John Newton's Letters

A Christian's attainments in the present life

February, 1772
Dear sir,
I have been sitting perhaps a quarter of an hour with my pen in my hand, and my finger upon my upper lip, contriving how I should begin my letter. A detail of the confused incoherent thoughts which have successively passed through my mind, would have more than filled the sheet; but your patience, and even your charity for the writer, would have been tried to the uttermost, if I could have penned them all down. At length my suspense reminded me of the Apostle's words, Gal. 5:17, "You cannot do the things that you would." This is a 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 them 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 humiliating inability. Permit me to mention a few, which I need not transcribe from books, for they are always present to my mind.

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 which are in heaven, that he should stoop so much lower, to afford his gracious ear to the supplications of sinful worms upon earth! The Christian can bid others to 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 who 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 a week's converse with the best of men, or the most studious perusal of many books! And in this light, he would consider prayer, 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 to omit with a just excuse? 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.

The like may be said of reading the Scripture. He believes it 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.

He would willingly have abiding, admiring thoughts of the person and love of the Lord Jesus Christ. Glad he is, 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 the 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 him 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 would 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.

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 does not doubt that 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 need-be, whenever for a season, he is in heaviness. Of these principles he can no more doubt, than 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, murmur, 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 over-ruled for good. By these experiences the believer is weaned more from self, and taught more highly to prize and more absolutely to rely on him, who is appointed as our Wisdom, Righteousness, Sanctification, and Redemption. The more vile we are in our own eyes—the more precious Christ will 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 to Christ—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 be done with sin and sorrow forever!




March, 1772

Dear sir,

My last letter turned upon the Apostle's thought, Gal. 5:17, "You cannot do the things that you would." In the parallel place, Romans 7:19, there is another clause subjoined, "The evil evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing." This, added to the former, would complete the dark side of my experience. Permit me to tell you a little part (for some things must not, cannot be told), not of what I have read—but of what I have felt, in illustration of this passage.

I would not be the sport and prey of wild, vain, foolish, and evil imaginations, but this evil is present with me. My heart is like a highway, like a city without walls or gates! Nothing is so false, so frivolous, so absurd, so impossible, or so horrid—but it can obtain access to my heart—at any time, or in any place! Neither the study, the pulpit, nor even the Lord's table, exempt me from their intrusion! I sometimes compare my words to the treble of an instrument, which my thoughts accompany with a kind of bass, or rather anti-bass, in which every rule of harmony is broken, every possible combination of discord and confusion is introduced, utterly inconsistent with, and contradictory to, the intended melody. Ah! what music would my praying and preaching often make in the ears of the Lord Almighty, if he listened to them as they are mine only! By men, the upper part only (if I may so speak) is heard; and small cause there is for self-gratulation, if they should happen to commend, when conscience tells me that they would be struck with astonishment and abhorrence could they but hear the whole!

But if this awful effect of heart depravity cannot be wholly avoided in the present state of human nature. Yet, at least, I would not allow and indulge it; yet this I find I do. In defiance of my best judgment, and best wishes, I find something within me which nourishes and cleaves to those evils, from which I ought to startle and flee, as I would if a loathsome toad or a serpent was put in my food, or in my bed. Ah! how vile must the heart (at least my heart) be—which can hold a parley with such abominations, when I so well know their nature and their tendency! Surely he who finds himself capable of this, may, with out the least affectation of humility, (however fair his outward conduct appears) subscribe himself less than the least of all saints—the very chief of sinners!

I would not be influenced by a principle of SELF on any occasion; yet this evil I often do. I see the baseness and absurdity of such a conduct, as clearly as I see the light of the day. I do not affect to be thought ten feet tall, and I know that a desire of being thought wise or good, is equally contrary to reason and truth. I would be grieved or angry if my fellow-creatures supposed I had such a desire; and therefore I fear the very principle of SELF, of which I complain, has a considerable share in prompting my desires to conceal it. The pride of others often offends me, and makes me studious to hide my own; because their good opinion of me depends much upon their not perceiving it. But the Lord knows how this dead fly taints and spoils my best services, and makes them no better than gilded sins!

I would not indulge vain reasoning concerning the counsels, ways, and providences of God; yet I am prone to do it. That the Judge of all the earth will do right—is to me as evident and necessary as that two plus two make four. I believe that he has a sovereign right to do what he will with his own, and that this sovereignty is but another name for the unlimited exercise of wisdom and goodness. But my reasoning are often such, as if I had never heard of these principles, or had formally renounced them! I feel the workings of a presumptuous spirit, that would account for everything, and venture to dispute whatever it cannot comprehend. What an evil is this—for a potsherd of the earth, to contend with its Maker! I do not act thus towards my fellow-creatures; I do not find fault with the decisions of a judge, or the dispositions of a general, because, though I know they are fallible—yet I suppose they are wiser in their respective departments than myself. But I am often ready to take this liberty with God—when it is most unreasonable and inexcusable!

I would not cleave to a covenant of works; it should seem from the foregoing particulars, and many others which I could mention, that I have reasons enough to deter me from this. Yet even this I do. Not but that I say, and I hope from my heart, Enter not into judgment with your servant, O Lord. I embrace it as a faithful saying, and worthy of all acceptance, that Jesus Christ came into the world to save sinners—and it is the main pleasure and business of my life, to set forth the necessity and all-sufficiency of the Mediator between God and man, and to make mention of his righteousness, even of his alone. But here, as in everything else, I find a vast difference between my judgment and my experience. I am invited to take the water of life freely—yet often discouraged, because I have nothing with which to pay for it.

If I am at times favored with some liberty from the above-mentioned evils, it rather gives me a more favorable opinion of myself, than increases my admiration of the Lord's goodness to so unworthy a creature! And when the returning tide of my corruptions convinces me that I am still the same, an unbelieving legal spirit would urge me to conclude that the Lord is changed! At least, I feel a weariness of being indebted to him for such continued multiplied forgiveness; and I fear that some part of my striving against sin, and my desires after an increase of sanctification, arises from a secret wish that I might not be so absolutely and entirely indebted to him.

This is only a faint sketch of my heart—it would require a volume, rather than a letter, to fill up the outlines. But I believe you will not regret that I choose to say no more upon such a subject. But though my disease is grievous, it is not desperate; I have a gracious and infallible Physician! I shall not die—but live, and declare the works of the Lord!