John Newton's Letters

That bitter root, indwelling sin!

April, 1772
Dear sir,
My two last letters turned upon a mournful subject, the depravity of the heart, which impedes us when we would do good, and pollutes our best-intended services with evil. We have cause, upon this account, to go softly all our days—yet we need not sorrow as those who have no hope. The Lord has provided his people, relief under those complaints, and teaches us to draw improvement from them. If the evils we feel were not capable of being over-ruled for good, he would not permit them to remain in us. This we may infer from his hatred to sin, and the love which he bears to his people.

As to the remedy—neither our state nor his honor are affected by the workings of indwelling sin, in the hearts of those whom he has taught to wrestle, strive, and mourn on account of what they feel. Though sin wars—it shall not reign! And though it breaks our peace—it cannot separate from his love! Nor is it inconsistent with his holiness and perfection, to manifest his favor to such poor defiled creatures, or to admit them to communion with himself; for they are not considered as in themselves—but as one with Jesus, to whom they have fled for refuge, and by whom they live a life of faith. They are accepted in the Beloved, they have an Advocate with the Father, who once made an atonement for their sins, and who ever lives to make intercession for them. Though they cannot fulfill the law, he has fulfilled it for them. Though the obedience of the members is defiled and imperfect, the obedience of the Head is spotless and complete. Though there is much evil in them, there is something good, the fruit of his own gracious Spirit. They act from a principle of love, they aim at no less than his glory, and their habitual desires are supremely fixed upon himself.

There is a difference in kind, between the feeblest efforts of faith in a real believer, while he is covered with shame at the thoughts of his miscarriages, and the highest and most specious attainments of those who are wise in their own eyes, and prudent in their own sight. Nor shall this conflict remain long, or the enemy finally prevail over them. They are supported by Almighty power, and led on to certain victory. They shall not always be as they are now; in a little while, they shall be freed from this vile body, which, like the leprous house, is incurably contaminated, and must be entirely taken down! Then they shall see Jesus as he is—and be like him and with him for ever!

The gracious purposes to which the Lord makes the sense and feeling of our depravity subservient, are manifold. Hereby his own power, wisdom, faithfulness, and love, are more signally displayed. His power, in maintaining his own work in the midst of so much opposition, like a spark burning in the midst of an ocean, or a bush unconsumed in the flames. His wisdom, in defeating and controlling all the devices which Satan, from his knowledge of the evil of our nature, is encouraged to practice against us. He has overthrown many a fair professor, and, like Goliath, he challenges the whole army of Israel; yet he finds there are some against whom, though he thrusts sorely, he cannot prevail. Notwithstanding any seeming advantage he gains at some seasons, they are still delivered, for the Lord is on their side. The unchangeableness of the Lord's love, and the riches of his mercy, are likewise more illustrated by the multiplied pardons he bestows upon his people, than if they needed no forgiveness at all.

Hereby the Lord Jesus Christ is more endeared to the soul; all boasting is effectually excluded, and the glory of a full and free salvation is ascribed to him alone!

If a mariner is surprised by a storm, and after one night spent in jeopardy is presently brought safe into port; though he may rejoice in his deliverance, it will not affect him so sensibly, as if, after being tempest-tossed for a long season, and experiencing a great number and variety of hair-breadth escapes, he at last gains the desired haven. The righteous are said to be scarcely saved, not with respect to the certainty of the event, for the purpose of God in their favor cannot be disappointed—but in respect of their own apprehensions, and the great difficulties they are brought through! But when, after a long experience of their own deceitful hearts, after repeated proofs of their weakness, willfulness, ingratitude, and insensibility, they find that none of these things can separate them from the love of Jesus—He becomes more and more precious to their souls. They love much, because much has been forgiven them. They dare not, they will not ascribe anything to themselves—but are glad to acknowledge, that they must have perished (humanly speaking) a thousand times over, if Jesus had not been their Savior, their shepherd, and their shield. When they were wandering—he brought them back; when fallen—he raised them; when wounded—he healed them; when fainting—he revived them! By him, out of weakness—they have been made strong! He has taught their hands to war, and covered their heads in the day of battle. In a word, some of the clearest proofs they have had of his excellence, have been occasioned by the humiliating proofs they have had of their own vileness. They would not have known so much of him—if they had not known so much of themselves!

Further, a spirit of humiliation, which is both the strength and beauty of our profession, is greatly promoted by our feeling, as well as reading, that when we would do good, evil is present with us. A broken and contrite spirit is pleasing to the Lord—he has promised to dwell with those who have it. Experience shows, that the exercise of all our graces, is in proportion to the humbling sense we have of the depravity of our nature.

That we are so totally depraved, is a truth which no one ever truly learned by being only taught it. Indeed, if we could receive, and habitually maintain, a right judgment of ourselves, by what is plainly declared in Scripture, it would probably save us many a mournful hour! But experience is the Lord's school, and those who are taught by him usually learn that they have no wisdom—by the mistakes they make; and that they have no strength—by the slips and falls they meet with. Every day draws forth some new corruption, which before was little observed, or at least discovers it in a stronger light than before. Thus by degrees, they are weaned from leaning to any supposed wisdom, power, or goodness in themselves! They feel the truth of our Lord's words, "without me—you can do nothing;" and the necessity of crying with David, "O lead me and guide me!"

It is chiefly by this frame of mind, that one Christian is different from another; for, though it is an inward feeling, it has very observable outward effects, which are expressively intimated, Ezekiel 16:63, "You will remember your sins and cover your mouth in silence and shame—when I forgive you of all that you have done, says the Sovereign Lord." That is—the knowledge of God's full and free forgiveness of your innumerable backslidings and transgressions, shall make you ashamed, and silence the unruly workings of your heart. You shall open your mouth in praise; but you shall no more boast in yourself, or censure others, or repine at my dispensations.

In these respects, we are exceedingly prone to speak unadvisedly with our lips; but a sense of our great unworthiness, and God's great grace and forgiveness, checks these evils. Whoever is truly humbled will not be easily angry, will not be positive and rash, will be compassionate and tender to the infirmities of his fellow-sinners; knowing, that, if there is a difference—it is grace which has made that difference; and that he has the seeds of every evil in his own heart!

Likewise, under all trials and afflictions, he will look to the hand of the Lord, and lay his mouth in the dust, acknowledging that he suffers much less than his iniquities have deserved.

These are some of the advantages and good fruits which the Lord enables us to obtain from that bitter root, indwelling sin!