John Newton's Letters
Our divine Shepherd
November 5, 1774
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.