John Newton's Letters

Saving knowledge

August 11, 1775
My dear Friend,
I thank you for your letter. Your objections neither displease nor weary me. While truth is the object of your inquiry, the more freedom you use with me the better. Nor do they surprise me; for I have formerly made similar objections myself. I have stood upon your ground—and I continue to hope you will one day stand upon mine! As I have told you more than once, I do not mean to dictate to you, or to wish you to receive anything upon my recommendation; but, in the simplicity of friendship, I will give you my thoughts from time to time upon the points you propose, and leave the outcome to the Divine blessing.

The term Arminian, as at present applied, is very indiscriminate, and takes in a great variety of people and sentiments, among whom, I believe, there are many who hold the fundamental truths of the Gospel, and live a life of faith in the Son of God. I am far from supposing that God will guide every sincere person exactly to adopt all my sentiments. But there are some sentiments which I believe essential to the very state and character of a true Christian. And these make him a Christian; not merely by being his acknowledged sentiments—but by a certain peculiar manner in which he possesses them.

There is a certain important change which takes place in the heart, by the operation of the Spirit of God, before the soundest and most orthodox sentiments can have their proper influence upon us. This work, or change, the Scripture describes by various names, each of which is designed to teach us the marvelous effects it produces, and the Almighty power by which it is produced. It is sometimes called a new birth, John 3:3; sometimes a new creature, or new creation, as 2 Co. 5:17; sometimes the causing light to shine out of darkness, 2 Co. 4:6; sometimes the opening the eyes of the blind, Acts 26:18; sometimes the raising the dead to life, Eph. 2:5. Until a person has experienced this change, he will be at a loss to form a right conception of it. This is not being convinced of a mere opinion—but receiving a principle of Divine life and light in the soul. And until this is received, the things of God, the truths of the Gospel, cannot be rightly discerned or understood by the utmost powers of fallen man, who, with all his wisdom, reason, and talents, is still but what the Apostle calls the natural man, until the power of God visits his heart! 1Co. 2:14.

This work is sometimes wrought suddenly, as in the case of Lydia, Act. 16:14; at other times very gradually. A person who before was a stranger even to the form of godliness, or at best content with a mere religious form, finds new thoughts arising in his mind, feels some concern about his sins, some desire to please God, some suspicions that all is not right. He examines his views of religion, hopes the best of them, and yet cannot rest satisfied in them. Today, perhaps, he thinks himself fixed; tomorrow he will be all uncertainty. He inquires of others; weighs, measures, considers; meets with sentiments which he had not attended to; thinks them plausible; but is presently shocked with objections, or supposed consequences, which he finds himself unable to remove.

As he goes on in his inquiry, his difficulties increase. New doubts arise in his mind; even the Scriptures perplex him, and appear to assert contrary things. He would sound the depths of truth by the plummet of his reason—but he finds his line is too short! Yet even now the man is under a guidance, which will at length lead him right. The importance of the subject takes up his thoughts, and takes off the relish he once had for the things of the world. He reads, he prays, he strives, he resolves. Sometimes inward perplexities and outward temptations bring him to his wit's end. He almost wishes to stand where he is, and inquire no more—but he cannot stop.

At length he begins to feel the inward depravity, which he had before owned as a mere opinion. A sense of sin and guilt cut him out new work. Here reasoning will stand him in no stead. This is a painful change of mind; but it prepares the way for a blessing. It silences some objections better than a thousand arguments; it cuts the web of his own wisdom and attainments; it makes him weary of working for life; and teaches him, in God's due time, the meaning of that text, "To him who works not—but believes in him who justifies the ungodly—his faith is counted for righteousness."

Then he learns, that Scriptural faith is a very different thing from a rational assent to the Gospel; that it is the immediate gift of God, Eph. 2:8; the operation of God, Col. 2:12; that Christ is not only the object—but the author and finisher of faith, Heb. 12:2; and that faith is not so properly a part of that obedience we owe to God, as an inestimable benefit we receive from him for Christ's sake, Phi. 1:29; which is the medium of our justification, Rom. 5:1, and the principle by which we are united to Christ (as the branch to the vine), John 17:21. I have described a path in which I have known many led, and in which I have walked myself.

The Gospel, my dear sir, is a salvation appointed for those who are ready to perish—and is not designed to put them in a way to save themselves by their own works. It speaks to us as condemned already, and calls upon us to believe in a crucified Savior—that we may receive redemption through his blood, even the forgiveness of our sins. And the Spirit of God, by the Gospel, first convinces us of unbelief, sin, and misery; and then, by revealing the things of Jesus to our minds, enables us, as helpless sinners, to come to Christ, to receive him, to behold him; or, in other words, to believe in him, and expect pardon, life, and grace from him; renouncing every hope and aim in which we once rested, "and accounting all things loss and rubbish for the excellency of the knowledge of Christ." John 6:35; Isa. 45:22; with John 6:40; Col. 2:6.

In some of my Omicron's Letters, you will find my thoughts more at large upon these subjects than I have now time to write them. You will see in it the sentiments of a man of great learning, sound reasoning, an amiable and irreproachable character, and how little he accounted of all these advantages when the Lord was pleased to enlighten his mind.

Though we have not exactly the same view of human depravity—yet as we both agree to take our measure of it from the Word of God, I trust we shall not always differ about it. Adam was created in the image of God, in righteousness and true holiness, Eph. 4:24. This moral image, I believe, was totally lost by sin. In that sense, he died the day, the moment, he ate the forbidden fruit. God was no longer his joy and delight; he was averse from the thoughts of his presence, and would (if possible) have hid himself from him. His natural powers, though doubtless impaired, were not destroyed. Man by nature, is still capable of great things. His understanding, reason, memory, imagination, etc. sufficiently proclaim that the Hand that made him is Divine. He is, as Milton says of Beelzebub, majestic though in ruins. He can reason, invent, and by study, attain a considerable knowledge in natural things. The exertions of human genius, as specified in the characters of some philosophers, poets, orators, etc. are astonishing. But man cannot know, love, trust, or serve his Maker—unless he is renewed in the spirit of his mind.

God has preserved in him likewise, some feelings of benevolence, pity, some sense of natural justice and truth, etc. without which there could be no society. But these, I apprehend, are little more than instincts, by which the world is kept in some small degree of order. But, being under the direction of pride and self, do not deserve the name of virtue and goodness, because the exercise of them does not spring from a principle of love to God, nor is directed to his glory, or regulated by the rule of his Word—until a principle of grace is superadded.

You think that I will not say, "that God, judicially in punishment of one man's sin, added these corruptions to all his posterity." Let us suppose, that the punishment annexed to eating the forbidden fruit, had been the loss of Adam's rational powers, and that he should be degraded to the state and capacity of a brute. In this condition, had he begotten children after the Fall in his own likeness, his nature being previously changed, they must have been, of course, brutes like himself; for he could not convey to them those original powers which he had lost. Will this illustrate my meaning?

Sin did not deprive him of rationality—but spirituality. His nature became earthly, sensual, yes devilish; and this fallen nature, this carnal mind, which is enmity against God—is not subject to his law, neither indeed can it be, Rom. 8:7—we universally derive from him. Look upon children—they presently show themselves averse from good—but are exceedingly propense to evil. This they can learn even without a master; but ten thousand instructors and instructions cannot instill good into them, so as to teach them to love their Creator—unless a Divine power acts in their hearts. This is just as it is with the earth, which produces weeds spontaneously. But if you see a fruit filled garden—you are sure that it was planted or sown there, and did not spring from the soil by itself.

I know many hard questions may be started upon this subject; but the Lord in due time will clear his own cause, and vindicate his own ways. I leave all difficulties with him. It is sufficient for me that Scripture asserts, and experience proves, that it is thus in fact; Rom. 3:9-21; Job. 14:4.

Thus, we have not only forfeited our happiness by transgression—but are by our depravity, incapable of it—and have no more desire or taste for such a state as the Scripture describes heaven to be, than a man born deaf can have for a concert of music. And therefore our Lord declares, that, unless a man is born again—he not only shall not—but cannot see the kingdom of God! Hence a twofold necessity of a Savior: his blood for the pardon of our sins; his life, Spirit, and grace, to quicken our souls, and form us anew for himself, that we may feel his love, and show forth his praise.

Paul, before his conversion, was not sincere, in the sense I hope you to be. He thought himself in the right, without doubt, as many have done when they killed God's servants, John 16:2. He was blindly and obstinately zealous. He did not enter into the merits of the Christian cause, or inquire into facts with that attention which sincerity would have put him upon. You think that his sincerity and zeal were the very things that made him a chosen instrument: he himself speaks of them as the very things that made him peculiarly unworthy of that honor, 1Co. 15:9; and he tells us, that he was set forth as a pattern of the Lord's long-suffering and mercy—that the very chief of sinners might be encouraged, 1Ti. 1:15-16. Had he been sincerely desirous to know whether Jesus was the Messiah, there was enough in his character, doctrines, miracles, and the prophecies concerning him—to have cleared up the point. But he took it for granted he was right in his opinion, and hurried blindly on, and was (as he said himself) exceedingly mad against them.

Such a kind of sincerity is common enough. People believe themselves right, and therefore treat others with scorn or rage. They appeal to the Scriptures—but first lay down their own preconceived sentiments for truths, and then examine what Scriptures they can find to countenance them. Surely a person's thinking himself right, will not give a sanction to all that he does under that persuasion.

Ignorance and obstinacy are in themselves sinful, and no plea of sincerity will exempt from the danger of being under their influence: Isa. 27:11; Luke 6:39.

It appears to me, that, though you will not follow any man implicitly, you are desirous of discovering your mistakes, supposing you are mistaken in any point of importance. You read and examine the Word of God, not to find weapons with which to defend your sentiments at all events—but to know whether they are defensible or not. You pray for God's light and teaching; and in this search you are willing to risk, what men are commonly much afraid of hazarding— character, interest, preferment, favor, etc. A sincerity of this kind I too seldom meet with; when I do, I account it a token for good, and am ready to say, "No man can do this—unless God is with him." However, sincerity is not conversion; but I believe it is always a forerunner of it.

I would not be uncharitable and censorious, hasty and peremptory, in judging my fellow-creatures. But if I acknowledge the Word of God—I cannot avoid forming my judgment upon it. It is true, I cannot look into people's hearts; but hearts and principles are delineated to my hand—in the Scripture. I read, that no murderer has eternal life in him; I read likewise, "If any man loves not the Lord Jesus Christ, let him be accursed;" and therefore I conclude, that there are speculative errors as heinous in their guilt, as destructive in their effects, as murder—and that the most moral, upright man—if he loves not the Lord Jesus Christ, is in the sight of God, the Judge of all—as displeasing to Him as a murderer!

It has pleased God, for the peace and support of society, to put a black mark upon those sins which affect the peace and welfare of our neighbor, such as adultery and murder. But undoubtedly the sins committed immediately against himself must be more heinous than any which offend our fellow-creatures. The second commandment, Mat. 22:39, is like the first; but it depends upon it, and is therefore inferior to it. Men ordinarily judge otherwise. To live regardless of God and the Gospel, is looked upon as a minor fault—in comparison with offenses against society. But sooner or later it will appear otherwise to all.

A group of robbers may pride themselves upon the justice, honor, and truth they observe towards one another; but because they are a nuisance to the public good, they are deservedly accounted villains, and treated as such, notwithstanding their petty morality among themselves. Now, such a company of robbers bears a much greater proportion to a whole nation, than a nation, or all the nations of the earth, bears to the great God. Our dependence upon him is absolute, our obligations to him infinite. In vain shall men plead their moral discharge of relative duties to each other—if they fail in the unspeakably greater relation under which they stand to God. Therefore, when I see people living without God in the world, as all do until they are converted, I cannot but judge them in a dangerous state; not because I take pleasure in censuring, or think myself authorized to pass sentence upon my fellow-creatures—but because the Scripture decides expressly on the case, and I am bound to take my sentiments from thence.

The Philippian jailer was certainly a Christian when baptized, as you observe. He trembled; he cried out, "What must I do to be saved?" Paul did not bid him amend his life—but to believe in the Lord Jesus. He believed, and rejoiced. But the Lord blessed the Apostle's words, to produce in him that saving faith, which filled him with joy and peace. It was, as I observed before, something more than an assent to the proposition, that Jesus is the Christ. It was a resting in him for forgiveness and acceptance, and a cleaving to him in love. No other faith will purify the heart, work by love, and overcome the world.

I feel myself much interested in your concerns; and your unexpected frank application to me, I consider as a providential call, which binds me to your service. I hope our correspondence will be productive of happy effects, and that we shall both one day rejoice in it.