John Newton's Letters
Seven letters to a Christian friend
March 18, 1767.
I can truly say, that I bear you upon my heart and in my prayers. I have rejoiced to see the beginning of a good and gracious work in you; and I have confidence in the Lord Jesus, that he will carry it on and complete it; and that you will be among the number of those who shall sing of "redeeming love" to all eternity. Therefore fear none of the things appointed for you to suffer by the way—but gird up the loins of your mind, and hope to the end. Be not impatient—but wait humbly upon the Lord.
You have one hard lesson to learn, that is—the evil of your own heart. You know something of it—but it is needful that you should know more; for the more we know of ourselves, the more we shall prize and love Jesus and his salvation. I hope what you find in yourself by daily experience will humble you—but not discourage you. Humble you it should, and I believe it does. Are not you amazed sometimes that you should have so much as a hope, that, poor and needy as you are, the Lord thinks of you? But let not all you feel discourage you; for if our Physician is almighty, our disease cannot be desperate; and if he casts none out who come to him, why should you fear? Our sins are many—but his mercies are more. Our sins are great—but His righteousness is greater. We are weak—but he is power.
Most of our complaints are owing to unbelief, and the remainder of a legal spirit; and these evils are not removed in a day. Wait on the Lord, and he will enable you to see more and more of the power and grace of our High Priest. The more you know him—the better you will trust him. The more you trust him—the better you will love him. The more you love him—the better you will serve him. This is God's way. You are not called to buy—but to beg; not to be strong in yourself—but in the grace that is in Christ Jesus. He is teaching you these things, and I trust he will teach you to the end.
Remember, the growth of a believer is not like a mushroom—but like an oak, which increases slowly indeed—but surely. Many suns, showers, and frosts, pass upon it before it comes to perfection; and in winter, when it seems to be dead—it is gathering strength at the root. Be humble, watchful, and diligent in the means, and endeavor to look through all, and fix your eye upon Jesus—and all shall be well. I commend you to the care of the good Shepherd, and remain, for his sake.
May 31, 1769.
I was sorry I did not write as you expected. Indeed I have not forgotten you; you are often in my thoughts, and seldom omitted in my prayers. I hope the Lord will make what you see and hear while abroad profitable to you, to increase your knowledge, to strengthen your faith, and to make you from henceforth, well satisfied with your situation. If I am not mistaken, you will be sensible, that though there are some desirable things to be met with in London preferable to any other place—yet, upon the whole, a quiet situation in the country, under one stated ministry, and in connection with one people—has the advantage. It is pleasant now and then to have opportunity of hearing a variety of preachers—but the best and greatest of them are no more than instruments in God's hands. Some preachers can please the ear better than others—but none can reach the heart any farther than the Lord is pleased to open it. This he showed you upon your first going up; and I doubt not but your disappointment did you more good than if you had heard with all the pleasure you expected.
The Lord was pleased to visit me with a slight illness in my recent journey. I was far from well on the Tuesday—but supposed it owing to the fatigue of riding, and the heat of the weather—but the next day I was taken with a shivering, to which a fever followed. I was then near sixty miles from home. The Lord gave me much peace in my soul, and I was enabled to hope he would bring me safely home, in which I was not disappointed. And though I had the fever most of the way, my journey was not unpleasant. He likewise strengthened me to preach twice on Sunday; and at night I found myself well, only very weary, and I have continued well ever since.
I have reason to speak much of his goodness, and to kiss the rod, for it was sweetened with abundant mercies. I thought that had it been his pleasure I would have continued sick at Oxford, or even have died there, I had no objection. Though I had not that joy and sensible comfort which some are favored with—yet I was quite free from pain, fear, and care, and felt myself sweetly composed to his will—whatever it might be. Thus he fulfils his promise in making our strength equal to our day; and every new trial gives us a new proof how happy it is to be enabled to put our trust in Him.
I hope, in the midst of all your engagements, you find a little time to read his good Word, and to wait at his mercy-seat. It is good for us to draw near to Him. It is an honor that He permits us to pray; and we shall surely find he is a prayer-hearing God.
Endeavor to be diligent in the means—yet watch and strive against a legal spirit, which is always aiming to represent him as a hard master—watching, as it were, to take advantage of us. But it is far otherwise. His name is Love. He looks upon us with compassion; He knows our frame, and remembers that we are but dust; and when our sins prevail, He does not bid us to despond—but reminds us that we have an Advocate with the Father, who is able to pity, to pardon, and to save to the uttermost. Think of the names and relations he bears. Does he not call himself a Savior, a Shepherd, a Friend, and a Husband? Has he not made known unto us his love, his blood, his righteousness, his promises, his power, and his grace—and all for our encouragement? Away then with all doubting, unbelieving thoughts; they will not only distress your heart—but weaken your hands.
Take it for granted upon the warrant of his Word, that you are his, and he is yours; that he has loved you with an everlasting love, and therefore in loving-kindness has drawn you to himself; that he will surely accomplish that which he has begun, and that nothing which can be named or thought of shall ever be able to separate you from him. This persuasion will give you strength for the battle! This is the shield which will quench the fiery darts of Satan! This is the helmet which the enemy cannot pierce! Whereas if we go forth doubting and fearing, and are afraid to trust any farther than we can feel, we are weak as water, and easily overcome. Be strong, therefore, not in yourself—but in the grace that is in Christ Jesus. Pray for me.
I think you would hardly expect me to write—if you knew how I am forced to live at London. However, I would have you believe I am as willing to write to you, as you are to receive my letters.
I have been visiting Mrs. ****. She is a woman of a sorrowful spirit—she talks and weeps. I believe she would think herself happy to be situated as you are, notwithstanding the many advantages she has at London. I see daily, and I hope you have likewise learned, that places, and outward circumstances cannot, of themselves, either hinder or help us in walking with God. So far as he is pleased to be with us, and to teach us by his Spirit, wherever we are—we shall be happy and content. And if he does not bless us and water us every moment, the more we have of our own wishes and wills—the more unhappy we will be.
One thing is needful—a humble, dependent spirit, to renounce our own wills, and give up ourselves to his disposal without reserve. This is the path of peace—and it is the path of safety. For he has said, "He guides the humble in what is right and teaches them his way." I hope you will fight and pray against every rising of a murmuring spirit, and be thankful for the great things which he has already done for you It is good to be humbled for sin—but not to be discouraged; for though we are poor creatures, Jesus is a complete Savior; and we bring more honor to God by believing in his name, and trusting his Word of promise, than we could do by a thousand outward works.
I pray the Lord to shine upon your soul, and to fill you with all joy and peace in believing. Remember to pray for us, that we may be brought home to you in peace.
London, Aug. 19, 1775.
You see I am mindful of my promise; and glad would I be to write something that the Lord may be pleased to make a word in season. I went yesterday into the pulpit very dry and heartless. I seemed to have fixed upon a text—but when I came to the pinch, it was so shut up that I could not preach from it. I had hardly a minute to choose, and therefore was forced to snatch at that which came first upon my mind, which proved "I know whom I have believed, and am convinced that he is able to guard what I have entrusted to him for that day." 2 Timothy 1:12. Thus I set off at a venture, having no resource but in the Lord's mercy and faithfulness; and indeed what other can we wish for? Presently my subject opened, and I know not when I have been favored with more liberty.
Why do I tell you this? Only as an instance of his goodness, to encourage you to put your strength in him, and not to be afraid, even when you feel your own weakness and insufficiency most sensibly. We are never more safe, and never have more reason to expect the Lord's help—than when we are most sensible that we can do nothing without him. This was the lesson Paul learned—to rejoice in his own poverty and emptiness, that the power of Christ might rest upon him. Could Paul have done anything, Jesus would not have had the honor of doing all. This way of being saved entirely by grace, from first to last, is contrary to our natural pride. It mortifies self, leaving it nothing to boast of; and, through the remains of an unbelieving, legal spirit, it often seems discouraging. When we think ourselves so utterly helpless and worthless, we are too ready to fear that the Lord will therefore reject us; whereas, in truth, such a poverty of spirit is the best mark we can have of a saving interest in his promises and care.
How often have I longed to be an instrument of establishing you in the peace and hope of the Gospel! and I have but one way of attempting it, by telling you over and over of the power and grace of Jesus. You need nothing to make you happy—but to have the eyes of your understanding more fixed upon the Redeemer, and more enlightened by the Holy Spirit to behold his glory. Oh, he is a suitable Savior! He has power, authority, and compassion to save to the uttermost! He has given his Word of promise, to engage our confidence; and he is able and faithful to make good the expectations and desires he has raised in us. Put your trust in him; believe (as we say) through thick and thin, in defiance of all objections from within and without. For this, Abraham is recommended as a pattern to us. He overlooked all difficulties. He ventured and hoped even against hope, in a case which, to appearance, was desperate; because he knew that He who had promised—was also able to perform.
Your sister is much upon my mind. Her illness grieves me. Were it in my power I would quickly remove it. The Lord can, and indeed will remove it—when it has answered the end for which he sent it. I trust he has brought her to us for good, and that she is chastised by him—that she may not be condemned with the world. I hope, though she says little, she lifts up her heart to him for a blessing. I wish you may be enabled to leave her, and yourself, and all your concerns, in his hands. He has a sovereign right to do with us as he pleases; and if we consider what we are, surely we shall confess we have no reason to complain. To those who seek him, his sovereignty is exercised in a way of grace. All shall work together for good. Everything which he sends is needful; nothing can be needful which he withholds. Be content to bear the cross; others have borne it before you. You have need of patience; and if you ask, the Lord will give it to you—but there can be no settled peace until our will is in a measure subdued. Hide yourself under the shadow of his wings; rely upon his care and power; look upon him as a physician who has graciously undertaken to heal your soul of the worst of sicknesses, sin! Yield to his prescriptions, and fight against every thought that would represent it as desirable to be permitted to choose for yourself. When you cannot see your way—be satisfied that he is your leader. When your spirit is overwhelmed within you—he knows your path. He will not leave you to sink. He has appointed seasons of refreshment, and you shall find that he does not forget you. Above all, keep close to the Throne of Grace. If we seem to get no good by attempting to draw near him—we may be sure we shall get none by keeping away from him!
I promised you another letter, and now for the performance. If I had said, It may be, or, perhaps I will, you would be in suspense—but if I promise, then you expect that I will not disappoint you, unless something should render it impossible for me to make my word good. I thank you for your good opinion of me, and for thinking I mean what I say; and I pray that you may be enabled more and more to honor the Lord, by believing his promise. For he is not like a man, that would fail or change, or be prevented by anything unforeseen from doing what he has said. And yet we find it easier to trust to worms than to trust the God of truth! Is it not so with you? And I can assure you it is often so with me. But here is the mercy, that his ways are as high above ours—as the heavens are higher than the earth. Though we are foolish and unbelieving, he remains faithful. He will not deny himself.
I recommend to you especially that promise of God, which is so comprehensive that it takes in all our concerns, I mean, that "all things shall work together for good." How hard is it to believe, that not only those things which are grievous to the flesh—but even those things which draw forth our corruptions, and reveal to us what is in our hearts, and fill us with guilt and shame—should in the outcome, work for our good! Yet the Lord has said it. All your pains and trials, all that befalls you in your own person, or that affects you upon the account of others—shall in the end prove to your advantage. And your peace does not depend upon any change of circumstances which may appear desirable—but in having your will bowed to the Lord's will, and made willing to submit all to his disposal and management. Pray for this, and wait patiently for him, and he will do it.
Do not be surprised to find yourself poor, helpless, and vile. All whom God favors and teaches—will find themselves so. The more grace increases—the more we shall see to abase us in our own eyes! This will make the Savior and his salvation more precious to us. He takes his own wise methods to humble you, and to prove you; and I am sure he will do you good in the end.
September 16, 1775.
When you receive this, I hope it will give you pleasure to think, that, if the Lord is pleased to favor us with health, we shall all meet again in a few days. I have met with much kindness at London, and many comforts and mercies. However, I shall be glad to return home. There my heart lives, let my body be where it will. I long to see all my dear people, and I shall be glad to see you. I steal a little time to write another line or two, more to satisfy you than for anything particular I have to say.
"Here on earth you will have many trials and sorrows. But take heart, because I have overcome the world!" John 16:33. I doubt not but the Lord is bringing you forward, and that you have a good right to say to your soul, "Why are you cast down and disquieted? Hope in God—for I shall yet praise him!" An evil heart, an evil temper, and the many crosses we meet with in passing through an evil world—will bring us many troubles. But the Lord has provided a balm for every wound, and a cordial for every care. The fruit of all trials—is to purge away sin, and the end of all will be eternal life in glory. Think of eternal glory—put it in the balance of the sanctuary; and then throw all your trials into the opposite scale, and you will find there is no proportion between them! Say then, "Though he slays me—yet I will trust in him;" for, when he has fully tried me, I shall come forth like gold.
You would have liked to have been with me last Wednesday. I preached at Westminster Bridewell. It is a prison and house of correction. The bulk of my congregation were robbers, highwaymen, pick-pockets, and poor unhappy women, such as infest the streets of this city, sunk in sin, and lost to shame. I had a hundred or more of these before me. I preached from 1Ti. 1:15; and began With telling them my own testimony. This gained their attention more than I expected. I spoke to them nearly an hour and a half. I shed many tears myself, and saw some of them shed tears likewise. Ah! had you seen their present condition, and could you hear the history of some of them, it would make you sing, "O to grace how great a debtor!" By nature they were no worse than the most moral people; and there was doubtless a time when many of them little thought what they should live to do and suffer. I might have been, like them, in chains—and one of them have come to preach to me, had the Lord so pleased.
Oct. 10, 1777.
I have just come from seeing N**** in the hospital. The people told me she is much better than she was—but she is far from being well. She was brought to me into a parlor, which saved me the painful task of going to inquire and seek for her among the patients. My spirits always sink when I am within those mournful walls, and I think no money could prevail on me to spend an hour there every day. Yet surely no sight upon earth is more suited to teach one thankfulness and resignation. Surely I have reason, in my worst times, to be thankful that I am out of hell, out of Bedlam, out of Newgate! If my eyes were as bad as yours, and my back worse, still I hope I should set a great value upon this mercy, that my senses are preserved. I hope you will think so too. The Lord afflicts us at times—but it is always a thousand times less than we deserve, and much less than many of our fellow-creatures are suffering around us. Let us therefore pray for grace to be humble, thankful, and patient.
This day last year, I was under the surgeon's knife. There is another cause for thankfulness, that the Lord inclined me to submit to the operation, and brought me happily through it. In short, I have so many reasons for thankfulness, that I cannot count them. I may truly say they are more in number than the hairs of my head! And yet, alas! how cold, insensible, and ungrateful I am! I find no good by complaining, except to him who is able to help me. It is better for you and me to be admiring the compassion and fullness of grace that is in our Savior—than to dwell and pore too much upon our own poverty and vileness. He is able to help and save to the uttermost. There I desire to cast anchor, and wish you to do so likewise. Hope in God—for you shall yet praise him!