Posts Tagged ‘John Newton’
I am not what I ought to be. Ah! how imperfect and deficient. Not what I might be, considering my privileges and opportunities. Not what I wish to be. God, who knows my heart, knows I wish to be like him. I am not what I hope to be; ere long to drop this clay tabernacle, to be like him and see him as He is. Not what I once was, a child of sin, and slave of the devil. Thought not all these, not what I ought to be, not what I might be, not what I wish or hope to be, and not what once was, I think I can truly say with the apostle, “By the grace of God I am what I am.”
John Newton (1725-1807), cited in Letters of John Newton, 400.
via Justin Taylor.
As you are likely to be engaged in controversy, and your love of truth is joined with a natural warmth of temper, my friendship makes me solicitous on your behalf. You are of the strongest side; for truth is great, and must prevail; so that a person of abilities inferior to yours might take the field with a confidence of victory. I am not therefore anxious for the event of the battle; but I would have you more than a conqueror, and to triumph, not only over your adversary, but over yourself. If you cannot be vanquished, you may be wounded. To preserve you from such wounds as might give you cause of weeping over your conquests, I would present you with some considerations, which, if duly attended to, will do you the service of a great coat of mail; such armor, that you need not complain, as David did of Saul’s, that it will be more cumbersome than useful; for you will easily perceive it is taken from that great magazine provided for the Christian soldier, the Word of God. I take it for granted that you will not expect any apology for my freedom, and therefore I shall not offer one. For method’s sake, I may reduce my advice to three heads, respecting your opponent, the public, and yourself.
So begins John Newton’s advice to a young controversialist, worth reading for anyone who feels obliged to contend for the truth in a public forum.
John Newton, writing in the delightful day when to waste an empty space on your paper would be a crying shame, and fortunately having plenty to write about to fill up the gap:
And now, how shall I fill up the rest of my paper? It is a shame for a Christian and a minister to say he has no subject at hand, when the inexhaustible theme of redeeming love is ever pressing upon our attention. I will tell you then, though you know it, that the Lord reigns.
He who once bore our sins, and carried our sorrows, is seated upon a throne of glory, and exercises all power in heaven and on earth. Thrones, principalities, and powers, bow before him. Every event in the kingdoms of providence and of grace is under his rule. His providence pervades and manages the whole, and is as minutely attentive to every part, as if there were only that single object in his view. From the tallest archangel to the meanest ant or fly, all depend on him for their being, their preservation, and their powers. He directs the sparrows where to build their nests, and to find their food. He overrules the rise and fall of nations, and bends, with an invincible energy and unerring wisdom, all events; so that, while many intend nothing less, in the issue, their designs all concur and coincide in the accomplishment of his holy will. He restrains with a mighty hand the still more formidable efforts of the powers of darkness; and Satan, with all his hosts, cannot exert their malice a hair’s breadth beyond the limits of his permission.
This is He who is the head and husband of his believing people. How happy are they who it is his good pleasure to bless! How safe are they whom He has engaged to protect! How honoured and privileged are they to whom He is pleased to manifest himself, and whom He enables and warrants to claim him as their friend and their portion! Having redeemed them by his own blood, He sets a high value upon them; He esteems them his treasure, his jewels, and keeps them as the pupil of his eye. They shall not want; they need not fear; his eye is upon them in every situation, his ear is open to their prayers, and his everlasting arms are under them for their sure support. On earth He guides their steps, controls their enemies, and directs all his dispensations for their good; while, in heaven, He is pleading their cause, preparing them a place, and communicating down to them reviving foretastes of the glory that shall be shortly revealed.
Oh how is this mystery hidden from an unbelieving world! Who can believe it, till it is made known by experience, what an intercouse is maintained in this land of shadows between the Lord of glory and sinful worms? How should we praise him that He has visited us! for we were once blind to his beauty, and insensible to his love, and should have remained so to the last, had He not prevented us with his goodness, and been found of us when we sought him not.
The Letters of John Newton, “To Mrs. Place,” (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 2007), 237-239.
via The Old Guys.
Brief reviews of pastoral theology texts can be found below, taking us from O though to P. The full list to date can be found here or from the sidebar under “Pastoral theology.” Comments and further recommendations are appreciated , and if you could put them on the full page, I will be able to keep track of them more readily. I presume that commenters are simply waiting until I have finished the list until they can gloatingly point out classics that I have missed and newer works that are considered indispensable. I wait with bated breath . . .
Olyott, Stuart. Ministering Like the Master: Three Messages for Today’s Preachers. Stuart’s gift for clarity and ability to make a point serve him well in this little jewel. In terse, tight prose, we are informed that our Lord was not a boring preacher (with instruction on how to emulate him), that he was an evangelistic preacher (with counsel on how to follow him), and that he was more than just a preacher (with his example held before us). Sweet, practical, stimulating. (Westminster / Amazon.co.uk / Amazon.com / Monergism)
Olyott, Stuart. Preaching Pure and Simple. Once he has defined what preaching is, Stuart tells us what it needs to make it good: exegetical accuracy, doctrinal substance, clear structure, vivid illustration, pointed application, helpful delivery, and supernatural authority. Whether as a primer for a preacher finding his feet, or a refresher course for a man who needs to strip down his work to the essentials for an evaluation of his labours, this is superb. Highly recommended. (Westminster / Amazon.co.uk / Amazon.com / Monergism)
Newton, John. Ministry on my Mind. This booklet is simply a record of what were intended to be the private thoughts of John Newton as he pondered whether or not he was being called to the ministry. Valuable largely because it is so personal – and, it should be noted, potentially tricky for the same reasons, because Newton was not self-consciously establishing a general model for others – this is a wonderful help to a man wrestling with the same issue, and a sobering reminder that many of us do not take what we are already doing with sufficient seriousness. (Westminster / Amazon.co.uk / Amazon.com / Monergism)
Piper, John. Brothers, We Are Not Professionals: A Plea to Pastors for Radical Ministry. Full of familiar Piper themes and phrases (the reader must judge of their usefulness) the substance of this work is genuinely helpful. Brief chapters make it excellent for occasional or sequential meditation as a way of considering whether our pastoral compass is set true, and the range of topics allows Piper to take on a variety of aspects that will either liberate or cripple pastoral ministry. A good refresher. (Westminster / Amazon.co.uk / Amazon.com / Monergism)
Piper, John. The Supremacy of God in Preaching. Trinitarian and Edwardsean – that will tick plenty of boxes! The first comes out in a more general review of the goal, ground and gift of preaching, and then the latter begins to advance as we turn more to learn lessons from Edwards as theologian and preacher. A profitable call to the main things, with plenty of practical helps. (Westminster / Amazon.co.uk / Amazon.com / Monergism)
Prime, Derek and Begg, Alistair. On Being A Pastor: Understanding Our Calling and Work. Covers familiar ground but with a contemporary feel, surveying the various aspects of pastoral work with a sort of meditative tone at points. My edition, in which Prime and Begg almost engage in a conversation based on a revision of Prime’s own earlier work, provides lots of personal insights – listening in, as it were, while these men chat – but can disrupt the flow a little. Profitable, insightful, although with a bitty feel at points. (Westminster / Amazon.co.uk / Amazon.com / Monergism)
Transcribed and ed. Timothy D. Whelan
Mercer University Press, 2010, 522pp., cloth, $55 / £48.95
The ‘accidental’ discovery of a few letters by the editor of this volume led to further burrowing into the archives of the John Rylands University Library, eventually bringing to light some 300 letters sent within the Baptist community from 1741 to 1845, the vast majority previously unpublished. Diving in, we enter worlds at once strange and familiar, displaying a whole range of theological, ecclesiastical, and domestic concerns across a fascinating and seminal one hundred years of denominational history. In this, the volume transcends the merely academic sphere, and sheds light on a swathe of issues of principle and practice, both seemingly prosaic and indisputably significant. Although many letters involve luminaries such as John Sutcliff (prominently), Andrew Fuller, John Gill, the senior and junior Rylands, William Carey, William Knibb, Joseph Ivimey and John Rippon, there are hosts of less well-known men and women represented, plus non-Baptists such as George Whitefield and John Newton. The biographical footnotes and the magnificent 126 pages of biographical index, giving sketches of some 300 individuals, are probably worth the price of the book in themselves, not to mention a variety of helpful indeces. We owe Dr Whelan a great debt of gratitude for his painstaking labours, which have made available an invaluable resource for Baptist historians, and one which individuals as well as colleges and seminaries will crave.
PS I know it’s a Ronseal title, and not the most thrilling (this may not be a field where imagination is in great demand), but at least you’ll not forget what’s inside.
A Minister’s Burden
What contradictions meet
In ministers’ employ!
It is a bitter sweet,
A sorrow full of joy:
No other post affords a place
For equal honor or disgrace.
Who can describe the pain
Which faithful preachers feel,
Constrained to speak in vain,
To hearts as hard as steel?
Or who can tell the pleasures felt,
When stubborn hearts begin to melt?
The Savior’s dying love,
The soul’s amazing worth,
Their utmost efforts move,
And draw their bowels forth;
They pray and strive, the rest departs,
Till Christ be formed in sinners’ hearts.
If some small hope appears,
They still are not content,
But with a jealous fear,
They watch for the event:
Too oft they find their hopes deceived.
Then how their inmost souls are grieved!
But when their pains succeed,
And from the tender blade
The ripening ears proceed,
Their toils are overpaid:
No harvest-joy can equal theirs,
To find the fruit of all their cares.
On what has now been sown,
Thy blessing, Lord, bestow;
The power is Thine alone,
To make it spring and grow:
Do Thou the gracious harvest raise,
And Thou alone shalt have the praise.
via Founders Ministries.
Wise Counsel: John Newton’s Letters to John Ryland Jr. edited by Grant Gordon
Banner of Truth, 2009 (428pp, hbk)
Almost every young minister of the gospel could do with a Newton. They may not always realise that they need a Newton, but they probably do. To be blunt, they may not always want a Newton; those are the times when they need one most.
In Wise Counsel: John Newton’s Letters to John Ryland Jr., edited by Grant Gordon, young preachers and pastors at least get the benefit of peering over the shoulders of a Newton as he writes to his young friend, John Ryland Jr.. Thanks to the editorial comments, we also get at least a brief glimpse over the shoulder of Ryland as he reads and ponders those letters.
The friendship between Newton and Ryland spanned four decades and crossed the twenty-five years that divided them in age. They first met in 1768 when Ryland was only fifteen and Newton was forty-three. The first letter in this volume was written in 1771 and the last in 1803. Both the length of correspondence and the increasing range of topics indicate a genuine, deepening and developing friendship, without any ingratiating sycophancy from the younger man nor any pompous pontificating from the elder. Instead, there is honesty, sincerity, tenderness, directness, and sympathy, which we see flowing mainly in the direction of Newton to Ryland (the younger man’s contributions to this flow of reason and feast of soul are currently lost to us).
The arrangement of the volume is obvious, but little embellishments make the reading experience a delight. A few pages of introductory material, including a foreword by Michael Haykin, set the scene and sketch the characters, giving us a little grounding to appreciate the letters themselves. There are eighty-three of these altogether, each followed by a brief editorial contribution that ties up loose ends, explains particular details, and prepares us for the next epistle in the sequence. At the end of the book, together with a brief but helpful index of persons and topics, a few pages bring the stories of Newton and Ryland to a close. Scattered very occasionally through the volume, and bringing snatches of historical colour, are copies of a page from a diary or letter. Footnotes (we are mercifully spared exposure to the quite reprehensible endnote) provide helpful cross-references within the volume, as well as an unobtrusive wealth of historical and scholarly detail for those wishing to follow up particular elements. The text is clear and spacious, and the whole volume well bound.
However, and rightly so, the letters themselves are the undoubted and worthy centrepiece of the feast, and here we must recognise Newton’s singular gifts as a correspondent. Of all those mercies of God that marked the man as a minister, it is perhaps his warmth and understanding as a correspondent that set him apart. The collected letters demonstrate that talent (and, indeed, contain some written to Ryland but published with the preservation of anonymity), but here we are allowed to see the sustained investment, tender concern, and pastoral insight that made his correspondents treasure his letters as genuine marks of Christian love. When one reads the letters, one wishes one might have known the man (and received a few notes oneself), and looks forward even more to meeting him in glory. There is a delightful turn of dry humour, a refreshing if sometimes blunt earthiness, a sturdy and sanctified common sense, in what he writes. So, when writing of marriage and money, after a few friendly jibes, he tells Ryland
I see this will not do; I must get into my own grave way about this grave business. I take it for granted that my friend is free from the love of filthy lucre and that money will never be the turning point with you in the choice of a wife. Methinks I hear you think, ‘If I wanted money, I would either dig or beg for it; but to preach or marry for money, that be far from me.’ I commend you. However, though the love of money be a great evil, money itself, obtained in a fair and honourable way, is desirable, upon many accounts, though not for its own sake. Meat, clothes, fire, and books, cannot easily be had without it. Therefore, if these be necessary, money which procures them must be necessary likewise. (73-74)
He can be at once humble and powerful, searingly honest about his own sins and struggles and therefore both deeply sympathetic and pointedly searching when dealing with the sins and struggles of others. His concern for peace and unity, his fixation on the avoidance of controversy at every available opportunity, also come to the fore repeatedly. One develops the sense of a hearty and full-orbed humanity alive with love to God and his fellow men pouring out through his pen as he counsels, encourages, rebukes and exhorts.
And what wise counsels they truly are! Again, the advantage of watching the relationship and the correspondence develop is that we can see the ebb and flow of the lives being lived, and the issues that Ryland and Newton faced over time. We are therefore able to range over the life of a man and a minister, from the gracious reigning in and redirecting of youthful zeal to the heavy deliberations of elder statesmen in the church of Christ. Along the way, Newton and Ryland wrestle together with the desire for marriage and the challenges of courtship, with the death of wives and children, with the difficulties of esteemed but awkward parents and gifted or sensitive offspring, with controversy at home and abroad, with learning and academia, with calls to remove from one sphere of service and influence to another of different and perhaps wider opportunity, with the writing of books and poems, with suffering and sorrow and sanctification and death itself, with theological truth and error and with the use of the imagination, with the issues of Conformity and Dissent and the relationship between church and state. This last is especially curious. Newton was an Anglican, but seemingly without much conviction about ecclesiology except that it did not matter half as much as some believed it did. Among those with stronger feelings on the matter was Ryland himself, a Particular Baptist, and – while appreciating Newton’s irenic pleas – some today may find that they differ with him about the importance of these matters, while they will continue to find Newton’s observations piquant:
Indeed the Congregationalists and Baptists, who are both equally satisfied that they possess the perfect model of the tabernacle to a single loop or pin, need a double portion of grace to prevent their over admiring the supposed excellency of their forms. There are a few of them however who know that the best forms are but forms still and remember that the Lord abhorred his most express and positive institutions, when the worshippers rested in them. (128)
In such a context, insights into the times in which these men lived, and particularly some of the challenges that stirred and vexed the church in matters of faith and life, seem like almost incidental benefits, though they are certainly there. Consider that these men were movers and shakers in circles alive with missionary zeal, wrestling with the challenges of bringing the good news of Christ to the wider world, and you will immediately become alive to the subtext of some of the later letters as they swap news and encouragements and discouragements, and seek favours of each other in advancing the kingdom of God.
Apart from some of this historical grounding, it is worth noting just how relevant so much of Newton’s advice remains. To be sure, time has passed and circumstances have changed, but the enduring principles and Biblical sense upon which Newton built his counsel has not shifted, and so the reader can readily transpose the guidance and warnings that Newton issued across three hundred years and still find much that will strike and stick at the most appropriate points. It is here that modern men and ministers can derive so much benefit from the wise counsel that God enabled Newton to issue. The dress may be different, but the demands have changed little. Here is the benefit of the younger (or, indeed, older) minister taking the opportunity to peer over the shoulders of the original correspondents as they read and write these heartfelt letters as true companions in Christ.
In a world of texts and tweets, in which Facebook updates can be the only link between alleged friends, and longer emails are copied to lengthy and sometimes indiscriminate lists of more-or-less distant associates, the craft of the personal correspondent is in danger of being lost. Newton and Ryland remind us of its enduring value. What may be lost in immediacy is more than compensated for by depth of thought, balance of phrase and individuality of touch. To be sure, you can accomplish the same ends electronically, but it does require something of a shift in attitude and expectation. After reading this book – and I hope you will – you might not be moved to break out the parchment and quill, or even the sheet and fountain pen. But perhaps you should. You may simply sit again in front of the keyboard and screen, but ponder a different approach and purpose. Whatever the medium, the richness and clear value then and now of such a friendship maintained by such means ought to call older men of God to consider whether or not there are people – perhaps especially younger pastor-preachers – in whom they might invest in this way, and to give younger men an appetite for the cultivation of a relationship with the wise old owls whose experience has given them a fund of insight and understanding to transmit to those who come after them. In the absence of such relationships, or until they develop, we would do well to enjoy the privilege of leaning over Newton’s shoulder as he writes, and Ryland’s as he reads, and soaking in and sucking up this wise counsel.
Here is a further snippet from Wise Counsel (Banner of Truth, 2010, p380-381: do buy it). This is one of Newton’s last letters to his long-time friend. His eyes failing but his faith growing, Newton writes with humble honesty about his failings and his faith in Jesus Christ. We may not be able to speak of crowded and attentive congregations, but who can deny the continued blackness of a heart struggling against sin, and the comfort of a Christ who will by no means cast out those who come to him?
I am still favoured with a crowded, attentive, affectionate and peaceful auditory and we are not without tokens of the Lord’s gracious presence in the midst of us. And though I am a poor creature still, though my best is defective and defiled, and my imagination, which I call my thorn in the flesh, is sadly wild and ungovernable, though I live upon daily and hourly forgiveness, yet perhaps it was never better with me upon the whole, than at present. My trials are few. My temporal mercies are many; I hope my sense of them is heightened by contrast, when I look around me, or when I look back to my state of wickedness and misery in Africa, which has seldom been two hours together out of my waking thoughts, since I last left that dreary coast in the year 54. Indeed, I need not look so far back as Africa, for alas! the proofs I have had of the depravity and deceitfulness of my heart, have been much stronger since I knew the Lord, than before! How often have I sinned against light and love, and a sense of multiplied obligations! I have been remarkably a child of Providence, but my experiences have not been so much diversified. I have not suffered much from the fiery darts, and black temptations of Satan. On the other hand, I have no raptures or high consolations to speak of. I never was for an hour like the apostle at a loss to know whether I was in or out of the body. The sin of my nature cleaves close to me as my skin, and infects all I say or do. But it is given to me to believe that the blood of Jesus cleanseth from all sin, and that when He said, ‘Him that cometh to me I will in no wise cast out’, he meant as He spoke, and will make his word good. Upon this rock I build. Other refuge have I none. If He was strict to mark what is amiss, He might justly cast me off now in my old age, and forsake me, when my strength faileth; be He has said, ‘In no wise.’ Thus Noah when in the ark had the comfort of knowing that he was safe, but I suppose he did not derive much comfort from the circumstances of his voyage.
John Newton’s letters to the Baptist minister, John Ryland Jr., have recently been collected and republished by the Banner of Truth under the title, Wise Counsel (a full review I hope will follow, but it really is outstanding: do buy it). The fifth letter in this collection, previously published in Letters of John Newton (or Cardiphonia, also from Banner) is written in response to one in which Ryland seems to have complained about his low spiritual condition. Newton’s response is a masterpiece of pastoral wisdom, sensitive both to the balance of Scripture revelation on the issue and to the legitimate desires and concerns of the regenerate heart.
You ask me, in your letter, ‘What should one do when one finds oneself always still, quiet, and stupid, except in the pulpit; is made useful there, but cannot get either comfort or sorrow out of it, or but very rarely?’ You describe a case which my own experience has made very familiar to me. I shall take the occasion to offer you a few miscellaneous thoughts upon the subject of a believer’s frames; and I send them to you, not by the post, but from the press; because I apprehend the exercise you speak of is not peculiar to you or to me, but is in a greater or less degree the burden of all who are spiritually minded, and duly attentive to what passes in their own hearts, whether they are in the ministry or not.
As you intimate that you are in the main favoured with liberty and usefulness in the pulpit, give me leave to ask you, what you would do if you did not find yourself occasionally poor, insufficient, and, as you express it, stupid, at other times? Are you aware of what might be the possible, the probable, the almost certain consequences, if you always found your spirit enlarged, and your frames lively and comfortable? Would you not be in great danger of being puffed up with spiritual pride? Would you not be less sensible of your absolute dependence upon the power of Christ, and of your continual need of his blood, pardon, and intercession? Would you not be quite at a loss to speak suitably and feelingly to the case of many gracious souls, who are groaning under those effects of a depraved nature, from which, upon that supposition, you would be exempted? How could you speak properly upon the deceitfulness of the heart, if you did not feel the deceitfulness of your own; or adapt yourself to the changing experiences through which your hearers pass, if you yourself were always alike, or nearly so? Or how could you speak pertinently of the inward warfare, the contrary principles of flesh and spirit fighting one against another, if your own spiritual desires were always vigorous and successful, and met with little opposition or control?
The Apostle Paul, though favoured with a singular eminency in grace, felt at times that he had no sufficiency in himself so much as to think a good thought; and he saw there was a danger of his being exalted above measure, if the Lord had not wisely and graciously tempered his dispensations to prevent it. By ‘being exalted above measure,’ perhaps there may be a reference not only to his spirit, lest he should think more highly of himself than he ought, but likewise to his preaching, lest, not having the same causes of complaint and humiliation in common with others, he should shoot over the heads of his hearers, confine himself chiefly to speak of such comforts and privileges as he himself enjoyed, and have little to say for the refreshment of those who were discouraged and cast down by a continual conflict with indwelling sin. The angel who appeared to Cornelius did not preach the Gospel to him, but directed him to send for Peter. For though the glory and grace of the Saviour seems a fitter subject for an angel’s powers than for the poor stammering tongues of sinful men, yet an angel could not preach experimentally, nor describe the warfare between grace and sin from his own feelings. And if we could suppose a minister as full of comforts and as free from failings as an angel, though he would be a good and happy man, I cannot conceive that he would be a good or useful preacher; for he would not know how to sympathize with the weak and afflicted of the flock, or to comfort them under their difficulties with the consolations wherewith he himself, in similar circumstances, had been comforted of God. It belongs to your calling of God as a minister, that you should have a taste of the various spiritual trials which are incident to the Lord’s people, that thereby you may possess the tongue of the learned, and know how to speak a word in season to them that are weary; and it is likewise needful to keep you perpetually attentive to that important admonition, ‘Without me you can do nothing.’
Thus much considering you as a minister. But we may extend the subject so as to make it applicable to believers in general. I would observe, therefore, that it is a sign of a sad declension, if one, who has tasted that the Lord is gracious, should be capable of being fully satisfied with anything short of the light of his countenance, which is better than life. A resting in notions of Gospel truth, or in the recollection of past comforts, without a continual thirst for fresh communications from the fountain of life, is, I am afraid, the canker which eats away the beauty and fruitfulness of many professors in the present day; and which, if it does not prove them to be absolutely dead, is at least a sufficient evidence that they are lamentably sick. But if we are conscious of the desire. If we seek it carefully in the use of all appointed means. If we willingly allow ourselves in nothing which has a known tendency to grieve the Spirit of God, and to damp our sense of divine things. Then, if the Lord is pleased to keep us short of those comforts which he has taught us to prize, and, instead of lively sensations of joy and praise, we feel a languor and deadness of spirit, provided we do indeed feel it, and are humbled for it, we have no need to give way to despondency or excessive sorrow. Still the foundation of our hope, and the ground of our abiding joys, is the same. And the heart may be as really alive to God, and grace as truly in exercise, when we walk in comparative darkness and see little light, as when the frame of our spirits is more comfortable. Neither the reality, nor the measure of grace, can be properly estimated by the degree of our sensible comforts.
The great question is, How we are practically influenced by the word of God, as the ground of our hope, and as the governing rule of our tempers and conversation? The Apostle exhorts believers to rejoice in the Lord always. He well knew that they were exposed to trials and temptations, and to much trouble from an evil heart of unbelief; and he prevents the objections we might be ready to make, by adding, ‘And again I say, Rejoice’: as if he had said, ‘I speak upon mature consideration. I call upon you to rejoice, not at some times only, but at all times. Not only when upon the mount, but when in the valley. Not only when you conquer, but while you are fighting. Not only when the Lord shines upon you, but when he seems to hide his face.’ When he enables you to do all things, you are no better in yourselves than you were before. And when you feel you can do nothing, you are no worse. Your experiences will vary, but his love and promises are always unchangeable. Though our desires of comfort, and what we call lively frames, cannot be too importunate while they are regulated by a due submission to his will, yet they may be inordinate for lack of such submission. Sinful principles may, and too often do, mix with and defile our best desires. I have often detected the two vile abominations self-will and self-righteousness insinuating themselves into this concern. Like Satan, who works by them, they can occasionally assume the appearance of an angel of light. I have felt an impatience in my spirit, utterly unsuitable to my state as a sinner and a beggar, and to my profession of yielding myself and all my concerns to the Lord’s disposal. He has mercifully convinced me that I labour under a multiplication of disorders, summed up in the word sin.
He has graciously revealed himself to me as the infallible physician; and has enabled me, as such, to commit myself to him, and to expect my cure from his hand alone. Yet how often, instead of thankfully accepting his prescriptions, have I foolishly and presumptuously ventured to prescribe to him, and to point out how I would have him deal with me! How often have I thought something was necessary which he saw best to deny, and that I could have done better without those dispensations which his wisdom appointed to work for my good! He is God, and not man, or else he would have been weary of me, and left me to my own management long ago. How inconsistent to acknowledge that I am blind, to entreat him to lead me, and yet to want to choose my own way, in the same breath! I have limited the Holy One of Israel and not considered that he magnifies his wisdom and grace in working by contraries, and bringing good out of seeming evil. It has cost me something to bring me to confess that he is wiser than I; but I trust, through his blessing, I have not suffered wholly in vain. My sensible comforts have not been great: the proofs I have had of the evils of my sinful nature, my incapacity and aversion to good, have neither been few nor small; but by these unpromising means I hope he has made his grace and salvation precious to my soul, and in some measure weaned me from leaning to my own understanding.
Again, self-righteousness has had a considerable hand in dictating many of my desires for an increase of comfort and spiritual strength. I have wanted some stock of my own. I have been wearied of being so perpetually beholden to him, necessitated to come to him always in the same strain, as a poor miserable sinner. I would have liked to have done something for myself in common, and to have depended upon him chiefly upon extraordinary occasions. I have found indeed, that I could do nothing without his assistance, nor anything even with it, but what I have reason to be ashamed of. If this had only humbled me, and led me to rejoice in his all-sufficiency, it would have been well. But it has often had a different effect, to make me sullen, angry, and discontented, as if it was not best and most desirable that he should have all the glory of his own work, and I should have nothing to boast of, but that in the Lord I have righteousness and strength. I am now learning to glory only in my infirmities that the power of Christ may rest upon me; to be content to be nothing, that he may be all in all. But I find this a hard lesson; and when I seem to have made some proficiency, a slight turn in my spirit throws me back, and I have to begin all again.
There is an inseparable connection between causes and effects. There can be no effect without a cause, no active cause without a proportionable effect. Now indwelling sin is an active cause; and therefore, while it remains in our nature, it will produce effects according to its strength. Why then should I be surprised, that, if the Lord suspends his influence for a moment, in that moment sin will discover itself? Why should I wonder that I can feel no lively exercise of grace, no power to raise my heart to God, any farther than he is pleased to work in me mightily; any more than wonder that I do not find fire in the bottom of a well, or that it should not be day when the sun is withdrawn from the earth? Humbled I ought to be, to find I am so totally depraved; but not discouraged, since Jesus is appointed to me of God, wisdom, righteousness, sanctification, and redemption; and since I find that, in the midst of all this darkness and deadness, he keeps alive the principle of grace which he has implanted in my heart.
As to Mr. Rutherford’s expression which you mention, that ‘there is no temptation like being without temptation’, I allow it in a qualified sense. That is, it is better of the two to suffer from Satan’s fiery darts than to be lulled asleep, and drawn into a careless security by his more subtle, though less perceptible devices; so as to grow indifferent to the means of grace, and sink into a worldly spirit. Or, like the church of Laodicea, to imagine ourselves rich, and increased in goods, and that we have need of nothing. But I am persuaded this is not your case; the deadness you complain of, and which is a burden you groan under, is a very different thing. And I advise you to be cautious how you indulge a desire to be exercised with Satan’s temptations, as supposing they would be conducive to make you more spiritual, or would of course open you a way to greater consolations. If you have such a desire, I may say to you, in our Lord’s words, ‘you know not what you ask.’ He, who knows our weakness, and the power of our adversary, has graciously directed us to pray, that we enter not into temptation.
Have you considered what the enemy can do, if he is permitted to come in like a flood? In one hour he could raise such a storm as would put you to your wit’s end. He could bring such a dark cloud over your mind, as would blot out all remembrance of your past comforts, or at least prevent you from deriving the least support from them. He could not only fight against your peace, but shake the very foundations of your hope, and bring you to question, not only your interest in the promises, but even to doubt of the most important and fundamental truths upon which your hopes have been built. Be thankful, therefore, if the Lord restrains his malice. A young sailor is often impatient of a short calm, but the experienced mariner, who has been often tossed with tempests, and upon the point of perishing, will seldom wish for a storm. In a word, let us patiently wait upon the Lord, and be content to follow as he leads, and he will surely do us good.
I am, &c.
Kevin DeYoung reminds us of the words a young woman who was dying of consumption spoke to her pastor, John Newton.
Sir, you are highly favoured in being called to preach the gospel. I have often heard you with pleasure; but give me leave to tell you, that I now see all you have said, or can say, is comparatively but little. Nor, till you come into my situation, and have death and eternity in full view, will it be possible for you to conceive the vast weight and importance of the truths you declare. Oh! Sir, it is a serious thing to die; no words can express what is needful to support the soul in the solemnity of a dying hour.
Kevin adds his own counsel to those who will be preaching tomorrow:
Fellow preachers, our people are asking for living bread tomorrow. Do not give them a self-help stone. Our people may not know the weight of which we speak until they come to their end. And at that moment they will be infinitely glad they received ballast instead of blather.
John Newton: “If ever I reach heaven I expect to find three wonders there: first, to meet some I had not thought to see there; second, to miss some I had expected to see there; and third — the greatest wonder of all — to find myself there.”
[See a full review of this book here.]
Another nugget of information, this time from the John Newton Project. John Ryland Jr. was one of William Carey’s ‘ropeholders’, beloved friend of John Sutcliff, Andrew Fuller, Samuel Pearce, and others of their ilk and kidney. John Newton knew him well (Ryland’s friend John Sutcliff was a pastor in Olney itself, and their paths seem to have crossed often) and wrote to him regularly. And now for the news:
For many years Dr Grant Gordon has been collecting and editing Newton’s letters to John Ryland Junior [1753-1825]. Due out in November, watch for Wise Counsel: John Newton’s letters to John Ryland Jr., Grant Gordon, ed., Banner of Truth Trust, ISBN 978-1-84971-053-5. www.banneroftruth.org. Many of these letters have never been published before. Most will be new to most people.
When Newton entered the ministry at Olney, he met the Ryland Baptist family of Northampton. John Ryland Jr was way ahead of most of us – he had translated the entire Greek New Testament by the age of 8! Newton had a very special concern for young people and took him under his wing.
His early correspondence with Ryland began “Dear lad”. Topics ranged from serious discussions on doctrine to very specific guidance on John Jr’s marriage proposal, punctuated with friendly banter. “While you are thinking of marriage’, his mentor wrote, “I am threatened with a divorce – from my beloved Olney.” Newton shared his own pastoral experience and deliberations with the youngster, inviting him to stay at the vicarage.
As Ryland later carried the responsibilities of a pastor Newton reminded him: “There is no school like the School of the Cross. There men are made wise unto salvation, wise to win souls. In a crucified Saviour are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge. And the tongue of the truly learned, that can speak a word in season to them that are weary, is not acquired like Greek and Latin by reading great books – but by self-knowledge and soul exercises. To learn navigation by the fireside will never make a man an expert mariner. He must do his business in great waters. And practice will bring him into many situations of which general theory could give him no conception.”
Newton continued his fatherly role to the point where he could scarcely see to write in his old age. By then Ryland was President of Bristol Baptist College. “My dear friend”, Newton began in 1801, “I am 75 years, 3 months and ten days old. My eyes fail, my engagements increase, my ability to manage them decline. I have been a voluminous correspondent, but I cannot write as formerly. Yet I must chat a little with my old friend, before I quite give up. If, as is possible, this should be my last letter to you, keep it as a memorial of the love I bear you, and of my thankful remembrance of past times, when being within a few miles, we could see each other often, take sweet counsel together, and go the House of our God in company”.
Newton’s practical and Biblical guidance in these letters epitomize the role of spiritual leadership given in Ephesians 4:12 “to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ”. You will be in for a rich treat, and for much “wise counsel”, if you get a copy of this new publication, sensitively edited by Grant Gordon, himself a pastor for many years.
My friend at Grace Gems recently sent out this sobering reminder from the letters of John Newton. It is worth our while to remember in these days of activism in which we can lose our way all too easily. Newton does not deny that God makes us part of particular nation-states, but he does remind us of where our primary attachment belongs. A robust perspective on our citizenship in heaven best equips us to do lasting earthly good. This is very much of a piece with Spurgeon’s words that I posted a few days ago.
Allow me to say, that it excites both my wonder and concern, that a Christian minister such as yourself, should think it worth his while to attempt political reforms. When I look around upon the present state of the nation, such an attempt appears to me, to be no less vain and foolish, than it would be to paint the cabin – while the ship is sinking! Or to decorate the parlour – while the house is on fire!
When our Lord Jesus was upon earth, He refused to get involved in disputes or politics, “Friend, who appointed Me a judge or arbitrator over you?” Luke 12:14. “My kingdom is not of this world! If My kingdom were of this world, My servants would fight!” John 18:36. God’s children belong to a kingdom which is not of this world; they are strangers and pilgrims upon earth, and a part of their Scriptural character is, that they are the “quiet in the land.” Psalm 35:19.
Satan has many contrivances to amuse people, and to divert their thoughts from their real danger!
My dear sir, my prayer to God for you is – that He may induce you to employ the talents He has given you, in pointing out sin as the great cause and source of every existing evil; and to engage those who love and fear Him, (instead of wasting time in political speculations, for which very few of them are competent,) to sigh and cry for our abounding abominations, and to stand in the breach, by prayer, that God’s wrath may yet be averted, and our national mercies prolonged! This, I think, is the true patriotism – the best way in which people in private life may serve their country.
I consider the ungodly as saws and hammers in the hand of the Lord. So far as they are His instruments, they will succeed – but not an inch further! Their wrath shall praise Him, and be subservient to His designs!
If our lot is so cast that we can exercise our ministry free from stripes, fines, imprisonments, and death – it is more than the gospel has promised to us! If Christians were quiet when under the cruel governments of Nero and other wicked persecutors, when they were hunted down like wild beasts – then we ought to be not only quiet but very thankful now! It was then accounted an honour to suffer for Christ and the ‘offence of the cross’!
Those are to be greatly pitied, who boast of their ‘liberty’ – and yet they do not consider that they are in the most deplorable bondage – the slaves of sin and Satan, under the curse of God’s law and His eternal wrath! Oh! for a voice to reach their hearts, that they may know their true and dreadful state–and seek deliverance from their horrific thraldom! May you and I labour to direct them to the one thing, which is absolutely needful, and abundantly sufficient.
If I had the wisdom or influence to soothe the angry passions of mankind – I would gladly employ them! But I am a stranger and a pilgrim here in this world. My charter, my rights and my treasures, are all in heaven – and there my heart ought to be. In a very short time, I may be removed (and perhaps suddenly) into the unseen and eternal world – where all that now causes so much bustle upon earth – will be of no more importance to me – than the events which took place among the antediluvians!
In the hour, when death shall open the door into eternity – many things which now assume an ‘air of importance’, will be found as light and unsubstantial as a child’s dream!
How crucial then, is it for me–to be found watching, with my lamp burning, diligently engaged in my proper calling! For the Lord has not called me to set governments right – but to preach the gospel, to proclaim the glory of His name, and to endeavor to win souls! “Let the dead bury their own dead – but you go and proclaim the kingdom of God!” Luke 9:60. Happy is that servant, whom his Master finds so doing, when He returns!
As you have forced me to respond – both duty and love have obliged me to be faithful and free in giving you my thoughts.
I recommend you to the care and blessing of the great Shepherd and Saviour; and remain for His sake, your affectionate friend and brother,
Some time ago I mentioned a little book called Ministry on My Mind - transcribed entries from the diaries of John Newton as he wrestled with his call to vocational gospel ministry. As I wrote then, Michael Haykin put it on the list of books every man aspiring to the pastoral ministry ought to read.
Having now had an opportunity to read it, I would heartily concur. Honest enough to expose you, short enough to be read and re-read by you, searching enough to humble you, insightful enough to trouble you, sincere enough to shame you, careful enough to illuminate you, blunt enough to shake you.
Reading this record of Newton’s Scriptural consideration and self-examination will strip away a great deal of the fluff and faff that surrounds issues of the call in many mind and hearts. His accurately high conception of the work of pastoral ministry is something to which every potential pastor needs to be exposed, and his questions and searchings of soul will prompt our own. I would encourage pastors and prospective pastors to obtain and read this volume either as a reminder of or instructor in what we are to be and do.
To this end, here is a taste of Newton’s thoughts on the question, “Who is sufficient for these things?” (2Cor 2.16):
Who is able – who has either wisdom or strength for so great a work? What zeal, courage, diligence, faithfulness, tenderness, humility and self-denial are necessary to fill up all the various parts of the ministerial character. Whenever I think of a minister, I necessarily suppose such a one (if honoured and useful) must have an extensive knowledge of the scripture, a large stock of divine experience, an eminent degree of discernment and prudence, an ardent thirst for the glory of God, and the salvation of souls, and a readiness and aptitude to bring forth out of his treasures those instructions the Lord has given him, according as circumstances require either for stated or occasional services. And when such a one has filled up all his public work with propriety, I know he has done nothing, unless by a life of prayer, and waiting upon the Lord, he is continually watering the seed sown and unless his converse and behaviour amongst his hearers, evidently savour of that universal holiness he recommends from the pulpit. I can easier conceive than express what continual need such a one will have of all the graces of the Spirit, to prevent him pulling down with one hand what he is attempting to build up with the other, while his calls to duty are so numerous and sudden, his temptations so peculiar, his hindrances so many, and corruptions still remaining in him as well as others. How much circumspection is necessary in him, who is placed in such a point of light, that all his actions pass under constant examination of multitudes, and is sure by every mistake at once to gratify the enemies of religion, offend the consciences of the weak, and grieve the hearts of all that love the Lord and his truth?
Nor is the labour of this calling to be overlooked. It requires great strength both of mind and body, or at least extraordinary supplies and supports to each, to be living always upon the expense, to be pressing, warning, beseeching every man, publicly, from house to house, in season, out of season. To be able to wrestle, with God, to pour forth strong prayers and supplications, in the assemblies, families etc – to improve every opportunity that may offer of an open door to extend the knowledge and savour of the Gospel into adjacent, perhaps into distant places – O it is a most busy life – The Lord preserve me from entering upon it with confined or indolent aims: I cannot think of being a minister as some are, who yet I would hope are good. And yet when I look back upon what I have written, when I think seriously of what I am desirous to undertake, when I look at home upon what I am, and abroad upon what I am about to rush into, what can I return to the Apostle’s question, Who is sufficient? O Lord do thou answer for me . . .