John Newton's Letters
Assurance of salvation
July 11, 1795
We may easily conceive of a tree without fruit—but the idea of fruit is naturally connected with that of some tree which produces it. In this sense, assurance is the essence of faith; that is—it springs from true faith, and can grow upon no other root. Faith likewise is the measure of assurance. While faith is weak, (our Lord compares it, in its first principle, to a grain of mustard seed,) assurance cannot be strong.
Jesus Christ the Lord is a complete all-sufficient Savior. His invitation to the weary and heavy-laden is general, without exception, condition, or limitation. He has said, him who comes unto me, I will never cast out. God not only permits—but commands us to believe in the Son of his love. The apostle affirms that he is able to save to the uttermost, all who come unto God by him. When Moses raised the brazen serpent in the wilderness, the direction to the wounded Israelites was very short and simple—it was only, Look, and live! Thus the gospel addresses the sinner, Only believe, and you shall be saved.
Why then does not every sinner who is awakened to a sense of his guilt, danger, and helplessness; and whose desires are drawn towards the Savior—believe with full confidence, even upon his first application for mercy? Is not the remedy fully adequate to the malady? Is not the blood of Jesus able to cleanse from all sin? Is not the Word of the God of truth worthy of entire credit? Yet with such a Savior exhibited before the eyes of his mind, and with such promises sounding in his ears—he continues to hesitate and fluctuate between hope and fear. Could he rely as firmly on the Word of God, as he can on the word of a man, whom, he thinks, means what he says, and is able to make good his promises—he would immediately be filled with joy and peace in believing. But experience and observation may convince us, that, however rational and easy this assurance may seem in theory, it is ordinarily unattainable in practice—without passing through a train of previous exercises and conflicts.
It is true, young converts are often favored with comfortable impressions, which lead them to hope that their doubts and difficulties are already ended—when perhaps they are but just entering upon their warfare. They are brought, as it were, into a new world; a strong and lively sense of divine things engrosses their attention; the world and its fascinations sink into nothing in their esteem; the evil propensities which discourage them are overpowered for a season, and they hope they are quite subdued, and will trouble them no more. Their love, gratitude, praise, and admiration, are in vigorous exercise.
An aged, experienced Christian may recollect, with a pleasing regret, many sweet sensations of this kind, in the early stages of his profession, which he cannot recall. But he now knows that the strong confidence he felt in these golden hours was not the assurance of faith—it was temporary and transient; it was founded upon what we call a good frame. Though his comforts were strong, his faith was weak—for, when the good frame subsided, his fears returned, his hope declined, and he was at his wits' end. Then, perhaps, he wondered at his own presumption, for daring to hope that such a creature as himself could have any right to the privileges of a believer. And if, in the warmth of his heart, he had spoken to others of what God had done for his soul, he afterwards charged himself with being a hypocrite, and a false witness both to God and man. Thus, when the Israelites saw the Egyptians, (who had pursued and terrified them,) cast up dead upon the shore of the Red Sea, they praised the Lord, and believed. They were little aware of the wilderness they had to pass through, and the trials they were to meet with—before they could enter the promised land!
But strong faith, and the effect of it, an abiding persuasion of our acceptance in the Beloved, and of our final perseverance in grace—are not necessarily connected with sensible comfort. A strong faith can trust God in the dark, and say with Job, "Though he slays me—yet will I trust in him." Yet it is not to be maintained without a diligent use of the instituted means of grace, and a conscientious attention to the precepts of the gospel. For mere notions of truth, destitute of power—will not keep the heart in peace. But this power depends upon the influence of the Holy Spirit; and if he is grieved by the willful commission of sin, or the willful neglect of the precepts—he hides his face, suspends his influence, and then confidence must proportionable decline, until he is pleased to return and revive it.
There are likewise bodily disorders, which, by depressing the physical spirits, darken and discolor the medium of our perceptions. If the enemy is permitted to take advantage of these seasons, he can pour in a flood of temptations, sufficient to fill the most assured believer with terror and dismay. But, ordinarily, those who endeavor to walk closely and conscientiously with God, attain, in due time, an assurance of hope to the end, which is not easily nor often shaken, though it is not absolutely perfect, nor can be, while so much sin and imperfection remain in us.
If it be inquired—WHY we cannot attain to this state of composure at first, since the object of faith and the promises of God are always the same? Several reasons may be assigned.
Unbeliefis the primary cause of all our inquietude, from the moment that our hearts are drawn to seek salvation by Jesus. This inability to take God at his Word, should not be merely lamented as an infirmity—but watched, and prayed, and fought against as a great sin. A great sin indeed it is; the very root of our apostasy, from which every other sin proceeds. Unbelief often deceives us under the guise of humility, as though it would be presumption, in such sinners as we are, to believe the declarations of the God of truth. Many serious people, who are burdened with a sense of other sins, leave this radical evil, unbelief, out of their list of sin. They rather indulge it, and think they ought not to believe, until they can find a warrant from marks and evidences within themselves. But this is an affront to the wisdom and goodness of God, who points out to us the Son of his love—as our wisdom, righteousness, sanctification, and redemption, without any regard to what we have been, or to what we are, excepting that broken and contrite spirit—which only himself can create in us. And this broken spirit, though unbelief perverts it to our discouragement, is the very temper in which the Lord delights, and a surer evidence of true grace, than those which we are apt to contrive for ourselves. It is written, He who believes not the record which God has given of his Son, makes him a liar. Why do we not startle with horror—at the workings of unbelief, as we should do at a suggestion to commit murder, or the grossest outward enormity?
Again, ournatural pride is a great hindrance to true faith. If we acknowledge ourselves to be sinners, and are sensible of our need of mercy—we are not easily brought to see that we are so totally depraved, so exceedingly vile, so utterly destitute of all good, as the Word of God describes us to be. A secret dependence upon our prayers, tears, resolutions, repentance and endeavors, prevents us from looking solely and simply to the Savior, so as to ground our whole hope for acceptance upon his obedience unto death, and his whole mediation.
A true believer will doubtless repent and pray, and forsake his former evil ways—but he is not accepted upon the account of what he does or feels—but because Jesus lived and died, and rose and reigns on the behalf of sinners, and because he is enabled by grace to trust in him for salvation.
Further, pride leads us into that spirit of vain reasoning, which is contrary to the simplicity of living by faith. Until this is renounced, until we become in some measure like little children, and receive the doctrines of Scripture implicitly, because they are from God, requiring no further proof of any point than a Thus says the Lord—we cannot be established in our hope. Naaman was very desirous to be healed of his leprosy; but, if the Lord had not mercifully overruled his prejudices, he would have returned a leper—just as he came. Before he went to Elisha, he had considered in his own mind, how the prophet ought to treat him; and not having the immediate attention paid to him that he expected, he was upon the point of going away; for his reason told him, that, if washing could effect his cure, the waters of Syria were as good as those of Jordan. "It seems," to use the words of a late ingenious writer, "that the gospel is too good to be believed, and too plain to be understood, until our pride is abased."
It is difficult to determine, by the eye, the precise moment of day-break, but the light advances from early dawn, and the sun arises at the appointed hour. Such is the progress of divine light in the mind—the first streaks of the dawn are seldom perceived; but, by degrees, objects, until then unthought of, are revealed. The evil of sin, the danger of the soul, the reality and importance of eternal things—are apprehended, and a hope of mercy through a Savior is discovered, which prevents the sinner from sinking into absolute despair. But for a time—all is indistinct and confused.
In this state of mind, many things are anxiously sought for as pre-requisites to believing—but they are sought in vain, for it is only by believing that they can be obtained. But the light increases, the sun arises, the glory of God in the person of Jesus Christ shines in upon the soul. As the sun can only be seen by its own light, and diffuses that light by which other objects are clearly perceived; so Christ crucified is the sun in the system of revealed truth; and the right knowledge of the doctrine of his cross satisfies the inquiring mind, proves itself to be the one thing needful, and the only thing necessary to silence the objections of unbelief and pride, and to afford a sure ground for solid and abiding hope.
Once more—we cannot be safely trusted with assurance—until we have that knowledge of the evil and deceitfulness of our hearts, which can be acquired only by painful, repeated experience. The young convert, in his brighter hours, when his heart is full of joys, and he thinks his mountain stands too strong to be removed, may be compared to a ship with much sail spread, and but little ballast. She goes on well while the weather is fair—but is not prepared for a storm. When Peter said, "You have the words of eternal life—we believe and are sure that you are the Christ," and when he protested, "Though all men should forsake you—yet will not I," he undoubtedly spoke honestly; but the event showed that he did not know himself! His resolution was soon and sorely shaken in the hall of the high-priest, so that he denied his Lord with oaths and imprecations. He was left to fall—that he might learn he did not stand by his own strength.
The parable of the prodigal may be accommodated for an illustration of this point. The Scripture says, "Then shall you know—if you follow on to know the Lord." But we often want to know at first, and at once; and suppose— If I was but sure that I am right, and accepted in the Beloved, I could go on with more spirit and success. Many rejoice greatly when they seem to obtain this desire—but their joy is short-lived. They soon resemble the prodigal; they become vain, rash, and careless; they forsake their Father's house; their attention to the means of grace is slackened; they venture upon smaller deviations from the prescribed rule, which, in time, lead them to greater. Thus their stock of grace and comfort is quickly exhausted. They begin to be in need; and, after having been feasted with the bread of life, are reduced to feed upon such husks as the world can afford them. Happy, if at length they are brought to their right minds!
But, oh, with what pungent shame and humiliation do they come back to their Father! He, indeed, is always ready to receive and forgive backsliders; but surely they cannot easily forgive themselves for their ingratitude and folly! When he has healed their broken bones, and restored peace to their souls, it may be expected that they will walk softly and humbly to the end of their days, and not open their mouths any more, either to boast, or to censure, or to complain!
For, a man who possesses a Scriptural and well-grounded assurance in himself—will evidence it to others by suitable fruits. He will be meek, sincere and gentle in his conduct before men—because he is humbled and abased before God. Because he lives upon much God's forgiveness to himself—he will be ready to forgive others. The prospect of that blessed hope assuredly laid up for him in heaven—will make him patient under all his appointed trials in the present life, wean him from an attachment to the world, and preserve him from being much affected either by the smiles or the frowns of mortals. To hear people talk much of their 'assurance', and that they are freed from all doubts and fears—while they habitually indulge proud, angry, resentful, discontented tempers, or while they are eagerly grasping after the world, like those who seek their whole portion in it—is painful and disgusting to a serious Christian! Let us pity them, and pray for them; for we have great reason to fear that they do not understand what they say, nor what they affirm!