John Newton's Letters
Three letters to an aged friend
May 29, 1784
My dear madam,
We have heard that you have been sick, and I write in hopes of obtaining an answer, to inform me that you have experienced the help and power of the great Physician, and that you are now better. I know indeed before-hand, that, whether sick or well—you are just as you should be; and that what the Lord chooses for you—is always the best. But the gospel, though calculated to form us (rebellious as we are by nature) to a cheerful acquiescence in his will, and to regulate our sensibility—is not designed to suppress it. The same love which rejoices in the comforts of others, will likewise sympathize with them in affliction.
We are directed to pray for one another in this view, that, if it is the Lord's pleasure to prolong life and to restore health, our sense of the mercy may be heightened by the consideration that it is bestowed in answer to prayer. You do not properly need my prayers and wishes, you are safe in the hands of infinite wisdom and love; and, if you were in a wilderness remote from all society, you could not be sick or afflicted an hour longer than the Lord saw necessary to answer some gracious purpose in your favor. But this is his institution, that as members of the same body, we should maintain a fellowship and sympathy, helping together by prayer, that, so for the gift bestowed by means of many people, thanks may be given by many on our account.
It pleases me to think, that, though I am surrounded with noise, smoke, and dust here in London—that you my friend, enjoy the beautiful scenes of rural life. Oh, how I long sometimes to spend a day or two among woods, and lawns, and brooks, and hedge-rows, to hear the birds sing in the bushes, and to wander among the sheep and lambs, or to stand under the shadow of an old oak, upon a hill-top! Thus I lived when at Olney—how different is London! But, hush, Olney was the place once, but London is the place now. Hither the Lord brought me, and here he is pleased to support me, and in some measure, I trust, to own my ministry. I am satisfied. I hope I can make a good shift without your woods, and bushes, and pastures. What is the prospect from the finest hill in Essex, compared with the prospect I have from our London pulpit? What is the singing of birds, compared with the singing our hymn after sermon on a Sunday evening? What the bleating of lambs, compared with the lisping of inquiring souls, who are seeking after Jesus? Welcome noise, and dust, and smoke—just so that we may but be favored with his gracious presence in our hearts, houses, and ordinances. This will make all situations nearly alike, if we see the Lord's hand placing us in it, are enabled to do his will, and to set him before us, as our Lord and out Beloved.
You will please to present my good wishes to Mrs. B ___ , and likewise Miss D ___ , if she is with her. May He, in whose presence is life, whose loving-kindness is better than life, be with you all. Though we do not see each other, we are not far asunder. The throne of grace is a center, where thousands daily meet in spirit, and have real, though secret, communion with each other. They eat of one bread, walk by one rule; they have one Father and one home. There they will shortly meet, to part no more. They will shine, each one like the sun. They will form a glorious constellation, millions of suns shining together in their Lord's kingdom.
How pleased is Satan when he can prevail to set those at variance, who are in so many respects united! but, such is his subtlety, and such their weakness which he practices upon, that he has often prevailed thus—sometimes he shuts them up so close within the paper walls of a denomination, that they cannot see an inch beyond the bounds of their own party. Sometimes he holds his magical looking-glass before their eyes; and, when they thus view each other through the medium of prejudice, so that they look upon other true Christians with disgust! Here and there one escapes this general delusion—these wonder at the bustle around them, and endeavor to persuade the rest to peace and love as befits brethren, and perhaps are requited with the reproaches of both sides, as neutrals, time-servers, and cowards. But these peace-makers are blessed, approved of God, and beloved by all men who are in possession of their spiritual senses.
Through mercy, my dear madam, neither you nor I are to be scared by such words as Methodist or Calvinist. We see there is both wheat and chaff among all parties, and that they who love the Lord Jesus Christ, are a people scattered abroad at this time, as they were in the apostles' days, 1 Peter 1:1. We are much as usual. Accept our cordial love. Shall I beg you to pray for me and mine? I know you will.
Believe me to be, your affectionate and obliged.
November 27, 1784
My dear madam,
What shall I say to the news which Mr. C ___ , (judging rightly of our affection for you,) was so kind as to bring me this morning? May I not say, without sinning, that I am sorry, very sorry? If I said otherwise I would be a hypocrite. If my wife or I could have prevented it, you would not have fallen. Our gracious Lord who condescended to take our nature upon him, took it with all the feelings belonging to it which are not sinful. He was truly a man, and sympathized like a man with the afflictions of his friends. Instead of sharply rebuking Mary and Martha for their tears when their brother died, he kindly wept with them, though he had determined to raise him again from the dead. I allow myself, therefore, to be sorry for your fall and hurt, and to feel a solicitude until I hear further of you. Perhaps Mrs. B ___ may favor me with a line of information, if, as I apprehend, you may not be able to write yourself.
But now, to use the apostle's expression, "I have spoken to you as a man," let me look at you in another point of view. The Lord, who by his grace has enabled you to devote and entrust yourself to him, has engaged, by his promise, to take care of you, and to keep you in all your ways. Under his protection you have been safe a number of years—and did he fail you at last? Far from it! His eye was as directly upon you, his arm as certainly with you—when you fell, as at any other moment of your life! And you would no more have fallen, than the planets can fall from their orbits, without his permission and appointment. This event must work for your good, because he has promised that all things shall. If I could assign no other reason for those dispensations to his children, which, upon the first impression, are apt to startle us, this ought to be a sufficient reason, not only to silence, but to satisfy us—that it is the Lord. For, can infinite wisdom mistake? Or infinite goodness do anything that is unkind?
But I see other reasons why, in the present state of things, all things should appear as happening alike to all; and that his own people, who are freed from guilt and condemnation, and to whom he manifests himself as he does not unto the world, should not be therefore exempted from a share in any of the outward afflictions to which sin has rendered mankind liable. I can see many inconveniences which would follow, if those who love the Lord were distinguished from the world around them, by a visible mark in their foreheads. But, if his providence universally preserved them from the calamities which others feel, so that it should be notorious and generally known that their persons were always safe, and that no true believer ever suffered by falls, fires, broken bones, and the like; such an exemption, in this calamitous state, would distinguish and point them out, almost as plainly as if they were surrounded with a glory, as the apostles are sometimes represented in popish pictures. Besides, how would it be known that the Lord whom they serve can make them cheerful and comfortable, under those trials and sufferings which the flesh naturally shrinks at—unless they were now and then put into such circumstances.
I trust, madam, you are of the same mind with a good woman I heard of about thirty years ago. She was very aged, and very poor. One day, in attempting to cross the street, a cart threw her down, and she broke her thigh-bone. She was taken into a house, and many people were soon about her, expressing their concern; but she said, "I thank you for your pity; but all is very well, and I hope I have not one bone in my body but is willing to be broken—if such is the Lord's will." What may be the outcome of this fall as to yourself, I know not. It is a greater thing to heal a broken heart—than a broken bone. So long as I hear that you are alive, I shall probably feel a wish that you may live a little longer. I shall therefore commend you to him to whom belong the issues from death, being assured that you are immortal until the appointed number of your sufferings and services shall be completed! But, if your fall should prove a means of hastening your removal to the church triumphant, then, however I and your many friends may regret our own loss, we ought to rejoice in your gain. As this may possibly be the event, though I am willing to hope otherwise, I take a sort of leave of you, begging that, while you do remain on this side Jordan, you will pray for me and mine, that we may have grace to follow you while we live, and to follow you when we die—to that heavenly home, where the wicked cease from troubling, and where the weary are at rest. Oh, madam, what a prospect awaits you!
Oh, what has Jesus bought for me,
Before my ravished eyes;
Rivers of life divine I see,
And trees of paradise!
I see a world of spirits bright,
Who taste the pleasures there!
They all are robed in spotless white,
And conquering palms they bear!
Ah, that robe, that crown, those songs! Surely it is unspeakably better—to depart and to be with Jesus! If he calls you, I must and will consent to let you go; but I shall miss you. If he is pleased to raise you up, I shall rejoice to see you again. My wife joins me in best love to you.
I am, dear madam, your very affectionate and obliged servant.
February 25, 1785
My dear madam,
I cannot think that you will continue a great while in this poor world, or that I can reasonably expect to see you again. The comfort is, that, though Christian friendship be very pleasing, and Christian fellowship be very profitable when rightly managed—yet we are not necessary to each other. We are absolutely dependent upon the Lord—but not necessarily dependent upon any creatures. They smile upon us when he bids them, they do us good when he sends them—but they cannot benefit us without him. On the other hand, he can well supply their absence or inability, and do everything for as without them. Though I seldom saw you when you were in London—yet it gave me pleasure to think I might expect to see you now and then. When you are gone to heaven, this pleasure will fail—I shall see you no more here; I shall miss you; but in a little while I hope we shall meet again there.
But where is heaven? Is it at an immense distance beyond the fixed stars? Have our ideas of space anything to do with it? Is not heaven often upon earth in proportion as the presence of God is felt? Was not the apostle caught up there, though he knew not whether he was in the body or not, and consequently was not sure that he had changed his place? Is there not joy in heaven over one sinner that repents? Perhaps the redeemed of the Lord, as well as his angels, are nearer to us than we are aware. Perhaps they see us, though we see not them. Perhaps nothing but this veil of flesh and blood prevents us from seeing them likewise. However, on our part, the barrier is impenetrable! Oh, the wonders that will break in upon our mind, when death shall open this barrier to us!
What shall we then see? It is sufficient for us at present, to know that we shall see Jesus! We shall see him as he is—and we shall be like him! The circumstances of the heavenly state, if I may so speak, are hidden from us; but this, which constitutes the essence of it, we can form some faint apprehension of, from our present experience. All that deserves the name of happiness here, consists of such conceptions of Jesus, and such measures of conformity to him, as are attainable while in a mortal and defiled nature. But we see him only as in a looking-glass, darkly and in part—but, when that which is perfect arrives, that which is in part shall be done away. We shall be all eye, all ear, all activity, in the communications of his love, and in the celebration of his praise.
Here on earth, we are almost upon a level with worms; there we shall rise to an equality with angels. In some respects our privilege will be superior to theirs. Angels cannot sing the song of the redeemed, nor claim so near a relation to Him who sits upon the throne. Are not these things worth dying for? I congratulate you, madam, you have almost finished your course; and he who has enabled you to keep the faith, and to fight the good fight, will shortly give you the conqueror's crown, prepared for you, and for all who love his appearing. They are many crowns, and yet one. The blessings of the other world are not like the wealth of this world, which is diminished in proportion to the numbers among whom it is divided. There each one shall possess the whole; as here we enjoy the light of the sun, though millions enjoy it with us, as fully as we could if there were none upon earth but ourselves to see it.
You will likewise soon be removed from all evil. You are going where pain, and sickness, and sorrow, and temptation and sin, have no place. Where your eyes and your heart will no longer grieved with the wickedness of the world, where no one will ask you with a taunt, "What is your beloved more than another beloved?" In a word, where death shall be swallowed up in life, and where the miserable effects of our fall from God, shall be no more perceived, than we can perceive a stone that is sunk in the midst of the mighty ocean. I do not ask nor expect you to write an answer. I see you are too weak, to wish to impose such a task upon you. I only beg, that, while you stay below, you will remember me and mine in prayer. My wife sends her affectionate remembrance with mine.
Believe me to be, your sincere friend, and obliged servant.