John Newton's Letters

Five letters to a young man
going into the Christian ministry

Letter 1
March 7, 1765.
Dear Sir,
Your letter of February 19th came to me yesterday. I have read it with attention, and very willingly sit down to offer you my thoughts. Your case reminds me of my own—my first desires towards the ministry were attended with great uncertainties and difficulties, and the perplexity of my own mind was heightened by the various and opposite judgments of my friends. The advice I have to offer is the result of painful experience and exercise, and for this reason perhaps may not be unacceptable to you. I pray our gracious Lord to make it useful.

I was long distressed, as you are, about what was or was not a proper call to the ministry. It now seems to me an easy point to solve—but perhaps will not be so to you until the Lord shall make it clear to yourself in your own case. I have not room to say so much as I could. in brief, I think it principally includes three things:

1. A warm and earnest desire to be employed in this service. I apprehend, the man who is once moved by the Spirit of God to this work, will prefer it, if attainable, to thousands of gold and silver; so that, though he is at times intimidated by a sense of its importance and difficulty, compared with his own great insufficiency (for it is to be presumed a call of this sort, if indeed from God, will be accompanied with humility and self-abasement), yet he cannot give it up. I hold it a good rule to inquire in this point—whether the desire to preach is most fervent in our most lively and spiritual frames, and when we are most laid in the dust before the Lord? If so, it is a good sign. But if, as is sometimes the case, a person is very earnest to be a preacher to others, when he finds but little hungering and thirstiness after grace in his own soul—it is then to be feared his zeal springs rather from a selfish principle—than from the Spirit of God.

2. Besides this affectionate desire and readiness to preach, there must in due season appear some competent sufficiency as to gifts, knowledge, and utterance. Surely, if the Lord sends a man to teach others—he will furnish him with the means. I believe many have intended well in becoming preachers, who yet went beyond or before their call in so doing. The main difference between a minister and a private Christian seems to consist in these ministerial gifts, which are imparted to him, not for his own sake—but for the edification of others. But then I say, these are to appear in due season. They are not to be expected instantaneously—but gradually, in the use of proper means. They are necessary for the discharge of the ministry; but not necessary as pre-requisites to warrant our desires after it. In your case, you are young, and have time before you. Therefore, I think you need not as yet perplex yourself with inquiring if you have these gifts already. It is sufficient if your desire is fixed, and you are willing, in the way of prayer and diligence, to wait upon the Lord for them—as yet you need them not.

3. That which finally evidences a proper call—is a correspondent opening in Providence, by a gradual train of circumstances pointing out the means, the time, the place—of actually entering upon the work of the ministry. And until this concurrence arrives, you must not expect to be always clear from hesitation in your own mind. The principal caution on this head is, not to be too hasty in catching at first appearances. If it be the Lord's will to bring you into his ministry—he has already appointed your place and service; and though you know it not at present—you shall at a proper time. If you had the talents of an angel—you could do no good with them until his hour has come—and until he leads you to the people whom he has determined to bless by your means.

It is very difficult to restrain ourselves within the bounds of prudence here, when our zeal is warm, a sense of the love of Christ upon our hearts, and a tender compassion for perishing sinners is ready to prompt us to break out too soon—but "he who believes shall not make haste". I was about five years under this constraint. Sometimes I thought I must preach, though it was in the streets. I listened to everything that seemed plausible, and to many things that were not so. But the Lord graciously, and as it were insensibly, hedged up my way with thorns; otherwise, if I had been left to my own spirit, I would have put it quite out of my power to have been brought into such a sphere of usefulness, as he in his good time has been pleased to lead me to. And I can now see clearly, that at the time I would first have gone out, though my intention was, I hope, good in the main—yet I overrated myself, and had not that spiritual judgment and experience which are requisite for so great a service.

I wish you therefore to take time; and if you have a desire to enter into the Established Church, endeavor to keep your zeal within moderate bounds, and avoid everything that might unnecessarily clog your admission with difficulties. I would not have you hide your profession, or to be backward to speak for God; but avoid what looks like preaching, and be content with being a learner in the school of Christ for some years. The delay will not be lost time; you will be so much the more acquainted with the Gospel, with your own heart, and with human nature. The last is a necessary branch of a minister's knowledge, and can only be acquired by comparing what passes within us, and around us—with what we read in the Word of God.

I am glad to find you have a distaste both for Arminian and Antinomian doctrines—but let not the mistakes of others sit too heavy upon you. Be thankful for the grace which has made you to differ; be ready to give a reason of the hope that is in you with meekness and fear; but beware of engaging in theological disputes, without evident necessity, and some probable hope of usefulness. They tend to eat out the life and savor of religion, and to make the soul lean and dry. Where God has begun a real work of grace, incidental mistakes will be lessened by time and experience; where he has not, it is of little signification what sentiments people hold, or whether they call themselves Arminians or Calvinists.

I agree with you, that there is time enough for you to think of Oxford yet; and that if your purpose is fixed, and all circumstances render it prudent and proper to devote yourself to the ministry, you will do well to spend a year or two in private studies. It would be further helpful, in this view, to place yourself where there is Gospel preaching, and a spiritual people. If your favorable opinion of our church should induce you to come here, I shall be very ready to give you every assistance in my power. As I have trod exactly the path you seem to be setting out in, I might so far perhaps be more serviceable than those who are in other respects much better qualified to assist you. I doubt not but in this, and every other step, you will entreat the Lord's direction; and I hope you will not forget to pray for me.


Letter 2
June 7, 1767.
Dear Sir,
I must beg you (once for all) to release me from any constraint about the length or frequency of my letters. Believe that I think of you, and pray for you—even when you do not hear from me. Your correspondence is not quite so extensive as mine, therefore you may write the oftener. Your letters will be always welcome; and I will write to you when I find a leisure hour, and have anything upon my mind to offer.

You seem sensible where your most observable failing lies, and to take reproof and admonition concerning it in good part; I therefore hope and believe the Lord will give you a growing victory over it. You must not expect that bad habits and tempers will be eradicated instantaneously; but by perseverance in prayer, and observation upon the experiences of every day, much may be done in time. Now and then you will (as is usual in the course of war) lose a battle; but be not discouraged—but rally your forces—and return to the fight! There is a comfortable word, a leaf of the tree of life, for healing the wounds we receive, "I am writing this to you so that you will not sin. But if you do sin, there is someone to plead for you before the Father—Jesus Christ, the Righteous One." 1 Jo. 2:1.

If the enemy surprises you, and your heart smites you—do not stand astonished as if there was no help, nor give way to sorrow as if there was no hope, nor attempt to heal yourself; but go immediately to the Throne of Grace, to the great Physician, to the compassionate High Priest—and tell him all. Satan knows, that if he can keep us from confession, our wounds will rankle. Do profit by David's experience, "When I refused to confess my sin, I was weak and miserable, and I groaned all day long. Day and night your hand of discipline was heavy on me. My strength evaporated like water in the summer heat. Finally, I confessed all my sins to you and stopped trying to hide them. I said to myself, 'I will confess my rebellion to the Lord.' And you forgave me! All my guilt is gone!" Psalm 32:3-5. When we are simple and open-hearted in abasing ourselves before the Lord, though we have acted foolishly and ungratefully, he will seldom let us remain long without affording us a sense of his compassion and forgiveness. For he is gracious; he knows our frame, and how to bear with us, though we can hardly bear with ourselves, or with one another.

The main thing is to have the heart right with God. This will bring us in the end safely through many mistakes and blunders. But a double mind, a selfish spirit—which would halve things between God and the world—the Lord abhors. Though I have not yet had many opportunities of commending your prudence, I have always had a good opinion of your sincerity and integrity. If I am not mistaken in this, I make no doubt of your doing well. If the Lord is pleased to bless you, he will undoubtedly make you humble; for you cannot be either happy or safe, or have any probable hope of abiding usefulness, without a sincere humility. I do not know that I have had anything so much at heart in my connections with you, as to impress you with a sense of the necessity and advantages of a humble frame of spirit. I hope it has not been in vain. O! to be little in our own eyes!

Humility is the foundation of every grace! Humility leads to a continual dependence upon the Lord Jesus. Humility is the spirit which he has promised to bless. Humility conciliates us good-will and acceptance among men—for he who abases himself is sure to be honored. And that this temper is so hard to attain and preserve—is a striking proof of our depravity. For are we not sinners? Were we not rebels and enemies before we knew the Gospel? And have we not been unfaithful, backsliding, and unprofitable ever since? Are we not redeemed by the blood of Jesus? We cannot stand a single moment—unless he upholds us. We have nothing which we have not received. We have not received anything which we have not abused. Why then is dust and ashes proud?

I am glad you have found some spiritual acquaintance in your barren land. I hope you will be helpful to them, and they to you. You do well to guard against every appearance of evil. If you are heartily for Jesus, Satan owes you a grudge. One way or other he will try to cut you out work, and the Lord may allow him to go to the length of his chain. But though you are to keep your eye upon him, and expect to be tempted by him at every step, you need not be slavishly afraid of him—for Jesus is stronger and wiser than he; and there is a complete suit of armor provided for all who are engaged on the Lord's side!


Letter 3
Oct. 20, 1767.
Dear Sir,
A concern for the perplexity you have met with, from objections which have been made against some expressions in my printed sermons, and in general against exhorting sinners to believe in Jesus, engages me to write immediately. I shall chiefly confine myself at present, to the subject you propose.

In the first place, I beg you to be upon your guard against a reasoning spirit. Search the Scriptures; and where you can find a plain rule or warrant for any practice—go boldly on; and be not discouraged because you may not be clearly able to answer or reconcile every difficulty which may either occur to your own mind, or be put in your way by others. Our hearts are very dark and narrow; and the very root of all apostasy is a proud disposition to question the necessity or propriety of Divine appointments. But the child-like simplicity of faith, is to follow God without reasoning; taking it for granted a thing must be right if he directs it—and charging all seeming inconsistencies to the account of our own ignorance.

I suppose the people who trouble you upon this head are of two sorts. 1st, those who preach upon Arminian principles, and suppose a free-will in man, in a greater or less degree, to turn to God when the Gospel is proposed. These, if you speak to sinners at large, though they will approve of your doing so, will take occasion, perhaps, to charge you with acting in contradiction to your own principles. So it seems Mr. **** has said. I love and honor that man greatly, and I beg you will tell him so from me; and tell him farther, that the reason why he is not a Calvinist, is because he misapprehends our principles.

If I had a proper call, I would undertake to prove the direct contrary; namely, that to exhort and deal plainly with sinners, to stir them up to flee from the wrath to come, and to lay hold of eternal life, is an attempt not reconcilable to sober reason upon any other grounds than those doctrines which we are called Calvinists for holding; and that all the absurdities which are charged upon us, as consequences of what we teach, are indeed truly chargeable upon those who differ from us in these points. I think this unanswerably proved by Jonathan Edwards, in his discourse on the freedom of the will; though the chain of reasoning is so close, that few will give attention and pains to pursue it. As to myself, if I was not a Calvinist—I would have no more hope of success in preaching to men, than to horses or cows!

But these objections are more frequently urged by Calvinists themselves; many of them, I doubt not, good men—but betrayed into a curiosity of spirit, which often makes their ministry (if ministers) dry and inefficacious, and their lives sour and unsavory. Such a spirit is too prevalent in many professors, that if a man reveals a warm zeal for the glory of God, and is enabled to bear a faithful testimony to the Gospel truths; yes, though the Lord evidently blesses him, they overlook all, and will undervalue a sermon, which upon the whole they cannot but acknowledge to be Scriptural, if they meet with a single sentence contrary to the opinion they have taken up! I am sorry to see such a spirit prevailing. But this I observe, that the ministers who give into this way, though good men and good preachers in other respects—are seldom very useful or very zealous. And likewise for those who are in private life, are more ready dispute dry theological points, at least harping upon a string of doctrines, than for experimental and heart-searching converse, whereby one may warm and edify another. Blessed be God, who has kept me and my people from this turn. If it should ever creep in or spread among us, I would write Ichabod upon our assembly!

I advise you, therefore, to keep close to the Bible and prayer. Bring your difficulties to the Lord, and entreat him to give you and maintain in you a simple and sincere spirit. Search the Scriptures. How did Peter deal with Simon Magus? We have no right to think worse of any who can hear us, than the Apostle did of him. He seemed almost to think his case desperate, and yet he advised him to repentance and prayer. Examine the same Apostle's discourse, Acts 3, and the close of Paul's sermon, Acts thirteen. The power is all of God; the means are likewise of his appointment; and he always is pleased to work by such means as may show that the power is his. What was Moses's rod in itself, or the trumpets that threw down Jericho? What influence could the pool of Siloam have, that the eyes of the blind man, by washing in it, should be opened? or what could Ezekiel's feeble breath contribute to the making dry bones live? All these means were exceedingly disproportionate to the effect; but He who ordered them to be used, accompanied them with his power.

Yet if Moses had gone without his rod; if Joshua had slighted the rams' horns; if the prophet had thought it foolishness to speak to dry bones, or the blind man refused to wash his eyes—nothing would have been done. The same holds good in the present subject. I do not reason, expostulate, and persuade sinners, because I think that I can prevail with them—but because the Lord has commanded it. He directs me to address them as reasonable creatures; to take them by every handle; to speak to their consciences; to tell them of the terrors of the Lord, and of his tender mercies; to argue with them what good they find in sin; whether they need a Savior; to put them in mind of death, judgment, and eternity, etc. When I have done all, I know it is to little purpose—unless the Lord speaks to their hearts. And he will speak to his own, and at his own time. I am sure he will, because he has promised it. See Isaiah 55:10-11; Mat. 28:20.

Indeed I have heard expressions in the warmth of delivery which I could not wholly approve, and therefore do not imitate. But in general, I see no preaching made very useful for the gathering of souls, where perishing sinners are shut out of the discourse. I think one of the closest and most moving addresses to sinners I ever met with, is in John Owen's Exposition of the 130th Psalm, from p. 243 to 276. If you get it and examine it, I think you will find it all agreeable to Scripture; and he was a steady, deep-sighted Calvinist. I wish you to study it well, and make it your pattern. He handles the same point likewise in other places, and shows the weakness of the exceptions taken somewhere at large—but I cannot just now find the passage. Many think themselves quite right, because they have not had their thoughts exercised at large—but have confined themselves to one track. There are extremes in everything. I pray God to show you the golden mean.


Letter 4
August 30, 1770.
Dear Sir,
I would steal a few minutes here to write, lest I should not have leisure at home. I have not your letter with me, and therefore can only answer so far as I retain a general remembrance of the contents.

You will, doubtless, find rather perplexity than advantage from the multiplicity of advice you may receive, if you endeavor to reconcile and adopt the very different sentiments of your friends. I think it will be best to make use of them in a full latitude, that is, to correct and qualify them one by another, and to borrow a little from each, without confining yourself entirely to any. You will probably be advised to different extremes. It will then be impossible to follow both; but it may be practical to find a middle path between them. I believe this will generally prove the best and safest method. Only consult your own temper, and endeavor to incline rather to that side to which you are the least disposed, by the ordinary strain of your own inclination; for on that side you will be in the least danger of erring. Warm and hasty dispositions will seldom move too slow, and those who are naturally languid and cool are as little liable to over-act their part.

With respect to the particulars you instance, I have generally thought you warm and enterprising enough, and therefore thought it best to restrain you; but I meant only to hold you in—until you had acquired some farther knowledge and observation both of yourself and of others. I have the pleasure to hope (especially of late) that you are become more self-distrusting and wary than you were some time ago. And, therefore, as your years and time are advancing, and you have been for a tolerable space under a probation of silence, I can make no objection to your attempting sometimes to speak in select societies; but let your attempts be confined to such—I mean where you are acquainted with the people, or the leading part of them, and be upon your guard against opening yourself too much among strangers. And again, I earnestly desire you would not attempt anything of this sort in a very public way. You may remember a simile I have sometimes used of green fruit. Children are impatient to have it while it is green—but people of more judgment will wait until it is ripe. Therefore I would wish your exhortations to be brief, private, and not very frequent. Rather give yourself to reading, meditation, and prayer.

As to speaking without notes, in order to do it successfully, a fund of knowledge must be first possessed. Indeed, in such societies as I hope you will confine your attempts to—it would not be practicable to use notes. But I mean, that if you design to come out as a preacher without notes from the first, you must use double diligence in study. Your reading must not be confined to the Scriptures; you should be acquainted with church history, have a general view of theology, as a system, know something of the state of controversies in past times and at present, and indeed of the general history of mankind. I do not mean that you should enter deeply into these things; but you will need to have your mind enlarged, your ideas increased, your style and manner formed. You should read, think, write, compose, and use all diligence to exercise and strengthen your mental faculties. If you would speak extempore as a minister, you must be able to come off roundly, and to fill up your hour with various matter, in tolerable coherence, or else you will not be able to overcome the prejudice which usually prevails among the people. Perhaps it may be as well to use some little scheme in the note way, especially at the beginning. But a little trial will best inform you what is most expedient.

Let your backwardness to prayer and reading the Scripture be ever so great—you must strive against it. This backwardness, with the doubts you speak of, are partly from your own evil heart—but perhaps chiefly temptations of Satan. He knows, if he can keep you from drawing water out of the wells of salvation—he will have much advantage. My soul goes often mourning under the same complaints—but at times the Lord gives me a little victory. I hope he will over-rule all our trials to make us more humble, dependent, and to give us tenderness of spirit towards the distressed. The exercised and experienced Christian, by the knowledge he has gained of his own heart, and the many difficulties he has had to struggle with—acquires a skill and compassion in dealing with others. Without such exercise, all our study, diligence, and gifts in other ways—would leave us much at a loss in some of the most important parts of our calling.

You have given yourself to the Lord for the ministry; his providence has thus far favored your views. Therefore harbor not a thought of flinching from the battle, because the enemy appears in view—but resolve to endure hardship, as a good soldier of Jesus Christ. Lift up your banner in his name; trust in him—and he will support you. But, above all things, be sure not to be either enticed or terrified from the privilege of a Throne of Grace.

Who your enemies are, or what they say, I know not; for I never conversed with them. Your friends here have thought you at times harsh and hasty in your manner, and rather inclining to self-confidence. These things I have often reminded you of; but I considered them as blemishes usually attendant upon youth—and which experience, temptation, and prayer, would correct. I hope and believe you will do well. You will have a share in my prayers and best advice; and when I see occasion to offer a word of reproof—I shall not use any reserve.


Letter 5
July 25, 1772.
Dear Sir,
I am glad to hear you are accommodated, where I hope your best endeavors will not be lacking to make yourself agreeable, by a humble, inoffensive, and circumspect behavior.

I greatly approve of your teaching one of the lessons in the afternoon. You will find it a great help to bring you gradually to that habit and readiness of expression which you desire; and you will perhaps find it make more impression upon your hearers—than what you read to them from the pulpit. However, I would not discourage or dissuade you from reading your sermons for a time. The chief inconvenience respecting yourself is that which you mention. A written sermon is something to lean upon—but it is best for a preacher to lean wholly upon the Lord. But set off gradually; the Lord will not despise the day of small things. Pray heartily that your spirit may be right with him—and then all the rest will be well. And keep on writing. If you compose one sermon, and should find your heart enlarged to preach another, still your labor of writing will not be lost. If your conscience bears you witness that you desire to serve the Lord, his promise (now that he has brought you into the ministry) of a sufficiency and ability—for the work belongs to you as much as to another.

Your borrowing help from others, may arise from a self-distrust of yourself, which is not blamable; but it may arise in part likewise from a distrust of the Lord, which is hurtful. I wish you may get encouragement from that word, "Who makes mouths? Who makes people so they can speak or not speak, hear or not hear, see or not see? Is it not I, the Lord? Now go, and do as I have told you. I will help you speak well, and I will tell you what to say." Exo. 4:11-12. It was a great encouragement to me.

While I would press you to diligence in every rational means for the improvement of your stock in knowledge, and your ability of utterance—I would have you remember, that true preaching is a gift of God. It cannot be learned by industry and imitation only, as a man may learn to make a chair or a table. It comes from above; and if you patiently wait upon God, he will bestow this gift upon you, and increase it in you. It will grow by exercise. To him who has—shall more be given—and he shall have more abundantly. And be chiefly solicitous to obtain an unction upon what you do say. Perhaps those sermons in which you feel yourself most deficient—may be made most useful to others. I hope you will endeavor likewise to be plain and informal in your language and manner (though not base or vulgar), so as to suit yourself, as much as possible, to the minds of the most ignorant people. There are, in all congregations, some people exceedingly ignorant—yet they have precious souls, and the Lord often calls such to be saved. I pray the Lord to make you wise to win souls. I hope he will.

You cannot be too jealous of your own heart. Cry to Him who is able to hold you up, that you may be safe—and you shall not cry in vain. It is indeed an alarming thought, that a man may pray and preach, be useful and acceptable for a time—and yet be nothing! But still the foundation of God stands sure. I have a good hope, that I shall never have cause to repent the part I have taken in your concerns. While you keep in the path of duty—you will find it the path of safety. Be punctual in waiting upon God in secret. This is the life of everything, the only way, and the sure way—of maintaining and renewing your strength.