by John Newton, 1772
"You cannot do the things that you would." (Gal. 5:17)
This is an humbling, but a just account of a Christian’s
attainments in the present life, and is equally applicable to the strongest
and to the weakest. The weakest need not say less, the strongest will hardly
venture to say more. The Lord has given His people a desire and will aiming
at great things: without this they would be unworthy the name of Christians;
but they cannot do as they would. Their best desires are weak and
ineffectual, not absolutely so (for He who works in them to will, enables
then in a measure to do likewise), but in comparison with the mark at
which they aim. So that while they have great cause to be thankful for the
desire He has given them, and for the degree in which it is answered, they
have equal reason to be ashamed and abased under a sense of their continual
defects, and the evil mixtures which taint and debase their best endeavors.
It would be easy to make out a long list of particulars
which a believer would do if he could, but in which, from first to last, he
finds a mortifying inability. Permit me to mention a few, which I need not
transcribe from books, for they are always present to my mind.
1. He would willingly enjoy God in
prayer. He knows that prayer is his duty; but, in his
judgment, he considers it likewise as his greatest honor and privilege. In
this light he can recommend it to others, and can tell them of the wonderful
condescension of the great God, who humbles Himself to behold the things
that are in Heaven, that He should stoop so much lower, to afford His
gracious ear to the supplications of sinful worms upon earth. He can bid
them expect a pleasure in waiting upon the Lord, different in kind, and
greater in degree, than all that the world can afford. By prayer, he can
say, 'You have liberty to cast all your cares upon Him that cares for you.
By one hour’s intimate access to the Throne of Grace, where the Lord causes
His glory to pass before the soul that seeks Him, you may acquire more true
spiritual knowledge and comfort than by a day or week’s converse with the
best of men, or the most studious perusal of many folios'--and in this light
he would consider it and improve it for himself.
But, alas! how seldom can he do as he would. How often
does he find this privilege a mere task, which he would be glad of a just
excuse to omit! And the chief pleasure he derives from the performance is to
think that his task is finished: he has been drawing near to God with his
lips, while his heart was far from Him. Surely this is not doing as he
would, when (to borrow the expression of an old woman here) he is dragged
before God like a slave, and comes away like a thief.
2. The like may be said of reading the
Scriptures. He believes them to be the
Word of God; he admires the wisdom and grace of the doctrines, the beauty of
the precepts, the richness and suitableness of the promises; and therefore,
with David, he accounts it preferable to thousands of gold and silver, and
sweeter than honey or the honeycomb. Yet while he thus thinks of it, and
desires that it may dwell in him richly, and be his meditation night and
day, he cannot do as he would. It will require some resolution to persist in
reading a portion of it every day; and even then his heart is often less
engaged than when reading a pamphlet. Here again his privilege frequently
dwindles into a task. His appetite is vitiated, so that he has but little
relish for the food of his soul.
3. He would willingly have abiding, admiring thoughts of
the Person and love of the Lord Jesus Christ.
Glad is he, indeed, of those occasions which recall the Savior to his mind;
and with this view notwithstanding all discouragements, he perseveres in
attempting to pray and read, and waits upon ordinances. Yet he cannot do as
he would. Whatever claims he may have to the exercise of gratitude and
sensibility towards his fellow creatures, he must confess himself mournfully
ungrateful and insensible towards his best Friend and Benefactor. Ah! what
trifles are capable of shutting out of our thoughts, of whom we say, He is
the Beloved of our souls, who loved us, and gave Himself for us, and whom we
have deliberately chosen as our chief good and portion. What can make us
amends for the loss we suffer here? Yet surely if we could we would set Him
always before us; His love should be the delightful theme of our hearts.
"From morn to noon, from noon to dewy eve." But though we aim at this good,
evil is present with us; we find we are renewed but in part, and have still
cause to plead the Lord’s promise, to take away the heart of stone, and give
us a heart of flesh.
4. He would willingly acquiesce in all the dispensations
of Divine providence. He believes that
all events are under the direction of infinite wisdom and goodness, and
shall surely issue in the glory of God and the good of those who fear Him.
He doubts not but the hairs of his head are all numbered—that the blessings
of every kind which he possesses were bestowed upon him, and are preserved
to him by the bounty and special favor of the Lord whom he serves; that
afflictions spring not out of the ground, but are fruits and tokens of
Divine love, no less than his comforts—that there is a needs-be, whenever
for a season he is in heaviness. Of these principles he can no more doubt of
what he sees with his eyes, and there are seasons when he thinks they will
prove sufficient to reconcile him to the sharpest trials. But often when he
aims to apply them in an hour of present distress, he cannot do what he
would. He feels a law in his members warring against the law in his mind; so
that, in defiance of the clearest convictions, seeing as though he perceived
not, he is ready to complain, mummer, and despond.
Alas! How vain is man in his best estate! How much
weakness and inconsistency, even in those whose hearts are right with the
Lord! And what reason have we to confess that we are unworthy, unprofitable
servants! It were easy to enlarge in this way, would paper and time permit.
But, blessed be God--we are not under the law, but under grace: and even
these distressing effects of the remnants of indwelling sin are overruled
for good. By these experiences the believer is weaned from self, and taught
more highly to prize and more absolutely to rely on Him, who is appointed
unto us of God, wisdom, righteousness, sanctification, and redemption.
The more vile we are in our own eyes--the more precious will Jesus be to us.
A deep repeated sense of the evil of our hearts is necessary to preclude
all boasting, and to make us willing to give the whole glory of our
salvation where it is due. Again, a sense of these evils will, when hardly
anything else can do it, reconcile us to the thoughts of death, yes make us
desirous to depart that we may sin no more, since we find depravity so deep
rooted in our nature, that, like the leprous house, the whole fabric must be
taken down before we can be freed from its defilement. Then, and not until
then, we shall be able to do the thing that we would: when we see Jesus we
shall be transformed into His image, and have done with sin and sorrow