John Newton's Letters

The heart of man

October 21, 1775.
My Dear Friend,
The calls and engagements which I told you engrossed and anticipated my time when I wrote last, have continued without any intermission hitherto, and I am still far behind-hand with my business. I am willing to hope, that the case has been much the same with you, and that lack of leisure has been the only cause of my not having been pleasured with so much as a note from you since my return from London.

I am reluctant, for my own sake, to charge your silence to any unwillingness of continuing that fellowship which I have been, and still find myself, desirous to improve on my part. For though we are not agreed in our views—yet, while our preliminary agreement, to allow mutual freedom, and to exercise mutual candor, in expressing our sentiments, exists, we may, and I hope shall, be glad to hear from each other. It may seem to intimate I have a better opinion of myself than of you, that, while I seem confident your freedom will not offend me, I feel now and then a fear lest mine should prove displeasing to you. But friendship is a little suspicious when exercised with long silence; and a plain declaration of my sentiments has, more than once, put amiable and respectable people to the full trial of their patience.

I now return your sermons: I thank you for the perusal. I see much in them that I approve, and nothing in them but what I formerly espoused. But in a course of years a considerable alteration has taken place in my judgment and experience, I hope, yes I may boldly say I am sure, not for the worse. Then I was seeking, and now, through mercy, I have found, the Pearl of great price. It is both the prayer and the hope of my heart, that a day is coming when you shall make the same acknowledgment. From your Letters and Sermons, I am encouraged to address you in our Lord's words, "You are not far from the kingdom of God." I am persuaded the views you have received will not allow you to remain where you are. But fidelity obliges me to add, "Yet one thing you lack." That "one thing" I trust the Lord will both show you, and bestow upon you, in his due time.

You speak somewhere of "atoning for disobedience by repentance." Ah! my dear sir, when we are brought to estimate our disobedience, by comparing it with such a sense of the majesty, holiness, and authority of God; and the spirituality, extent, and sanction of his holy law, as he, and he only, can impress upon the heart of a sinner—we shall be convinced that nothing but the blood of the Son of God can atone for the smallest instance of disobedience!

I intimated, in my letter from London, one defect of your scheme, which will probably be the first to engage your notice. I am sure you have a desire to be useful to the souls of men; to be an instrument of reclaiming them from that course of open wickedness, or lifeless formality, in which you see them enslaved; and, in a word, to prevail with them to live soberly, righteously, and godly, according to the just and comprehensive sense you have given of those words in your sermon on Titus 2:11-12.

Now inward experience, and a pretty extensive observation of what passes abroad, have so perfectly convinced me there is but one mode of preaching which the Holy Spirit owns to the producing these effects, that I am not afraid to pronounce confidently—you will not have the desires of your heart gratified upon your present plan! The people will give you a hearing—but remain just as they are, until the Lord leads you to speak to them as criminals condemned already, and whose first essential step it is, to seek forgiveness by the blood of Jesus, and a change of heart and state by his grace, before they can bring forth any fruit acceptable to God.

As I have little time for writing, and little hope of succeeding in a way of argumentation, I have substituted, instead of a longer letter, the heads of some sermons I preached nine or ten years ago, on our Lord's discourse with Nicodemus. However, when I have heard that you are well, and that you still are disposed to correspond with me, I shall be ready to give a more particular answer to the subjects you pointed out to me in the letter you favored me with the day before I left London. I pray God to bless you in all your ways, and beg you to believe that I am, with sincerity, etc.

You complain that I have hitherto disappointed your expectations. If you have preserved my first papers, I believe you will find that I apprised you this might probably be the event, and certainly must, unless it should please God to make what I should write a means of giving you the same views with myself. I only proposed, as a witness, to bear a simple testimony to what I had seen and known. So far as you believed me sincere, and unwilling to impose upon you, I thought you might admit there was perhaps some weight in what I advanced, though for the present you could not see things in the same light. And if you allowed a possibility, that my changing the sentiments which I once held in common with yourself might be upon sufficient grounds, you would, as I trust you do, wait upon the great Teacher for his instruction; otherwise I did not expect to convince you; nor do I yet, only I am glad to put myself in his hands as an instrument.

You quite misunderstood what I spoke of the light and influence of the Spirit of God. He reveals to me no new truths—but has only shown me the meaning of his own written Word. Nor is this light a special revelation to myself—it is common to all who are born again. And thus, though you and I cannot fully agree about it—yet I almost daily meet with people, from the east, west, north, and south, whom, though I never saw them before, I find we understand each other at once. This (as you bid me be explicit) is the one thing which you at present lack. And I limited my expression to one thing, because it is our Lord's expression, and because that one thing includes many.

As I said before, I cannot give it to you—but the Lord can. And from the desire he has raised in your heart, I have a warm hope that he will. You place the whole stress of your inquiries upon human reason. I am far from discarding reason, when it is enlightened and sanctified; but spiritual things must be spiritually discerned, and can be received and discerned no other way; for to our natural reason they are foolishness; 1Co. 2:14-15; Mat. 11:25. This certain something I can no more describe to those who have not experienced it, than I could describe the taste of a pineapple to a person who had never seen one. But Scriptural proofs might be adduced in abundance—yet not so as to give a solid conviction of it—until we actually experience it.

Thus it was with my friend, whose case I sent you. When God gave him the key (as he expressed it), then the Scriptures were unlocked. His wishing himself a Deist some time before, was not from any libertine exceptions he made to the precepts of the Gospel—but from the perplexing enigmas he had found, by endeavoring to understand the doctrines by dint of reason, though reason in him was as strong and penetrating as in most men I ever met with. Upon your present plan, how can I hope to satisfy you, though even Paul asserts it, that the carnal mind is enmity against God? You will readily agree with me to the proposition as it stands in Paul's words—but I think will not so readily assent to what I have no more doubt than of my own existence, is the sense of it—That the heart of man—of any man, every man, however apparently amiable in his outward conduct, however benevolent to his fellow-creatures, however abundant and zealous in his devotions—is, by nature, enmity against God. Not indeed against the idea he himself forms of God—but against the character which God has revealed of himself in the Scripture. Man is an enemy to the justice, sovereignty, and law of God; and to the one method of salvation, which he has appointed in the Gospel, by faith alone; by such a faith as it is no more in his power to contribute to the production of in himself, than he can contribute to raising the dead, or making a world. Whatever is of the flesh is flesh, and can rise no higher than its principle—But the Lord could convince you of this by a glance of thought.

But I must break off, for lack both of room and time. Let me remind you of our agreement, to use and allow the greatest freedom, and not to be offended with what is well-meant on either side. Something in your last letter made me apprehensive you were a little displeased with me. He who knows my heart, knows that I wish you as well as my own soul.

The expression, of atoning for disobedience by repentance, was in one of your sermons. I considered it as unguarded; but, on my view of things, it were in a manner impossible I could use that expression, though perhaps too often unguarded myself.

I pray God to bless you in all your ways, and beg you to believe that I am, with sincerity, etc.