John Newton's Letters

Divine revelation

Jury 14, 1775
My Dear Friend,
I confess, I am not a friend to that lukewarmness and indifference for truth, which bears the name of candor among many in the present day. I desire to maintain a spirit of candor and benevolence to all men, to wish them well, to do them every good office in my power, and commend what appears to me commendable in a Socinian, as readily as in a Calvinist. But I must judge of principles by the Word of God, and of the tree by its fruit. I meddle with no man's final state; because I know that He who is exalted to give repentance and remission of sins, can do it whenever, and to whoever, he is pleased. Yet I firmly believe, and I make no scruple of proclaiming it, that swearers, drunkards, adulterers, continuing such, cannot inherit the kingdom of God. And I look with no less compassion upon some people whose characters in common life may be respectable, when I see them unhappily blinded by their own carnal wisdom; and, while they account themselves, and are accounted by many others, master-builders in Zion, rejecting the only foundation upon which a sinner's hope can be safely built.

I am far from thinking that the Socinians are all hypocrites—but I think they are all in a most dangerous error; nor do their principles exhibit to my view a whit more of the genuine fruits of Christianity than deism itself. You say, "If they am sincere, and fail not for lack of diligence in searching, I cannot help thinking that God will not condemn them for an inevitable defect in their understandings." Indeed, my friend, I have such a low opinion of man in his depraved state, that I believe no one has real sincerity in religious matters—until God bestows it! And when he makes a person sincere in his desires after truth—he will assuredly guide him to the possession of it in due time, as our Lord speaks, John 6:44-45. To suppose that any people can sincerely seek the way of salvation, and yet miss it through an inevitable defect of their understandings, would contradict the plain promises of the Gospel, such as Mat. 7:7-8, John 7:16-17. But to suppose that nothing is necessary to be known, which some people who profess sincerity cannot receive, would be in effect to make the Scripture a nose of wax, and open a wide door for skepticism.

I am not a judge of the heart; but I may be sure that whoever makes the Foundation-stone a rock of offense, cannot be sincere in his inquiries. He may study the Scripture accurately—but he brings his own pre-conceived sentiments with him, and, instead of submitting them to the touchstone of truth, he makes them a rule by which he interprets. That those who lean to their own understandings should stumble and miscarry, I cannot wonder; for the same God who has promised to fill the hungry with good things, has threatened to send the rich empty away. So Mat. 11:25. It is not through defect of understanding—but a lack of simplicity and humility, that so many stumble like the blind at noon-day, and see nothing of those great truths which are written in the Gospel as with a sun-beam.

You wish me to explain myself concerning the doctrine of the Trinity. I will try—yet I know I cannot, any farther than as he who taught me shall be pleased to bear witness in your heart to what I say. My first principle in religion, is what the Scripture teaches me of the utter depravity of human nature. I believe we are by nature sinners, and by practice we are universally transgressors; that we are dead in trespasses and sins; and that the bent of our natural spirit is enmity against the holiness, government, and grace of God. Upon this ground, I see, feel, and acknowledge the necessity of such a salvation as the Gospel proposes; which, at the same time that it precludes boasting, and stains the pride of all human glory, affords encouragement to those who may be thought, or who may think themselves, the weakest or the vilest of mankind.

I believe, that whatever notions a person may take up from education—that no one ever did, or ever will, feel himself and own himself to be such a lost, miserable, hateful sinner—unless he is powerfully and supernaturally convinced by the Spirit of God. When God pleases—there is a certain light thrown into the soul, which differs not merely in degree—but in kind—from anything that can be effected or produced by moral persuasion or argument.

But (to take in another of your queries) the Holy Spirit teaches or reveals no new truths, either of doctrine or precept—but only enables us to understand what is already revealed in the Scripture. Here a change takes place—the person who was spiritually blind begins to see. The sinner's character, as described in the Word of God—he finds to be a description of himself—that he is afar off from God—a stranger to God—a rebel against Him; and that he has hitherto lived in vain! Now he begins to see the necessity of an atonement, an advocate, a shepherd, a comforter. He can no more trust to his own wisdom, strength, and goodness; but, accounting all his former gain but loss, for the excellency of the knowledge of Christ—he renounces every other refuge, and ventures his all upon the person, work, and promise of the Redeemer!

In this way, I say, he will find the doctrine of the Trinity not only a proposition—but a principle: that is, from his own needs and situation, he will have an abiding conviction that the Son and Holy Spirit are God, and must be possessed of the attributes and powers of Deity, to support the offices the Scriptures assign them, and to deserve the confidence and worship the Scriptures require to be placed in them, and paid to them. Without this awakened state of mind—a theologian, reputed orthodox, will blunder wretchedly even in defending his own opinions. I have seen labored defenses of the Trinity which have given me not much more satisfaction than I would probably receive from a dissertation upon the rainbow composed by a man blind from his birth!

In effect, the true knowledge of God cannot be attained by studies on our part; it must be by a revelation on his part. "No one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son desires to reveal Him." Matthew 11:27. "Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by man, but by my Father in heaven." Matthew 16:17. This is a revelation, not objectively of new truth—but subjectively of new light in us. Then he who runs may read. Perhaps you may not quite understand my meaning, or not accede to my sentiment at present. I have little doubt, however—but the time is coming when you will. I believe the Lord God has given you that sincerity, which he never disappoints.

Far be it from me to arrogate infallibility to myself, or to any writer or preacher; yet, blessed be God, I am not left to float up and down the uncertain tide of opinion, in those points wherein the peace of my soul is nearly concerned. I know, yes I infallibly know, whom I have believed. I am under no more doubt about the way of salvation, than of the way to London. I cannot be deceived, because the Word of God cannot deceive me.

It is impossible, however, for me to give you, or any person, full satisfaction concerning my evidence, because it is of an experimental nature; Rev. 2:17. In general, it arises from the views I have received of the power, compassion, and grace of Jesus, and a consciousness that I, from a conviction of my sin and misery, have fled to him for refuge, entrusted and devoted myself and my all to him. Since my mind has been enlightened, everything within me, and everything around me, confirms and explains to me what I read in Scripture; and though I have reason enough to distrust my own judgment every hour—yet I have no reason to question the great essentials, which the Lord himself has taught me.

I take great pleasure in your correspondence, still more in the thought of your friendship, which I hope to cultivate to the utmost, and to approve myself sincerely and affectionately yours.