John Newton's Letters
Eleven letters to a friend
August 8, 1776
My dear friend,
I am very willing to meet you with a letter at York, though I have no particular advice to offer. It seems probable, as you say, that your expected interview with the G ___ , will afford you some further light into your future path. I am in no pain about the event. Man is a proud creature, and prone to please himself with the imagination of influence and power; but, in reality, he has none any further than as it is given him from above! The G ___ , or whoever else are displeased with you, have their commission, and limits assigned them, by one whom they little think of; and when they seem to think they can do most, they shall in effect do nothing but as instruments of his will. I trust the Lord will stand by you, put his love into your heart, and suitable words into your mouth, and overrule the minds of those with whom you have to do. And, if he has further service for you in that situation, you will find that his hook and bridle will hold them in, so that they shall not be able to hurt you!
As you know whom you have believed, and where to apply for strength suited to your day, according to his promise, I am so far from trembling for the event, that I congratulate you on the honorable opportunity that is before you of witnessing a good confession in such a presence, which I trust the Lord will own and bless you in. Fear them not! Remember Jesus stood before the high priest, Herod, and Pilate—for you. But how different are the cases!
You may perhaps meet with some expressions of dislike—but the laws of the land will protect you from the full effects of their resentment; and even the laws of politeness will, in some degree, restrain them. You are not going to be buffeted, stripped, and spit upon! Look at your regimentals, and let them remind you of Him who wore a scarlet robe for you, not as a mark of honorable service—but as a badge of infamy. You are a soldier; if you were appointed to march against a battery, though it is a service not agreeable to flesh and blood—yet a sense of honor, and what you owe to your king, your country, and yourself, would prompt you to reject any rising thought of fear, that might betray you to act a part unsuitable to your character, with disdain.
But, oh, how much stronger and more animating are the motives which should influence us as Christian soldiers! I trust you will fully feel their influence. There is but a veil of flesh and blood between you and that unseen world where Jesus reigns in all his glory! Perhaps you will be attended with such companies of the heavenly host as made themselves visible to the shepherds. How will they rejoice to see you fervent and faithful in your Master's cause! Nay, he himself will be there; and, though you cannot see him—he will be looking upon you, as he did on his servant Stephen.
Then think of the day when he, in his turn, will own and confess you before an assembled world. Yes, perhaps, upon the spot he may witness his approbation; and if you can hear him whispering in your heart, "Well done, good and faithful servant!" you will little regard what is said against you. As to consequences, leave them in his hand, they shall be all good and glorious to those who fear him. He may allow a cloud to appear—but he can blow it away in a moment; he may permit this or that source to be stopped up—but he can open twenty in the place of it. He can show you how little dependence there is to be placed on the friendship and favor of men—when once we are enabled to be active and hearty for him; but these failures shall only give occasion of showing you likewise, how all-sufficient he is in wisdom, love, and power—to give more and better than creatures can possibly deprive us of. Fear not, be strong—yes, I say unto you, be strong! The Lord Almighty is with you!
April 13, 1767
My dear sir,
I hope you find, while you attempt to water others—that you are watered and blessed in your own soul. May the Lord open your mouth, and strengthen your hands, and own your labors, if it is his pleasure to employ you in his public service. The fields are, indeed, white for harvest; and though I must govern myself by such views as the Lord is pleased to give me, when I look round and see the state of things, and the miserable darkness and carelessness of poor sinners, I am not sorry that there are those who can and do attempt those services which I cannot. When I see the heart humble, and simply devoted to the Lord, in whatever way Christ is preached, I can, yes and will, rejoice. Give me permission to suggest, that the enemy of souls will owe you a bitter grudge for your zeal; you will have many eyes upon you, and hearts against you; the work is great, and the heart deceitful. I doubt not but you are apprized of the need of watchfulness and prayer; yet you will not be angry with me for reminding you.
You will have two counter-streams to withstand, either of which is sufficient to knock us off our feet, unless the Lord upholds us; I mean, opposition and popularity. Opposition is troublesome, and in some respects perilous—as we are too prone to catch something of the same harsh spirit. But popularity is much more dangerous. Our friends are often eventually our worst enemies. It is not easy to find a preacher that has been honored with much popularity, who has not been, at some times, greatly hurt by it. It is apt to make us forget who, and what, and where we are; and if we are left to suppose ourselves people of importance—but for a single hour, it will surely prove to our loss, and may expose us to a wound that may leave a lasting scar, even though the Lord is pleased to heal it.
It behooves us, my dear sir, to keep up a clear distinction in our minds between gifts and grace. I can say, from experience, that it is possible to have a tolerable degree of liberty for outward service, so as to hold a congregation pretty fast by the ears, to make them weep, yes, and perhaps to weep with them—when the heart is far enough from a right disposition before the Lord. These things you know; I had them not in view when I began—but they occurred in writing, and I set them down as a humbling part of my experience. May the Lord enable us to walk humbly—and then we shall walk safely; to such he will give more grace. He will be their light, their strength, and their joy. May you ever find him so.
June 15, 1767
You perhaps think me long in answering your acceptable and obliging favor—but I was willing to take a second thought concerning the point on which you desire my advice. I shall begin with this, and may the Lord help me to write as I ought.
I am fully satisfied with your views, and your abilities for the ministry, and would have greatly rejoiced to have seen you among our ranks, if the Lord had inclined you that way, and opened you a door in his providence at your first setting out. But I fear the thing is, humanly speaking, impracticable, after the steps you have taken. Considering your situation in life, and the public manner in which you have preached, I apprehend you have made yourself too obnoxious for any bishop to accept your application. But, as the Lord has all hearts in his bands, and can bring to pass things that are most unlikely, I ought to suppose the thing so far possible, as to admit the consideration of another particular, whether, if you could procure ordination, you could properly, and with integrity, accept of it, and enter as a minister of the Established Church, with a previous and fixed determination to use your liberty indifferently, of preaching in all places and circumstances as you do now. And, I must own, that if you are determined to pay no regard to those regulations which seem to me incumbent on ministers in the Establishment, I think you had better remain as you are.
If you are satisfied with your present call, you are now free to act as your conscience shall lead you—why then should you fetter yourself? For, more or less, you will find episcopal ordination a restraint. As to the positive engagements you would bring yourself under to the bishops, I think all is included in the term canonical obedience; to which you must bind yourself by oath. The measure of this obedience undoubtedly must be the canons; and the sense, in my judgment is, obedience to all their requirements, so far as the canons extend, and where conscience does not unavoidably interfere. Indeed, I am not sure that the canons do expressly prohibit a minister from preaching itinerantly, when he pleases; and therefore it may seem you are not bound by them. This, I think, is an excuse for those of my brethren, who, having been ordained before they considered or knew the nature of their function, and awakened afterwards, have been led insensibly, and by steps, to extend their labors far and wide.
But things are so well understood now on both sides, that for a man to apply for ordination with a design to act contrary to the general rule of parochial curate, carries the appearance of insincerity; and if the canons are silent, I believe the laws of the land give every minister such a right in his own parish, as not to allow any other person to preach in it without his consent, unless he claims, as a Dissenter, the benefit of the Act of Toleration. I apprehend all the church ministers who act notoriously itinerantly, are exposed to suffer inconveniences for it, if ever it shall please God to permit their superiors to put their power, by law, in force against them.
As to those who are already in this way, and who think it their duty to go on in defiance of all that might be done against them, I have nothing to say; I rejoice in their zeal and success, so far as they appear to act for the glory of God and the good of souls, and the Lord is pleased to honor them with usefulness; but I cannot so well approve of a person's entering into episcopal orders, with a view to disregard the established regulations of the church. In your case it seems not at all necessary, for you would not preach better, nor probably to greater numbers, if you were ordained; for your red coat and shoulder-knot will probably excite the curiosity of the people as much as my gown and cassock can do.
And then I have some reluctance to your giving up your chaplaincy in the army, and especially as you assured me that your influence, both with the officers and soldiers, is no way lessened by your preaching. The continual moves of your regiment will give you the opportunity of declaring the glad tidings in a great variety of places; your rank in the army will excite the attention of the people wherever you go; and how useful the Lord may make you among the soldiery, who can tell? So that supposing you are satisfied in yourself as to your present proceedings, you seem to have fairer and more extensive opportunities for usefulness than any of us, and none can charge you with inconsistency, or give you trouble for what you do.
I do not wonder that your family should wish you to take orders, because it would in some measure remove that odium which they suppose you are under by preaching in your present capacity. But I am persuaded this alone would not be a sufficient motive to you. Mr. H ___ 's judgment has a considerable weight with me; but, in the present case, I am constrained to differ from him, for the reasons I have suggested above. However, I trust that the Lord whom you serve, will be your best and infallible Counselor, and in time give you clear satisfaction as to what he would have you to do.
I am sorry to see myself so near to the bottom of my paper, before I have an opportunity to say something of that precious name, Jesus. Continue to look to him, my dear friend, and he will guide you with his eye, give you support for the present, and direction for the future. If he were upon earth, and you could get near him—would you not lay your difficulties before him? You have the same liberty and encouragement to do it now—as if you saw him with your eyes! I need not tell you this; you know it; yet though our judgments are fully convinced that he is as near, as kind, as attentive to our concerns, as ready to hear and as willing to assist as our own hearts can wish—it is not always easy to reduce these sentiments to practice. Unbelief, that injurious hindrance, interposes and starts a thousand anxious thoughts to hide him from us. If you find, through grace, that you are submissive, and only desirous to know his will, and continue waiting upon him, then fear not; he will not allow a soul that depends upon him to take a wrong step in a matter of such importance. And if you find that he has assisted and owned you in what you have done hitherto, I would not have you entertain an uneasy doubt that you have acted wrong.
July 14, 1767
I thank you for your letter of the 3rd. I wish I could offer you advice worthy of the confidence you place in me. Your reasons for a settlement in the Church of England are weighty. I can only say, be much in prayer, and attend to the leading of Divine Providence, and I doubt not but he will make your path of duty clear; not perhaps all at once—but by degrees, and, though slowly—yet surely; so that after you have been exercised with uncertainties for a season, you shall find, that he is overruling all to bring about what he has already appointed for you!
As you seem to think that you may, upon cool reflection, be induced to see it the duty of a minister more peculiarly to attend to the oversight of a single flock, my principal objection to your applying for ordination among us, is so far lessened. And I trust, if you alter your sentiments on this point, it will be owing to reflection and real conviction, and not to a bias arising from the motives and views you mention in your letter. When a person has a growing doubt of his own judgment, he is apt to be influenced (perhaps too far) by the advice and example of those whom he esteems wiser and better than himself. It is no wonder, therefore, that if you attend only to the advice and example of those of our friends who are warm for itinerancy, when you consider their zeal, their motives, and their apparent success, you should think it matter of duty, not only to follow—but, if possible, to go beyond them. For my own part, the love and esteem I bear to many people in that line is so great, that I know not if I dared trust myself to be shut up long among them in a room, lest they should, as it were, compel me to break through all bounds, and totally forget the views I have had upon mature deliberation, and in my cooler hours.
But I find it best, when good men are divided, to hear what may be said on both sides. I imagine your connections have chiefly led you to consider the plausible appearances on the one side of the question. But I can assure you, there are (if I mistake not) some weighty considerations to be offered in behalf of a parish pastor. And, by way of balance to what has occurred to you against it, I could wish you had an opportunity of conversing with my friend Mr. T ___ , who, perhaps might be of use to settle your judgment and determination as to your future conduct. Though the difficulties in the way of your ordination are great, they are certainly not insuperable. They were very great against me—yet the Lord opened a way. Some concessions will perhaps be expected from you, with respect to what will be called the irregularity of your late proceedings; and therefore the strongest bars will be laid in the way by your honor and conscience, unless you should see that, all things considered, it is best for a clergyman generally to restrain his outreach efforts within the bounds allowed and prescribed by church law; for, I dare say, unless you see it so, you will not say so.
You may depend upon the news of your engagement, which you entrusted me with, being kept a profound secret. Though you have not mentioned the person—yet as you seem to speak as if she were not a stranger to me, I suppose I guess who she is; and if I guess right, I congratulate your choice; for it seems suitable in every respect. I have reason to be a friend to marriage; and I doubt not but if the Lord is pleased to give you a suitable partner, it will both add to your comfort, and strengthen your hands in his service. Commit yourself, therefore, to him; act so far as he affords you an opening; consult him step by step; follow his providence closely—but do not force it. We are prone to pursue things that appear desirable—with too much keenness; but in his leading there is usually a praying time and a waiting time. Yes, he often brings a seeming death upon our hopes and prospects, just when he is going to accomplish them, and thereby we more clearly see and more thankfully acknowledge his interposition.
The bearer of this letter is a simple, honest man; yet mature in the Lord's ways for the time of his standing. Like most of the flock, he has many exercises, both inward and outward. If you have time to speak with him, he will tell more at large how it is with us.
I rejoice that the Lord brought you honorably off from your challenge, and gave you victory without fighting. This shows his power over all hearts, and that he is a sure refuge and buckler to all who trust him. Oh, that we could trust him at all times, and pour out our hearts before him. When Moses was in any difficulty—he repaired to the tabernacle, and always found direction and support. This was his peculiar privilege, as the people could not come so near. But under the Gospel, all the Lord's people have the privilege of Moses, to come into his immediate presence, and tell him all their needs at all times. How happy should we be if we could fully improve this privilege, and bring everything, as fast as it happens, to the throne of grace. Surely he does not sit between the cherubim for any other purpose than to give us answers of grace and peace all the day long.
I am, dear sir, your affectionate servant and fellow-pilgrim.
September 28, 1776
My dear friend,
Your letter of the 31st of August, from York, gave much pleasure to me, and to your friends here. I rejoice that the Lord enabled you to stand up for his truth, and gave you the victory in the manner you relate. It is a proof that he is indeed on your side; and I think it is an intimation that you are in the right place. Indeed, I own I could never heartily wish to see you among our ranks; for I think you bid fair to be more extensively useful by keeping your chaplaincy in the army, and continuing to preach where the Lord opens you a door. As to considerations of a personal nature, I doubt not but you desire to hold them in subordination to the will of God and the calls of duty; and why might not what you hinted to me, take place while you are a chaplain? Of this you are the best judge; but in general, I know the Lord can and will order all things for the good of his children, and especially of those who are desirous to give themselves up, without reserve, to his service, and to cast all their care and concerns on him by faith and prayer.
I hope Mr. B ___ and you are mutually comfortable and profitable to each other. I understand that his heart is warm for the work, and perhaps your zeal and example have quickened his desires to what I sometimes hear called, an apostolic mission, and what others disapprove by the term itinerancy. For my own part, I wish well to all, both pastors and itinerants, who love and preach Jesus. But I remember a question something to the purpose, (and that he was a man of a warm zeal, and as little under the influence of worldly wisdom as any we hope to be in this day,) who somewhere asks, "Are all apostles?" If it should be allowed (which I should be unwilling to contradict) that in the case of some, perhaps in your case, there are some circumstances, which, taken in connection with the event of things, do evidently justify their acting in that way which some call irregular; it will not follow, therefore, that every young man who has a fair and peaceable right to expect ordination in the church, and a providential appointment to the pastorate of souls in a particular place, would do well to follow their steps.
It appears to me that a pastoral charge is a weighty thing, and that a minister who keeps much with his own people, watches over and warns them publicly, and from house to house; acquaints himself with their situations, tempers, and temptations, and thereby knows how to speak a word in season to them, and is on the spot to guard them against the first symptoms of a declension, or the first appearance of error; I say, such a one appears to me in a competent sphere of duty. But if he admits engagements manifestly inconsistent with such a close and sedulous attention, he may appear more important to himself, or in the eyes of the world—but will not, upon the whole, be so useful. There is that in us by nature, which may dispose us to be well pleased at aiming at great things; and though I trust that many who set out as if they expected to convert whole countries, act from nobler motives, even a gracious concern for the glory of God, and the good of souls—yet our own evil is so deeply and closely entwined with the good which the Lord puts into our hearts, that I believe many who earnestly desire to promote the gospel interest, do in some respects hurt it, by overlooking all regard to order, treating the most express and positive engagements as not worthy of notice, drawing a sort of warrant thereby for any person to undertake any service, who thinks himself qualified for it.
As to yourself, my dear sir, my whole heart goes with you in your endeavors to serve the Lord; what he has done for you, and by you, are satisfactory proofs to me of your call. But I write thus to beg you not to make your own case a precedent; but when you meet with young men of right views and promising talents, who seem properly qualified to serve God in the established church, if they are ready to catch your fire, I would wish you rather to assist them with a bridle than a spur; advise them to follow the leading, and wait the openings of Providence; to begin with small things; and not to think their time lost, if the Lord should give them at first such an easy service as may afford them leisure for a close study of the Word of God and of their hearts, that they may come to be solid, scriptural, experimental, and judicious preachers, be furnished with an acceptable variety, and prove, both to the church and the world, workmen who need not to be ashamed.
Some young men have been loose and raw preachers all their days, by thinking that a warm impression of a text of Scripture, and a compassionate feeling for the souls of sinners—are almost the only necessary requisites. When a young tree puts out blossoms in great abundance, the skillful gardener pulls many off, and, though he thereby lessens its fruitfulness for the present, he secures it for the future.
November 9, 1767
My dear friend,
I think we fully agree in our sentiments about preachers. The gifts, the views, the services of those who are sent and taught by the same Spirit—may be, and are in many respects, different. But if they are sent and taught by him, they will preach the same Jesus, they will equally confess their dependence on the Holy Spirit for their ability and success, and, more or less, he will own their ministrations, and give them living witnesses and seals that he has employed them in his work. Those who agree in these essentials, would do well to agree among themselves, and to wish each other prosperity in the name of the Lord.
When I see a competency of spiritual knowledge, and a humble frame of mind, I would not look further, nor inquire whether the instrument is a scholar or a gownsman, before I give him the right hand of fellowship. But I own, if people attempt to teach others what they very poorly understand themselves; or if the deportment savors of self-confidence and a desire of being noticed, I am ready to fear that they run before they are sent. I wish that none of us who are called regular pastors, may affect to despise those who, from a principle of love to the Lord and to souls, think it right to become itinerants, and move more at large than we do. And I wish that none in your way would censure and condemn us for being incumbent upon what we conceive to be our proper work and charge—but sincerely believe we may have other reasons than the fear of man, or the love of ease, (though, alas! I know not to what charge I dare plead an absolute Not guilty,) for not choosing to depart from our present path, and to imitate yours.
I say I wish there may be this mutual candor on all sides; but if not, those will be happiest, who can bear the misapprehensions of their brethren without being either grieved or offended. It is a small thing to be judged by men. If the Lord condescends to smile upon us, and gives us to maintain a good conscience in his sight, so that we can humbly appeal to him that we aim at His glory—we may be content to bear anything else. We shall all be of one mind before long! In the mean time, may we ever remember, that not he who commends himself is approved—but whom the Lord commends.
I am glad you have been with H ___; I made no doubt but you would love my dear friend; possibly I may overrate him; I own he is but a man—but I think him an uncommon one; an eminent instance of the true Christian spirit. This is what is most taking with me. Gifts are useful; but they are mere tinsel compared with the solid gold of grace. An eminency in gifts is showy and glittering; but unless grace is proportional, gifts are very ensnaring. Gifts are like riches—if well improved, they give a man fairer opportunities of service; but if the Lord favors a man with great gifts, and in consequence thereof, considerable popularity—that man stands in a dangerous situation! If he is not kept humble—soon will be his fall. And to keep such a gifted man humble, more than a common share of trials is usually needful. My prayer for you and for myself, my dear friend, is, that we may never infer grace from gifts, or to mistake the exercise of the one for the exercise of the other.
We have need to be saying continually, "Hold me up—and I shall be safe." How else can we stand? If we meet with opposition, it has hurt its thousands. If we are exposed to caresses and popularity, they have slain their ten thousands! Jesus alone is able to preserve us, and he is able to preserve us fully—in the lion's den, in the fiery furnace, in the swellings of Jordan—if he is with us, and maintains in us a sense of our unworthiness, and our entire dependence upon him—we shall be safe.
I see that, beside the general lot of affliction in common with others, you are likely to have one peculiar trial, which might be lightly regarded by some—but not by me. Indeed, I can sympathize with you; and, from what I have formerly felt, I am sure nothing but the grace of God can compose the mind under such a disappointment. But remember, he has given you himself. If he sees fit to overrule your desires, be sure it is best for you. The Lord sees all consequences; if we could do so, we would acquiesce in his appointments the first moment. If it is for your good and his glory, it shall yet take place; (you would not wish it otherwise,) if not, he can make it up, perhaps in kind; (for there is an old proverb, "That there is as good fish in the sea—as ever came out of it!") but if not so, he can easily make it up in kindness, and give you such a taste of his love that you shall gladly forego all, and say as David, "Whom do I have in heaven but You? And I desire nothing on earth but You!" Psalm 73:25.
Let other things turn out as he pleases, you must be happy, for the Lord himself is your Guide, your Shield, and your Portion. Keep your eye and heart, my friend, upon his work, and he will take care of your other affairs, and not withhold any good thing from you. All hearts are in his hands; when his time is come, hard things are made easy, and mountains sink into plains!
January 4, 1768
My dear friend,
My heart is as much with you, I trust, as it would be, had you been one of our ranks. And I would as willingly hear you in your usual places, as if you preached in St. Paul's Cathedral. But as I have already answered your letter, this, and more that I could offer from it, may be little more than repetition.
I hope the entrance of the new year will be blessed to you. The last was to me a year of peculiar mercies! But, alas! as to my part in it, I have little pleasure in the review. Alas! how much faintness and unfruitfulness has the Lord borne with from me! Indeed, I am almost continually a burden to myself, and find such a difference between what I seem to be in the pulpit and in public—and what I really feel myself to be before the Lord, that I am often amazed and confounded! And was it not that the Lord has been pleased in some measure to establish me in the knowledge of my justifying righteousness, and the unalterable security of his covenant of grace—I would be ready to give all up! I am kept at a great distance from the full possession of my privileges; but, through mercy, the evils I feel are confined within myself. The Lord keeps me from stumbling outwardly, and does not allow Satan to distress me with those grievous temptations which he has always in readiness when permitted. I trust my hope is founded upon a rock, and that he to whom I have been enabled to commit my soul—will keep it to the end. Yet surely I am a wonder to myself!
Exercises of mind are common to all who know anything of themselves, and have some just views of their obligations to redeeming love. But those who preach to others—must expect a double portion. We need them in order to keep us humble, upon which, as a means, our success and comfort especially depend. We need them that we may know how to speak a word in season to weary souls. Innumerable are the trials, fears, troubles, and temptations which the Lord's people are beset with; some in one way, some in another. The minister must, as it were, have a taste of all of these—or it might happen that a case might come before him to which he had nothing to say. And we need them likewise to bring our hard hearts into a feeling disposition and sympathy with those who suffer, otherwise we would be too busy or too happy to attend unto their moans.
Surely much of that hasty and censorious spirit, too often observable in young converts, arises from their having, as yet, a very imperfect acquaintance with the deceitfulness of their own hearts. But, the old weather-beaten Christian, who has learned by sorrowful experience how weak he is in himself, and what powerful subtle enemies he has to grapple with—acquires a tenderness in dealing with bruises and broken bones, which greatly conduces to his acceptance and usefulness to others. I desire, therefore, to be resigned and thankful, and to give myself up to the Lord to lead me in whatever way he sees best; only I am grieved, that it is so much his appointment to keep me thus low—as it is the necessary consequence of my own folly and remissness.
My dear friend,
From what I have heard, I suppose this will not come premature to congratulate you on the accomplishment of your wishes. If the late Miss C ___ is now Mrs. S ___ , we present our warmest wishes of happiness to you both in your marriage union—a union in which, I trust, you will both see the effect of his love and favor who has previously, by his grace, united you to himself. I was much pleased when you first mentioned your views to me; for I thought you were remarkably suited and fitted for each other, and I had a good hope from the beginning, that the difficulties which seemed at first to occur, would in due time subside. I rejoice with you therefore; yet, as one who knows that the sweetest connections in the present life are attended with their proportional cares and abatements.
No one has more reason to speak with thankfulness and satisfaction of the marriage state than myself. It has been, and is, to me, the best and dearest of temporal blessings; but I have found a balance, at least an abatement, in the innumerable inquietudes and painful sensations which at times it has cost me. So it must be in the present state; we shall, in one way or another, feel that vanity is interwoven in every circumstance of life. And it is needful that we should feel it—to correct that proneness in our hearts to rest in creatures. However, the God of all grace has promised to sanctify the changes we pass through, and he will not afflict us without a cause, or without a blessing. Upon your entrance on a new way of life, you will probably find that the enemy will change the manner and method of his attacks; he suits himself to our occasions and situations. With such an amiable partner, your chief danger perhaps will lie in being too happy. Alas! the deceitfulness of our hearts, in a time of prosperity, exposes us to the greatest of evils—to wander from the fountain of living waters—and to sit down by broken cisterns.
Permit me to hint to you, yes, to both of you, Beware of idolatry! I have smarted for it; it has distressed me with many imaginary fears, and cut me out much cause of real humiliation and grief. I would hope that others are not so ungrateful and insensible as I am; but for myself, I have chiefly found, that the things which I have accounted my choice mercies, when I have seen the hand and tasted the goodness of the Lord the most sensibly—have been the principal occasions of drawing out the evils of my heart, seducing me into backsliding frames, and causing me to walk heavily and in darkness! And this moment, should the Lord visit me with breach upon breach, and bring the thing that I most fear upon me—I must justify him; for I have turned all his blessings into occasions of sin—and perhaps those most upon which my heart has set the highest value.
Yet still I must congratulate you. So sure as you are joined—you must part—and such separations are hard to flesh and blood; but it will only be a separation for a little time. You will walk together as fellow-heirs of eternal life, helpmeets and partakers of each other's spiritual joys, and at length you shall meet before the throne of glory, and be forever with the Lord! May you live under the influence of these views, and find every sweet made still sweeter—by the shining of the Sun of Righteousness upon your souls; and every cross sanctified to lead you to a nearer, more immediate, and more absolute dependence on himself. For this I hope frequently to pray, and I entreat your joint prayers for us. To which I must add, my hope and expectation, that if ever occasions should call you into these parts, you will certainly give us the pleasure of receiving you both at our home.
Your experiences and mine seem something alike, only you appear to me to have a more lively sense both of sin and grace than I have attained. Perhaps you think differently. It is a question that can be decided only by Him who searches our hearts. But it matters not who is best or worst, since Jesus is necessary and sufficient for both. I trust he is my righteousness and strength, and that I do not deliberately look for either elsewhere. But the old leaven—-a tendency to the covenant of works, still cleaves to me, and my judgment (imperfect as it is) is much clearer than my experience. I think I can point out the way of holiness to others—but I find it not easy to walk in it myself. However, I am learning to cease from complaints, unless to the Lord, and would rather invite my friends to join me in praising his goodness and grace. I am not what I desire to be—but there is a period coming, when I shall be so, yes, more than my heart can conceive! I hope to see Jesus, to be like him, and with him forever!
November 14, 1768
My dear sir,
Your last letter (which I am glad to find is without a date) gave me much pleasure. As the Lord has shown you where your dangers lie, and has revealed himself to you as your wisdom and strength, I doubt not but you shall be led in the path of duty and safety. Sometimes, indeed, he lets us stumble and trip—to increase our circumspection and humiliation, to keep us sensible of our nothingness, and to endear to us the name of Jesus, our gracious Advocate.
It is difficult to preserve a right frame of spirit, in our necessary interaction with temporal things; so as not to overvalue or undervalue the many tokens of his love, with which he is pleased to surround us. But, though the lesson is hard, and we are dull scholars—our Master is able to teach us all things that concern our comfort and his glory; and he has promised he will teach us. Indeed, we are in his school from morning to night; every occurrence of every day, all that passes within and without, has a voice, and a suitableness to advance our proficiency. The providences that affect ourselves, our families, and our acquaintances; the workings of our own hearts, the conduct of others before our eyes, whether good or evil—all concur to expound and illustrate the Word of God, and what we there read concerning the two great mysteries of sin and grace. The best exposition of divine truth is always before us; and we may read and study it when we lie down or rise up; when we sit in the house, or when we walk along the way. In this way, though we are slow to learn—yet the Lord enables us to get forward a little. And in proportion as we advance, we see more of Christ's beauty, fullness and sufficiency, and the emptiness and vanity of everything else.
Wherever this letter may find you, I hope it will find you just where, and just as the Lord would have you to be; casting all your care on him, and having nothing much at heart but to know his will, and cheerfully to comply with it. This is a happy frame; for they that thus trust in the Lord, shall never be moved—they shall not be afraid of evil tidings—he will guide them by his eye, direct all their paths, and give them his testimony in their consciences that their ways are acceptable in his sight.
May 20, 1769
My dear sir,
I am more sorry than surprised, that you are constrained to leave the army. I was apprehensive from the first, that, sooner or later, this would be the case. However, as I know you have acted with a simple view to the glory of God and the good of souls—I trust he will give you the reward of those that suffer for righteousness sake. May he now make you a blessing wherever he shall be pleased to fix or send you, and give you many seals to your labors, that you, and all about you, may rejoice in your present situation. And as you are not now under either military or ecclesiastical restraints, I doubt not but you will gladly spend and be spent for his sake. The campaign is short; the victory already secured—we have but a few skirmishes to pass through; and then, he who has promised to make us more than conquerors, will put a crown of eternal life upon our heads!
We were truly concerned to hear of your wife's illness—but hope your next will inform us of a happy recovery. I know how to sympathize with you in this matter. When we have had such views of the world, that we are in a measure weaned from all connections but one; when we have (if I may so speak) but one gourd in which we rejoice—how do our spirits flutter when we think a worm is touching its root! I have been a grievous idolater, and have loved my wife to a sinful excess; yet, through marvelous mercy, we are both spared to this day. But how often has the Lord punished us in each other; what anxiety and distress have I at times endured, for lack of faith to trust my dearest concerns in his hand who does all things well; and for lack of that moderation, with respect to all things below the skies, which befits those who are called with the high and holy calling of the gospel.
Such is the effect of our depravity, that we are almost sure either to undervalue or overvalue the temporal blessings which we enjoy. But the Lord is good; he knows our frame, pities our weakness—and, when he corrects, it is with the affection of a father. I hope he will spare you to be long comforts and helpmeets to each other—yet knowing how happily you are united, I cannot help, when I recollect how I have smarted, giving you a gentle admonition, Beware of idolatry! He, who in mercy brought you together, will not needlessly grieve you. He loves you both, unspeakably better than you love each other—and therefore you may safely commit health and life, body and soul, into his keeping. Pray for me that I may myself learn the lesson I would prescribe to you; for though it is easy to talk and write while all things are smooth—yet when the trial has returned, and I have been brought to a pinch—I have still found that I had yet much to learn; and that when judgment is tolerably clear—the actual experience and feeling of the heart may be sadly mixed and disturbed.
As to your soul complaints, I might transcribe them, and send them back in my name. I seem to have all the causes of grief and shame that are common to others; and not a few, that I am ready to think peculiar to myself. But, through mercy, I can also follow you in what you say of the all-sufficiency of Jesus. His blood, righteousness, intercession, and unchangeable love, keep me from giving way to the conclusions which Satan and unbelief would sometimes force upon me. It is He who must do all for me, by me, and in me. I long to live more above the influence of a legal spirit and an unbelieving heart. But, indeed, I groan being burdened. I have no reason to complain of a lack of liberty in public—but I wish I could be more affected to see poor sinners hardening under the sound of the gospel. I am afraid that if I am enabled to fill up my preaching hour, and to come off with tolerable acceptance, I am too easily satisfied. Indeed, this is a mercy which demands my thankfulness; but my great concern should be—that neither my preaching, nor their hearing, may be in vain. However, may the Lord grant me to be faithful!
January 19, 1773
My dear friend,
The heart evils of which we mutually complain, are the effects of a fallen nature; and though we feel them, if the Lord gives us grace to be humbled for them, if they make us more vile in our own eyes, and make Jesus more precious to our hearts—they shall not hurt us—but rather, we may rank them among the all things that shall work for our good. All our soul complaints amount but to this—that we are very sick; and if we did not find ourselves to be so—we would not duly prize the infallible Physician. Our perverseness and stubbornness, illustrate his compassion and tenderness! By whatever mournful experience we learn of the deceitfulness of our own hearts, qualifies us the better to speak to the case of others, and to offer a word of warning, exhortation, and consolation to his people! There is no school but this in which we can acquire the tongue of the learned, to speak a word in season to those who are weary, or be preserved from the pride, vanity, and self-righteousness which would otherwise defile all our best services!
It is better of the two that we should have cause of being covered with shame and confusion of face before the Lord; than, for lack of a due sense of the evils within us—be allowed to grow proud in our own conceits, as we certainly would—when the Lord is pleased to give us some liberty and success in our public work—unless we were ballasted with the mortifying conviction of what we are in ourselves!
Yet I hope he will enable us to watch and pray against any actual backsliding of heart. The remembrance of what we have already suffered in this respect, may suffice to remind us that we are nothing, have nothing, and can do nothing—but by his power working in us. If he is pleased to keep our eye and our heart simply dependent upon him, his good Word provides us with ample encouragement against the remnants of indwelling sin, which will cleave to us while we are in the body. We are complete in him. Our righteousness is in heaven. We have an Advocate with the Father. We are not under the law—but under grace. In a little while—all sins, temptations, clouds, and veils—shall be done away with forever!
I find that many of my problems arise more from the spirit of self, than I was formerly aware of. SELF, as well as Satan, can transform itself into an angel of light. To mourn over sin is right; but I do not always rightly mourn over it. Too often a part of my grief has been, a weariness of being so entirely dependent upon Jesus, of being continually indebted to him for fresh and multiplied forgiveness. I would have liked better to have some stock, ability, and power of my own, that I might do a little without him; that I might sometimes come before him as a saint, as a servant that has done his duty—and not perpetually as a poor worthless sinner. Oh, that I could be content with what is, and must be, my proper character; that I could live more simply upon the freeness and fullness of his grace!
There is no sin more to be dreaded, than the great sin of thinking we can do something holy, without a fresh application of the blood of sprinkling to our consciences, and a renewed communication of his Spirit to our hearts. This life of faith is the life of Christ in the heart. "Not I," says the apostle, "but Christ lives in me. His strength is made perfect in my weakness." I am nothing—He is all. This is foolishness to the world; but faith sees a glory in it. This way is best for our safety—and most for his honor. And the more simply we can reduce all our efforts to this one point, "Looking unto Jesus!" —the more peace, fervor, and liveliness we shall find in our hearts, and the more success we shall feel in striving against sin in all its branches.