John Newton's Letters
Fourteen letters to a pastor
September 6, 1708
The prospect of corresponding with you gives me great pleasure, as I know you will kindly dispense with my neglect of forms, and bear with me and assist me, while I simply communicate such thoughts as may occasionally and without premeditation occur. Among a thousand mercies with which I am indulged, I often distinctly enumerate the use of the pen, and the convenience of the post; but especially that the Lord has given me so many friends among those who fear his name, without which, in my present sequestered situation, the pen and the post would be useless to me, (for I know but one subject on which it is much worth my while either to read or write.) I hope you will not be angry with me for my promptness in adding your name to my list of such friends.
I had a safe and pleasant journey home, though the roads were disagreeable enough. But the pleasure of my visit would have made me amends, had the difficulties of the way been greater. You have been often in my thoughts since I saw you, and the topics of our conversation have not been forgotten. The patience with which you heard me differ from you, and the dispassionate desire you expressed to search out truth for its own sake, affected me much. Such a disposition is to me a sure evidence of the finger of God; for your learning, your years, and your rank and character in the University, would have the same effect on you, as the like considerations have on too many—if the grace of God had not taught you, that, notwithstanding any distinctions and advantages which are admired among men, we are all naturally upon a level as to the perception of divine truths; and can receive nothing that is valuable in the sight of God, unless it be given us from heaven.
When we begin to know ourselves, and to feel the uncertainty and darkness which are inseparable from our fallen nature, how comfortable and encouraging is it to reflect, that God has given us his infallible Word, and promised us his infallible Spirit, to guide us into all necessary truth; and that in the study of the one, and in dependence upon the other, none can miss the way of peace and salvation, who are sincerely desirous to find it. But we are cautioned to keep our eye upon both; and the caution is necessary, for we are too prone to separate what God has joined together, Isaiah 8:20, 1 Cor. 2:10-11.
What strange mistakes have been made by some who have thought themselves able to interpret Scripture by their own abilities as scholars and critics, though they have studied with much diligence! Unless our dependence upon divine teaching bears some proportion to our diligence, we may take much pains to little purpose. On the other hand, we are directed to expect the teaching and assistance of the Holy Spirit only within the limits, and by the medium of the written Word. For he has not promised to reveal new truths—but to enable us to understand what we read in the Bible—and if we venture beyond the pale of Scripture, we are upon enchanted ground, and exposed to all the illusions of our imagination. But an attention to the Word of God, joined to humble supplications for his Spirit, will lead us to new advances in true knowledge.
The exercises of our minds, and the observations we shall make upon the conduct of others, and the dispensations of God's providence, will all concur to throw light upon the Scripture, and to confirm to us what we there read concerning ourselves, the world, and the true happiness revealed to sinners in and through Jesus Christ. The more sensible we are of the disease, the more we shall admire the great Physician; the more we are convinced that the creature is vanity, the more we shall be stirred up to seek our rest in God. And this will endear the gospel to us; as in Christ, and in him only, we can hope to find that righteousness and strength, of which we are utterly destitute ourselves.
I observe in many newspapers, the attestations of people who have been relieved in diseases by the medicines which they have tried, and therefore recommend to others from their experience. Innumerable cases might be published to the honor of the great Physician; none more memorable perhaps than my own. I was laboring under a complication of disorders; fired with raging madness, possessed with many devils, (I doubt it not,) bent upon my own destruction; but he interposed, unsought, undesired. He opened my eyes, and pardoned my sins; broke my fetters, and taught my once blasphemous lips—to praise his name. Oh, I can, I do, I must commend it as a faithful saying, That Christ Jesus is come into the world to save sinners; there is forgiveness with him; he does all things well; he makes both the dumb to speak, and the deaf to hear.
I remain, with due respect, dear sir, your most obedient servant.
November 1, 1768
By this time I suppose you have received and perused Mr. B ___ 's book. In point of fact, I think he has unanswerably proved that the sense of the Articles, and the sentiments of the most eminent men in our church, until about Bishop Laud's time, are expressly in favor of what is called Calvinism. How far you may be satisfied with his endeavors to establish those points from Scripture, particularly the doctrine of the 17th Article, I know not; nor am I very anxious about it. The course you are taking to read the Scripture for yourself, in a humble dependence upon the promised teaching of the Holy Spirit, will, I doubt not, lead you into all necessary truth.
The best of men are permitted to retain some differences in sentiment upon less essential points. I remember the time when the doctrines of election and predestination were all offence to me; and, though now Scripture, reason, and experience concur to establish me not only in one or two—but in all the particulars of Calvinism—yet I believe several people whom I love and honor will not receive them with the same satisfaction. But the longer I live, the more I am constrained to adopt that system which ascribes all the power and glory to the grace of God, and leaves nothing to the creature—but sin, weakness, and shame. Everyone must speak for themselves; and for my own part, I cannot ascribe my present hopes to my having cherished and improved an inward something within me; but, on the contrary, I know I have often resisted the motions and warnings of God's Spirit; and, if he had not saved me by sovereign grace, and in defiance of myself—I must have been lost! Nay, to this hour I feel an evil principle within me, tempting me to depart from the living God. I have no inherent stock of goodness upon which I can hope to hold out hereafter—but stand in need of a continual supply, and emphatically understand our Lord's words, "Without me you can do nothing." For I find I am not sufficient of myself so much as to think a good thought.
I have had opportunity of reading but a few pages of Dr. Smith's Select Discourses. He is very learned, sensible, and ingenious. I could admire him as a philosopher—but I cannot approve him as a divine. A sentence or two in his ninth page seems to me explanatory of his whole system; where, speaking of our Lord Christ he says, "His main scope was to promote a holy life, as the best and most compendious way to a right belief." If this sentence were exactly inverted, it would speak the very sentiment of my heart. That by our own industry and endeavor, we shall acquire a qualification to enable us to a right faith, seems to me as improbable, as that any cultivation which can be bestowed upon a bramble-bush will enable it to produce figs.
I believe human nature is totally depraved; blind as to any spiritual understanding, dead as to any spiritual desires; and until we have received faith, though tempers, inclinations, and circumstances occasion a great variety of appearances and outward characters among men—yet the description of the carnal mind, as enmity against God, will equally suit us all. And I believe that, when God is about to show mercy to any person, he begins by enlightening the understanding to perceive something of the wisdom, grace, and justice revealed in the person of Christ crucified, and thereby communicating that principle of living faith which is the root of every gracious temper, and the source of every action that can be called good in a spiritual sense; John. 3:6. Matthew 12:33-35. Ephesians 2:1-9. Titus 3:3-7. I believe that, on the double account of inward depravity and actual transgression, we are (considered as in our natural state) liable to the curse of the law; from which, only faith in Jesus, as the proper atonement for sin, can set us free; John. 3:18, John. 3:36, and John. 8:24; and that the moment we truly believe, we are justified from all things, Act. 13:39, and delivered from all condemnation; Romans 8:1. In a word, that Christ is the all in all in a sinner's salvation; that we have no righteousness in the sight of God—but in his name; and we have no spiritual power—but so far as we are ingrafted in him by faith, as branches deriving sap and influence from the true vine; John. 15:1. Isaiah 45:24. 1 Cor. 1:30. Upon these principles I find that I cannot have satisfaction or comfort in the mystical writings, notwithstanding they say many excellent things occasionally, which may be very useful when understood in a gospel sense.
It would be impertinent to offer an apology for expressing myself with freedom, after the liberty you gave me. However, I wish you to believe, that I would not at any time, and especially when writing to you, betray a dogmatic spirit. In every other point I hesitate and demur, (and it befits me to do so,) when I differ from people of learning and years superior to my own. But, with respect to the grounds of a sinner's acceptance in the sight of God—it is only by the sufficiency, the all-sufficiency, the alone-sufficiency of Jesus Christ to do all for, in, and by, those who believe on his name. I think that the views which constrain me to dissent from Mr. Law, Dr. Smith, and many other respectable names, would embolden me to contradict even an angel from heaven, if I should hear him propose any other foundation for hope than the person, obedience, sufferings, and intercession of the Son of God. Upon this subject, even my phlegmatic spirit will sometimes catch a little fire.
The dryness of spirit you speak of, though not pleasant, is beneficial. Such thirsting and longings as are expressed in the hundred and forty-third Psalm, are certainly from God, and will certainly be answered; for to whom did he ever say, "Seek my face in vain"?
I commend you to the keeping of the great Shepherd, and remain, dear sir, your obedient humble servant.
January 11, 1769
My dear sir,
It is true, I am obliged to plead business in excuse for my lack of punctuality to some of my correspondents; but I should be ashamed to make such a plea to you. The most pleasing parts of our employment bid fairest for our attention; and I shall expect to spend few hours of my leisure with more satisfaction to myself—than when I am answering your obliging letters; especially, as you encourage the freedom I have already used, and give me hope that the thoughts I offer are not unsuitable to the tenor of your inquiries into the truths of God. The Lord, on whom we both desire to wait for instruction, can make us mutually helpful to each other; and I trust he will, for it is his own work. I can easily say, I am nothing; I wish I could more truly feel it, for he will not disappoint the feeblest instrument that simply depends upon him, and is willing to give him all the glory.
Our preliminaries are now settled. What you say in your last letter is so satisfactory, that it would be impertinent in me to trouble you any further either about Mr. Law or Mr. Calvin. Whatever portion of truth is in either of their writings, was drawn from the fountain which we have in our own hands; and we have the sure promise of divine assistance to give success to our inquiries.
I trust the defect of memory of which you complain, shall be no disadvantage to you; for you are not seeking a polemical system—but an experimental possession of truth; and, with respect to this, if you had all your faculties in full vigor, and could recall in a moment to all that you have ever been master of—you would still stand upon a level with the meanest of mankind. In this respect, what Elihu says, "God is exalted in his power. Who is a teacher like him?" Job 36:22, is emphatically true, There is none who teaches like him. That heavenly light with which he visits the awakened mind, (like the light of the sun,) requires only eyes to see it. And a single sentence of his Word, when explained and applied by his Spirit to the heart, will have more effect than the perusal of many books. There is a majesty, authority, and power in His teaching, which is equally suited to all capacities. The wisest renounce their wisdom when he interposes; and the weakest are made wise unto salvation; Jer. 9:23-24. Isaiah 35:8.
I have somewhere read an acknowledgment of the great Selden to this purpose— "I have taken much pains to know everything that was esteemed worth knowing among men—but, of all my disquisitions and readings, nothing now remains with me to comfort me at the close of life—but this passage of Paul, 'It is a faithful saying, and worthy of all acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.' To this I cleave, and herein I find rest." You may be well assured, dear sir, that he who has taught your heart to say, "Your face, Lord, will I seek," will be undoubtedly found by you; for when did he say to the seed of Jacob, "Do you seek my face in vain?" Though, as you have more to give up in point of those abilities and attainments which are highly esteemed among men than many others in the lower sphere of life, he may perhaps lead you in such a way, as to give you a full conviction, that these advantages can contribute nothing to spiritual wisdom and the peace which passes understanding.
If I had the pleasure (as I hope one day to have) of receiving you here, I could show you exemplifications of the same grace in a very different light. Here the poor and the weak, and the despised of the world, rejoice in the light of his salvation. Some who have hardly bread to eat, are content and thankful as if they possessed the whole earth, and can trace the hand of God in directing their petty concerns, and providing their daily food, as clearly as we can in the revolutions of a kingdom. Some who know no more of what passes without the bounds of the parish, than of what is doing beyond the Ganges River, and whose whole reading is confined to the Bible, have such a just understanding of the things of God, and of the nature and difficulties of the Christian life—that I derive more instruction from their conversation, (though none think themselves less qualified to teach,) than from all my books. I doubt not but you would be pleased with their simplicity. We live in much harmony, and are out of the noise of disputes, being, through mercy, of one judgment and of one heart. I speak now of the serious people, whom I consider as my own peculiar charge. As to the bulk of the parish, it is too much like other places.
Indeed, the great points of immediate concernment may be summed up in a few words. To have a real conviction of our sin and unworthiness; to know that Jesus is the all-sufficient Savior, and that there is no other; to set him before us as our Shepherd, Advocate, and Master; to place our hope upon him alone; to live to him who lived and died for us; to wait in his appointed means for the consolations of his Spirit; to walk in his steps, and copy his character; and to be daily longing for the end of our warfare—that we may see him as he is. All may be reduced to these heads—or the whole is better expressed in the apostle's summaries, Titus 2:11-14, and Titus 3:3-8. But, though the lessons are brief, it is a great thing to attain any good measure of proficiency in them; yes, the more we advance, the more we shall be sensible how far we fall short of their full import.
Next to the Word of God, I like those books best which give an account of the lives and experiences of his people. Gillies's Gospel History contains a valuable collection of this sort, especially the first volume. Some of the letters and lives in Fox's Acts and Monuments, in the third volume, have been very useful to me. But no book of this kind has been more welcome to me than the Life of Mr. Brainerd, of New England, re-published a few years since at Edinburgh, and I believe sold by Dilly, in London. If you have not seen it, I will venture to recommend it, (though I am not fond of recommending books,) I think it will please you.
I suppose you have read Augustine's Confessions. In that book I think there is a lively description of the workings of the heart, and of the Lord's methods in drawing him to himself. It has given me satisfaction to meet with experiences very much like my own, in a book written so long ago. For both nature and grace have been the same in every age.
I make no apology for the miscellaneous manner of my letters. I sit down to give you my thoughts as they arise, without reserve and without study. I beg a remembrance in your prayers.
I am, very respectfully, your most affectionate and obliged servant.
February 11, 1769
My dear sir,
Though, by the Lord's mercy, I have not, since the years of my miserable bondage in Africa, been much subject to a depression of spirits, I know how to sympathize with you under your present complaints; but, while I am sorry for your trials, I rejoice much more to observe the spirit of submission and dependence with which you are favored under them. Whatever may be the immediate causes of your troubles—they are all under the direction of a gracious hand, and each, in their place, cooperating to a gracious end. I think the frame of your spirit is a sure evidence that God is with you in your trouble; and, I trust, in due time, he will fulfill the other part of his promise—to comfort and deliver you, because he has given you to know his name; Psalm 91:14-15. It will be always a pleasure to me when a letter comes with your superscription; but, while writing is so painful to you, I shall be willing (since you are pleased to receive mine so favorably) to send you two or three for one, rather than expect a punctual return of answers, until your health and spirits shall enable you to gratify me without inconvenience to yourself.
Your saying that, "If I have never been in the like circumstances, it is impossible for me to conceive the uncomfortableness of them," reminds me of one admirable peculiarity of the gospel, which seems a fit topic for a paragraph in a letter to you at this time. I mean, the encouragement it affords us to apply to our great High Priest, from the especial consideration of his having felt the same sorrows which we also feel. Though he is now exalted above all our conceptions and praises, is supremely happy in himself, and the fountain of happiness to all his redeemed; yet he is still such a one as can be touched with a feeling of our infirmities; Hebrews 4:15-16. He has not only a divine knowledge—but an experimental perception of our afflictions, "In all their suffering, He suffered" Isaiah 63:9. And, as Dr. Watts well expresses the thought—
Touched with a sympathy within,
He knows our feeble frame;
He knows what sore temptations mean,
For he has felt the same.
You complain of a dejection of spirits, which I apprehend nearly expresses the sense of Mark 14:33, "He began to be deeply distressed and horrified" which is one out of many of those emphatic words the evangelists use to give some apprehension of that depression, agony, and consternation of spirit which filled the soul of Jesus when he entered upon the great work of atoning for our sins. All that he endured from the hands of wicked men was probably very light—in comparison of what he began to suffer in the garden, when he was exposed to the fierce conflicts of the powers of darkness, and when the arrows of the Almighty drank up his spirits, and it pleased the Father to bruise him! Zech. 13:7. How different the cup he drank himself—from that which he puts into our hands! His was unmixed wrath and anguish; but all our afflictions are tempered and sweetened with many mercies. Yet we suffer, at the worst, unspeakably less than we deserve; but he had done nothing amiss.
Now let our pains be all forgot;
Our hearts no more repine;
Our sufferings are not worth a thought,
If, Lord, compared with Thine.
But what I chiefly intend is, that, having suffered for us—he knows how to pity and how to relieve us, by an experimental sense of the sorrow which once filled his own soul, (yes, all his life long he was acquainted with grief,) even as we (if it is lawful to compare great things with small) are prompted to pity and to help those who are afflicted in the same way as ourselves. May he be pleased, by the power of his Holy Spirit, to reveal, with increasing guidance and power in your soul this mystery of redeeming love. Here is the source of consolation, that Jesus died for us, the just for the unjust, to bring us to God. The knowledge of his cross, like the branch which Moses cast into the spring, Exo. 15:25, sweetens the bitter waters of afflictions, and sanctifies every dispensation of providence, so as to render it a means of grace.
A comfortable hope of our acceptance and reconciliation in him, is, I apprehend, that "preparation of the gospel of peace," which, for its continual use and application, the apostle compares to shoes, which, whoever wears, shall walk safely and surely through the thorny and rugged paths of our present pilgrimage, Ephesians 6:15. Deu. 33:25. Though there may be many tribulations—yet, since there can be no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus; since in the path of sufferings—we may see his footsteps before us; since it is the established law of the kingdom, Act. 14:22; since the time is short, and the hour coming apace, when all tears shall be wiped from our eyes, and his grace engaged to be sufficient for us in the interim; why may we not say with the apostle, "None of these things move me, neither count I my life dear, so that I may finish my course with joy!"
There is no proportionate ground for comparison between the sufferings of the present life—and the glory that shall be revealed in us; Romans 8:18. So the apostle thought; and no man seems to have been better qualified to decide upon the point; for, on the one hand, his outward life was full of what the world calls misery, 1 Cor. 4:10-14. 2 Cor. 6:4-10, and 2 Cor. 11:23-28. And, on the other hand, he had been caught up into the third heavens, and had seen and heard more than he could disclose in mortal language.
I shall be glad when you are able to inform me that your health and spirits are better, which I shall pray and wait for. The Lord has an appointed time for answering the prayers of his people. While his hour is not yet come, we can do nothing but look and wait at his mercy-seat. But, though he seems to tarry, he will not delay beyond the fittest season. Though he causes grief—he will have compassion. Weeping may endure for a night—but joy comes in the morning. In the mean time I commend you to those most gracious and comfortable promises, "Don't be afraid, for I am with you. Do not be dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you. I will help you. I will uphold you with my victorious right hand. " Isaiah 41:10, and "Do not be afraid, for I have ransomed you. I have called you by name; you are mine. When you go through deep waters and great trouble, I will be with you. When you go through rivers of difficulty, you will not drown! When you walk through the fire of oppression, you will not be burned up; the flames will not consume you. For I am the Lord, your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior!" Isaiah 43:1-3, which, I trust, will be your present support, and the subject of your future praises.
I am respectfully, dear sir, your obedient and affectionate servant.
In my last I engaged to write again before long, though I should not have one of yours to answer. And I hope soon after you receive this, that your leisure and spirit will permit you to write, at least a few lines, to inform us of your welfare. My anxiety on your account would be greater—but that I know you are in the hands of him who does all things well, and conducts his most afflictive dispensations to those who fear him, with wisdom and mercy. As I am not fit to choose for myself, so neither can I choose for my friends.
The Lord knows what is best for you! When there is an especial need-be for your being in the furnace—He knows how to support you; and at what season, and in what manner, deliverance will best comport with His glory and your good-. These are the two great ends which He has in view, and which are inseparably connected together.
He knows our frame, and of what we are made. His pity exceeds that of the most tender parent. And though He causes grief—He will have compassion. Your afflictions which at present are not joyous but grievous, shall, when you have been duly exercised by them—yield the peaceable fruits of righteousness. I trust the Lord gives you a measure of patience and submission to His holy will. If so, everything shall be well. And when He has fully tried you—you shall come forth as gold!
The thoughts of what we have deserved at His hands—and what Jesus suffered for our sakes—when applied by his Holy Spirit, have a sovereign efficacy to compose our minds, and enable us to say, "Not my will—but may Yours be done!" How unspeakably better is it to be chastened by the Lord now—than to be left to ourselves for a season, and at last condemned with the world.
The path of affliction is sanctified by the promise of God, and by the consideration of our Lord Jesus, who walked in it Himself, that we might not think it too much to tread in His steps. Yes, it has been a beaten path in all ages; for the innumerable multitudes of the redeemed who are now before the eternal throne, have entered the kingdom by no other way. Let us not then be weary and faint—but cheerfully consent to be the followers of those who, through faith and patience, are now inheriting the promises!
If, after much tribulation, we stand accepted before the Lord in His glory, we shall not then think much of the difficulties we met in our pathway to glory. Then sorrow and sighing shall cease forever—and songs of triumph and everlasting joy shall take their place! Oh, happy transporting moment, when the Lord God Himself shall wipe every tear from our eyes!
Until then, may the prospect of this glory which shall be revealed, cheer and comfort our hearts! Hitherto the Lord has helped us. He has delivered us in six troubles—and we may trust him in the seventh. Yes, if he was pleased to deliver us when we thought little of him, much more may we assure ourselves of his help—now that he has taught us to come to his throne of grace, and given us encouragement to come with boldness, that we may obtain mercy and find grace to help at the time of need.
The newspapers (which in this retired place are the chief sources of our news) give us but a dark view of what is passing abroad. A spirit of discord is spreading in the nation, and we have hints and items respecting ecclesiastical matters, which I hope are premature, and without sufficient ground. But, whatever storms may arise, we have an infallible and almighty Pilot, who will be a Sun and a Shield to those who love Him! I endeavor to answer all fears respecting political matters with the sure declarations of the Word of God. Such as Psalm 99:1, Psalm 29:10-11, Isaiah 8:12-14, Isaiah 51:12-13, John 3:35, etc. Jesus is King of kings, and Lord of lords! He is King of the church, and King in the nations; who does his pleasure in the armies of heaven, and among the inhabitants of the earth. Therefore by faith in him, we may adopt the triumphant language of Psalm 2:1-12, Psalm 27:1-14, Psalm 46:1-11, and 118, for the Lord is good, a stronghold in the day of trouble, and knows how to deliver them that trust in him.
Oh, sir, what a light does the gospel of Christ throw upon the world when our eyes are open to receive it! Without it, all would be uncertainty and perplexity; but the knowledge of his person, blood, and righteousness; of the love he bears us, the care he exercises over us, and the blessings he has prepared for us—this knowledge gives peace and stability to the soul, in the midst of all changes and confusions. And, were it not for the remaining power of unbelief in our hearts, which fights against our faith, and dampens the force of divine truth, we should begin our heaven even while we are upon earth. We have need to adopt the apostle's prayer, and to say, "Lord, increase our faith!"
Believe me to be, with great respect, your most obedient and affectionate servant.
June 12, 1770
Very dear sir,
I make haste to answer your obliging favor of the 31st; the contents gave me much pleasure. I am glad to find that, though you have your share of trials in different ways, the Lord is pleased to support you under them, and do you good by them. So I trust you shall find it to the end. That valuable promise, "Your shoes shall be iron and brass; and as your days—so shall your strength be." Deuteronomy 33:25, intimates, that we must not expect a path strewed with flowers, or spread with soft carpets—but rather a rough and thorny path, otherwise such shoes would be unnecessary. But it is sufficient if strength is given according to our day, and if the Lord is pleased to be with us. Though we should be led through fire and water—neither the flame shall kindle upon us, nor the floods drown us—his presence and love shall make us more than conquerors, and brings us at length into a wealthy place.
Our friend's conversion, if it could be generally known and understood, would be more effectual than many volumes of arguments to confirm what the Scriptures teach concerning the author, the nature, and effects of that great change which must be wrought in the heart of a sinner, before he can see the kingdom of God.
His natural and acquired abilities were great; his moral character, as it is called, unblemished; he was beloved and admired by his friends, and perhaps had no enemies. To see such a man made willing in an instant to give up all his supposed righteousness; to rank himself with the chief of sinners; and to glory only in those self-denying truths which a little before were foolishness to him; and to see him as suddenly possessed of a solid peace, reconciled to the thoughts of death, and rejoicing in a hope and an eternal happiness of which he had not the least idea until then—this is indeed wonderful.
But, though such an instance bears the impression of the immediate finger of God, no less evidently than the miracles wrought in Egypt—yet it cannot be perceived or understood in its full extent, by any person whose mind has not been enlightened by the same divine influence. And I doubt not—but if the Lord had spared his life, he would by this time have been either pitied or scorned in the university—as much as he had formerly been admired.
I think you may be well assured, sir, that the pleasure you feel, and the tears you shed, when you peruse the account, are the effects of your having yourself received the same Spirit. I trust that your prayer, that the Lord will be pleased to stretch out the arm of his mercy in like manner to you also, shall be fully answered as to the main point; but it is by no means necessary that it should be just in the same manner as to the instantaneous and inexpressible clearness of the discovery. The Lord sometimes shows us how he can finish his work in a short time, and therefore some of the objects of his mercy do not receive the light of his salvation until towards their last hours. But perhaps, if Mr. ___ had been appointed for life and usefulness in this world, he would have been taught these things in a more gradual manner.
"The soil produces grain—first the blade, then the stalk, and then the ripe grain on the stalk." Mark 4:28. The Lord compares the usual method of growth in grace—to the growth of grain, which is perfected by a slow and almost imperceptible progress. The seed is hidden for a time in the soil; and, when it appears, it passes through a succession of changes—the blade, the stalk, and lastly the ripe grain. And it is brought forward amidst a variety of weather: the dew, the frost, the wind, the rain, the sun—all concur to advance its maturity, though some of these agents are contrary to each other, and some of them, perhaps, seem to threaten the life of the plant! Yet, when the season of harvest returns, the grain is found ready for the sickle.
Just so, is His work of grace in the soul. Its beginnings are small, its growth for the most part slow, and, to our apprehensions, often precarious. But there is this difference in the resemblance: frosts and blights, drought or floods, may possibly disappoint the gardener's hopes. But the great Gardener of the soul—will not, and cannot be disappointed. What He sows—shall flourish in defiance of all opposition! And, if it seems at times to fade—He can and He will revive it!
This is his usual method; but he has not bound himself by rules; and therefore, to show his manifold wisdom, he exhibits some special cases, like that of our late friend, to quicken our attention, and to convince us that he is very near us, that his Word is truth, and that he can do what he pleases.
For the most part, his people are exercised with trials and sharp temptations; for it is necessary they should learn not only what he can do for them—but how little they can do without him. Therefore he teaches them not all at once—but by degrees, as they are able to bear it. I can say as you do, that I am much a stranger to those extraordinary manifestations of God in my soul; however, if the Lord has given us to see the necessity, the worth, the suitableness, and wisdom of that method of salvation which is revealed in the gospel; if Christ is made precious and desirable to us, and we are willing to account all things but loss for the excellency of the knowledge of Jesus the Lord—though there may be a difference in circumstances, the work is the same. And we have as good a right humbly to appropriate to ourselves the comfort of his promises, as if an angel were sent from heaven (as to Daniel) to tell us that we are greatly beloved.
I am respectfully, dear sir, your obedient and affectionate servant.
November 27, 1770
My dear friend,
I believe it is a considerable time since I wrote last—but much longer since I heard from you. I hope your silence has not been occasioned by illness, or at least, that if you have beer afflicted, that you have found your trials so sweetened, and so sanctified, by the divine blessing, that you have been enabled to rejoice in them. My affection prompts me to wish my friends an uninterrupted course of health and peace—but, if different dispensations are appointed them, it gives me comfort to think, that their trials come from his hand, who loves them better than I can do. And my better judgment tells me, that the afflictions of those who fear God, are on his part tokens of his love and favor; and with respect to themselves, necessary means of promoting their growth in faith and grace.
When Moses came to inform Israel that the time was at hand, when the Lord would put them in possession of the good land he had promised to their fathers, he found them in a state of great affliction; and had it not been so, they would have been little disposed to receive his message with pleasure. For they had a great natural love to Egypt; they hankered after it—even in the wilderness! If, therefore, Moses had come to them, and proposed an exodus from Egypt, while they were in a prosperous and happy situation, they would probably have been very unwilling to have left it! The Lord, therefore, who knew their weakness and their undue attachment to a country which was not to be their rest, was pleased first to embitter Egypt to them, and then the news of a Canaan provided for them, was welcome. And thus he deals with his people still.
Our affections cleave inordinately to the present world. Notwithstanding the many troubles we meet with, sufficient, as it should seem, to wean us from such a state of vanity and disappointment, we can but seldom feel ourselves, in good earnest, desirous to be gone! How much less should we be so—if everything went smoothly with us? It is happy for us if we have suffered enough to make us desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one; but surely all the painful experiences we have hitherto met with, have not been more than sufficient to bring us into this waiting posture.
As long as we live, new trials will be needful. It is not that the Lord delights in grieving us and putting us to pain; on the contrary, He rejoices in the prosperity of His servants. No, it is not for His pleasure—but for our profit, that we may be made partakers of His holiness!
Perhaps you may have observed a bird, in a hedge, or upon the boughs of a tree; if you disturb it—it will move a little higher—and thus you may make it change its place three or four times. But if it finds, after a few trials, that you continue to follow it, and will not allow it to rest near you—it takes wing at last, and flies away!
Thus it is with us! When the Lord drives us from one creature-rest, we immediately perch upon another! But He will not allow us to stay long upon any. At length, like the bird, we are sensible that we can have no safety, no stable peace below! Then our hearts take flight and soar heavenwards, and we are taught by His grace to place our treasure and affections out of the reach of earthly vanities. So far as this end is accomplished, we have reason to be thankful and say, happy rod—that brought me nearer to my God!
Blessed be God for that gospel which has brought life and immortality to light; which reveals a Savior, who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life; who is both able and willing to save to the uttermost all who come unto God by him. The desires we feel towards him, faint and feeble as they are—are the effect of his own operation on our hearts; and what he plants—he will water. He does nothing by halves. Far be it from us to think that he should make us sensible of our need of him, teach us to pray for his assistance, make so many express promises for our encouragement, and then disappoint us at last. What then would become of his honor and his truth, since he has already declared, "Him that comes unto me—I will never cast out!" To harbor a doubt either of his power or compassion, is to dishonor him. Men often disappoint our expectations; either their purposes change, or their power falls short, or something intervenes which they could not foresee; but to God—all things are known, all things are easy, and his purposes are immutable. He came into the world to save all sinners who put their trust in him. This was the joy set before him; for this he bled, for this he died. Having redeemed us by his blood, and reclaimed us in our wandering state by his Word and Spirit; having made us willing to commit ourselves unto him—he will not leave us to perish along the way, or allow any power to pluck us out of his hands!
My pen has run at random; one line has followed another without study or reserve. I sat down with a desire to fill the sheet—but knew not what I would say. Thus I usually write (without form or constraint) to those whom I love. If the Lord shall be pleased to make anything I have offered a word in season to you, I shall be glad.
I am, with great respect, your affectionate and obliged servant.
July 7, 1771
My dear friend,
Having no letter of yours to answer, I must fill up my paper as I can. It would be a shame to say, I have no subject. There is one which can never be exhausted—the love of Christ! He the fountain from whence all our spiritual blessings flow—the ocean to which they tend. The love of God towards sinners, is in Christ Jesus our Lord. It is treasured up in him; it is manifested in him; it is communicated through him. Permit my pen to enlarge a little upon this thought.
The love of God is treasured up in Christ. He is the Head of his church; and all spiritual and eternal blessings are given in him, and for his sake alone—Ephesians 1:3-4. The promise of life is in him; and to him we are directed to look, as he in whom alone the Father is well pleased—Matthew 3:17. God beheld our lost, miserable condition, and designed mercy for us; but mercy must be dispensed in a way agreeable to his holiness, justice, and truth. Therefore, in the covenant of grace, sinners are no further considered than as the people who are to reap the benefit; but the whole undertaking, both as to the burden and the honor of it, was transacted with, and devolved upon, Jesus Christ the Lord, who freely engaged to be their Savior and Surety.
The manifestation of the love of God to sinners, is in Christ Jesus. His goodness and forbearance are, indeed, displayed in every morsel of food, and in every breath we draw; but his love to our souls is only revealed in Christ. And, oh, what love was this, to give his own only Son! In this gift, in this way of redemption, he has commended his love to us, set it forth to the highest advantage possible, so that neither men nor angels can fully conceive of its glory, Romans 5:8; and the apostle there emphatically styles it "His own love:" love peculiar to himself, and of which we can find no shadow or resemblance among creatures.
The effects of his love are communicated only through Christ Jesus. He is made of God unto us, wisdom, righteousness, sanctification, and redemption. "All fullness is in him." He has received, and he bestows, every good and perfect gift. He gives grace, and he will give glory. All our springs of life, strength, peace, and comfort, are in him; and without him we can do nothing.
I trust, my dear sir, in expressing my own sentiments on this point—I express yours also. That Jesus, who was once a man of sorrows, who now reigns the Lord of glory in that nature in which he suffered, is your hope and your joy. Yes, the Lord who has given you many seeming advantages, as he did to Paul, has enabled you, like him, to sacrifice them at the foot of the cross, and to say, The things which were once gain to me, I count loss for Christ—yes, doubtless, and I count all things but loss for the excellency of the knowledge of Jesus my Lord! Phi. 3:5-10. This is to build upon a rock, to build for eternity, to rest upon a plea, which will overrule every charge in life, at death, and at judgment. Those who put their trust in him, shall be like Mount Zion, which cannot be moved. And other way of attaining stable peace, or receiving power to withstand and overcome the world, there is none.
Believe me to be, dear sir, your obliged and affectionate humble servant.
January 9, 1773
My dear sir,
Your own sentiments, which you are pleased to favor me with, afford me likewise great satisfaction. The Lord, who has given you a heart to seek and follow him, will, I trust, lead you on from strength to strength; and, if there is anything yet remaining, the knowledge and experience of which would add to your comfort and progress in the divine life—he will show it to you in his good time. He is the only effectual Teacher; and he communicates instruction to those who simply seek him, at such seasons and in such degrees as he in his sovereign wisdom sees best.
I have too great a respect for your character and years, as well as too clear a sense of the little good that is done by controversy, to attempt to dispute with you. I shall be happy and honored if I should ever drop a sentence that God may be pleased to make useful to you; and I hope I am equally desirous to learn of you, and profit by you. The Scripture warrants us both not to call any man 'master'. Christ alone is the Lord of conscience; and no man's teaching is to be regarded but his. Men are to be followed so far as we can see they speak by his authority; the best are defective; the wisest may be mistaken. Yet truth can be but one. The more uncertainty and division we find in the judgments of our fellow creatures, the more need have we to rely upon the Word and authority of the only infallible Judge. He permits those whom he loves to differ in some things, that there may be room for the exercise of love, meekness, mutual forbearance, and compassion; but when men presume to take his chair, to intrench upon his work, and think themselves qualified and authorized to enforce their own sentiments by noisy arguments, and to prescribe themselves as a standard to others—though they may mean well—they seldom do good. They set out (as they think) in the cause of God; but it is soon leavened by unsanctified tempers, and befits their own cause; and they fight more for victory than for edification. When the Lord enables any to avoid these evils, and they can freely, simply, and in a spirit of love, open their minds to each other, then his blessing may be humbly hoped for.
I hope I love true candor; but there is a candor falsely so called, which I pray the Lord to preserve me from. I mean that which springs from an indifference to truth, and supposes that people who differ most widely in sentiment, may all be right in their different ways, because they seem to mean well. But the gospel is a standard by which all men are to be tried, and a doctrine which must not be given up as a point of indifference because many people of respectable characters do not approve it. Paul observed no such "toleration" with those who would introduce another gospel. There is a great difference between those who maintain erroneous systems, and those who, though they are mistaken in some things, are faithful to the light they have already received, and are honestly seeking more from the Lord. To the latter I would show all possible candor; as to the former, candor, or rather Christian charity, requires me to be tender and compassionate to their persons—but to give no place to their principles, no not for an hour. The question is not, what I should think or hope if left to my own judgment—but what the unerring Word of God determines. By this I must abide.
I remain, begging an interest in your prayers, your affectionate and obliged servant.
February 22, 1776
My dear sir,
I have longed to tell you, that the prospect of our correspondence being revived, gave me very great pleasure. I attributed its discontinuance sometimes to the gout, with which I knew you were often afflicted; then I began to think, perhaps you were removed to a better world; but, when I understood you were still living, I apprehended you saw no utility in the friendly debates we were formerly engaged in, and therefore chose to drop them. It was this suspicion that prevented me writing again; for, had I been sure your silence was not owing to this cause, you would have heard from me again and again, for with you I would not have stood upon the terms of letter for letter.
I ought not, however, to have indulged such a suspicion, nor to have imputed your silence to a cause so contrary to the spirit of your letters; for in them you have always showed yourself gentle, candid, and patient, and not disposed to break off the fellowship merely for difference in sentiments. Some difference in our sentiments there has seemed to be all along; but I believe with you, that we essentially agree, and I cordially join you in the hope and persuasion that the difference, whatever it may be, will not abate my respect and regard for you, nor your kindness to me.
I desire to praise God in your behalf, that he has graciously supported you under your long affliction and confinement, and now given you a prospect of going abroad again. It is the prayer of my heart, that all your crosses and comforts may be sanctified to you, and that you may suffer no more than a gracious God sees needful to answer his beneficial purposes in favor of those who love him—to manifest, exercise, and strengthen your graces, and to give you an increasing sense that his power, wisdom, goodness, and faithfulness are engaged to promote your best happiness, and to ripen you for his kingdom and glory.
My leading sentiment with respect to the divine life is, that it is founded in a new and supernatural birth. In this I know that we agree. Mankind are miserably divided and subdivided by sects, parties, and opinions; but in the sight of God there are but two sorts of people upon earth—the children of his kingdom, and the children of the wicked one. The criterion between them (infallibly known only to himself) is, that the former are born from above, the others are not. If a person is born again, notwithstanding any incidental mistakes or prejudices from which perhaps no human mind in this imperfect state is wholly free—he is a child of God and an heir of glory. On the other hand, though his professed opinions are quite conformed to the Scripture; though he be joined to the purest church; though he seem to have all gifts and all knowledge, the zeal of a martyr, and the powers of an angel; yet if he is not born of God, with all the splendid apparatus, he is but a tinkling, (or, as I should rather choose to render the word,) a stunning cymbal.
From this new birth, a new life, new perceptions, and new desires, take place in the soul! Sin, which was one delighted in—becomes his chief burden. And God, who before was little thought of—is sought after as our chief good. The need of his mercy is felt and acknowledged, and Jesus is approved and sought as the only way and author of salvation. These things I believe are never truly and experimentally known—but by the teaching and operation of the Holy Spirit; and, as he is God and not man, unchangeable in purpose, and almighty in power—when once he begins his work—he will in his own time accomplish it. I believe hatred of sin, thirst after God, poverty of spirit, and dependence upon Christ, are sure tokens and evidences of salvation; and whoever may have them I would esteem my brethren and my sisters, regardless of what church they belong to.
Yet, I believe, some thus far wrought upon, may be, and are, entangled with errors dishonorable to the grace of God, and detrimental to their own peace. There is much remaining darkness upon the mind; many people are greatly hindered by a reasoning spirit, and numbers are kept down by their attachment to a favorite system, sect, and author—so that perhaps they are long strangers to that steadfast hope and strong consolation which the gospel truth, when simply received, is designed to afford us; and which depends upon the sense we have that we are nothing, and that Christ is all in all, and that our best graces and services are, and always will be in this life, defective and defiled, and that the sole exclusive ground of our hope and rejoicing is Jesus Christ, as made unto us of God, wisdom, righteousness, sanctification, and redemption. "All of us have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags; we all shrivel up like a leaf, and like the wind our sins sweep us away!" Isaiah 64:6
I desire to be more a partaker with you in that sense which the Lord has given you of the deficiency you find in your own graces, dispositions, and tempers, and the lack of due conformity to the mind that was in Christ. If you have cause of humiliation on these accounts, surely I have more. At the same time it is my prayer, that he may comfort you with those views of the freeness and riches of his grace, which enable me to maintain a hope in his mercy, not withstanding I feel myself polluted and vile. For, when my state and acceptance with God is the point in question, I am in a measure helped not to judge of it—by what he has done in me, so much as by what he has done for me. I can find no peace but by resting in the blood of Jesus, his obedience to death, his intercession and fullness of grace; and, so claiming salvation, under him, as my Head, Surety, and Advocate, answer all objections which conscience or Satan interpose, with the apostle's arguments in Romans 8:33-34. Were I to hesitate in this important matter until I feel nothing contrary to that image to which I hope I thirst after, a growing conformity, I might wait forever. I should spend my life in perplexity, and at last should die in terror. But I believe I am already justified freely by his grace, through the redemption that is in Jesus.
That the Lord may be your Guide and Comforter, is the sincere prayer of, your affectionate and obliged servant.
July 30, 1776
My dear sir,
As you agree with me in the main points of what I offered in my last letter, I should think myself to blame, to weary you with dialog on the single article of perseverance. Though I believe this sentiment to be true, I am persuaded a man may warmly fight for it, and yet himself fall short! And I trust you will attain the end of your hope, even the salvation of your soul, though you should continue to differ with me in judgment upon this head. I shall only say, The belief of it is essential to my peace. I cannot take upon me to judge of the hearts and feelings of others; but, from the knowledge I have of my own, I am reduced by necessity to take refuge in a hope which, through mercy, I find strongly encouraged in the Scripture: that Jesus, to whom I have been led to commit myself, has engaged to save me, absolutely, and from first to last. He has promised not only that He will not depart from me—but that He will put, keep, and maintain His fear in my heart, so that I shall never finally depart from Him! And if He does not do this for me—I have no security against my turning apostate! For I am so weak, inconsistent, and sinful; I am so encompassed with snares; and I am so liable to such assaults from the subtlety, vigilance, and power of Satan—that, unless I am "kept by the power of God," I am sure I cannot endure to the end!
I do believe that the Lord will keep me while I walk humbly and obediently before Him; but, were this all—it would be cold comfort! I am prone to wander—and need a Shepherd whose watchful eye, compassionate heart, and boundless mercy—will pity, pardon, and restore my backslidings!
For, though by His goodness and not my own, I have hitherto been preserved in the path of holiness; yet I feel those evils within me, which would shortly break loose and bear me down to destruction, were He not ever present with me to control them.
Those who comfortably hope to see His face in glory—but depend upon their own watchfulness and endeavors to preserve themselves from falling, must be much wiser, better, and stronger than I am! Or at least they cannot have so deep and painful a sense of their own weakness and vileness, as daily experience forces upon me. I desire to be found in the use of the Lord's appointed means for the renewal of my spiritual strength—but I dare not undertake to watch a single hour, nor do I find ability to think a good thought, nor a power in myself of resisting any temptation! My strength is perfect weakness—and all I have is sin.
In short, I must sit down in despair, if I did not believe that He who has begun a good work in me, will carry it out to completion.
Had I the pleasure of conversing with you, I think I could state the texts you quote, in a light quite consistent with a hundred other texts which appear to me to assert the final perseverance of the saints in the strongest terms—but it would take up too much room in a letter.
Volumes of controversy, as you observe, have been written upon these subjects—but no man can receive to his comfort and edification, any gospel truth, unless it be taught and given to him from God. I do not think my sentiments would add to your safety—but I believe they would to your comfort; but not if you received them as my sentiments—there is no more life and comfort in the knowledge of a gospel truth—than in the knowledge of a proposition in Euclid, unless we are taught it by the Lord himself. I therefore dismiss the subject by referring you to Phi. 3:14-15.
I must begin my next paragraph with an apology, with entreating your candid construction, and assuring you that nothing but a sense of duty towards the Lord, and friendship for you, would put me upon what (if I had not these motives to plead) might be deemed highly bothersome and brash.
I have heard you speak of living in ___. Your situation in college confines you much from it; and, now years and infirmities are growing upon you, it is probable you will not be able to visit it so often as formerly, nor to do what you wish to do, when you are there. Will you excuse me asking you how your are supported? Perhaps I only give you the opportunity of affording me pleasure by telling me, that you have taken care to provide them with a faithful curate, who have your views of the gospel, though not mine, and, with a zeal for God and a warm desire of usefulness to souls, are laboring to impress your people with a sense of divine things, to warn them of the evil of sin, and to invite them to seek Jesus and his salvation. I would be ready to take it for granted this is the case, only that I think such a minister would be noticed and talked of in that part of the country, as we hear no more or less of the effects of the gospel when it is preached throughout the kingdom; and nothing of the kind has yet reached my ears from ___. If it should be otherwise, permit me to hint, that, though you are past the ability of laboring much among your people personally—yet, if the Lord prolongs your life, you have a probability of being greatly useful in a secondary way, by affording your sanction and appointment to a proper man who would feed and watch over your flock. And I hope the Lord committed that place to your charge in his providence, that the people there might in his time have the Word of life preached to them; and, if they heard it thankfully and improved it, I am sure it would add much to your comfort. I shall not enlarge—but rather conclude as I began, with entreating you to excuse my freedom. Indeed, I ought not to suspect you will be displeased with me for it, after the proofs you have given me of your candor and kindness. Yet I shall be glad to be assured from yourself, that you take it as I mean it.
I am, dear sir, your affectionate and obliged servant.
December 5, 1778
My dear sir,
The kind and affectionate terms in which you write, coming from a person whom I so greatly love and respect, cannot but be highly pleasing to me. I am glad to find likewise, that what you say of yourself, that the Lord favors you with patience and resignation to his will under those infirmities which you find increasing as you advance in years; and that your hope for time and eternity is in Jesus, the Friend of sinners.
But I must confess, that, though the former part of your letter gave me great pleasure, the latter part gave me no small pain. It appears, to my grief, that, during the intermission of our correspondence, the difference between us in sentiment is considerably increased. You ask me, however, to open my mind to you freely, and the love I bear you constrains me to avail myself of the liberty you allow me—yet I feel a difficulty in the attempt. After the many letters we have exchanged, I hope it is needless to tell you that I am not fond of controversy! I have no desire to prescribe my judgment in every point of doctrine—as a standard to others; yet a regard to the truth, as well as to you, obliges me to offer something upon the present occasion. But I hope the Lord will not permit me to drop a single expression unsuitable to the deference I owe to your character and age.
You state two points as fundamental truths of the Christian religion; the first of which, I apprehend, is so far from deserving the title of a fundamental truth, that it is utterly repugnant to the design and genius of the gospel, and inconsistent with the tenor of divine revelation both in the Old and New Testament. And, however you may think it supported by a few detached texts, I am persuaded you would never have drawn it yourself from a careful perusal of the Scripture; namely, "That our righteousness is as truly and properly derived into us by a spiritual birth from the second Adam, as our corruption by a natural birth from the first."
Our sanctification indeed is so—but righteousness and sanctification are by no means synonymous terms in the language of Scripture; otherwise the apostle, when he says, Jesus is appointed to us of God, wisdom, righteousness, sanctification, and redemption, would be guilty of gross tautology. The Scripture declares we are all by nature, and, until partakers of the faith which is the gift and operation of God—spiritually dead. And this in a two-fold sense—dead in law, for he who believes not is condemned already; and dead in trespasses and sins. Christ is our life in both these senses. By his atonement he delivers those who believe in him from the curse of the law; by his whole obedience, including all he did and suffered, (for his death was an act of obedience,) he cleanses and justifies them from all guilt and penalty. And, as the spring and pattern of their sanctification by the power of his Holy Spirit, he forms them anew, communicates to them and maintains in them a principle of spiritual life, and teaches them and enables them to love and walk in his footsteps, and to copy his example in their tempers and conduct.
But this their personal obedience, the fruit of that holy principle which he has implanted in them, is too imperfect and defiled to constitute their righteousness; it will not answer the strict demands of that law under which our nature is constituted. So far, indeed, from bearing the examination of that God who is glorious in holiness, they can find innumerable flaws and evils in it themselves. And, therefore, no one who is really enlightened to understand the purity, strictness, and unchangeableness of the law; and the holiness, justice, and truth of the God with whom we have to do—can possibly have any abiding peace of conscience, or assurance of salvation, until he is weaned from grounding his acceptance, either in whole or in part, upon what Christ has done in him, and taught to rest it wholly upon what he did for him when he obeyed the law on the behalf of man, and was made sin for us who knew no sin, that we might be made the righteousness of God in him.
Though the scheme of the Quakers as set forth with some supposed improvements by Mr. Law, is in your view very amiable, to me it appears much otherwise. I cannot think it either honorable to God, or safe for man. I apprehend it was invented to relieve the mind of some who would be wise, under the prejudices and vain reasoning which arise against the express and reiterated declarations of God's sovereignty in the great business of salvation with which the Scriptures abound. I am often reminded of Job's question, "Shall mortal man be more just than God?" Poor mortal worms, who are unable to account for the most obvious appearances around them, are afraid that the Judge of all the earth will not act right, if he should act as he has solemnly assured us he will; and therefore hypotheses are framed, salvos provided and scriptures are strained—to account for his conduct in a way more suited to our limited apprehensions.
For I allow, in some respects, and upon a superficial view, that Mr. Law's scheme may appear more agreeable to what we call reason and the fitness of things than Paul's. But this to me is an argument against it, rather than for it. The Lord tells me, in his Word, that his thoughts and ways are as far above mine as the heavens are higher than the earth. And, if I did not find many things in the Bible proposed rather to my faith, than to my reason—I could not receive it as a revelation from God, because it would lack the grand characteristic impressions of his majesty, and what the apostle calls the "unsearchable and untraceable of his counsels and proceedings." And, after all, the proposed relief is only to the imagination; for, in defiance of hypothesis, these things will remain certain from Scripture, experience, and observation:
First, That a great part of mankind, perhaps the far greatest part of those who have lived hitherto, will be found at the left hand of the Judge in the last day.
Secondly, That a multitude of those who are saved, were for a course of time as obstinately bent upon sin, and did as obstinately resist the call of God's Spirit to their hearts, as those who perish.
Thirdly, That the means of grace which the Scripture declares necessary to salvation, Romans 10:13-14, have been hitherto confined to a small part of the human race. I know indeed, in order to evade this, it is supposed, from a misunderstanding of Peter's words, Act. 10:34, that men in all nations may be saved in their several dispensations, without any knowledge of Jesus or his Word; and accordingly Mr. ___ gives us Gentilism, that is idolatry, as one kind of dispensation of the gospel. Alas! what may not even well-meaning men be driven to, when they leave the good Word of God, the fountain of living waters, to defend the broken, corrupt cisterns of men's inventions! Indeed, I am grieved at these bold assertions; it is but saying that men may be saved without either faith, love, or obedience.
I do not wonder, my dear sir, that, though you are persuaded God will not fail on his part and forsake you first—yet you have sensible fears and apprehensions lest you should forsake him. The knowledge you have of your own weakness, must make your system very uncomfortable; while it leaves your final salvation to depend (as you express it) entirely upon yourself. Nay, I must add, that either your heart is better than mine, or at least that you are not equally sensible of its vileness—or your fears would be entirely insupportable; or else, which I rather think is the case, the former part of your letter, wherein you speak so highly of the throne of grace, and confess so plainly that without the grace of Christ you can do nothing, is your experience, and the real feeling and working of your heart—while the latter part, wherein you approve the plan which leaves sinners to depend entirely upon themselves, is but an opinion, which has been plausibly obtruded upon you, and which you find at times very unfavorable to your peace. It must, it will be so.
The admission of a mixed gospel, which indeed is no gospel at all, will bring disquiet into the conscience. If you think you are in the same circumstances, as to choice and power, as Adam was, I cannot blame you for fearing lest you should acquit yourself no better than he did. Ah! my dear sir, Jesus came not only that we might have the life which sin had forfeited, restored unto us—but that we might have it more abundantly; the privileges greater, and the tenure more secure—for now our life is not in our own keeping—but is hid with Christ in God. He undertakes to do all for us, in us, and by us—and he claims the praise and honor of the whole, and is determined to save us in such a way as shall stain the pride of all human glory, that he who glories—may glory in the Lord.
I long to see you disentangled from the scheme you seem to have adopted, because I long to see you happy and comfortable. It is good to have our hope fixed upon a rock, for we know not what storms and floods may come to shake it. I have no doubt but your soul rests upon the right foundation—but you have incautiously admitted wood, hay, and stubble into your edifice, which will not stand the fiery trial of temptation. I would no more venture my soul upon the scheme which you commend, than I would venture my body for a voyage to the East Indies in a London row boat!
I know you too well to suppose you will be offended with my freedom. However, in a point of such importance, I dare not in conscience disguise or suppress my sentiments. May the Lord, by his Holy Spirit, guide us both into the paths of peace and truth.
I am, dear sir, your affectionate and obliged servant.
June 5, 1779
My dear sir,
Though I love to write to you—I am not willing to take up your time with controversy. We see, or think we see, some points of importance in a different light. And where our sentiments differ, I think I have the advantage of you, or I would, of course, accede to yours. But I am ashamed to insist upon notional differences with a person from whom, as to the spirit and influence of those things wherein we agree, I ought to be glad to learn. The humility, meekness, and spirituality which your letters breathe, sufficiently evince that you are taught of God; and wherein we are otherwise minded, I trust he will, in his due time, reveal to us both what may be for his glory and our comfort to know distinctly.
I cannot retract the judgment I passed upon Mr. Law's scheme; but I was then, and still am persuaded, that, notwithstanding your favorable opinion of that author, his scheme is not properly yours. If you fully entered into the spirit of his writings, you would soon be weary of my correspondence. I believe, indeed, your acquaintance with his writings has led you something about, and exposed you to embarrassments which would not have troubled you, if, with that humble spirit which the Lord has given you, you had confined your researches more to his holy Word, and paid less regard to the dictates and assertions of men; and I believe if we could all be freed from an undue attachment to great names and favorite authors, and apply ourselves more diligently to draw the water of life from the pure fountain of the Scripture, our progress in divine knowledge would be more speedy and more certain.
I am ready to think that much of the difference between us, may be in the modes of expression we use. If you mean no more by what you advance—than that every justified person is also regenerate and sanctified, and that no supposed acknowledgment of the death and atonement of Christ is available without a new birth in the soul, and the inhabitation of the Holy Spirit—there remains little to dispute about, for surely I mean no less than this. Yet still it appears to me necessary, for our comfort, when we know what is in our hearts, and necessary likewise to give the Redeemer the glory due to his name, that we be sensible that our sanctification is not the cause—but the effect, of our acceptance with God.
I conceive that by nature we are all in a state of condemnation; that, when we are by the Holy Spirit convinced of this, the first saving gift we receive from God is faith, enabling us to put our trust in Jesus for a free pardon, and a gratuitous admission into the family of God's children; that those who receive this precious faith, are thereby savingly interested in all the promises respecting grace and glory. They resign and devote themselves to the Savior; he receives and accepts them, takes possession of them, and engages to care and provide for them, to mortify the principle of sin in their hearts, to carry on the work he has begun, and to save them to the uttermost. But the precise reason why they are saved, is not because they are changed—but simply and solely because He lived and died for them, paid the ransom, and made the atonement on their behalf. This is their plea and hope when they first come to him, John 3:14-15, when they have finished their course upon earth, 2 Timothy 1:12, and when they appear in judgment! Romans 8:34.
If you mean by a rigid Calvinist, one who is fierce, dogmatic, and censorious, and ready to deal out anathemas against all who differ from him—I hope I am no more such a one than I am a rigid Papist! But, as to the doctrines which are now stigmatized by the name of Calvinism, I cannot well avoid the epithet rigid, while I believe them—for there seems to be no medium between holding them and not holding them; between ascribing salvation to the will of man, or the power of God; between grace and works, Romans 11:6; between being found in the righteousness of Christ, or in my own, Phi. 3:9. Did the harsh consequences often charged upon the doctrine called Calvinistic really belong to it, I would have much to answer for if I had invented it myself, or taken it upon trust from Calvin; but, as I find it in the Scriptures, I cheerfully embrace it, and leave it to the Lord to vindicate his own truths and his own ways, from all the imputations which have been cast upon them.
I am, dear sir, your affectionate and obliged.
September 1, 1779
My dear sir,
Methinks my late publication comes in good time to terminate our friendly debate. As you approve of the hymns, which, taken altogether, contain a full declaration of my Christian sentiments, it should seem we are nearly of a mind. If we agree in rhyme, our apparent differences in prose must, I think, be merely verbal, and cannot be very important. And, as to Mr. Law, if you can read his books to your edification and comfort, (which I own, with respect to some important points in his scheme, I cannot,) why should I wish to tear them from you? I have formerly been a great admirer of Mr. Law myself, and still think that he is a first-rate genius, and that there are many striking passages in his writings deserving attention and admiration. But I feel myself a transgressor, a sinner—I feel the need of an atonement, of something to be done for me, as well as in me. If I was this moment filled by the mighty power of God with the Spirit of sanctification in a higher degree than Mr. Law ever conceived; if I was this moment as perfectly holy as the angels before the throne, still I should lack security with respect to what is past. Hitherto I have been a sinner, a transgressor of that holy law which says, "The soul that sins—it shall die." Therefore I need an atonement in the proper sense of the word; some consideration of sufficient importance to satisfy me that the holy and just Governor of the world can, consistently with the perfections of his nature, the honor of his truth, and the righteous tenor of his moral government—pardon and receive such a sinner as I am. And, without some persuasion of this sort, I believe the supposition I have made to be utterly impossible, and the least degree of true holiness utterly unattainable.
The essence of that holiness I thirst after, I conceive to be love and devotedness to God—but how can I love him until I have a hope that his anger is turned away from me, or at least until I can see a solid foundation for that hope? Here Mr. Law's scheme fails me—but the gospel gives me relief. When I think of the obedience unto death of Jesus Christ in my nature, as a public person, and in behalf of sinners, then I see the law, which I could not obey—completely fulfilled by him; and the penalty which I had incurred sustained by him. I see him in proportion to the degree of faith in him, bearing my sins in his own body upon the tree; I see God well pleased in him—and for his sake freely justifying the ungodly. This sight saves me from guilt and fear, removes the obstacles which stood in my way, emboldens my access to the throne of grace, for the influences of his Holy Spirit to subdue my sins, and to make me conformable to my Savior.
But my hope not is built—upon what I feel in myself—but upon what he felt for me; not upon what I can ever do for him—but upon what has been done by him upon my account. It appears to me befitting the wisdom of God to take such a method of showing his mercy to sinners, as should convince the world, the universe, angels, and men—that his inflexible displeasure against sin, and his regard to the demands of his truth and holiness, must at the same time be equally displayed. This was effected by bruising his own Son, filling him with agonies, and delivering him up to death and the curse of the law, when he appeared as a surety for sinners.
It appears to me, therefore, that, though the blessings of justification and sanctification are always joined together, and cannot be separated in the same subject, a believing sinner—yet they are in themselves as distinct and different as any two things can well be. The one, like life itself, is instantaneous and perfect at once, and takes place the moment the soul is born of God; the other, like the effects of life, growth, and strength, is imperfect and gradual. The child born today, though weak, and very different from what it will be when its faculties open, and its stature increases, is as truly, and as much, alive as it will ever be; and, if an heir to an estate or a kingdom, has the same right now as it will have when it becomes of age, because this right is derived not from its abilities or stature—but from its birth and parents. The weakest believer is born of God, and an heir of glory; and the strongest and most advanced believer, can be no more.
I remain, my dear sir, your most obedient servant.