Christian Liberty

by John Newton to the Earl of Dartmouth

November, 1776.
My London journey, which prevented my writing in October, made me amends by an opportunity of waiting upon your lordship in person. Such seasons are not only pleasant at the time but afford me pleasure in the review. I could have wished the half hour we were together by ourselves, prolonged to half a day. The subject your lordship was pleased to suggest has been often upon my mind; and glad should I be, were I able to offer you anything satisfactory upon it.

There is no doubt but first religious impressions are usually mingled with much of a legal spirit, and that conscience at such a time is not only tender but misinformed and scrupulous. And I believe, as your lordship intimated, that when the mind is more enlightened, and we feel a liberty from many fetters we had imposed upon ourselves we are in danger of verging too far towards the other extreme.

It seems to me that no one person can adjust the medium, and draw the line exactly for another. There are so many particulars in every situation, of which a stranger cannot be a competent judge, and the best human advices and models are mixed with such defects that it is not right to expect others to be absolutely guided by our rules. Nor is it safe for us implicitly to adopt the decisions or practices of others.

But the Scripture undoubtedly furnishes sufficient and infallible rules for every person, however circumstanced; and the throne of grace is appointed for us to wait upon the Lord for the best exposition of his precepts. Thus David often prays to be led in the right way in the path of judgment. By frequent prayer, and close acquaintance with the Scripture, and a habitual attention to the frame of our hearts there is a certain delicacy of spiritual taste and discernment to be acquired, which renders a nice disquisition concerning the nature and limits of the Adiaphora, as they are called or how near we may go the utmost bounds of what is right, without being wrong, quite unnecessary. Love is the clearest and most persuasive indicator: and when our love to the Lord is in lively exercise, and the rule of his Word is in our eye we seldom make great mistakes.

From the time we know the Lord, and are bound to him by the cords of love and gratitude the two chief points we should have in our view, I apprehend, are, to maintain communion with him in our own souls, and to glorify him in the sight of men. Agreeably to these views, though the Scripture does not enumerate or decide in so many words, for or against many things which some plead for, and others condemn yet it furnishes us with some general guidelines, which, if rightly applied, will perhaps go a good way towards settling the debate, at least to the satisfaction of those who would rather please God than man.

Some of these canons I will just remark to your lordship; Rom. 12:1, 2; 1 Corinthians 8:13, and 10:31; 2 Corinthians 6:17; Ephesians 4:30, and 5:11, 15, 16; 1 Thessalonians 5:22; Ephesians 6:18; to which I may add, as suitable to the present times, Isaiah 22:12; Luke 21:34. I apprehend the spirit of these and similar passages of Scripture (for it would be easy to adduce a larger number,) will bring a Christian under such restrictions as follow.

1. To avoid and forbear, for his own sake, from whatever has a tendency to damp and indispose his spirit in attendance upon the means of grace; for such things, if they are not condemned as sinful per se, if they are not absolutely unlawful, yes though they are, when duly regulated, lawful and right, (for often our chief snares are entwined with our blessings,) yet if they have a repeated and evident tendency to deaden our hearts to divine things, of which each person's experience must determine then there must be something in them, either in season, measure, or circumstance wrong to US. And let them promise what they will, they do but rob us of our gold to pay us with trinkets. For the light of God's countenance, and an open cheerfulness of spirit in walking with him in private, is our chief joy; and we must be already greatly hurt, if anything can be pursued, allowed, or rested in as a tolerable substitute for it.

2. For the sake of the church, and the influence which example may have upon his fellow Christians the law of charity and prudence will often require a believer to abstain from some things, not because they are unlawful but inexpedient. Thus the apostle, though strenuous for the right of his Christian liberty, would have abridged himself of the use, so as to eat no meat rather than offend a weak brother, rather than mislead him to act against the present light of his conscience.

Upon this principle, if I could, without hurt to myself, attend some popular amusements and return thence with a warm heart to my prayer closet, (the possibility of which in my own case I greatly question,) yet I should think it my duty to forbear, lest some weaker than myself should be encouraged by me to make the like experiment, though in their own minds they might fear it was wrong, and have no other reason to think it lawful, but because I did it; in which case I would suspect, that though I received no harm they would.

I have known and conversed with some who, I fear, have made shipwreck of their profession, who have dated their first decline from imitating others, whom they thought wiser and better than themselves, in such kind of compliances. And it seems that an obligation to this sort of self-denial rises and is strengthened and proportioned to the weight and influence of our characters. Were I in private life, I do not know that I should think it sinful to hunt partridge or a rabbits; but, as a minister, I no more dare do it than I dare join in a drunken frolic, because I know it would give offence to some, and be pleaded for as a license by others.

3. There is a duty and a charity likewise, which we owe to the world at large, as well as a faithfulness to God and his grace in our necessary converse among them. This seems to require, that though we should not be needlessly singular yet, for their instruction, and for the honor of our Lord and Master, we should keep up a certain kind of singularity, and show ourselves called to be a separated people; that, though the providence of God has given us callings and relations to fill up, (in which we cannot be too exact,) yet we are not of the world but belong to another community, and act from other principles, by other rules, and to other ends than the generality of those about us.

I have observed, that the world will often leave professors in quiet possession of their notions and sentiments, and places of worship provided they will not be too stiff in the matter of conformity with their more general customs and amusements. But I fear many of them have had their prejudices strengthened against our holy religion by such compliances, and have thought, that if there were such joy and comfort to be found in the ways of God as they hear from our pulpits then professors would not, in such numbers, and so often run among them, to beg a relief, from the burden of time hanging upon their hands.

Providential and necessary calls of duty, that lead us into the world, will not hurt us if we find the spirit of the world unpleasant, and are glad to retire from it, and keep out of it as much as our relative duties will permit. That which is our cross is not so likely to be our snare. But if that spirit, which we should always watch and pray against, infects and assimilates our minds to itself, then we are sure to suffer loss, and act below the dignity of our profession.

Upon the whole, it appears to me, that it is more honorable, comfortable, and safe, (if we cannot exactly hit the golden mean,) to be thought by some too scrupulous and precise than actually to be found too compliant with those things which, if not absolutely contrary to a divine commandment, are hardly compatible with the tenor of the gospel, or conformable to the mind that was in Christ Jesus, which ought also to be in his people.

The places and amusements which the world frequent and admire, where occasions and temptations to sin are cultivated, where sinful passions are provoked and indulged, where the fear of God is so little known or regarded, that those who do fear him must hold their tongues, though they should hear his name blasphemed, can hardly be a Christian's voluntary chosen ground. Yet I fear these characters will apply to every kind of amusement in the nation.

As to family connections, I cannot think we are bound to break or slight them. But as believers and their relatives often live as it were in two elements there is a mutual awkwardness, which makes their interactions rather dry and tedious. But upon that account they are less frequent than they would otherwise be, which seems an advantage. Both sides keep up returns of civility and affection; but as they cannot unite in sentiment and leading inclination, they will not contrive to be very often together, except there is something considerable given up by one or the other. I think Christians ought to be very cautious what concessions they make upon this account. But, as I said at the beginning, no general positive rules can be laid down.

I have simply given your lordship such thoughts as have occurred to me while writing, without study, and without coherence. I dare not be dogmatic; but I think what I have written is agreeable both to particular texts and to the general tenor of Scripture. I submit it to your judgment.