The Wanderer

As I walked through the wilderness of this world …

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“Wise Counsel: John Newton’s Letters to John Ryland Jr.”

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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.

Written by Jeremy Walker

Wednesday 28 July 2010 at 15:38

“Pastoral Letters of Robert Murray M’Cheyne”

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Pastoral Letters by Robert Murray McCheyne

Kingsley Press (& in Memoir and Remains from Banner of Truth)

This volume draws together ten letters written by Robert Murray M’Cheyne to his flock at Dundee during his separation from them due to illness, and, subsequently, his travels to Israel.  Readers of Bonar’s Memoir and Remains of M’Cheyne will be familiar with these letters, but they are presented in this edition in their original form, without any of the changes made by M’Cheyne himself prior to their first publication.

These letters get us to the heart of the man.  Brief and ardent, they clearly come from one who lived close to God, and are of value in and of themselves, let alone as an introduction to the life and character of their author.  Where not woven out of Scripture words and phrases, they are imbued with Scripture themes and feeling.  M’Cheyne’s passionate grasp of the truth of Scripture, and his pastoral engagement with and for the people among whom he laboured, shine brightly.  There is much in these letters to instruct the Christian, as M’Cheyne urges his readers on to holiness and service; there is much to rebuke the minister, in the example of M’Cheyne’s passion for Christ’s glory and the good of Christ’s people; and, there is much to warn and entreat the careless sinner as M’Cheyne pleads with them to turn to Christ, and be delivered from the wrath to come.  God’s faithful and fruitful servant still sets a high standard for the imitation of Christ; may God grant more like him.

Written by Jeremy Walker

Wednesday 30 July 2008 at 10:34

“The armies of the Lamb: the spirituality of Andrew Fuller”

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The armies of the Lamb: the spirituality of Andrew Fuller edited and introduced by Michael A. G. Haykin

Joshua Press, 2002 (302 pp, pbk)

The letters collected in this volume provide an insight into the heart and mind of a great man of God. Andrew Fuller was at the vanguard of the recovery of balanced, Biblical Christianity – what he called ‘strict Calvinism,’ the ‘Calvinism’ of Calvin, as opposed to the hyper-Calvinism and antinomianism that infected so many churches of the time – among the Baptist churches of the eighteenth century. Best known as one of William Carey’s ‘rope-holders’ during the missionary’s rightly famed labours in India, we should remember that Fuller’s labours laid much of the foundation for Carey’s evangelistic zeal and work.

The letters in this volume reveal various facets of Fuller’s life, and the spectrum of his labours. Furthermore, Michael Haykin’s helpful biographical introduction (and the two appendices) provides a more comprehensive framework which fills out the picture of Fuller that develops as one reads. Distinctively Baptistic, yet always irenic, Fuller was ‘not fond of fighting.’ Nevertheless, the gifts the Lord bestowed upon him often found him in the front line of the fight for gospel truth.

His letters are marked by tenderness, honesty and courage, built on Scriptural conviction. They rebuke, correct, exhort, encourage, and instruct in righteousness. There is something here for every reader – for young and old, for pew and pulpit, for churches and individuals, believer and otherwise. Fuller’s language is simple, earthy, and colourful. His sentences are pithy, and his pages abound in gems of practical godliness (letter #12 being a particularly fine example). He is determined always to be thoroughly Biblical, and his evangelistic zeal is constantly evident, particularly in the combination of honesty and tenderness he shows in dealing with unbelievers.

The picture that develops is of a man centred on Christ, whose love for the Lord and his church was his motivating force. There was a robust and manly vigour about everything that Fuller did. One of his motto texts was Ecclesiastes 9.10: “Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with your might.” He is always passionate and wholehearted, whether tender and weeping, or standing in defence of the faith. However, that vigour and passion do not merely excite our admiration – they challenge our own laxity.

Of such letters in this collection, one stands out. Letter #7 is a circular addressed to the churches of the Northamptonshire Baptist Association. With searing honesty Fuller unpacks the causes of spiritual declension of the churches and sets forth a Scriptural remedy. Here Fuller unfurls the banner of Biblical Christianity. He challenges those who think in terms of what they ‘must do for God’ rather than what they ‘can do for God.’ Fuller stirs up in others the same holy dissatisfaction he felt with his own attainments. He toiled at his Christianity physically, intellectually, emotionally, and spiritually – it demanded and joyfully received all the strength of his redeemed humanity. Scripture is his standard and Christ his model as he calls on every Christian to aspire after ‘eminence in grace and holiness’ and stirs up a concern ‘not to float on the surface of Christianity, but to enter into the spirit of it!’

The poignancy and faith of his later letters, written with his approaching death in mind, will not fail to leave the reader both moved and inspired. Fuller’s life provides an example of the active, practical godliness so lacking in our own age, and his letters give a glimpse into the privileges and responsibilities of being a Christian, a member of ‘the armies of the Lamb, the grand object of whose existence is to extend the Redeemer’s kingdom.’

This volume is a rallying call to the armies of Christ, rebuking our lethargy and encouraging us to live to the glory of God, and preach a full-orbed Christ to a needy world. I trust it will inspire readers not only to search out more of Fuller’s own works (which are eminently worthy of study), but also to seek after his God-centred, Scriptural spirituality, to aspire to eminence of grace and holiness, and to pursue the vigorous and balanced Christianity that the age in which we live demands.

Written by Jeremy Walker

Friday 2 May 2008 at 12:40

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