John Newton's Letters

What a Christian ought to be

September, 1772
Dear sir,
Weak, unskillful, and unfaithful, as I am in practice—the Lord has been pleased to give me some idea of what a Christian ought to be, and of what is actually attainable in the present life, by those whom he enables earnestly to aspire towards the prize of their high calling. They who are versed in mechanics can, from a knowledge of the combined powers of a complicated machine, make an exact calculation of what it is able to perform, and what resistance it can counteract. But who can compute the possible effects of that combination of principles and motives revealed in the Gospel, upon a heart duly impressed with a sense of their importance and glory?

When I was recently at Mr. Cox's Museum, while I was fixing my attention upon some curious movements, imagining that I saw the whole of the artist's design, the person who showed it touched a little spring, and suddenly a thousand new and unexpected motions took place—and the whole piece seemed animated from the top to the bottom. I would have formed but a very imperfect judgment of it—had I seen no more than what I saw at first. I thought this might, in some measure, illustrate the vast difference that is observable among professors, even among those who are, it is to be hoped, sincere.

There are people who appear to have a true knowledge (in part) of the nature of Gospel religion—but seem not to be apprised of its properties in their extent. If they have attained to some hope of their acceptance, if they find at seasons some communion with God in the means of grace, if they are in measure delivered from the prevailing and corrupt customs of the world—they seem to be as satisfied, as if they were possessed of all. These are indeed great things. The profession of too many, whose sincerity, charity would be unwilling to impeach—is greatly blemished, notwithstanding their hopes and their occasional comforts—by the breaking forth of unsanctified tempers, and the indulgence of vain hopes, anxious cares, and selfish pursuits.

Far, very far, am I from that unscriptural sentiment of sinless perfection in fallen man. To those who have a due sense of the spirituality and ground of the Divine precepts, and of what passes in their own hearts—causes of humiliation and self-abasement on the account of sin will never be lacking. Yet still there is a liberty and privilege attainable by the Gospel, beyond what is ordinarily thought of. Permit me to mention two or three particulars, in which those who have a holy ambition of aspiring to them, shall not be altogether disappointed.

A delight in the Lord's all-sufficiency, to be satisfied in him as our present and eternal portion. This, in the sense in which I understand it, is not the effect of a present warm frame—but of a deeply rooted and abiding principle; the habitual exercise of which is to be estimated by the comparative indifference with which other things are regarded. The soul thus principled, is not at leisure to take or to seek satisfaction in anything but what has a known subservience to this leading taste. Either the Lord is present—and then he is to be rejoiced in; or else he is absent—and then he is to be sought and waited for. They are to be pitied, who, if they are at some times happy in the Lord, can at other times be happy without him, and rejoice in broken cisterns, when their spirits are at a distance from the Fountain of living waters.

I do not plead for an absolute indifference to temporal blessings. God gives us all things richly to enjoy; and a capacity of relishing them, is his gift likewise; but then the consideration of his love in bestowing all our temporal blessings, should exceedingly enhance the value, and a regard to his will should regulate their use. Nor can they all supply the lack of that which we can only receive immediately from himself. This principle likewise moderates that inordinate fear and sorrow to which we are liable, upon the prospect or the occurrence of great trials, for which there is a sure support and resource provided in the all-sufficiency of infinite goodness and grace. What a privilege is this—to possess God in all things while we have them—and all things in God when they are taken from us!

An acquiescence in the Lord's will—founded in a persuasion of his wisdom, holiness, sovereignty, and goodness. This is one of the greatest privileges and brightest ornaments of our profession. So far as we attain to this—we are secure from disappointment. Our own limited views, and short-sighted purposes and desires, may be, and will be, often over-ruled; but then, our main and leading desire, that the will of the Lord may be done, and must be accomplished. How highly does it befit us, both as creatures and as sinners—to submit to the appointments of our Maker! And how necessary is it to our peace!

This great attainment is too often unthought of, and overlooked. We are prone to fix our attention upon the second causes and immediate instruments of events; forgetting that whatever befalls us, is according to God's purpose, and therefore must be right and seasonable in itself, and shall in the outcome, be productive of good. From hence arise impatience, resentment, and secret repining, which are not only sinful—but tormenting! Whereas, if all things are in his hand; if the very hairs of our head are numbered; if every event, great and small, is under the direction of his providence and purpose; and if he has a wise, holy, and gracious end in view, to which everything that happens is subordinate and subservient—then we have nothing to do—but with patience and humility to follow as he leads, and cheerfully to expect a happy outcome. The path of present duty is marked out; and the concerns of the next and every following hour—are in his hands. How happy are those who can resign all to him, see his hand in every dispensation, and believe that he chooses better for them—than they could possibly choose for themselves!

A single eye to his glory—as the ultimate scope of all our undertakings. The Lord can design nothing short of his own glory—nor should we. The constraining love of Christ has a direct and marvelous tendency, in proportion to the measure of faith, to mortify the corrupt principle, SELF, which for a season is the grand spring of our conduct and by which we are too much biased after we know the Lord. But as grace prevails, self is renounced. We feel that we are not our own, that we are bought with a price; and that it is our duty, our honor, and our happiness, to be the servants of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ. To devote soul and body, every talent, power, and faculty, to the service of his cause and will; to let our light shine (in our several situations) to the praise of his grace; to place our highest joy in the contemplation of his adorable perfections; to rejoice even in tribulations and distresses, in reproaches and infirmities—if thereby the power of Christ may rest upon us, and be magnified in us; to be content, yes glad, to be nothing—that he may be all in all; to obey him, in opposition to the threats or solicitations of men; to trust him, though all outward appearances seem against us; to rejoice in him, though we should (as will sooner or later be the case) have nothing else to rejoice in; to live above the world, and to have our hearts in heaven; to be like the angels, finding our own pleasure in performing his—this is the prize, the mark of our high calling, to which we are encouraged with a holy ambition continually to aspire! It is true, we shall still fall short; we shall find that, when we would do good, evil will be present with us. But the attempt is glorious, and shall not be wholly in vain. He who gives us thus to desire, will enable us to perform with growing success, and teach us to profit, even by our mistakes and imperfections.

O blessed man! who thus fears the Lord; who delights in his Word, and derives his principles, motives, maxims, and consolations, from that unfailing source of light and strength. He shall be like a tree planted by the rivers of water, whose leaf is always green, and fruit abundant. The wisdom of God shall direct his plans, and inspire his counsels. The power of God shall guard him on every side, and prepare his way through every difficulty. He shall see mountains sink into plains—and streams spring up in the dry wilderness. The Lord's enemies will be his enemies; and they may be permitted to fight against him—but they shall not prevail, for the Lord is with him to deliver him. The conduct of such a one, though in a narrow and retired sphere of life, is of more real excellence and importance, than the most splendid actions of kings and conquerors, which fill the annals of history! And if the God whom he serves is pleased to place him in a more public light, his labors and cares will be amply compensated, by the superior opportunities afforded him of manifesting the power and reality of true religion, and promoting the good of mankind.

I hope I may say, that I desire to be thus entirely given up to the Lord; I am sure I must say, that what I have written is far from being my actual experience. Alas! I might be condemned out of my own mouth, were the Lord strict to mark what is amiss. But, O the comfort! we are not under the law—but under grace. The Gospel is a dispensation for sinners, and we have an Advocate with the Father. There is the unshaken ground of hope. A reconciled Father, a prevailing Advocate, a powerful Shepherd, a compassionate Friend, a Savior who is able and willing to save to the uttermost! He knows our frame; he remembers that we are but dust; and has opened for us a new and blood-besprinkled way of access to the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy, and find grace to help in every time of need.