More Than a Calvinist
by John Newton
To be enabled to form a clear, consistent, and comprehensive
judgment of the truths revealed in the Scripture, is a great
privilege. But they who possess it are exposed to the temptation
of thinking too highly of themselves, and too lowly of others,
especially of those who not only refuse to adopt their sentiments,
but venture to oppose them. We see few controversial writings,
however excellent in other respects, but are tinctured with this
spirit of self-superiority; and they who are not called to this
service (of writing), if they are attentive to what passes in
their hearts, may feel it working within them, upon a thousand
occasions; though so far as it prevails, it brings forcibly home
to ourselves the charge of ignorance and inconsistence, which we
are so ready to fix upon our opponents.
I know nothing as a means more likely to correct this evil, than
a serious consideration of the amazing difference between our
acquired judgment and our actual experience- or, in other
words, how little influence our knowledge and judgment have
upon our own conduct. This may confirm to us the truth and
propriety of the apostle's observation, "If any man think that
he knows any thing, he knows nothing yet as he ought to know."
Not that we are bound to be insensible that the Lord has taught
us what we were once ignorant of; nor is it possible that we
should be so; yet because, if we estimate our knowledge by its
effects, and value it no farther than it is experimental and
operative (which is the proper standard whereby to try it) we
shall find it so faint and feeble as hardly to deserve the name.
How firmly, for instance, are we persuaded, that God is
omnipresent! Great as the difficulties may be which attend our
conceptions of this point, the truth itself is controverted by few.
It is generally acknowledged by unawakened persons and I may
add, too frequently known even by believers, as if they knew it
not. If the eyes of the Lord are in every place, how strong a
guard should this thought be upon the 'conduct' of those who
profess to hear him! We know how we are often affected when
in the presence of a 'fellow worm'- if he is one on whom we
depend, or who is considerably our superior in life, how careful
we are to compose our behavior, and to avoid whatever might
be deemed improper or offensive! Is it not strange that those
who have taken their ideas of the divine majesty, holiness and
purity from the Scriptures, and are not wholly insensible of their
inexpressible obligations to regulate all they say or do by his
precepts, should upon many occasions be betrayed into
improprieties of behavior from which the presence of a
nobleman, or prince, would have effectually restrained them,
yes, sometimes perhaps even the presence of a child?
Even in the exercise of 'prayer', by which we profess to draw
near the Lord, the consideration that his eye is upon us has
little power to engage our attention, or prevent our thoughts
from wandering like the fool's eye, to the ends of the earth.
What should we think of a person, who, being admitted into
the king's presence, upon business of the greatest importance,
should break off in the midst of his address, to pursue a
butterfly? Could such an instance of weakness be met with, it
would be but a faint emblem of the inconsistencies which they
who are acquainted with their own hearts, can often charge
themselves with in prayer.
They are not wholly ignorant in what a frame of spirit it becomes
a needy dependent sinner to approach that God, before whom the
angels are represented as veiling their faces; yet, in defiance
of their better judgment, their attention is diverted from him with
whom they have to do, to the merest trifles. They are not able to
realize that presence with which they believe themselves to be
surrounded, but speak as if they were speaking into the air.
Further, if our sense that 'God is always present' was in any
good measure answerable to the conviction of our judgment,
would it not be an effectual preservative from the many
importunate though groundless fears with which we are
He says, "Fear not, I am with you," he promises to be a shield
and a guard to those who put their trust in him, yet though we
profess to believe his word, and to hope that he is our protector,
we seldom think ourselves safe, even in the path of duty, a
moment longer than danger is kept out of our view. Little
reason have we to value ourselves upon our knowledge of this
indisputable truth, when it has no more effective and habitual
influence upon our conduct.
The doctrine of 'God's sovereignty' likewise, though not so
generally owned as God's omnipresence, is no less fully assented
to by those who are called Calvinists. We zealously contend for
this point in our debates with the Arminians; and are ready to
wonder that any should be hardy enough to dispute the Creator's
right to do what he will with his own. While we are only engaged
in defence of the election of grace, and have a comfortable hope
that we are ourselves of that number, we seem so convinced, by
the arguments the Scripture affords us in support of the truth,
that we can hardly forbear charging our adversaries with
perverse obstinacy and pride, for opposing it.
Undoubtedly the ground of this opposition lies in the pride of the
human heart, but this evil principle is not confined to any party,
and occasions frequently arise, when they who contend for the
divine sovereignty are little more practically influenced by it than
their opponents. This humiliating doctrine concludes as strongly
for submission to the will of God, under every circumstance of
life, as it does for our acquiescing in his purpose to have mercy.
But, alas! how often do we find ourselves utterly unable to apply
it, so as to reconcile our spirits to those afflictions which he
is pleased to allot us.
So far as we are enabled to say, when we are exercised with
poverty, or heavy losses or crosses. "I was dumb and opened
not my mouth, because You have done it." so far, and no farther,
are we truly convinced, that God has a sovereign right to dispose
of us and all our concernments as he pleases.
How often, and how justly at such seasons, might the argument
we offer to others, as sufficient to silence all 'their' objections
be retorted upon ourselves, "Nay but O man, who are you that
replies against God? Shall the thing formed say unto him that
formed it, Why have you made me thus?" A plain proof that our
knowledge is more 'notional' than 'experimental'. What an
inconsistency- that while we think God is just and righteous
in withholding from others the things which pertain to their
everlasting peace, we should find it so hard to submit to his
dispensations to ourselves in matters of unspeakably less
But the Lords appointments, to those who fear him, are not only
sovereign, but wise and gracious. He has connected their good
with his own glory, and is engaged by promise, to make all things
work together for their advantage. He chooses for his people
better than they could choose for themselves-- if they are in
heaviness, there is a need-be for it, and he withholds nothing
from them but what upon the whole it is better they should be
without. Thus the Scriptures teach, and thus we profess to
Furnished with these principles, we are at no loss to suggest
motives of patience and consolation to our brethren that are
afflicted. We can assure them, without hesitation, that if they are
interested in the promises, their concerns are in safe hands; that
the things which at present are not joyous but grievous, shall in
due season yield the peaceful fruits of righteousness, and that
their trials are as certainly mercies as their comforts. We can
prove to them, from the history of Joseph, David, Job, and other
instances recorded in Scriptures, that, notwithstanding any
present dark appearances, it shall certainly be well with the
righteous; that God can and will make crooked things straight;
and that he often produces the greatest good from those events
which we are apt to look upon as evil. From hence we can infer,
not only the sinfulness, but the folly of finding fault with any of
his dispensations. We can tell them, that at the worst the sufferings
of the present life are not worthy to be compared with the glory
that shall be revealed; and that therefore, under the greatest
pressures, they should so weep as those who expect in a little
time to have all their tears wiped away.
But when the case is our own, when we are troubled on every side,
or touched in the tenderest part, how difficult it is to feel
the force of these reasonings, though we know they are true to a
demonstration! Then, unless we are endued with fresh strength
from on high, we are as liable to complain and despond as if we
thought our afflictions sprang out of the ground, and the Lord
had forgotten to be gracious.
I might proceed to show the difference between our judgment
when most enlightened, and our actual experience, with respect
to 'every spiritual truth'. We know there is no proportion between
time and eternity, between God and the creature, the favor of the
Lord and the favor or the frowns of men; and yet often, when
these things are brought into close competition, we are sorely put
to it to keep steadfast in the path of duty; nay without new
supplies of grace, we should certainly fail in the time of trial,
and our knowledge would have no other effect than to render our
guilt more inexcusable.
We seem to be sure that we are weak, sinful, fallible creatures,
as we are, that we exist and yet we are prone to act as if we
were wise and good. In a word, we cannot deny that a great part
of our knowledge is, as I have described it, like the light of
the moon, destitute of heat and influence; and yet we can hardly
help thinking of ourselves too highly upon the account of it.
May we not say with the Psalmist, "Lord, what is man!" yes,
what an enigma, what a poor inconsistent creature is a believer!
He knows the Lord; he knows himself. His understanding is
enlightened to apprehend and contemplate the great mysteries of
the gospel. He has just ideas of the evil of sin, the vanity of the
world, the beauties of holiness, and the nature of true happiness.
He was once "darkness, but now he is light in the Lord." He has
access to God by Jesus Christ; to whom he is united, and in
whom he lives by faith. While the principles he has received are
enlivened by the agency of the Holy Spirit, he can do all things.
He is humble, gentle, patient, watchful, faithful. He rejoices in
afflictions, triumphs over temptations, lives upon the foretastes of
eternal glory, and counts not 'his life dear, so he may glorify God
his Savior, and finish his course with joy'. But his strength is not
his own; he is absolutely dependent, and is still encompassed
with infirmities, and burdened with a depraved nature.
If the Lord withdraws his power, he becomes weak as any other
man, and drops as a stone sinks to the earth by its own weight.
His inherent knowledge may be compared to the windows of a
house, which can transmit the light, but cannot retain it. Without
renewed and continual communications from the Spirit of grace,
he is unable to withstand the smallest temptation, to endure the
slightest trial, to perform the least service in a due manner, or
even to think a good thought. He knows this, and yet he too
often forgets it. But the Lord reminds him of it frequently, by
suspending that assistance without which he can do nothing.
Then he feels what he is, and is easily prevailed upon to act in
contradiction to his better judgment. This repeated experience of
his own weakness teaches him by degrees where his strength lies-
that it is not in any thing he has already attained, or can call
his own, but the grace, power, and faithfulness of his Saviour.
He learns to cease from his own understanding, to be ashamed
of his best endeavors, to abhor himself in dust and ashes,
and to glory only in the Lord.
From hence we may observe, that believers who have most
knowledge, are not therefore necessarily the most spiritual!
Some may and do walk more honorably and more comfortably
with two talents, than others with five. He who experimentally
knows his own weakness, and depends simply upon the Lord,
will surely thrive, though his acquired attainments and abilities
may be but small; and he who has the greatest gifts, the clearest
judgment, and the most extensive knowledge, if he indulges high
thoughts of his advantages, is in imminent danger of mistaking,
and falling at every step; for the Lord will allow none whom he
loves to boast in themselves. He will guide the meek with his
eyes, and fill the hungry with good things; but the rich he sends
empty away. It is an invariable maxim in his kingdom, that
whosoever exalts himself, shall be abased; but he that humbles
himself, shall be exalted.