John Newton's Letters

A letter to a young minister, on preaching the Gospel with the power and demonstration of the Spirit

Dear sir,
I congratulate you on your ordination. The Lord has now, by his providence, opened to you a door into His vineyard, and has called you to a scene of service, in which I hope the abilities he has given you will be faithfully employed, and your desire of usefulness will be abundantly gratified. You now bear the high and honorable title of a minister of the gospel--I call it high and honorable, because I am sure those who who truly deserve it, will find it to be so at last; though at present perhaps they may meet with much opposition and contempt, for the sake of him whose they are, and whom they serve.

I wish you, upon your entrance into the ministry, to have a formed and determinate idea, what the phrase, preaching the gospel, properly signifies. The gospel is the power of God unto salvation; and this gospel is preached when it is accompanied with some due degree of that demonstration and power from on high, which is necessary to bring it home to the hearts and consciences of the hearers. Thus the apostle Peter informs us, "that it was preached in the beginning, with the Holy Spirit sent down from heaven;" and Paul reminds the Thessalonians, "that they had received it not in word only--but also in power, and in the Holy Spirit, and in much assurance."

From these passages, I think we may warrantably conclude, that merely to declare the truths of the gospel, is not to preach it. The knowledge of it as a 'system of truth' may be acquired, and of course recited by those who have no portion or tincture of that inward conviction of its important certainty, which is necessary to impress a correspondent conviction upon others. Though the Lord himself is the only effectual Teacher, and that change of disposition which is frequently produced by the preaching of the gospel, must be ascribed wholly to his agency--yet in the means he has instituted, and by which he has ordinarily pleased to work, we may observe a suitableness to the nature of man, considered as a rational intelligent creature, whose inward feelings are excited by external causes, in a manner agreeable to the general laws of his constitution in the present state. I may particularly notice on this subject, the wonderful and well known effects of what we call sympathy, by which we often see the emotions of anger, pity, terror, and the like, with which one person is affected, when strongly expressed by his words or actions, suddenly and almost irresistibly awaken similar sensations in those who observe him.

Many of the great truths of the Scripture may be represented by a man of a warm and lively imagination, in such a manner as considerably to affect the imaginations and natural passions of an audience, even though he should not himself believe a word of the subject. This would be an effect of no higher kind, than is produced upon the stage. The exertions of a skillful actor first drawn forth by the sight of the spectators, and a desire to please them, act upon them reciprocally, and give him an ascendancy over their feelings. When his attention seems to be fixed, when he appears to enter into the distresses of the character which he represents, he fixes their attention likewise, they also are distressed--and, while he weeps or trembles--they weep or tremble with him, and though at the same time both he and they are very sensible that the whole representation is a fiction, and consequently when the play is finished, the emotions cease. This is all very natural, and may easily be accounted for.

It is not so easy to account for the presumption of those preachers, who expect, (if they can indeed expect it,) merely by declaiming on gospel subjects, to raise in their hearers those spiritual perceptions of humiliation, desire, love, joy, and peace, of which they have no impression on their own hearts. I premise, therefore, that there is one species of popularity which I hope will rather be the object of your dread--than of your ambition. It is a poor affair to be a stage-player in divinity, to be able to hold a congregation by the ears, by furnishing them with an hour's amusement, if this is all. But the man who is what he professes to be, who knows what he speaks of, in whom the truth dwells and lives, who has not received the gospel from books, or by hearers only--but in the school of the great Teacher, acquires a discernment, a taste, a tenderness, and a humility, which secure to him the approbation of the judicious, qualify him for the consolation of the distressed, and even so far open his way to the hearts of the prejudiced, that, if they refuse to be persuaded, they are often convicted in their own consciences, and forced to feel that God is with the preacher.

When Philip preached, the Eunuch rejoiced; when Paul preached, Felix trembled. The power of the truth was equally evident in both cases, though the effects were different. One criterion of the gospel ministry, when rightly dispensed, is, that it enters the recesses of the heart. The hearer is amazed to find that the preacher, who perhaps never saw him before, describes him to himself, as though he had lived long in the same house with him, and was acquainted with his conduct, his conversation, and even with his secret thoughts! 1 Cor. 14:24-25. Thus, a single sentence frequently awakens a long train of recollection, removes scruples, satisfies doubts, and leads to the happiest consequences; and what we read of Nathaniel and the woman of Samaria, is still exemplified in the conversion of many; while others, who willfully resist the evidence, and turn from the light, which forces itself upon their minds, are left without excuse.

If, therefore, you wish to preach the gospel with power, pray for a simple, humble spirit, that you may have no allowed end in view--but to proclaim the glory of the Lord whom you profess to serve, to do his will, and for his sake to be useful to the souls of men. Study the Word of God, and the workings of your own heart, and avoid all those connections, friendships and pursuits, which, experience will tell you, have a tendency to dampen the energy, or to blunt the sensibility of your spirit. Thus shall you come forth as a scribe, well instructed in the mysteries of the kingdom, a workman that needs not to be ashamed, approved of God, acceptable to men, rightly dividing the Word of truth. Thus your trumpet shall not give an uncertain sound, nor shall you appear like a cloud without water, to raise and disappoint the expectations of your hearers. A just confidence of the truths you speak, a sense of the importance of your message, a love to precious souls, and a perception of the divine presence--will give your discourses a solidity, a seriousness, a weight, which will impress a sympathetic feeling upon your hearers--and they will listen, as to one who speaks with spirit, demonstration, and power.

Allow me, before I conclude, to caution you against some too prevalent mistakes upon this subject. There are methods sometimes used to fix the attention of an audience, it is hoped, with a design to their benefit, which are very different from preaching with power, and seldom produce any lasting effect upon a sensible hearer--but an unfavorable idea of the preacher.

Beware of affecting the orator. I do not advise you to pay no regard to a just and proper elocution; it deserves your attention, and many a good sermon loses much of the effect it might otherwise produce, by an awkward and uncouth delivery. But let your elocution be natural. Despise the little arts by which men of little minds endeavor to set themselves off; they will blast your success, and expose you to contempt. The grand principle of gospel oratory, is simplicity. Affectation is displeasing in all people--but in none is it so highly disgusting as in a preacher. A studied attitude, a measured motion, a close attention to cadences and pauses, a mimicry of theatrical action, may be passable in the recital of a school lecture--but is hateful in the pulpit. Men never do, never can, speak thus, when they speak from the emotion of their hearts.

How is it possible then for a man who professes to speak for God, who addresses himself to immortal souls, who discourses upon the most important subjects, the love of Christ, the joys of heaven, or the terrors of the Lord; how is it possible for this man to find time or disposition for such pompous trifling, if he really understands and believes what he says? The truly pious will weep for his ill-timed vanity. And if any seem pleased, it is chiefly because this manner of preaching seldom disturbs the conscience, for it cannot be expected that God will vouchsafe the testimony of his Spirit, even to his own truths, when the poor worm who delivers them, is visibly more solicitous for the character of an eloquent speaker, than for the success of his message.

Sometimes vociferation seems to be considered as a mark of powerful preaching. But I believe a sermon that is loud and noisy from beginning to end, seldom produces much good effect. Here again, my friend, if you are happily possessed of simplicity, it will be a good guide. It will help you to adjust your voice to the size of the place or congregation, and then to the variations of your subject. When the explanation of the text and the application of the sermon are both in the same boisterous tone, I am led to consider it rather as a proof of the lack of power, than otherwise. It seems impossible for a preacher to be equally affected in every part of his discourse, and therefore, if he appears to be so, his exertion, in some parts at least, must be constrained and artificial, and this thought will often bring a suspicion upon the whole. Especially if his voice is as vehement in prayer as in preaching. We doubt not--but if he were with the King of England, that a certain composure and modesty of air, would indicate that he considered whom he was speaking to, and those who speak to God, would certainly give tokens of a reverence and awe upon their spirits, if they really felt it; very loud speaking is far from being a token of such a frame. At the best, very loud preaching is the effect of a bad habit; and though it may be practiced by good men and good preachers, I am persuaded it is neither sign nor cause of the Word being received with power by the hearers. People are seldom, if ever, stunned into the love of the truth.

There is another strain of preaching, which, though it wears the garb of zeal, is seldom a proof of any power but the power of self. I mean angry and scolding preaching. The gospel is a benevolent scheme, and whoever speaks in the power of it, will assuredly speak in love. In the most faithful rebukes of sin, in the most solemn declarations of God's displeasure against it, a preacher may give evidence of a disposition of good-will and compassion to sinners, and assuredly will, if he speaks under the influence of the power of truth. If we can indulge invective and bitterness in the pulpit, we are but gratifying our own evil tempers, under the pretense of a concern for the cause of God and truth. A preacher of this character, instead of resembling a priest bearing in his censer hallowed fire taken from God's altar, may be compared to the madman described in the Proverbs, who scatters at random firebrands and arrows and death, and says, Am not I in sport? Such people may applaud their own faithfulness and courage, and think it a great attainment that they can so easily and constantly set their congregation at defiance; but they must not expect to be useful, so long as it remains a truth, that the wrath of man works not the righteousness of God.

But the limits of a letter constrain me to stop here, only adding my prayers and best wishes for your comfort and success.

I am your sincere friend,