John Newton's Letters

Without Me you can do nothing

February 23, 1775
Dear sir,
I assent to our Lord's declaration, "Without Me you can do nothing;" not only upon the authority of the Speaker--but from the same irresistible and experimental evidence, as if he had told me, that I cannot make the sun to shine, or change the course of the seasons. Though my pen and my tongue sometimes move freely--yet the total incapacity and stagnation of thought I labor under at other times, convinces me, that in myself I have not sufficiency to think a good thought! And I believe the case would be the same, if that little measure of knowledge and abilities, which I am too prone to look upon as my own, were a thousand times greater than it is.

For every new service, I stand in need of a new supply, and can bring forth nothing of my supposed store into actual exercise--but by his immediate assistance. His gracious influence is that, to those who are best furnished with gifts, which the water is to the mill, or the wind to the ship, without which the whole apparatus is motionless and useless.

I apprehend that we lose much of the comfort which might arise from a sense of our continual dependence upon him, and, of course, fall short of acknowledging as we ought what we receive from him--by mistaking the manner of his operation. Perhaps we take it too much for granted, that communications from himself must bear some kind of sensible impression that they are his, and therefore are ready to give our own industry or ingenuity, the credit for those performances in which we can perceive no such divine impression. Yet it is very possible that we may be under his influence, when we are least aware! And though what we say, or write, or do, may seem no way extraordinary; yet that we should be led to such a particular turn of thought at one time rather than at another, has, in my own concerns, often appeared to me remarkable, from the circumstances which have attended, or the consequences which have followed.

How often, in the choice of a text, or in the course of a sermon, or in a letter to a friend, have I been led to speak a word in season--and what I have expressed at large, and in general--has been so exactly suited to some case which I was utterly unacquainted with--that I could hardly have hit it so well, had I been previously informed of it. Some instances of this kind have been so striking, as hardly to admit a doubt of divine agency. And, indeed, if believers in Jesus, however unworthy in themselves, are the temples of the Holy Spirit; if the Lord lives, dwells, and walks in them; if he is their life and their light; if he has promised to guide them with his eye, and to work in them to will and to do of his own good pleasure; methinks what I have mentioned, and more, may be reasonably expected.

That line in the hymn, "Help I every moment need," is not a hyperbolical expression--but strictly and literally true, not only in great emergencies--but in our smoother hours, and most familiar paths. This gracious assistance is afforded in a way imperceptible to ourselves, to hide pride from us, and to prevent us from being indolent and careless with respect to the use of appointed means. And it would be likewise more abundantly, and perhaps more sensibly afforded, were our spirits more simple in waiting upon the Lord. But, alas! a divided heart, an undue attachment to some temporal object, sadly deadens our spirits (I speak for myself), and grieves the Lord's Spirit; so that we walk in darkness and at a distance, and, though called to great privileges, live far below them!

But methinks the thought of him who is always near, and upon whom we do and must incessantly depend, should suggest a powerful motive for the closest attention to his revealed will, and the most punctual compliance with it. For so far as the Lord withdraws from us--we become as blind men; and with the clearest light, and upon the plainest ground, we are liable, or rather sure, to stumble at every step.

Though there is a principle of consciousness, and a determination of the will, sufficient to denominate our thoughts and performances our own; yet I believe mankind in general are more under an invisible agency than they apprehend. The Lord, immediately from himself, and perhaps by the ministry of his holy angels--guides, prompts, restrains, or warns his people. So there undoubtedly is what I may call a black inspiration--the influence of the evil spirits, who work in the hearts of the disobedient, and not only excite their wills--but assist their faculties, and qualify as well as incline them to be more assiduously wicked, and more extensively mischievous, than they could be of themselves. I consider Voltaire, for instance, and many writers of the same stamp, to be little more than secretaries and amanuenses of the evil one--who has unspeakably more wit and adroitness in promoting infidelity and immorality, than they of themselves can justly pretend to. They have, for a while, the credit (if I may so call it) of the fund from whence they draw; but the world little imagines who is the real and original author of that philosophy and poetry, of those fine turns and sprightly inventions, which are so generally admired. Perhaps many, now applauded for their genius, would have been comparatively dolts, had they not been engaged in a cause which Satan has so much interest in supporting.

But, to return to the more pleasing subject. How great and honorable is the privilege of a true believer! That he has neither wisdom nor strength in himself--is no disadvantage; for he is connected with Infinite Wisdom and Almighty Power! Though weak as a worm, his arms are strengthened by the almighty God--and all things become possible, yes easy to him--which occur within the compass of his proper duty and calling. The Lord, whom he serves, engages to proportion his strength to his day, whether it be a day of service or of suffering. And though he is fallible and short-sighted, exceeding liable to mistake and error; yet, while he retains a sense that he is so, and with the simplicity of a child asks counsel and direction of the Lord--he seldom takes a wrong step, at least not in matters of consequence. And even his sins are overruled for good. If he forgets his true state, and thinks himself to be something, he presently finds he is indeed nothing. But if he is content to be nothing, and to have nothing--he is sure to find a seasonable and abundant communication of all that he needs. Thus he lives, like Israel in the wilderness, upon mere divine bounty; but, then, it is a bounty unchangeable, unwearied, inexhaustible, and all-sufficient.

Moses, when speaking of the methods the Lord took to humble Israel, mentions his feeding them with manna, as one method. The manna would not keep; they could not hoard it up, and were therefore in a state of absolute dependence from day to day. This appointment was well suited to humble them.

Thus it is with us in spiritual matters. We would perhaps prefer to hoard up a stock of grace and sufficiency at once--such an inherent portion of wisdom and power, as we might depend upon, at least for common occasions, without being constrained, by a sense of indigence--to have continual recourse to the Lord for everything we need. But His way is best. His own glory is most displayed--and our safety best secured, by keeping us quite poor and empty in ourselves, and supplying us from one minute to another, according to our need--out of His inexhaustible storehouse of grace.

This, if anything, will prevent boasting, and keep a sense of gratitude awake in our hearts. This is well adapted to quicken us to prayer, and furnishes us with a thousand occasions for praise, which would otherwise escape our notice.

But who or what are we, that the Most High God should thus notice us; should visit us every morning, and water us every moment! It is an astonishing thought, that God should thus dwell with men! that he, before whom the mightiest earthly potentates are less than nothing and vanity--should thus stoop and accommodate himself to the situation, needs, and capacities of the weakest, lowest, and poorest of his children! But so it has pleased him. He sees not as man sees!