John Newton's Letters
Four letters to a young lady
March 3, 1772
Your obliging request to hear from me has not been forgotten; and, if my leisure time were equal to my inclination, I would write very often.
And now, what shall I say? May the Lord direct me to send you a profitable word. It rejoices my heart to think, that at a time of life when you might have been plunging into the vanities of the world—you are seeking Jesus. The Lord, who appointed the hour of your birth, and the bounds of your habitation, was pleased in his good providence to withdraw you early from the giddy circle of vanity in which you might have lived, and to favor you with the advantages of godly example, instruction, and ordinances. You live at a distance from those ensnaring temptations by which the minds of young people are blinded and stupefied. Yet this alone would not have secured you. His providence has been subservient to his grace; otherwise, by this time, you would have been weary and impatient of restraint; you would have accounted the means of grace burdensome, and your home a prison! The evil of the heart is too deeply rooted to be overcome by anything less than the power of God. Whatever your papa and mamma, or the ministers of the gospel, could have told you concerning your state as a lost sinner, and your need of a Savior—you would not have believed them—unless the Lord himself had borne witness in your heart to his own truths.
You are now seeking him—yet, if he had not found you at first, you would never have sought him at all. This I mention for your encouragement, as a good reason why you may be assured that you shall not seek him in vain. I take it for granted, that, though you are but a young soldier, you have already met with conflicts. There is a subtle enemy who labors to distress, hinder, and wound all who desire to serve the Lord. If you could give up the way of holiness, and be content to make the world your portion—you would meet with no disturbance from him. If you were asleep—he would make no noise to awaken you. Those who are content with his service and wages—he manages with so much skill, that, though he leads them captives at his will, though he dwells and works in their hearts, though all the faculties of the mind and members of their body are under his influence—yet they are not aware of him at all! Yes, when many in this state pretend to dispute his very existence—he does not attempt to undeceive them!
Thus, while the strong one armed keeps his house—his goods are in peace. But, when the stronger than he, the gracious Redeemer, comes to deliver his prey out of the hand of the mighty, and to release a soul from Satan's captivity, then the enemy begins to show himself as he really is! And therefore I suppose by this time you can tell in a measure, from your own experience, why he is called in the Scripture— an accuser, an adversary, a serpent, a roaring lion; and what is meant by his wiles, devices, and fiery darts! He knows how to aggravate sin, to strengthen unbelief, to raise objections against the truth of the gospel, or to work upon the imagination, and to fill us with dark, uncomfortable, wild, or wicked thoughts.
But, if he assaults you in any of these ways, you need not fear him; for he is a conquered and a chained enemy! Jesus has conquered him, he has broken his power, and taken away his dominion, so far as concerns those who flee for refuge to the hope of the gospel. And Jesus holds him with an breakable chain, and sets limits to his rage and malice, beyond which he cannot pass! Nor would he be permitted to open his mouth against the peace of his people—but that the Lord intends (for his greater confusion) to make him an unwilling instrument of promoting their good. By these exercises they learn to prize his free salvation, and to depend upon his grace alone; for they find they are not able to stand against their enemy by their own strength. Therefore, fear him not! He who delivered Daniel from the lions—will deliver you, and make you more than a conqueror by faith in his name, and at last bruise Satan under your feet. "Finally, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. Put on the full armor of God so that you can take your stand against the devil's schemes." Ephesians 6:10-11
I wonder how my thoughts have turned upon this subject. I am sure I did not intend it when I sat down to write; and, if I had searched for one, I certainly would not have chosen this. If it should prove a word in season, I shall be glad. Perhaps it may; for, though I know not the present state of your mind, it is known to the Lord, and I began my letter with a desire that he would direct me what to send you. However, if it does not so directly suit you now, it may perhaps hereafter, and in the meantime you may lend it to your mamma. She knows what temptations mean.
Go on, my dear Miss, and may the Lord be with you. Give yourself to him every day, and many times a day; remember how many claims he has to you; especially remember this one, that he bought you with his own blood. He died—that you might live. May the name of Jesus be written upon the tablet of your heart, and be as a seal upon your arm; that all your desires and all your actions may be regulated by his Word, directed to his glory, and animated by a living principle of grace, derived from him who is the fountain of grace. Two things alone are worth a serious thought—his presence and his image—the one to make you comfortable in yourself, the other that you may shine to his praise as a light in the world. These blessings, and the increase of them, are gifts which he bestows without money and without price. Yet it is our part to wait patiently upon him for them, by prayer, by reading his good Word, and frequenting his ordinances. Thus you shall know—if you follow on to know the Lord.
I am your affectionate friend.
November 13, 1772
My dear Miss W ___ .
So you received my last letter on your birthday! I hope, that, since your birthday, you have been enabled to wait steadfastly and patiently upon the Lord, and have seen much of his goodness. I am glad you complain of evil thoughts, fears and temptations; for, though these things are not joyous but grievous, they always accompany a work of grace—and, if you were wholly unacquainted with them, you would have reason to suspect you were not in the right way. The way to the kingdom is a beaten path; you are, I hope, following the footsteps of the flock. If you could ask any of the happy souls now in glory, how they came there—they would all tell you, that they were led there through many tribulations. For, though they did not all suffer greatly by persecution, poverty, and worldly troubles—yet they all had much to suffer from indwelling sin, unbelief, and Satan.
As to evil thoughts, they as unavoidably arise from an evil nature—as steam from a boiling tea-kettle. Every cause will have its effect, and a sinful nature will have sinful effects. You can no more keep such thoughts out of your mind—than you can stop the course of the clouds. But, if the Lord had not taught you—you would not have been sensible of them, nor concerned about them. This is a token for good. By nature your thoughts would have been only evil, and that continually. But you find something within you that makes you dislike these thoughts; makes you ashamed of them, makes you strive and pray against them. These evil thoughts convince you, that, though you do not willfully speak or do evil—yet upon the account of your evil thoughts alone—you are a sinner, and stand in need of such great forgiveness; that if there were not a precious, compassionate, and mighty Savior, you could have no hope.
Now, this something that reveals and resists your evil thoughts—what can it be? It cannot be human nature; for we naturally have vain imaginations. It is the grace of God! The Lord has made you sensible of your disease—that you might love and prize the great Physician. The knowledge of his love shall make you hate these thoughts; and faith in his blood shall deliver you from the guilt of them; yet you will be pestered with them more or less while you live in this world, for sin is wrought into our bodies, and our souls must be freed from our bodies—before we shall be fully freed from the evils under which we mourn!
Your other complaint of temptations is likewise a good one. If you were to visit some young ladies who know no other end of living—but to dress and dance and socialize; and if you were to ask them if they are troubled with Satan's temptations—they would think that you were out of your wits! Poor things! They know no better! They are blinded by the god of this world; they go on quietly in the way of sin and vanity, careless of their souls, and mindless of eternity! While they continue in this course, you may be sure Satan will not disturb them! They are asleep, and it would not be for his interest to do anything that might awaken them out of their pleasant dream!
And if you yourself were thus asleep, Satan would be content that you should sleep on—and take your rest. But, when he sees anyone awakened out of this deadly sleep, he probably tries first to lull them asleep again; and, if the Lord prevents that by his mercy, then Satan alters his measures, and roars like a lion which has lost his prey. Be thankful, my dear, that he treats you as his enemy; for miserable is the state of those to whom he behaves as a friend. And always remember that he is a chained enemy! He may terrify—but he cannot devour those who have fled for refuge to Jesus. And the Lord shall over-rule all for good. "Finally, be strong in the Lord and in His mighty power. Put on the full armor of God, so that you will be able to stand firm against all strategies and tricks of the Devil!" Ephesians 6:10-11
The fear you express on account of the falls of some professors whom you thought better than yourself, will, I hope, be a means, by the Lord's blessing—of keeping you from falling as they have done. It is said, Do not be high-minded—but fear; and again, Blessed is the man that fears always. If you were coming to to visit me, (I would be glad if you were,) and you heard before you set out, that many had been robbed, and that the robbers were still upon the road, I would not blame you for being afraid. But, if that fear led you to procure a guard sufficient to protect you, then you might travel with safety, notwithstanding that others had been robbed. So, if the falls of professors, and a sense of your own danger, make you cry earnestly that God would keep you; he will hear and answer your prayer, and you shall stand safe supported by his power, though many fall around you. They fell because they did not look to him. You cannot be too jealous of your own heart, or too cautious of the snares you are exposed to—but you have no cause to distrust the Lord; he is able and faithful to keep those from falling, who, sensible of their own weakness, cry daily to him, "Hold me up—and I shall be safe!" Continue in prayer, that you may be preserved humble and abased in your own eyes, and then I am sure you will not fall.
I am sincerely, your affectionate friend and servant.
March 23, 1773
My dear Miss,
In your last letter, you intimated some expectation of receiving a letter from me on or about your birthday, "So she shall," thought I, "if we live so long;" and accordingly I made a memorandum in my head, to write to Miss W ___ the twenty-third of March, that she may have it on the twenty-fourth, which is her birthday. Just now I sat down to comply with this order; but how did I stare, when, taking up your letter, I found your birth-day was not the twenty-fourth—but the fourth. So all my punctuality is thrown away, and all the pretty things I might have tried to say upon the subject of a birthday are almost three weeks out of season. Well, I must make the best of it, and congratulate you, not that you are exactly so many years old, (I know not how many,) but so many years and twenty days.
If I thought you did not seek, and in a measure know, the Lord's salvation, I would not congratulate you at all. I have often been struck with the absurdity of worldly people making their birthday a season of joy, unless in the year when they come to age, and are released from the restraints of parents, tutors, and guardians, and at liberty to act just as self dictates. In other respects, should they rejoice every year on a certain day, that they have a year less to live where their hearts and their treasures are fixed, and are a year nearer to their eternity which they cannot bear to think of. Ah, how many are jovial on their birthday, who will at length see cause to wish they had never been born! But you have reason to bless God for your birth, since he has been pleased to make you a partaker of a new and heavenly birth, and to admit you into the number of his children. He sent you into the world at such a time, and under such circumstances, as that, in his appointed hour, you might hear and receive the gospel of his grace.
Were it possible you could be informed of the history of all who were born into the world, the same year or the same day with yourself, I mean especially of your own gender, it would give you an affecting view of the mercies by which the Lord has distinguished you from thousands. Many of them are already in eternity, and perhaps the greater part of these taken away before they knew why they came into the world. Could you visit those of them who are still living, you would find some crippled, deformed, blind, or deaf; some defective in their faculties, some languishing under incurable diseases, some struggling under poverty, destitute of friends or food; some, having been accustomed to evil examples from their infancy, and not being favored with the means of instruction, are, though young in years, already grown old in sin. Perhaps you would hardly find one in the whole number so remarkably favored in all respects as yourself. When you had finished your survey, would not your heart adopt and feel the sentiment in the hymn?—
Are these your favors, day by day,
To me above the rest?
Then let me love you more than they,
And try to serve you best.
But the chief mercy of all is, that the Lord has drawn you to seek his face, and to place your happiness in his favor; without this, the possession of all that the earth can afford would be of little worth. May he encourage and animate you to press forward to the prize of your high calling. May his good Spirit teach, warn, and comfort you, and keep you ever mindful that there is no safety but in a continual dependence upon him. Satan is a watchful enemy; he studies our situation and disposition, that he may spread snares for us to the greatest advantage, and is not only to be dreaded when he fights directly against our faith and peace as a roaring lion—but is often as near and as dangerous when we are ready to think him at a distance. He sometimes lays his schemes with little noise, and prevails before he is perceived. But those who humbly look unto the Lord to keep them, shall be preserved.
I hope you will be constant in all the means of grace, especially in secret prayer, and a close attention to the Word of God; if these are neglected, or a formal spirit indulged in them, public ordinances may be frequented, and yet the soul grow lean and dry, and get little benefit from them. But, if we are aware of our weakness and danger, and look continually to the Lord to hold us up that we may he safe—he will keep our feet out of the net.
There are too many professors who live below their privileges; they have everything of religion but its power and its comforts. But it is your happiness to be acquainted with a favored few, who apply themselves in good earnest, and follow the Lord with their whole heart, like Caleb of old. I trust the Lord will give you to be like-minded; to walk as a stranger and pilgrim here on earth, and to have your heart and affections in heaven, where Jesus is; then you may well rejoice in every returning birthday, and say, Now is full salvation nearer than when I first believed.
Believe me to be your affectionate friend.
November 9, 1773
My dear Miss,
I am at a loss how to write, not having a letter to answer. It is true, your mamma gave me some hint of a subject—but I have nothing very interesting to offer upon that head at present. My best wishes and prayers attend you, that the Lord may guide, shine upon, and bless you in every relation and circumstance of life that may be before you.
I have reason to speak well of the marriage state; and it always gives me pleasure when, in the way of my office, I am called to tie the marriage knot, when I have reason to believe the prospect is warranted by prudence, the parties united by affection, and that they come together in the fear and in the name of the Lord. I think I may take it for granted, from your mamma's letter, that these requisites concur in your concern, and therefore I heartily bid you godspeed. And I congratulate your lover, whoever he be, believing that, if the Lord bestows you upon him, and gives him a heart to value you aright—that you will prove a treasure and a blessing to him.
However, let me remind you upon this occasion, that vanity is deeply engraved upon all below the skies, and that the more happy we are in creature comforts, so much the more are we exposed to snares and crosses. Oh, how happy is it to know the Lord, the Fountain of living waters! for every other acquisition without him will prove a broken cistern. But, as he has taught your heart to choose and rest in himself supremely as your portion, you have a warrant from his gracious promises to hope, that he will bless you in all your connections and concerns.
In the mean time, I trust you are praying to the Lord to guard and strengthen you against the new stratagems and devices which Satan, so far as he is permitted, will plot against your peace and steadfastness, when you shall enter upon a new and untried situation. Pray that you may be deeply impressed with the uncertainty of this state of things, and the emptiness of all creature good—in comparison to the light of God's countenance, which is better than life. How different, for the most part, is the appearance between a wedding-day and a dying-day; yet, however long the interval may be between them, the latter must come, and then the space, which in prospect might seem long, will affect us no more than the remembrance of a morning dream. Could I have been told when I married, that my wife and I should live together more than twenty-three years; that our affection should increase as we went on; that the Lord would favor us with a path remarkably smooth, and exempt us from nine trials out of ten which are ordinarily found in wedded life; how would my poor vain heart have been elated! Well, all this, and more has happened. For almost twenty-four years past, I have never seen a single day or hour in which I wished to change my situation with any person upon earth; and we are still spared to each other. But now, shall I tell you what I see when I take a review of past times? Forgetful as I am, I can recollect innumerable instances of the Lord's mercy. We set out in life like two strangers who had a wilderness before them, and knew not a single step of the way; but, oh, how wonderfully has He led us! I can recount likewise innumerable evils, snares, sins, trials, and inquietudes, which, if put together, would make a large abatement of what, if viewed in the lump, might seem a uniform course of happiness and satisfaction. And, as to all the rest, it is gone beyond recall; the shadows of the evening are beginning to advance over us, and how miserable would we now be, if our hope was only in this life! May the Lord write upon your heart, while you are young—a conviction, that communion with him, and grace to glorify him and serve him in the world—are the only things which make life, in its best estate, valuable or desirable.
Pray for me, and believe me to be, sincerely yours.