John Newton's Letters
Eighteen letters to a pastor
November 27, 1767
My dear friend,
I congratulate you and your wife on your settlement in your new house, where I hope the Lord will dwell with and bless you both, and make you blessings to many.
Visits, etc. of ceremony are burdensome; yet something is due to civility; and, though we cannot have equal comfort in all our acquaintance, it is best to be on peaceful and neighborly terms. You need not have much of it—but so far as it cannot be prudently avoided, bear it as your cross. I would not wish to have you attempt to force spiritual things too much upon those who do not like them; or to expect them from those who have not experienced them. But, like a physician among sick people—watch opportunities of doing them good if possible.
You know not what the Lord has to do; some whom you now can hardly bear, may prove your comforts hereafter; and, if in the mean time they are disposed to be friendly—they have a right to a return in the same way.
I approve and rejoice in your faithfulness—but in some things, perhaps, you would do as well to keep your mind more to yourself; I mean in your free and unreserved manner of speaking of ministers, etc. Our Lord's direction to his disciples, in something of a similar case, was, "Let them alone." So far as it is needful to withstand them, do so in the Lord's strength; but in mixed conversation, it is a good rule, to say nothing without a just call to the disadvantage of others. I must agree with Mr. B ___ , that such expressions as, drowsy Dissenters, are as well avoided in public prayer, being more likely to give offence than to do good. And I thought some few things you said to Mr. W ___ , might as well have been spared, considering the spirit of some of your hearers. I endeavor to bear a testimony against everything wrong—but alas! the best of us have cause for humiliation. My judgment of many people and things agrees with yours; but I have seen there is good sense in the old proverb, "Least said, soonest mended." We are sometimes mistaken in our own spirits, and though it befits us to be plain and open upon proper occasions, it is not our duty to be very busy in disturbing a nest of hornets. I was once in a large company where very severe things were spoken of Mr. W ___ , when one person seasonably observed, that though the Lord was pleased to effect conversion and edification by a variety of means, he had never known anybody convinced of error—by what was said of him behind his back! This was about thirteen years ago, and it has been on my mind as a useful hint ever since!
Believe me to be affectionately yours.
July 15, 1768
My dear friend,
I was glad to hear that you and your wife were again safely restored to each other, and that the Lord had freed you from your illness. No doubt it was far from pleasing to be so straitened. But to be made, in a measure, submissive to the Lord's will, to appear to a disadvantage at those times and places when, perhaps, we should particularly desire to do our best; I say, to be content to appear weak and poor, from a real sense of our weakness and poverty in his sight; to see his wisdom and love in appointing us such humbling dispensations, and to submit to them—is a nobler attainment than to be able to speak with the tongue of an angel!
The Lord, who opened the mouth of Balaam's donkey, could, if he had pleased, have enabled it to have preached a sermon an hour long, and with as much method and accuracy as the most learned in academies or universities. Speaking is but a gift, and if he is pleased sometimes to open our mouths freely, we know not but a wicked man might equal or exceed us. But grace is the peculiar blessing which he bestows upon his dear children—and upon them only. Your streams may sometimes run low—but only when he sees it as both good and necessary; at other times you shall be as if you were taking water from Ezekiel's river. However, rejoice in this—that the fountain is yours, and nothing can cut you off from it!
I am affectionately yours.
September 30, 1768
My dear friend,
This has been a sort of busy week; but seldom have I felt more unfit to teach others, or more unfit to preach to my own heart. Oh, these outside services are wearisome things, when the Lord leaves us to feel our own hardness and emptiness! But I should learn to glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me. As to myself, though cause enough to be humbled, I have no cause to be cast down, since my righteousness is in heaven. And as to my ministry, I ought to desire that it may appear, that the excellency of the power is of God, and that there is nothing in me but weakness.
Dust and ashes is my name,
My all is sin and misery!
So we say, so we believe—and yet we would gladly go forth as if we were wise and good. The Lord help us to discover SELF in all its various windings, to resist it by the sword of the Spirit, as we would the devil, for surely—self is his great engine of evil. It would be a fine thing to have the united knowledge of Paul and the eloquence of Apollos—so that we might be the tip-top characters in the foolish dispute among professors, "Who is the best preacher?" But I can tell you a finer thing, and more within our reach, because it is what the Lord invites even the lowest of the flock to seek for; I mean, the character to which the promise is made, "For the High and Exalted One who lives forever, whose name is Holy says this: "I live in a high and holy place, and with the contrite and lowly of spirit, to revive the spirit of the lowly and revive the heart of the contrite!" Isaiah 57:15. Let the discourses of others be admired for ingenuity, learning, or pathos—but may we be ambitious that ours may savor of a broken and contrite spirit; then shall we be best able to commend a precious Savior, and then we may warrantably hope the Lord will not allow us to speak in vain.
I am affectionately yours in the best bonds.
February 17, 1769
I cannot agree with your friends, or with Witsius, respecting the degrees in glory. Perhaps we are not capable of stating the question properly in this dark world. I see no force in the argument drawn from 1 Corinthians 15:40-41; or rather, that does not appear to me the sense of the passage, or that the apostle had any respect to degrees of glory. The text in Matthew 19:28, may be compared with Revelation 3:21. However, admitting such degrees, perhaps they will not be distributed (according to human expectation) to such as have been most employed in active life, Matthew 10:41. As wickedness is rated by the judgment of God, not according to the number of outward acts—but by what the heart would do had opportunity offered, Matthew 5:28; so the Lord will graciously accept the desires of his people, and they shall in no wise lose their reward, because his providence has appointed them a narrower sphere.
One man like Mr. Whitfield is raised up to preach the gospel with success through a considerable part of the earth; another is called to the humbler service of sweeping the streets, or cleaning this 'great minister's' shoes. Now if the latter is thankful and content in his poor station, if he can look without envy, yes, with much love on the man that is honored; if he can rejoice in the good that is done, or pray for the success of those whom the Lord sends—I see not why he may not be as great a man in the sight of God, as he who is followed and admired by thousands!
Upon a supposition of degrees of glory, I would think it probable, the best Christian will have the highest place, and I am inclined to think, that if you and I were to travel in search of the best Christian in the land, or were qualified to distinguish who deserved the title, it is more than two to one we would not find the person in a pulpit, or any public Christian ministry; perhaps some old woman at her wheel; or some bed-ridden person, hidden from the knowledge of the world, in a mud-walled cottage, would strike our attention more than any of the 'doctors' or 'reverends' with whom we are acquainted. Let us not measure men, much less ourselves, by gifts or services. One grain of grace is worth abundance of gifts. To be self-abased; to be filled with a spirit of love, and peace, and gentleness; to be dead to the world; to have the heart deeply affected with a sense of the glory and grace of Jesus; to have our will bowed to the will of God; these are the great things, more valuable, if compared in the balance of the sanctuary, than to be an instrument of converting a province, or a nation! See 1 Cor. 13:1-3.
In a word, I would think, from Luke 7:47, that those who love most—will be most happy; that those who have most forgiven—will love most. And as, in the present life, every believer thinks himself a peculiar instance of God's mercy, and sees his sins in a peculiar light of aggravation, I apprehend it to be so hereafter. The sin of nature is equal in all; and so I think would actual sin be likewise—but the differences are made by the restraining grace and providence of God. He is not perhaps, in the sight of God, the greatest sinner, who has committed the most notorious acts of sin in the sight of man. We would not judge one wolf to be fiercer than another, because he had opportunity of devouring more sheep. Any other wolf would have done the same, in the same circumstances. So in sin. So (think I) in grace. The Lord's people, every one of them, would be glad to do him as much service, and to yield him as much honor, as any of the best have attained to. But he divides severally to one, 60; to one, 30; to one, 100—as he pleases; but they are all accepted in the same righteousness; equally united to Jesus; and, as to the good works on which a supposed difference is afterwards to be founded, I apprehend those that have most—will gladly do by them as Paul did by his legal righteousness, count them loss and dung for the excellency of Christ Jesus the Lord! Matthew 25:37.
But it may be said, Is then nothing to be expected for so many trials and sufferings, as some ministers are called to for the sake of the gospel? In my judgment, he who does not find a reward in being enlivened, supported and enabled by the Holy Spirit in the work of the gospel; who does not think, that, to have multiplied labors owned to the conversion even of a few souls—is a great reward; who does not account the ministry of the gospel, with grace to be faithful in the discharge of it, a reward and honor in itself sufficient to over-balance all the difficulties it may expose him to; whoever, I say, does not thus think of the service of Jesus—has some reason to question his right to the lowest degree of glory, or, at least, has little right to look for eminence in glory, even though he should preach with as much power and acceptance, and in the midst of as many hardships, as Paul did.
You will hardly think by my letter that I am straitened for time at present—yet this indeed is the case; but I have dropped into a gossip with you insensibly. I am glad the Lord has visited you and comforted you of late. Think it not strange, if such seasons are followed by temptations and darkness. Paul was in danger of being exalted above measure; and you know the means the Lord employed to preserve him. You are no better than he; and need not desire to be more graciously dealt with. His grace shall be sufficient for you. As to everything else, submit yourself to him.
July 7, 1770
My dear friend,
I received your piteous, doleful letter. I hope it is needless now to attempt to comfort you, and that this letter will find Satan cast out, and the man restored to his right mind, sitting at the feet of Jesus. I pity you that you have so many conflicts; yet I rejoice with you, because I know the Lord intends you good by these tossings, and will thereby keep you humble and dependent. Is it not better to be sifted and shaken—than to be left to fall in such snares as some have been taken in, whom you have accounted better than yourself? But why are you so ready to throw down your shield, and to talk of running away from the battle? He who harasses you while you hold the gospel plough, would be presently with you if you were ploughing in the field! Nor can any change of circumstance put you out of his reach, unless you could tell how to run away from yourself.
It is said, "You shall not muzzle the ox that treads out the corn." I am sure the Lord has not muzzled you—how is it then, that while you set forth a free salvation to others, you do not feed upon it yourself; but contradict your own preaching, and reason and complain, as though you had found out that the blood of Jesus Christ cannot cleanse from all sin; or, as though the Lord were as changeable as you are? I know you are a staunch Calvinist in your judgment—but I would think you an Arminian, by some of your complaints!
When the enemy would tempt you to murmur about a provision, tell him that he knows, (for he walks to and fro the earth,) that, taking the kingdom around, there is not one minister of the gospel in ten, so well provided for as you. And if so, you may ask him, if you have not much more cause for thankfulness than murmuring. What you have, the Lord has given you; and if he sees that is too little—he will give you such and such things—2 Samuel 12:8. But then it must be in his way and time, and not in your own. How can you teach others to live a life of faith, except you learn, by daily experience, to live it yourself? And the life of faith is maintained, not by bags and coffers—but by pleading the promises in prayer, when we have nothing else to look to.
As to the success of your ministry, it is no part of your concern, further than to make it matter of prayer. Faithfulness and diligence is our part; the success of it, is the Lord's part. I suppose you are quite as acceptable in your city, as Jeremiah was in Jerusalem; and probably see more to encourage you in your hearers, than he did in his. He was not very popular—but he was plain and honest; and if not owned to save the souls of others, he delivered his own. And, after all, the Lord did just as much by him, as he purposed before he called him; and he did not a tittle more than he had purposed before-hand, by the preaching of Paul.
But it seems, you think other people preach better than you. I hope you will always think so. If you should be mistaken, it is a fault on the right side. But other people think so too. I am not so sure of that; but if they do, it is perhaps to chastise you for your unbelieving fears. If you have a mind to outdo yourself, and to outdo us all, I will give you a receipt—Believe! The more you believe—the better you will preach. If the ministers they commend are faithful, simple preachers of the truth, depend upon it, the more your people like them, the more they will like you. I believe you are as free from a fear of being outshone by others, as most men are; but there is some of this leaven in all of our hearts—let us watch and pray against it, and heartily wish and pray, that all who preach Jesus, may do it with more power and success—than we can ourselves! We shall not be the poorer—for their riches; but our Lord and theirs will take it well of us; and if he sees us simply content to take the lowest place, he will raise us up higher; for it is a standing law in his kingdom, that he who humbles himself shall be exalted.
I have touched on all your complaints, and brought myself to the end of my paper. Notwithstanding what I have written, I could fill a sheet with sorrowful stories in my turn; but, "The Lord is good."
I am affectionately yours.
My dear friend,
I might defer answering your last letter until I see you; yet, because I love you, I will write. I apprehend your mind is darkened with temptation, for your views of the gospel, when you preach, are certainly clearer than your letter expresses. You may think you distinguish between evidences and conditions—but the heart is deceitful, and often beguiles our judgment when we are judging concerning ourselves.
You say, "I hope it is my desire to cast myself upon the free promise in Jesus Christ; but this alone does not give assurance of my personal interest in his blood." I ask, Why not? Because you lean to conditions, and do not think yourself good enough. It appears to me, that if I cast myself upon his promise, and if his promise is true, I must undoubtedly be interested in his full redemption; for he has said, "Him that comes to me—I will never cast out." If you can find a case or circumstance which the words 'never' will not include—then you may despond.
It is certainly a delusion to imagine oneself of the number of elect, without scriptural evidence. But have you not that evidence? I think, as the saying is, you cannot see the forest, for the trees. You tell me what evidences you lack namely, spiritual experiences, inward holiness, earnest endeavors. All this I may allow in a right sense; but, in judging on these grounds, it is common and easy in a dark hour—to turn the gospel into a covenant of works.
But take it your own way—If a fear of being deceived, a mourning under a sense of vileness, a hungering and thirsting after righteousness, a sense of the evil and danger of sin, a persuasion of the preciousness and suitableness of Christ in his offices, etc.; if these are not spiritual experiences, I know not what are! And will you dare deny, that God has given you these? As to inward holiness, when we meet, you shall define, if you please, what you mean by it.
The holiness of a sinner seems principally to consist in self-abasement, and in admiring views of Jesus as a complete Savior—these are the main principles from whence every gracious fruit is derived. In proportion as we have these—we shall be humble, meek, patient, weaned from the world, and devoted to God. But, if you will look for a holiness, that shall leave no room for the workings of corruption and temptation; you look for what God has no where promised, and for what is utterly inconsistent with our present state. If you say, you must doubtless expect to feel evil in your heart—but that you are discouraged by feeling so much evil; I ask further, If you can find from the Word of God, how much evil a holy person may feel? For my own part, I believe the most holy people feel the most evil. Indeed, when faith is strong and in exercise, sin will not much break out to the observation of others; but it cuts them out work enough within.
Indeed, my friend, you will not be steadily comfortable, until you learn to derive your comforts from a simple apprehension of the person, work, and offices of Christ. He is made unto us of God—not only righteousness, but sanctification also. One direct appropriating act of faith in him, will strengthen you more than all the earnest endeavors you speak of. Evidences, as you call them, are of use in their place; but the best evidence of faith—is the shutting our eyes equally upon both our defects and our graces, and looking directly to Jesus as clothed with authority and power to save to the very utmost. So you preach to others—so you deal with exercised consciences; why not preach so to yourself? Will you point out a ground for their hopes, upon which you are afraid to venture your own hope? Has he not kept you sound in the faith in wavering times? Does he not preserve you unspotted from the world? Does he not enable and own you in your ministry? Has he not often refreshed you with his consolations? Do you not tell others, that the blood of Jesus cleanses from all sin? Why then do you give way to doubts and fears?
I would have you humbled before the Lord for your unworthiness. In this I wish I was more like you; but rejoice in Christ Jesus, and resist every temptation to doubt your interest in his love, as you would resist a temptation to adultery or murder. Plead the apostle's argument, Romans 8:31-38, before the Lord and against Satan, and do not dishonor Christ so as to imagine he will disappoint the desire—which no power but his could implant in your heart!
Your's in the best bonds, etc.
My dear friend,
I shall be glad to hear that you and your wife are in good health, and that your souls prosper. Mine was dull and languid when I was with you, and has been too much so ever since. But I trust the Lord, the good Shepherd, will lead me safely through this wilderness, and bring me at last to see him in his kingdom. I am weary of living at such a distance from God—yet cannot quicken myself. Pray for me and mine, that we may be favored with a season of refreshment. I have everything else I need; but the lack of more lively and abiding communion with him, makes my chariot wheels drive move heavily.
To him I owe my wealth and friends,
And health and safe abode;
Thanks to his name for meaner things,
But these are not my God.
I find VANITY engraved in capital letters, on myself and everything around me. And, while encompassed with mercies, and so thoroughly satisfied with my outward condition, that I could hardly wish a single circumstance altered, I feel emptiness, and groan being burdened. If you think, by my writing in this strain, that I am very spiritual, you will be greatly mistaken. But I can say—I wish to be so.
My preaching seems contrary to my experience—in some respects. The two points on which I most largely insist, are, the glories of the Redeemer, and the happiness of a life of communion with God. I can often find something to say on these subjects in the pulpit; but, at some other times, my thoughts of Jesus are so low, disjointed, and interrupted, that it seems as if I knew nothing of him—but by the hearing of the ear! And answerable to this, is the sensible communion I have with him. Alas! how faint, how infrequent! I approach the throne of grace, encumbered with a thousand distractions of thought, each of which seems to engage more of my attention—than the business I have in hand.
To complete the riddle, I would add, that, notwithstanding all these complaints, which seem great enough to forbid my hope, to plunge me in despair—I have peace at bottom. I see, I know, I cannot deny, that he is all-sufficient; that he can, and does pity and help me, unworthy as I am; and though I seldom enjoy a glimpse of sunshine—yet I am not wholly in the dark. My heart is vile, and even my prayers are sin; I wish I could mourn more—but the Lord forbid I should sorrow as those that have no hope. He is able to save to the uttermost. His blood speaks louder than all my evils. My soul is very sick—but my Physician is infallible. He never turns out any as incurable, of whom he has once taken the charge. That would be equally to the dishonor of his skill and his compassion. Had he been willing that I should perish, he would not have wrought a miracle (for I account it no less) to save me from sinking into the great deep, when he first put it in my heart, to cry to him for mercy. And, oh, what astonishing goodness has followed me from that day to this! Help me to praise him; and may he help you to proclaim the glory of his salvation, and to rejoice in it yourself.
I am affectionately yours.
December 6, 1772
I long for you to learn to distinguish between what are properly the effects of a nature miserably depraved, and which shows itself in the heart of every child of God—and the effects of Satan's immediate temptations. What you complain of, are fiery darts—but you cannot be properly said to shoot them at yourself; they come from an enemy, and the shield of faith is given to you—that you may quench them. Why then, are you so ready to throw it away?
You seem to think yourself better at one time than at another. I believe that we, as in and of ourselves, are always alike. Look at the sea; sometimes it rages and tosses its waves, at another time it is calm and smooth. But the nature of the sea is not changed; it is not grown more gentle in itself than it was before; wait but until the next storm, and you will see it rage again as much as ever. Our unrenewed part is as untamable as the sea. When temptations are at a distance, or the Lord is present, it may lie quiet—but it is always deceitful and desperately wicked. Or like a lion, which may be sometimes awake, sometimes asleep; but whether asleep or awake, it is a lion still, and a little matter will rouse it from its slumber, and set it roaring; though, while sleeping, it may seem as harmless as a kitten!
If we could muse less upon ourselves, and meditate more upon the Lord Jesus—we would do better. He likewise, is always the same—as near and as gracious in the storm—as in the calm. Yes, he expresses a peculiar care of those who are tempted, tossed, and not comforted. Though you are sore thrust at that you may fall—He will be your refuge. But I wish you could more readily rest upon his Word, and rejoice in his righteousness, even in that only.
Believe me to be, sincerely and affectionately yours.
October 22, 1773
My dear friend,
If the lives of the two Henry's, and of other good men, were written by inspired men, you would not be so much discouraged at reading them. Depend upon it, they saw as much reason to be ashamed of themselves as we do. To us they appear in their best clothes, and we are told more of what the Lord wrought for them, than of the effects of indwelling sin under which they groaned. If I should outlive you, and should have a call to write your biography—I would perhaps find more to say in your favor than you are aware of; and if you would have the darker side known, as well as the brighter—you must write it yourself.
I am glad Mr. ___ preached among you. There are some points on which we must exercise mutual forbearance. I have heard him speak sometimes as if he considered assurance to pertain to the essence of faith. Yet I do not think he would willingly discourage a weak believer. He is a frank honest man, and I am persuaded would not have been offended, if you had hinted to him in conversation anything in which you seemed to differ; and perhaps, were he to explain himself, the difference would not appear to be great.
I hope you and your wife are well reconciled to the death of your child. Indeed, I cannot be sorry for the death of infants. How many storms do they escape! I think, in my private judgment, that they are included in the election of grace. Perhaps those who die in infancy, are the exceeding great multitude of all people, nations, and languages mentioned, Revelation 7:9, in distinction from the visible body of professing believers, who were marked in their foreheads, and openly known to be the Lord's. But I check myself, and would not indulge opinions about points not clearly and certainly revealed.
I am sincerely, your affectionate friend and brother.
June 24, 1774
My dear friend,
I returned home in safety, under that invisible and gracious protection to which we are always equally indebted, whether at home or abroad, and which had preserved all in peace during my absence. Many, undoubtedly, who left their houses on the day I went to ___, will never return to them again alive. And probably many who left their families in peace, have found, or will find when they come back, that some unexpected calamity has quite prevented the pleasure they proposed in seeing their habitation again. To live as I have long done, from year to year, exempted from the distresses with which the world is filled; to see so many falling and suffering around—yet I and mine preserved; sickness and death marching all around us, and filling almost every house with groans—and yet not permitted to knock at our door—this is a mercy for which I am not sufficiently thankful!
Indeed, ingratitude and insensibility towards the Lord, are evils which I may abhor myself for; and did I act in the like unfeeling, stupid spirit towards my fellow-creatures, they would soon be weary of me! But he is God—and not man. I often call upon my heart, and charge it not to forget his benefits; but there is so much stone and lead in its composition, that I can make little impression upon it. Melt it, O Lord, with the fire of your love!
Though I was very glad to see you and our friends at your house, I was not pleased with myself when there. Particularly, I was sorry I gave way to the discourse about baptism, which, as we all seemed well persuaded in our own minds, was little better than idle talk. When tea was almost over, it occurred to me, how easily I might have turned it to a more profitable subject—but then it was too late. Methinks it did not require much study to find out that we were but poorly employed. Perhaps I may be wiser hereafter; but one word draws on another so strangely, that we are liable to be entangled before we are aware, for Mr. Self loves to speak last.
I thought of you yesterday. I hope you had a pleasant visit. I would have been glad to have been with you; I love that house. There seems to be no leisure in it to talk about people or opinions. The inquiry there is concerning Jesus—how to love him more, and serve him better; how to derive from him, and render to him. If this is to be a Moravian, I do not wonder they are reproached and scorned. Where the spirit of the gospel is, there the cross will be. But, as I am acquainted only with two families, I cannot say how it is with the rest; but why should I not hope they are all in the same way? If they have, notwithstanding, some little peculiarities, I apprehend that very few of those societies which are ready to censure them, can exceed them in the real fruits of the Spirit.
I am yours sincerely affectionate.
My dear friend,
Your judgment in the gospel is sound; but there is a legal something in your experience, which perplexes you. You are capable of advising others; I wish you could apply more effectually what you preach—to yourself, and distinguish in your own case, between a cause of humiliation—and a reason of distress. You cannot be too sensible of the inward and inbred evils you complain of; but you may be, yes, you are, improperly affected by them. You say, you find it hard to believe that it is compatible with the divine purity—to embrace or employ such a monster as yourself. You express not only a low opinion of yourself, which is right—but too low an opinion of the person, work, and promises of the Redeemer; which is certainly wrong. And it seems too, that, though the total, absolute depravity of human nature is a fundamental article in your creed, you do not experimentally take up that doctrine, in the length, and breadth, and depth of it—as it lies in the Word of God. Or else, why are you continually disappointed and surprised that in yourself, you find nothing but evil? A man with two broken legs will hardly wonder that he is not able to run, or even to stand. Your complaints seem to go upon the supposition, that, though you have nothing good of your own—you ought to have; and most certainly you ought if you were under the law; but the gospel is provided for the helpless and the worthless.
You do not wonder that it is cold in winter, or dark at midnight. All depends upon the sun; just so the exercise of grace depends upon the Sun of Righteousness. When he withdraws, we find ourselves very bad indeed—but no worse in ourselves than the Scriptures declare us to be. If, indeed, the divine rectitude and purity accepts and employs you, it is not for your own sake, nor could it be, even if were you ten thousand times better than you are. You have not, you cannot have, anything in the sight of God—but what you derive from the righteousness and atonement of Jesus. If you could keep Jesus more constantly in view—you would be more comfortable. He would be more honored.
Satan transforms himself into an angel of light. He sometimes offers to teach us humility; but though I wish to be humble, I desire not to learn in his school. His premises perhaps are true—that we are vile, wretched creatures—but he then draws abominable conclusions from them; and would teach us—that, therefore, we ought to question either the power, or the willingness, or the faithfulness of Christ. Indeed, though our complaints are good, so far as they spring from a dislike of sin; yet, when we come to examine them closely, there is often so much self-will, self-righteousness, unbelief, pride, and impatience mingled with them—that they are little better than the worst evils we can complain of!
We join in love to you both. Let us pray that we may be enabled to follow the apostle's, or rather the Lord's command by him, 'Rejoice in the Lord always, and again I say, Rejoice!' We have little to rejoice in ourselves—but we have right and reason to rejoice in him.
I am, for his sake, sincerely yours.
February 11, 1777
My dear friend,
The words, "for them," Isaiah 35:1, had better have been omitted, for they have no business with the text, and only perplex the sense. This is the judgment of the best commentators. But, if retained, the best meaning is, that, when the power of Edom is destroyed, the places which before were desolate and barren, shall rejoice over them; to the destruction of the one, the glory of the other shall succeed.
The whole chapter is chiefly a pastoral description of the blessed change which the gospel shall effect; as if a dry wilderness shall be changed into a well watered and fruitful country. There is no need to seek a particular and express meaning of the words, "reeds and rushes;" they only enliven the description and contrast. Dry sandy deserts, as in Africa, are the haunt or habitation of serpents or dragons. But such an alteration shall ensue, that, instead of dry places, there shall be rivers and pools; water not merely to refresh the grass—but in great abundance, as in these places where reeds and rushes usually grow. What is often said of parables—That they do not go on all-fours, is true of many prophetical descriptions; there are circumstances which heighten the beauty of the painting; but, if we attempt to deduce doctrines from every such circumstance, we rather enervate the spirit of the passage, than explain it.
It must be allowed, likewise, that our translation, though in the main excellent and faithful, often misses the beauty and clearness of the original, owing sometimes to a servile dependence on the Masorite pointing, and sometimes to the translators not attending to the genius of the Hebrew poetical language, which is considerably different from the prose. "In the habitation of dragons, where each lay;" the word each makes the passage bald. "In the places where dragons lay (or lurked) shall be grass," etc. In the eighth verse likewise, instead of, "but it shall be for those," the original points out a glorious thought, which is quite lost in the version, because it follows an improper division of the verse. Lowth's later version, which, when read, seems to speak for itself, is to this purpose—"The unclean shall not pass over it; but He shall walk with them in it, and the fool (or the weak) shall not err therein." This is the reason why no lion or unclean shall be there, and why the weakest of his people shall not be destroyed or wander—because He (their God and Savior, Isaiah 35:4,) shall walk with them, and be their Guard and Guide.
However, in public preaching, I meddle as little and as gently as possible with these differences. I sometimes intimate, that the words will bear another sense; but I would be unwilling to make plain people suspect their Bibles are not right. But there are innumerable places in the prophets which are capable of a much clearer translation than what they have at present. Let me add one more, Isaiah 62:5. Instead of, "So shall your sons marry you," it should undoubtedly be, "So shall your Maker (or Creator) marry you," agreeably to the following part of the verse.
Believe me to be affectionately yours.
March 11, 1772
My dear friend,
I hope your wife's cold is better, and the children's illnesses are on the mending hand. How many careful hours by day, and sleepless hours by night, have I escaped by not being a parent! It is well when they that have children, and they that have none—are alike pleased with the Lord's appointment.
I fear we are not yet come to the national crisis. But I know not the Lord's secret will. That I am sure will take place. As to outward appearances, and the purposes of men, pro and con, I pay little regard to them. Indeed, they are no more stable than the clouds in a storm, which vary their shape every moment. It is enough for us that the Lord reigns, is carrying on his own cause, and will take care of his own people. The best, the only way in which we can serve the public, is by praying for it, and mourning for those sins which have given rise to these calamities.
Alas! what does one day of humiliation in a year signify? When the day is over, everything goes on just as it did before. The busy world, the mirthful world, and the religious world, are, I suppose, much the same since the fast day—as they were before it—buying and selling, eating and drinking, dancing and playing; and the professing sheep biting and tearing each other like wolves; or else like decoy-ducks, enticing one another into the world's snares. And, though I find fault with others, I have enough to look upon at home. May the Lord pardon them—and me also! My heart is deceitful and wicked; my services poor and polluted; my sins very many, and greatly aggravated; so that I should be one of the last to be censorious! And yet I cannot help seeing that the profession of many is cold—where it should be warm; and only warm in animosity and contention. May the Lord help us; for we are in a woeful case as a people.
I am sincerely yours.
September 4, 1778
My dear friend,
I hope you were the instrument of much good abroad, and brought home much comfort and peace in your own heart. How many are the seen and the unseen mercies we are favored with in a long journey! And what mercy to your wife and your family well on their return, as I hope you did!
The same good providence which has preserved you and yours, has taken care of me and mine. But my wife has been ill for some time; yet no oftener and no more than we have been able to bear, or than the Lord saw was most for our advantage. After so many years' experience of his goodness, we surely have reason to be convinced that he does all things well. At present, she is tolerably well.
We are his sheep—and he is our Shepherd. If a sheep had reason, and were sensible of its own state, how weak to withstand the wolf, how prone in itself to wander, how utterly unable to provide for its own subsistence; it could have no comfort, unless it knew that it was under the care of a shepherd; and, in proportion to the opinion it formed of the shepherd's watchfulness and sufficiency, such would be its confidence and peace. But if you could suppose the sheep had depravity likewise, then it would act as we often do; its reason would degenerate into vain reasoning, it would distrust the shepherd, and find fault with his management! It would burden itself with contrivances and cares; tremble under the thoughts of a hard winter, and never be easy unless it was surrounded with hay-stacks. It would study from morning until night where to hide itself out of the wolf's way. Poor, wise, silly sheep! if you had not a shepherd, all your schemes would be fruitless; when you had broken your heart with care, you are still as unable to preserve yourself as you were before—and if you have a good shepherd, they are all needless. Is it not sufficient that he cares for you?
Thus I could preach to such a sheep as I have supposed; and thus I try to preach to my own heart. But though I know I cannot, by any study of mine, add an inch to my stature—I am prone to puzzle myself about twenty things, which are equally out of my power, and equally unnecessary—if the Lord is my Shepherd.
November 4, 1778
My dear friend,
Mr. ___ told me on Saturday, that when he left, you and two of your children were ill of the infected sore throat; the next day he sent me word that you were better—but unable to preach. I have not had an opportunity of writing since; but you have been often on my mind. I hope you will be able to inform me soon, that the Lord has caused his rainbow to appear in this dark cloud, and that you and your wife found him to be a present help in time of trouble. The disorder, I know, is very alarming, and the event fatal in many instances. It would have been no less so to you, if it had received commission to remove you by a quick passage out of the reach of sin and sorrow. But I hope your work is not yet done; and, if not, I know the most dangerous disease cannot affect your life. Until the Lord's purposes by us and concerning us, are fulfilled—we are in perfect safety, though on a field of battle, or surrounded by the pestilence.
I trust you will be spared a while longer to your family, friends, and people. Upon the same grounds, if either of your children should die—I shall not so directly ascribe it to the illness, as to the will of God; for, if, upon the whole, it be the most for his glory, and best for you—they likewise shall recover. Should he appoint otherwise, it must be best, because he does it! And a glance of the light of his countenance, the influence of that grace which he has promised shall be afforded according to our day, will enable you to resign them. I do not say it will cost you no pain; but in defiance of the feelings of flesh and blood, you will, I trust, hold nothing so dear that you have received from him—as to be unwilling to return it into his hands when he is pleased to call for it. He will help you to remember, that you owe him all; that your children are not properly your own. He lent them, and every creature-comfort that you enjoy—and he has a right to reclaim them.
We do not like to have anything forced from us which is our own; but it would be dishonest in us to want to keep what we have only borrowed, if the rightful owner demands it. Further, the Lord is not only sovereign—but infinitely wise and good; and therefore it is our interest, as well as our duty, to acquiesce in his appointments. Should you be called to the trial, I wish you the same supports and the same submission as Mr. ___ had when he recently parted with his little one; and as you have the same God, and the same promises, I hope you will. Thus much upon a supposition that this should find you under God's rod. But I shall be glad to hear that the merciful Lord has healed both you and them, and that you are now feeling the meaning of Psalm 103:1-5.
My wife has been favored with a comfortable share of health since she was at Bedford; a little indisposed now and then—but slightly, and soon better. The many attacks she has had the last two years, have rendered such considerations as I have shared with you, familiar to my thoughts; sometimes I have felt the force of them, sometimes they all seem to fail me. For I can do nothing—or I can do all things; just as the Lord is—or is not, present with me. In my judgment, however, I am satisfied that I have at all times great cause for thankfulness, and at no time any just reason to complain, for I am a sinner.
Believe me to be, your very affectionate friend and servant.
November 18, 1778
I have observed, that most of the advantages which Satan is recorded to have gained against the Lord's servants have been after great and signal deliverances and favors; as in the cases of Noah, Lot, David, and Hezekiah. And I have found it so repeatedly in my own experience. How often, if my history were written by an inspired pen, might this proof of the depravity of my heart be inserted; "But John Newton did not render unto the Lord, according to all the benefits he received; for his heart was lifted up in pride." May it be far otherwise with you. May you come out of the furnace refined; and may it appear to yourself and all around you, that the Lord has done you good by your afflictions.
Thus vile are our natures—to be capable of making the Lord such perverse returns for his great mercies—as we often do! How would we blush if our earthly friends and benefactors could bring such charges of ingratitude against us, as God justly might. No; they could not bear a thousandth part; the dearest and kindest of them would have been weary of us, and cast us off long ago, had we behaved so towards them. We may well say, Who is a God like unto You, who pardons iniquity, and passes by the transgression of his people? It seems that the prophet selects the Lord's patience towards his own people, as the most astonishing of all his perfections, and that which eminently distinguishes him from all other beings.
And indeed, the sins of believers are attended with aggravations peculiar to themselves. The inhabitants of Sodom and Gomorrah were great sinners—but they did not sin against light, and love, and experience. Pharaoh was proud—but he had not been humbled at the foot of the cross. Ahab killed Naboth for his vineyard—but not altogether so basely as David killed Uriah for his wife. I see many profligate sinners around me—but the Lord has not blessed them with mercies, instructions, and pardons, as he has followed me. My outward life, through mercy, is not like their's; but, if the secrets of my heart were laid open—no one would not think me much better than the worst of them! Especially at some times and seasons, since I first tasted that he was gracious. And yet he has borne with me, and is pleased to say, that He will never leave me nor forsake me.
Well, when we have said all we can of the abounding of sin in us—grace still more abounds in Jesus. We cannot be so evil—as he is good. His power is a good match for our weakness. His riches are a good match for our poverty. His mercy is a good match for our misery. We are vile in ourselves—but we are complete in him. In ourselves we have cause to be abased—but in him we may rejoice. Blessed be God for Jesus Christ!
I am sincerely yours.
December 29, 1780
My dear friend,
I hope when this letter arrives, it will find you and yours comfortable, and your heart and mouth full of gratitude to him who crowns the year with his goodness. Well, these passing years each bear away a large portion of our remaining time—and the last year cannot be far off. Oh, that precious name—which can enable a sinner to think of his last year and his last hour without dismay! What do we owe to him who has disarmed death of its sting and horrors, and shown us the land of light and immortality beyond the grave!
May he be with us in the new year. Yes, he has promised he will, even unto death. Therefore, though we know not what a day may bring forth, we need fear no evil; for he knows all, and will provide accordingly, Oh, what a relief it is—to be enabled to cast every care and burden upon him who cares for us! Though the night should be dark, the storm loud, and the billows high—the infallible Pilot will steer our barks safely through.
This has been an important year with me, it has introduced me into an entire new scene of service; and it has likewise seemed a very short year. Oh, how the weeks have whirled round! It has not been without its trials; but comforts have much more abounded. With respect to my public work, I have been much favored with liberty, peace, and acceptance. I hope it has not been wholly a lost year; though, with respect to my part and share of it, I have reason to say, 'Enter not into judgment with your servant!'
Let us help each other with your prayers, that the little uncertain remainder of life may be filled up to the praise of our dear Lord; that we may be united to his will, conformed to his image, and devoted to his service. Thus we shall show forth his praise; that we aim to walk as he walked, and, by a sweet constraining sense of his love—are formed into an habitual imitation of his spirit and temper, in meekness, integrity, benevolence towards men; in humility, dependence, resignation, confidence, and gratitude towards him.
I pity such wise-headed Calvinists as you speak of. I am afraid there are no people more fully answer the character, and live in the spirit of the Pharisees of old, than some professed loud sticklers for free grace. They are wise in their own eyes; their notions, which the pride of their hearts tells them are so bright and clear, serve them for a righteousness, and they trust in themselves, and despise others. One modest, inquiring Arminian is worth a thousand such Calvinists in my esteem. You will do well to preach quietly in your own way, not minding what others say, while your own conscience testifies that you preach the truth. If you are traveling the right road, (to London for instance,) though fifty people should meet you and say that you are wrong; you, knowing you are right, need not mind them. But, alas! the spirit of self, which makes us unwilling to hear of contradiction, is not easily subdued.
March 29, 1781
It is certain I did not wish to leave this town; and likewise that if the Lord had left me to choose my situation, London would have been almost the last place I should have chosen. But, since it was the Lord's choice for me, I am reconciled and satisfied. He has in this respect given me another heart; for, now that I am fixed here, I seem to prefer it. My sphere of service is extremely enlarged, and my sphere of usefulness likewise. And, not being under any attachment to systems and parties, I am so far suited to my situation. My hearers are made up of all sorts, and my connections are of all sorts likewise; I mean of those who hold to the head, Jesus Christ. My inclination leads me chiefly to insist on those things in which all who are taught of God agree. And my endeavor is to persuade them to love one another, to bear with one another, to avoid disputes, and, if they must strive, to let their strife and emulation be, who shall most express the life of the Son of God in their temper and conduct.
I preach my own sentiments plainly—but peaceably, and directly oppose no one party. Accordingly, Churchmen and Dissenters, Calvinists and Arminians, Methodists and Moravians, now and then even Papists and Quakers, sit quietly to hear me. I can readily adopt No Popery for my motto; but Popery with me has a very extensive sense. I dislike it, whether it be on a throne, as at Rome; or upon a bench, or at a board, as sometimes in London. Whoever wants to confine me to follow his sentiments, whether as to doctrine or church order, is so far a Papist. Whoever encourages me to read the Scriptures, and to pray for the teaching of the Holy Spirit, and then will let me follow the light the Lord gives me, without being angry with me because I cannot, or will not, see with his eyes, nor wear his shoes—is a consistent Christian. The depravity of human nature, the Deity of the Savior, the influences of the Holy Spirit, a separation from the world, and a devotedness to God, these are principles which I deem fundamental. And, though I would love and serve all mankind, I can have no religious union or communion with those who deny them.
But whether a surplice or a band be the fittest distinction of a minister, whether he be best ordained by the laying on or the holding up of hands; whether water-baptism should be administered by a spoon-full or tub-full, or in a river, in any river, or in Jordan, (as Constantine thought,) are to me points of no great importance. I will go further—though a man does not accord with my views of election—yet if he gives me good evidence that he is effectually called of God—he is my brother! Though he seems afraid of the doctrine of final perseverance; yet, if grace enables him to persevere, he is my brother still. If he loves Jesus, I will love him, whatever hard name he may be called by, and whatever incidental mistakes I may think he holds. His differing from me will not always prove him to be wrong, except I am infallible myself.
I praise the Lord for preserving you from harm when you fell; I have had such falls from horses and received no hurt. When I dislocated my shoulder, I was at my own door, and in the greatest apparent safety. But we are only safe naturally or spiritually—while the Lord holds us up!