John Newton's Letters
Six letters to friends
To Mr. B.
May 1, 1780
My dear sir,
I blame myself, and ask your pardon, for not writing sooner. My sickness occasioned me so many visits from kind friends, that it added little to my usual time of leisure. As the news of your illness and your amendment came together, my sympathy was concern mixed with pleasure; and, having as much that seemed to require immediate attention as I could well find time for, I believe the hope of seeing you soon in town, made me the more easy to let your letter be by unanswered.
My arm, I believe, is nearly, if not quite, well, excepting a stiffness in it, from being so long confined in one position. I have it now as much out of the sling as in it. I have been able to wear my coat for a week past; the surgeon, however, thinks it prudent, though not necessary, to keep on my bandage for a few days longer. I believe the arm has advanced as happily, as speedily, and with as little pain, as possible.
My spirit has been peaceful; it is a small thing to say resigned, for I have seen it a dispensation full of mercy, and have not been permitted to feel a wish that it had been otherwise. Especially as, through the Lord's mercy, my wife felt no abiding ill effect from the great terror she was at first seized with, and which I feared might have brought a return of all her nervous complaints. But He is very gracious to us, and she is remarkably well.
I think you must have suffered more than I have done of late. Be assured that our faithful and good Shepherd affords us strength according to our day. He knows our frame, and will lay no more on us than He will enable us to bear. Yes, no more than He will cause to work for our good—He delights in our prosperity. Our comforts of every kind come free and undeserved. But, when we are afflicted, it is because there is a need-be for it. He does not afflict willingly. Our trials are either beneficial medicines, or honorable appointments, to put us in such circumstances as may best qualify us to show forth His praise. Usually he has both these ends in view.
We always stand in need of correction; and, when He enables us to suffer with patience, we are then happy witnesses to others of the truth of his promises, and the power of His grace in us. For nothing but the influence of God's Spirit can keep us, at such times, either from despondency or impatience. If left to ourselves in trouble, we shall either sink down into a sullen grief—or toss and rebel like a wild bull in a net!
Our different posts are, as you observe, by the Lord's wise appointment; and therefore must be best for us respectively. Mine is full of trials and difficulties! Indeed, I would soon make sad work of it—without His continual help; and would have reason to tremble every moment—if He did not maintain in me a humble confidence, that He will help me to the end.
He bids me, "fear not!" and at the same time He says, "Happy is the man who fears always." How to fear, and not to fear, at the same time, is, I believe, one branch of that secret of the Lord which none can understand but by the teaching of his Spirit.
When I think of my deceitful heart, of the treacherous world, of the malicious powers of darkness—what a cause of continual fear—I am on an enemy's ground, and cannot move a step but some snare is spread for my feet! But, when I think of the person, grace, power, care, and faithfulness of my Savior—why may I not say, "I will trust and not be afraid, for the Lord Almighty is with us, the God of Jacob is our refuge!"
I wish to be delivered from anxious and unbelieving fear, which weakens the hands, and disquiets the heart. I wish to increase in a humble jealousy and distrust of myself, and of everything about me; I am imperfect in both respects—but I hope my desire is to him who has promised to do all things for me.
Your desire for the mortification of self, is, I hope, mine likewise. Yet I would regulate it by the Word of God, so as not to expect more than is promised. I cannot properly expect a perfect exemption from conflict, because I believe it is the will of God I should have something to conflict with while I am here. To be sensible of the motions of sin in me, watchful against them, humbled for them, this I desire; and I believe the more I advance in grace, the more feelingly I shall say, "Behold, I am vile!"
But, desirable and precious as sanctification is, it is not, I trust it will never be, the ground of my hope. Nor, were I as sinless as an angel in glory, could I have a better ground of hope than I have at present. For my acceptance with God, I rely, (oh, that I indeed did,) simply, wholly, and solely, upon the obedience unto death of my Substitute. Jesus is my righteousness, my life, and my salvation. I am still a sinner; but he who knew no sin was made sin for me, that I might be the righteousness of God in him. This right to eternal life, by believing in the Son of God, is, in my view, equal in all who do so believe, and as perfect and sure when they first believe, as at the last moment of life; as perfect and sure in the thief on the cross, as in an apostle or martyr.
An infant is as truly alive as a grown person, though all his members and faculties are in a state of weakness. Therefore, with respect to my acceptance, I would put my graces as much out of the question as my actual sins. That Word suited me at first, and will suit me at the end, "To him who works not—but believes on him who justified the ungodly."
This morning (May-day) I preached for Mr. R ___ a sermon to young people; it reminded me a little of my annual new-year's sermon at ___; but, though I had some liberty, I feel a difference between speaking to one's own children, and those of another. They were my own proper charge, and the concern of their souls was laid upon me with a peculiar weight.
December 3, 1780
My dear sir,
The Lord is risen indeed. This is his day, when we are called to meet in his house, and (we in this branch of his family) to rejoice at his table. I meant to write yesterday—but could not. I trust it is not unsuitable to the design and privilege of this day, to give you a morning salutation in his name; and to say, "Come, magnify the Lord with me, and let us exalt his name together!"
If I am not mistaken, I have met you this morning already. Were you not at Gethsemane? Have you not been at Golgotha? Did I not see you at the tomb? This is our usual circuit, yours and mine, on these mornings, indeed every morning; for what other places are worth visiting? what other objects are worth seeing? Oh, this wonderful love! this blood of sovereign efficacy! the infallible antidote which kills sin, cures the sinner, gives sight to the blind, and life to the dead! How often have I known it turn sorrow into joy.
O you Savior and Sun of the soul, shine forth this morning, and cheer and gladden all our hearts! Shine upon me and mine, upon all whom I love, and on all who love you! Shine powerfully on my dear friends at ___, and let us know, that, though we are absent from each other—that you are equally near to us all.
I must go to breakfast, then dress, and away to court. Oh, for a sight of the King; and, oh, to hear him speak; for his voice is music, and his person is beauty! When he says, "Remember Me!" and the heart hears, what a train of incidents is at once revived!—from the manger to the cross, what he said, what he did, how he lived, how he loved, how he died; all is marvelous, affecting, humbling, transporting! I think I know what I would be, and what I would do—if I could. How near would I get, how low would I fall, how would I weep and sing in the same breath; and with what solemn earnestness would I recommend him to my fellow-sinners. But, alas, when I would do good, evil is present with me. Pray for me, and help me likewise to praise the Lord; for his mercies are new every morning, and every moment.
January 8, 1781
My dear sir,
I understand your views and feelings so well, that my letter will not have such an air of condolence as some people might expect on a like occasion. The first thing that strikes me respecting your personal concern in the late awful calamity, calls rather for congratulation. I see your beloved son preserved in the midst of general ruin; in his preservation I see the immediate, the wonderful hand of the Lord stretched out; I consider it as an answer to your prayers; I humbly hope it is a token of further good respecting him, and that the restraining word, 'Destroy it not, for a blessing is in it,' is applicable to his case. I find, likewise, that but one life was lost on your estate; which, to a mind like yours, I am sure is an alleviating circumstance. For the rest, I am sure you have lost nothing but what he, if he sees it good, can restore with a large increase; nothing that is directly necessary to your peace and comfort, even in the present life; nothing that is worth naming when compared to that which you love above all.
You may still, and I trust you will, find the Lord as near and as gracious; and the light of his countenance as sweet and as cheering as ever. You have an estate in a kingdom which cannot be shaken, out of the reach of earthquakes, hurricanes, and enemies. Indeed, you do not think you have lost anything, in strictness of speech, because you have been taught of God not to consider anything you possess as properly your own. You feel yourself the Lord's servant and steward, and whether he is pleased to enlarge or abridge the talents he has entrusted to your care; your chief solicitude in either case, is to be faithful to every intimation of his will. I believe, that, if the whole produce of Jamaica centered in your warehouses, the Lord would not permit you to forget that you are a stranger and pilgrim upon earth; and I believe, if you were not to receive a pepper-corn from it in future, he would still make you happy in himself.
I judge thus for what he has done for you already—he has given you a taste and a desire which nothing but himself can satisfy; he has shown you the secret of his holy religion; and, by leading you to fix your dependence upon him, has raised you to a noble state of independence with regard to creatures and contingencies, which are all in his hand, and can do us neither good nor harm but of his bidding.
Barbados and Martinico, it seems, have suffered still more. It is observable, that, during the whole summer, while we and the French had large fleets in those seas, the Lord would not permit them to do any considerable harm on either side. He was pleased to take the business into his own hands, and has shown us how easily he can strike such a blow as shall constrain even enemies to commiserate each other.
Mr. P ___ told me this morning, that it is supposed Jersey is taken. Thus the cloud grows darker. The flames of war are still spreading wider, and difficulties seem increasing on every side. The Lord's hand is lifted up; men will not see—thus far the prophecy is fulfilled. I tremble at what may further concern us in the following clause, "But they shall see!" If he undertakes to make this insensible nation know that he is the Lord, he will certainly accomplish his purpose. What it may cost us before we learn the lesson, who can say? But he will be mindful of those who fear him. That word, "It shall be well with the righteous!" cannot be broken. Hitherto the nation is in a deep sleep, and professors, I am afraid, are sadly slumbering. I can hardly find anywhere around me, (alas, that I cannot find in myself!) a spirit of humiliation and prayer, in any degree answerable to the state of the times. Oh, that the Lord would graciously revive us! We have, indeed, abundance of preaching and abundance of hearers; there are, doubtless, many individuals alive and in earnest; but the bulk of those who avow an attachment to the gospel are too little affected either for themselves or others.
My wife is pretty well; she has had but little complaint since P ___ has been ill, who likewise is now getting better. The child scalded her foot on new-year's day, through mercy but slightly—it was a gentle memorial to us how entirely dependent we are on his protection for safety in our smoothest hours. We are frail and feeble creatures, it is not needful to raise a hurricane to destroy us—were he only to withdraw his arm for a moment, some unthought-of evil would presently overwhelm us. It did not prevent her hearing my sermon to young people that night; but she has been confined to the house since. My health continues firm, and I am enabled to preach with apparent liberty, with what effect God only knows; but I am sometimes afraid there is more sound than power. I am well attended, and encouraged to hope that I do not labor wholly in vain.
May the grace of our good Shepherd be with us all. Let us praise him for what is past, and cheerfully trust him for what is to come. He knows where and what we are, and numbers the very hairs of our heads.
I am, most affectionately, your much obliged, etc.
March 13, 1781
My dear Miss M ___,
If wishes and purposes were always effectual, I would not have been so long three letters in debt to your house—I would answer all if I could—but perhaps it will take the leisure time of two or three mornings to answer one, and the first must be to you, because it is so seldom I have one from you to answer.
I saw Mr. ___ yesterday; he informed me of Mr. ___ 's death. Indeed, the suddenness of it struck me. The uncertainty of life has been a theme for declaration in all ages—but by how few is it practically laid to heart. Happy are those who know whom they have believed, and are waiting with desire his recall home to himself, that they may see him as he is. I am bound to pray that this bereaving stroke may be sanctified to his family.
But Mr. ___ told me something that affected me still more nearly—he says that Mrs. B ___ has been worse this past two weeks. I believe I am foolish and inconsistent—but I cannot help it. When the Lord has taken her to himself, I hope I shall say, "Your will be done!" I hope I shall follow her with my thoughts, and feel some satisfaction in thinking—Now she is out of the reach of pain and sorrow forever! Now she sees her Savior's face without a veil, and sings his praise without the interruption of a single sigh! Now she is a pillar of the heavenly temple, and shall go no more out. But at present, and while she is continued with us, I feel an anxiety and a desire, which I fear are wrong; I feel unwilling too lose such a friend; and I am sure I feel for those who are more nearly interested in her than myself.
Tell her, that my wife and I are not willing to think any but her own children can exceed us in love and sympathy; that we shall be thinking of her, speaking of her, and, I hope, praying for her daily, and for you all. Well, let the flesh say what it will, we know that all is well. We cannot love her so well as he who bought her with his blood. And, ah, how faint is our tenderness compared with his! He will not let his children feel one pain too many, or too sharp! He will enable them to glorify him even in the fire, and he will soon wipe away every tear.
I am glad to find that the Lord leads you further and deeper into the mysteries of his salvation. As a theory, it may be expressed in a few words—but to live a life of faith on the Son of God as our wisdom, righteousness, and strength, considered as a matter of experience, is what we usually attain to by slow degrees, and at best but imperfectly. We are always capable of further advances, and are frequently obliged to learn over again that which we thought we had learned already. My sentiments on this point seem tolerably clear—but in practice I fall sadly short, and feel that the principles of self and unbelief, are still deeply rooted in me. However, I trust I am in the school of the great Teacher, and I humbly hope he will carry on the work he has begun.
What I want, what I pray for—is a simple dependent spirit, to be willing to put myself entirely into his hands, to follow him without asking questions, to believe him without making objections, and to receive and expect everything in his own time, and in his way. This is the course we take when we consult an earthly physician; we consult him—but we do not pretend to direct him. Thus would I give myself up to my heavenly infallible Physician; but this is one branch of the good, which, when I would do, I find evil is present with me. But it is likewise one part of the sickness I groan under, and which He has in mercy undertaken to cure; and therefore, though I am very sick indeed, I trust I shall not die—but live and declare his wonderful works.
I long aimed to 'be something'. I now wish I was more heartily willing to 'be nothing'. A cipher, a round 0 is by itself a thing of no value, and a million of them set in a row amount to no more than a single cipher. But, place a significant figure before the row, and you may soon express a larger number than you can well conceive. Thus my wisdom is 0, my righteousness is 0, my strength is 0. But, put the wisdom, power, and grace of Jesus before them, let me be united to him, let his power rest upon my weakness, and be magnified in it, in this way I shall be something. Not in and of myself—but in and from Him.
Thus the apostle speaks of being filled with all the fullness of God. What an amazing expression! Thus, so far as we die to self, Christ lives in us. He is the light by which we see; He is the life by which we live; He is the strength by which we walk; and, by his immediate virtue and influence, all our works and fruits are produced. We have no sufficiency in ourselves—but we have all-sufficiency in Him! At one and the same time—we feel a conviction that we can do nothing—and an ability to do all things that fall within the line of our calling. When I am weak—then I am strong.
I am, your very affectionate and obliged servant.
April 12, 1781
My dear Miss M ___ ,
Accept my sincere, though rather tardy thanks for your letter of the 11th of February. I beg you likewise to accept my assurance, that, if time and opportunity were with me in any proportion to my inclination, your letters would be very speedily answered.
I knew you would be a favorable reader of Cardiphonia. Your kind partiality to the writer would dispose you to put the best construction on what you read; and your attachment to the design and principal subject of the letters, would make them welcome to you. We can put up with smaller faults, when a person is disposed to praise those who we dearly love. I trust my pen is chiefly devoted to the praise of Jesus your beloved, and so far as I succeed, I am sure what I write will be acceptable to you.
How can I not praise Him—since He has snatched me as a brand from the burning, and quenched the fire of my sins in His own blood! How can I not praise Him—since He has given me a glance of His excellency? If any do not love Him—it is surely because they do not know Him. To see Him but once with the eye of the soul—is to be convinced that He is the chief among ten thousand, and altogether lovely! His person is glory, His name is love, His work from first to last is grace. The moment the sinner is enabled to behold Him—he is seized with greater admiration than the queen of Sheba felt when brought into the presence of Solomon! Those alone are happy, who, as children and servants in His family—stand continually before Him, to wait upon Him, admire Him, and hear His wisdom.
But, all—how faint are my conceptions; how little do I know of him; and how little of that little which I deem my knowledge, is realized to my heart! What trifles are sufficient to hide him from my view, and to make me almost forget that he is nearer to me than any object that strikes my sense? Is it so with you? Let us at least rejoice in prospect of the promised hour, when veils, and clouds, and walls shall be removed, and we shall see him as he is; so see him, as to have all our desires satisfied in him, and fixed upon him, and will be completely transformed into his image.
My mind frequently anticipates the pleasure I propose in a visit to B___, but it is not likely to take place as soon as I wished. I had hoped to leave London soon soon—but circumstances are likely to forbid it. My times are in the Lord's hand, and, if he sees it best for me to be gratified, he will make it practicable, and his providence will likewise determine the fittest season. I wish not to be impatient—but to refer myself to him. This is certain, when he opens the door, and says, 'Go!' I shall set off with alacrity, for I long to walk upon that lawn, and to sit in that chair, and to converse with those dear friends who have deservedly so much of my heart.
Thank Miss M ___ for her letter. We rejoice to hear that your dear mamma is better. I believe I think of her daily, and often in the day; and this not only for the love I bear her—but for my own relief. My wife is often ill, sufficiently so to awaken my feelings for her. But, when I reflect how the power, grace, and faithfulness of our Lord and Savior, support under much severer trials, it disposes me in some measure to submission, thankfulness, and confidence. He can make those trials that appear to be heaviest, tolerable.
I shall certainly write before I come, when I can fix the time, and then, except something extraordinary interferes to require it, I shall not easily alter my plan; for, if we cannot be with convenience in the same house, it will be worth something to be in the same town, and just to look at Mrs. B. a few minutes occasionally, if she can bear to receive us, and if she can bear no more. For I believe another interview with her, before the Lord sends his chariot and angels to remove her from this land of sorrow—will be the principal and most interesting object of our journey. Our other friends, if we are spared, we may hope to see at some future time. I consider her as in the situation of the apostle when he wrote 2 Timothy 4:6-7 "For I am already being poured out like a drink offering, and the time has come for my departure. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith."
I am preparing materials for two more volumes of Cardiphonia. My present thought is, to have them ready for publication at a time when my pen will no longer be able to move. Whether any circumstances may send them abroad sooner, I know not; but, at my time of life, I ought to consider that period as not likely to be at a very great distance. I do not wish to be impatient for its arrival; but I do wish my willingness to live longer here, was more simply and solely from a desire of promoting my Lord's service, and the edification of his children—I hope this is not out of my mind—but I am afraid it is shamefully debased by an undue attachment to earthly things, and a lack of spirituality.
June 8, 1780
My dear madam,
I sympathize with my fiends at ___, under the afflictive dispensations with which the Lord has been pleased to visit the town. He has a merciful design—even when he afflicts, and I hope the rod will be sanctified to those who were too negligent under the public means of grace. I am not sorry for your friend's death, as you say she died in the Lord, for she had but little prospect of temporal comfort. Her death affected me more on account of her husband and family, to whom I hoped she would have been a comfort and a blessing. But we are sure the Lord does all things wisely and well. The moment in which he calls his people home—is precisely the best and fittest season. Let us pray (and we shall not pray in vain) for strength proportioned to our day, then we may have only to wait with patience, as our time likewise will shortly come. The bright, important hour of dismissing from this state of trial is already upon the wing towards us, and every heartbeat brings it nearer. Then every wound will be healed, and every desirable desire be fully satisfied.
My wife has some degree of the head-ache today—but her complaints of that kind are neither so frequent nor so violent as when at His mercies to us are great, and renewed every morning.
I have still a quarter of an hour for you; but now, when opportunity presents, a subject is not at hand, and I have no time to ruminate. I will tell you a piece of old news. "The Lord God is a sun and shield," and both in one. His light is a defense; his protection is cheering. He is a shield so long, and so broad, as to intercept and receive every arrow with which the quiver of divine justice was stored, and which would have otherwise transfixed your heart and mine. He is a shield so strong, that nothing now can pierce it, and so appropriately placed that no evil can reach us, except it first makes its way through our shield. And what a sun is this shield! When it breaks forth, it changes winter into summer, and midnight into day, in an instant. He is a sun, whose beams can not only scatter clouds—but the walls which sin and Satan are aiming to build in order to hide it from our view.
Public affairs begin to look more pleasing, just when they were most desperate. Affairs in America are in a more favorable train. A peace with Spain is supposed. I would hope for some halcyon days after the storm—but for the awful insensibility which reigns at home. But, if the Lord revives his people—we may hope he will hear their prayers.
This is a changeable world. The ins and the outs, being fastened upon the same rolling wheel, have each their turn to be uppermost. Really, one is tempted to smile and constrained to weep in the same breath. The Lord bless you and keep you.
I am most affectionately yours.