John Newton's Letters
January 24, 1800
My Dear Cousin,
I have been often upon the point of thanking you for your letter, but I met with many interruptions! I thank the Lord that my health and spirits are still good; but you, who know how old I am, will not wonder if I think it very probable that this, my first letter to you, may prove my last; it may be so or otherwise, as the Lord shall please. However, I shall write as I would if I was sure that I shall never see you — or write to you again. In that case, if you keep this paper, it will remind you as often as you look at it, that there was an old man at house No. 6, who loved you dearly and wished and prayed for your welfare while he lived, and, before he went home, left you his last and best advice. May the Lord accompany it with His blessing.
I doubt not but you know yourself to be, as you say, a sinner. Young people of a sincere spirit, who have had the instruction and example of affectionate and religious parents and have been brought up under the preaching of the gospel from their childhood, will generally have some serious religious thoughts and impressions. If, by the blessing of the Lord, they at length become believers, they are often brought forward so gradually that they are discouraged because they cannot distinctly discern when the good work of salvation was begun. If it be indeed begun — it will come forward; if this day has actually dawned — the light will increase. It is one thing to know in my judgment that I am a sinner, and another thing so to feel it in my conscience as to make the salvation of my soul my chief and constant concern.
Mankind in general know beyond a doubt that they must die — yet multitudes live as if they neither believed the uncertainty of life nor the certainty of death. If a man knows he is in debt and is afraid of a jail, he usually acts consistently; he is daily afraid of the sheriff; the thought of his debt follows him to bed at night and meets him as soon as he wakes in the morning; perhaps it prevents or spoils his sleep, and, if he cannot pay it himself, he will spare no pains to find a friend, if possible, to help him.
In the same way, there are people who say they know that they are sinners, and yet they live at their ease in the spirit of the world, as if they expected no hereafter. They are more to be pitied than envied.
I trust it is otherwise with you, and that you desire and resolve by His grace that, whatever others do, you will serve the Lord and seek your happiness in His favor; and that you pray to the purpose of Psalm 106:4-5, and are well satisfied that, as there is no God like the God of Israel, so there are no people like the Israel of God.
When ministers remind their hearers that they can do nothing of themselves, they are often misunderstood. We can of ourselves not so much as think a good thought — but we certainly can, if we will, wait, ask, and knock, in the use of the appointed means for the help we need, and which is never sincerely sought in vain. The priests under the law could not bring down the fire from Heaven, but they could prepare the wood and the sacrifice, and when they did what they could, the Lord did that which they could not.
In the same way, though we cannot get forward faster or further than the Lord is pleased to lead us, we can and we often do retard our own progress. The kingdom of Heaven is taken by storm. There is daily call for self-denial. The person who would possess the pearl of great price — must part with much to obtain it, though it is given freely without money or price. If my hand is full and clenched, I must of necessity open and empty it before I can receive anything else. The desire of the flesh, of the eyes, and the pride of life — must be crossed. No people are more to be pitied than those who halt between two opinions — between God and the world; both cannot be served or chosen.
The religion of some people is constrained; they are like people who use the cold bath — not for pleasure, but necessity, and for their health; they go in with reluctance and are glad when they get out; but religion to a true believer is like water to a fish; it is his element; he lives in it, and he could not live out of it.
My heart wishes you this determined, resolved spirit; and, if you ask it earnestly of the Lord, He will give it to you; then you will find the ways of wisdom both practicable and pleasing. You say that the world is ensnaring; I hope therefore you will not only pray, but watch against it.
I do not recommend a needless and scrupulous singularity; your situation in life warrants you to appear like the daughter of a gentleman; but too much expense of time, thought, and money in dress — is unsuitable to the professed followers of a poor Savior, and will hurt the soul by adding fuel to the fire of that pride which is so natural to our hearts, so difficult to be suppressed, and such an abomination to the Lord, if it is indulged.
If the Lord works in you truly to will, He will surely enable you to do according to His good pleasure. A simple intention to please Him and to seek Him as your portion and happiness, and a simple dependence upon Him for wisdom and strength — will carry you through and above all difficulties. He is very merciful to all our infirmities — but He justly requires our whole hearts. He will not accept a heart that is divided, and allows no idol to share in what is wholly due to Him. His heart was not divided when He undertook to redeem us. He willingly submitted to poverty, reproach, contempt, torture and death for our sakes. Because we could not otherwise be saved, He would not save Himself.
Oh, my dear cousin, should not this love constrain us? Shall we who are bought with such a price, so much as wish to be any longer our own? He invites us to come to Him, assures us that they who come He will in no wise cast out; promises to be our sun, shield, counselor and comforter. The world can make no such promises; it cannot support us under trouble, nor cheer us on a sick bed, nor in a dying hour, nor can the servants of the world enjoy that abiding peace and perfect freedom which the Savior bestows upon His people! The world is under the tyranny of different and opposite passions, and all their pretended pleasures are mingled with discontent, remorse, and foreboding fears of death and judgment.
Permit me to advise you to study the redemption of time — it is an important talent, and we have all misspent too much of it. If you live to my age, you will find the benefit of rising early, if you begin now. A habit of rising early will make it both easy and pleasant. I owe most of what I am, under the blessing of God, to early rising. The morning hours, which many waste in needless sleep, are favorable to devotion, to seek communion with God at His throne, and in His word of grace. It is also good for the health and spirits.
I believe I need not mention acts of charity and mercy for a part of the employment of your time — for I have often observed with pleasure that the Lord has given you a feeling, benevolent heart. May He help you in all that you do to alleviate the distressed or to instruct the ignorant — to do it for His sake; then you shall in no wise lose your reward.
One thing more I will venture to hint. Youth is the time to lay the foundation of good habits which may be useful to us in future life. I much wish you to gain a habit of punctuality with respect to time, and the lack of this is very inconvenient to the person who fails and gives trouble to others; if you follow my advice, you will find the advantage long before you are as old as I am. I began to aim at this almost fifty years ago, and I have seldom, if ever, been five minutes behind my time, unless unavoidably prevented, for near fifty years past.
My letter has been in hand nearly a week; I have been more than once interrupted in the middle of a line, so that, when I resumed my pen, I hardly knew what I was thinking of when I laid it down. But, inaccurate as it is, I hope you will accept it as a token of my love and regard. Give my love to all. The Lord bless you all.
Your affectionate cousin,