John Newton's Letters

Our divine Shepherd

November 5, 1774
Dear sir,
I have not very lately had recourse to the expedient of descanting upon a text, but I believe it the best method I can take, to give my thoughts upon a few obvious topics, which I suppose uniformly present themselves to my mind when I am about to write to you. Just now, that sweet expression of David occurred to my thoughts, "The Lord is my Shepherd." Permit me, without plan or premeditation, to make a few observations upon it; and may you feel the peace, the confidence, the blessedness, which a believing application of the words is suited to inspire.

David had a divine Shepherd, whose wisdom and power were infinite; and might therefore warrantably conclude he should not lack, and need not fear. And we also may conclude the same, if our Shepherd is the Lord. Besides, the very nature of the Shepherd's office respecting the state of such frail creatures as we are, requires those attributes, for the due discharge of it, which are incommunicably Divine. He must intimately know every individual of the flock. His eye must be upon every one, and his ear open to their prayers, and his hand stretched out for their relief, in all places and in all ages. Every thought of every heart must be open to his view; and his wisdom must penetrate, and his arm control and over-rule, all the hidden and complicated machinations of the powers of darkness. He must have the administration of universal providence, over all the nations, families, and peoples upon earth, or he could not effectually manage for those who put their trust in him, in that immense variety of cases and circumstances in which they are found.

Reason, as well as Scripture, may convince us, that he who gathers the outcasts of Israel, who heals the broken in heart, who upholds all that fall, raises up all that are bowed down, and upon whom the eyes of all wait for their support—can be no other than He who counts the number of the stars, and calls them all by their names, who is great in power, and whose understanding is infinite! To this purpose likewise, the prophet Isaiah describes this mighty Shepherd, Isaiah 40:9-17, both as to his person and office.

But is not this indeed, the great mystery of godliness? How just is the Apostle's observation, that no man can say, Jesus Christ is the Lord—but by the Holy Spirit! How astonishing the thought—that the Maker of heaven and earth, the Holy One of Israel, before whose presence the earth shook, the heavens dropped, when he displayed a faint emblem of his majesty upon Sinai, should afterwards appear in the form of a servant, and hang upon a cross, the sport and scorn of wicked men!

I cannot wonder, that to the wise men of the world this appears absurd, unreasonable, and impossible; yet to right reason, to reason enlightened and sanctified, however amazing the proposition be—yet it appears true and necessary, upon a supposition that a holy God is pleased to pardon sinners in a way suited to display the solemn glories of his justice. The same arguments which prove that the blood of bulls and goats is insufficient to take away sin, will conclude against the utmost doings or sufferings of men or angels. The Redeemer of sinners must be mighty; he must have a personal dignity, to stamp such a value upon his undertakings, as that thereby God may appear just, as well as merciful, in justifying the ungodly for his sake; and he must be all-sufficient to bless, and almighty to protect—those who come unto him for safety and life.

Such a one is our Shepherd. This is He of whom we, through grace, are enabled to say—we are his people, and the sheep of his pasture. We are his by every tie and right: he made us, he redeemed us, he reclaimed us from the hand of our enemies; and we are his by our own voluntary surrender of ourselves; for though we once slighted, despised, and opposed him—he made us willing in the day of his power! He knocked at the door of our hearts; but we (at least I) barred and fastened it against him as much and as long as possible—but when he revealed his love, we could stand out no longer. Like sheep, we are weak, destitute, defenseless, prone to wander, unable to return, and always surrounded with wolves; but all is made up in the fullness, ability, wisdom, compassion, care, and faithfulness of our great Shepherd. He guides, protects, feeds, heals, and restores, and will be our guide and our God—even until death. Then he will meet us, receive us, and present us unto himself—and we shall be near him, and like him, and with him forever.

Ah! my friend, what a subject is this! I trust it is the joy of your heart. Placed as you are by his hand in a superior rank, you see and feel that the highest honors, and the most important concernments that terminate with the present life—are as trivial as the sports of children, in comparison with the views and the privileges you derive from the glorious Gospel. And your situation in life renders the grace bestowed upon you—the more conspicuous and distinguishing. I have somewhere met with a similar reflection of Henry the Fourth of France, to this purpose, that, though many came into the world the same day with him, he was probably the only one among them, who was born to be a king. Your Lordship is acquainted with many, who, if not born on the same day with you, were born to titles, estates, and honors; but how few of them were born to the honor of making a public and consistent profession of the glorious Gospel! The hour is coming, when all honors and possessions—but this which comes from God alone, will be eclipsed and vanish, and, "like the baseless fabric of a vision, leave not a wreck behind." How miserable will they then be, who must leave their all!

But grace and faith can make the lowest state of life supportable, and make a dismissal from the highest state of life desirable. Of the former I have many living proofs and witnesses around me. Your Lordship, I trust, will have sweet experience of the latter, when, after having fulfilled the will of God in your generation, you shall be called (I hope in some yet distant day) to enter into your Master's joy. In the mean time, how valuable are life, talents, influence, and opportunities of every kind—if we are enabled to improve and lay out all for him who has thus loved us, thus provided for us!

As to myself, I would hope there are few, who have so clear a sense of their obligations to him, who make such unsuitable and languid returns as I do. I think I have a desire to serve him better; but, alas! evil is present with me. Surely I shall feel something like shame and regret for my coldness, even in heaven; for I find I am never happier—than when I am most ashamed of myself upon this account here.