends upon it, and is therefore inferior to it.
Men ordinarily judge otherwise. To live regardless of God and the Gospel, is
looked upon as a minor fault—in comparison with offenses against
society. But sooner or later it will appear otherwise to all.
A group of robbers may pride themselves upon the justice,
honor, and truth they observe towards one another; but because they are a
nuisance to the public good, they are deservedly accounted villains, and
treated as such, notwithstanding their petty morality among
themselves. Now, such a company of robbers bears a much greater proportion
to a whole nation, than a nation, or all the nations of the earth, bears to
the great God. Our dependence upon him is absolute, our obligations to him
infinite. In vain shall men plead their moral discharge of relative duties
to each other—if they fail in the unspeakably greater relation under which
they stand to God. Therefore, when I see people living without God in the
world, as all do until they are converted, I cannot but judge them in a
dangerous state; not because I take pleasure in censuring, or think myself
authorized to pass sentence upon my fellow-creatures—but because the
Scripture decides expressly on the case, and I am bound to take my
sentiments from thence.
The Philippian jailer was certainly a Christian when
baptized, as you observe. He trembled; he cried out, "What must I do to be
saved?" Paul did not bid him amend his life—but to believe in
the Lord Jesus. He believed, and rejoiced. But the Lord blessed the
Apostle's words, to produce in him that saving faith, which filled him with
joy and peace. It was, as I observed before, something more than an
assent to the proposition, that Jesus is the Christ. It was a resting in
him for forgiveness and acceptance, and a cleaving to him in love. No other
faith will purify the heart, work by love, and overcome the world.
I feel myself much interested in your concerns; and your
unexpected frank application to me, I consider as a providential call, which
binds me to your service. I hope our correspondence will be productive of
happy effects, and that we shall both one day rejoice in it.