John Newton's Letters

Views of Divine truth

June 23, 1775
Dear Sir,
I hope that the Lord will make you comfortable and useful in your present rank as a curate. Advancement is not necessary, either to our peace or usefulness. We may live and die contentedly, without the honors and emoluments which aspiring men thirst after, if God is pleased to honor us with a dispensation to preach his Gospel, and to crown our endeavors with a blessing. He who wins souls is wise; wise in the choice of the highest end he can propose to himself in this life; wise in the improvement of the only means by which this desirable end can be attained.

Wherever we cast our eyes, the bulk of the people are ignorant, immoral, careless. They live without God in the world; they are neither awed by his authority, nor affected by his goodness, nor enabled to trust to his promises, nor disposed to aim at his glory. If, perhaps, they have a serious interval, or some comparative sobriety of character, they ground their hopes upon their own doings, endeavors, or purposes; and treat the inexpressible love of God revealed in Christ, and the Gospel method of salvation by faith in his name, with neglect, often with contempt.

They have preachers, whom perhaps they hear with some pleasure, because they neither alarm their consciences by insisting on the spirituality and sanction of the Divine Law, nor offend their pride by publishing the humiliating doctrines of that Gospel, which is the power of God through faith unto salvation. Therefore what they do speak, they speak in vain; the world grows worse and worse under their instructions; infidelity and profligacy abound more and more. For God will own no other doctrine but what the Apostle calls the truth as it is in Jesus; that doctrine which drives the sinner from all his vain pleas, and points out the Lord Jesus Christ as the only ground of hope, the supreme object of desire, as appointed of God to be wisdom, righteousness, sanctification, and redemption, to all who believe in his name.

When ministers themselves are convinced of sin, and feel the necessity of an almighty Savior, they presently account their former gain but loss; and determine, with the Apostle, to know nothing but Jesus Christ, and him crucified. In proportion as they do this, they are sure to be wondered at, laughed at, and railed at, if the providence of God, and the constitution of their country, secure them from severer treatment. But they have this invaluable compensation, that they no longer speak without effect. In a greater or less degree, a change takes place in their hearers—the blind receive their sight, the deaf hear, the lepers are cleansed; sinners are turned from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan to God; sinful practices are forsaken; and a new course of life in the converts, evidences that they have not followed cunningly devised fables, nor taken up with uncertain notions—but that God has indeed quickened them by his Spirit, and given them an understanding to know him who is true.

The preachers, likewise, while they attempt to teach others, are taught themselves: a blessing descends upon their studies and labors, upon their perusal of the Scripture, upon their attention to what passes within them and around them; the events of every day contribute to throw light upon the Word of God; their views of Divine truth grow more enlarged, connected, and comprehensive; many difficulties, which perplexed them at their first setting out, trouble them no more; the God whom they serve, and on whom they wait, reveals to them those great things, which, though plainly expressed in the letter of the Scripture, cannot be understood and realized without Divine teaching; 1Co. 2:9-15. Thus they go on from strength to strength, hard things become easy, and a Divine light shines upon their paths. Opposition from men perhaps may increase—they may be represented as those who turn the world upside down; the cry "troublers" will be raised against them; the gates of the temple of preferment will be seldom open to them; but they will have the unspeakable consolation of applying to themselves those lively words of the Apostle, "As unknown, and yet well known; as dying, and, behold, we live; as chastened, and not killed; As sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, and yet possessing all things." 2 Co. 6:10.

It is the strain of evident sincerity which runs through your letters, that gives me a pleasing confidence the Lord is with you. An unselfish desire of knowing the truth, with a willingness to follow it through all disadvantages, is a preparation of the heart which only God can give. He has directed you to the right method—searching the Scripture, with prayer. Go on, and may his blessing attend you. You may see, from what I have written above, what is the desire of my heart for you. But I am not impatient. Follow your heavenly Leader, and in his own time and manner He will make your way plain. I have traveled the path before you. I see what you yet want; I cannot impart it to you—but He can, and I trust He will. It will rejoice my soul to be any way assistant to you; but I am afraid! should not afford you much, either profit or satisfaction, by entering upon a dry defense of creeds and articles.

The truths of Scripture are not like mathematical theorems, which present exactly the same ideas to every person who understands the terms. The Word of God is compared to a mirror, 2Co. 3:18; but it is a mirror in which—the longer we look, the more we see! The view will be still growing upon us, and still we shall see but in part while on this side eternity. When our Lord pronounced Peter blessed, declaring he had learned that which flesh and blood could not have taught him—yet Peter was at that time much in the dark. The sufferings and death of Jesus, though the only and necessary means of his salvation, were an offense to him. But he lived to glory in, what he once could not bear to hear of. Peter had received grace to love the Lord Jesus, to follow him, to venture all and to forsake all for him—these first good dispositions were of God, and they led to further advances.

So it is still. By nature, SELF rules in the heart. When this idol is brought low, and we are truly willing to be the Lord's, and to apply to Him for strength and direction, that we may serve Him—the good work is begun. For it is a truth that holds universally and without exception, "a man can receive nothing except it be given him from God." The Lord first finds us when we are thinking of something else (Isa. 65:1), and then we begin to seek him in good earnest, and he has promised to be found of us. People may, by industry and natural abilities, make themselves masters of the external evidences of Christianity, and have much to say for and against different schemes and systems of sentiments; but all this while the heart remains untouched.

True religion is not a science of the head—so much as an inward and heart-felt perception, which casts down imaginations, and everything that exalts itself in the mind, and brings every thought into a sweet and willing subjection to Christ by faith. Here the learned have no real advantage above the ignorant; both see when the eyes of the understanding are enlightened; until then, both are equally blind. And the first lesson in the school of Christ—is to become a little child, sitting simply at his feet, that we may be made wise unto salvation.

I was not only prevented beginning my letter as soon as I wished—but have been unusually interrupted since I began it. Often, as soon as I could well take the pen in hand, I have been called away to attend company and intervening business. Though I persuade myself, after what I have formerly said, you will put a favorable construction upon my delay—yet it has given me some pain. I set a great value upon your offer of friendship, which I trust will not be interrupted, on either side, by the freedom with which we mutually express our difference of sentiments, when we are constrained to differ. You please me with entrusting me with the first rough draught of your thoughts; and you may easily perceive by my manner of writing, that I place equal confidence in your candor. I shall be glad to exchange letters as often as it suits us, without constraint, ceremony, or apology—and may He who is always present with our hearts make our correspondence useful. I pray God to be your sun and shield, your light and strength, to guide you with his eye, to comfort you with his gracious presence in your own soul, and to make you a happy instrument of comforting many!