John Newton's Letters
Separated from the ungodly world
May 24, 1774
What a mercy it is, to be separated in spirit, conversation, and
interest—from the ungodly world! Where all are alike by nature—but grace
makes a happy and unspeakable difference! Believers were once under the same
influence of that evil spirit who still works in the children of
disobedience; each pursuing different paths—but all equally remote from
truth and peace; some hatching cockatrice eggs, others weaving spiders'
webs. These two general heads, of evil and vanity, include all
the schemes, aims, and achievements of which man is capable—until God is
pleased to visit the heart with his grace.
The busy part of mankind are employed in multiplying
evils and miseries. The more retired, speculative, and curious, are amusing
themselves with what will hereafter appear as unsubstantial, unstable, and
useless, as a cobweb! Death will soon sweep away all which the philosophers,
the scientists, the mathematicians, the antiquarians, and other learned
triflers, are now weaving with so much self-applauded address. Nor will
the fine-spun dresses, in which the moralist and the self-righteous clothe
themselves, be of more advantage to them, either for ornament or defense,
than the web of a spider.
It is given only to a few, to know their present state
and future destination. These build upon the immovable Rock of ages
for eternity. These are trees springing from a living root, and bear the
fruits of righteousness, which are by Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise
of God. These alone are awake, while the rest of the world are in a deep
sleep, indulging in vain dreams; from which likewise they will shortly
awake. But, O with what consternation, when they shall find themselves
irrecoverably divorced from all their delusive attachments, and
compelled to appear before that God to whom they have lived strangers, and
to whom they must give an account! O for a thousand tongues, to proclaim in
the ears of thoughtless mortals, that important aphorism of our Lord, "Only
one thing is needful!" Yet a thousand tongues would be, and are, employed in
vain—unless so far as the Lord is pleased to send the watchman's warning, by
the power and agency of his own Spirit.
I think the poet tells us, that Cassandra had the gift of
truly foretelling future events; but she was afterwards laid under a painful
embarrassment, that nobody would believe her words. Such, with respect to
the bulk of their hearers, is the lot of Gospel ministers. They are
enlightened to see, and sent forth to declare, the dreadful consequences of
sin; but, alas, how few believe their report!
To illustrate our grief and disappointment, I sometimes
suppose there was a dangerous river in the way of travelers, over which
there is a bridge, which those who can be prevailed upon may pass with
safety. By the side of this bridge watchmen are placed, to warn passengers
of the danger of the waters; to assure them, that all who attempt to go
through them inevitably perish; to invite, entreat, and beseech them, if
they value their lives—to cross the bridge. Methinks this should be an easy
task—yet if we should see, in fact, the greater part stopping their ears to
the friendly importunity, many so much offended by it, as to account the
watchman's care impertinent, and only deserving of scorn and ill-treatment,
hardly one in fifty betaking themselves to the friendly bridge, the rest
eagerly plunging into the waters, from which none return, as if they were
determined to see who would be drowned first—this spectacle would be no
unfit emblem of the reception the Gospel meets with, from a blinded world.
Gospel ministers are rejected, opposed, vilified; they
are accounted troublers of the world, because they dare not, cannot stand
silent, while sinners are perishing before their eyes. And if, in the course
of many sermons, they can prevail but on one soul to take timely warning,
and to seek to Jesus, who is the way, the truth, and the life—they may
account it a mercy and an honor, sufficient to overbalance all the labor and
reproaches they are called to endure. From the most, they must expect no
better reception than the Jews gave to Jeremiah, who told the Prophet to his
face, "As to the word you have spoken to us in the name of the Lord—we will
not hearken to you at all; but we will certainly do whatever goes forth out
of our own mouth!"
Surely, if the Lord has given us any sense of the worth
of our souls, any compassion towards them, this must be a painful exercise;
and experience must teach us something of the meaning of Jeremiah's pathetic
exclamation, "O that my head were waters, and my eyes fountains of
tears—that I might weep day and night, for the slain of the daughter of my
people!" It is our duty to be thus affected.
Our relief lies in the wisdom and sovereignty
of God. He reveals his salvation to whom he pleases, for the most part
to babes; from the bulk of the wise and the prudent—the gospel is hidden.
Thus it has pleased him—and therefore it must be right. Yes, he will one day
condescend to justify the propriety and equity of his proceedings to his
creatures; then every mouth will be stopped, and none will be able to reply
against their Judge. Light has come into the world—but men prefer darkness.
They hate the light, resist it, and rebel against it. It is true—all do so!
And therefore, if all were to perish under the condemnation, their ruin
would be their own act. It is of grace that any are saved; and in the
distribution of that grace, God does what he will with his own—a right which
most are ready enough to claim in their own concerns, though they are so
unwilling to allow it to the Lord of all.
Many perplexing and acrimonious disputes have been
started upon this subject; but the redeemed of the Lord are called not to
dispute—but to admire and rejoice, to love, adore, and obey! To know
that he loved us, and gave himself for us, is the constraining argument and
motive to love him, and surrender ourselves to him; to consider ourselves as
no longer our own—but to devote ourselves, with every faculty, power, and
talent, to his service and glory. He deserves our all—for he parted with all
for us. He made himself poor, he endured shame, torture, death, and the
curse, for us—that we, through him, might inherit everlasting life! Ah! the
hardness of my heart, that I am no more affected, astonished, and
overpowered, with this thought!