Tim Keller Sermon: The First Wedding Day – Genesis 2:18-25
Series The Bible: The Whole Story Part 1 – Creation and Fall
Preached in Manahattan, New York, January 4, 2009
18 The Lord God said, “It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him.” 19 Now the Lord God had formed out of the ground all the beasts of the field and all the birds of the air. He brought them to the man to see what he would name them; and whatever the man called each living creature, that was its name.
20 So the man gave names to all the livestock, the birds of the air and all the beasts of the field. But for Adam no suitable helper was found. 21 So the Lord God caused the man to fall into a deep sleep; and while he was sleeping, he took one of the man’s ribs and closed up the place with flesh. 22 Then the Lord God made a woman from the rib he had taken out of the man, and he brought her to the man.
23 The man said, “This is now bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called ‘woman,’ for she was taken out of man.” 24 For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and they will become one flesh. 25 The man and his wife were both naked, and they felt no shame. – This is the Word of the Lord
We’re looking over a period of weeks and months at the central story line of the Bible. We’re trying to trace out the big picture of what the whole Bible is about. We’re starting in Genesis. We come to this very famous passage, the first wedding. Indeed, you can’t understand the story line of the Bible unless you understand something about marriage, because the Bible begins with this marriage, and at the end, in Revelation, it ends with a marriage, the wedding supper of the Lamb.
In some ways, you can understand what the whole Bible is about and what the gospel is about in terms of marriage too. We’re going to see that tonight. Now let’s start this way. There’s so much in this passage. It’s very famous. Almost everybody has heard of it or heard it or parts of it. Let’s be practical tonight. Let’s ask the text a question. I look out there and I know a number of you are not married but you are open to it. A number of you are married.
What do we need to be successful in marriage seeking and in marriage executing? What do we need to be successful in seeking out marriage and/or actually being well-married? How can we seek or be married well? We need three things, I think, according to the text. There are actually more than that, but it’s all we have time for tonight. There are three things the text tells us you really need if you’re going to be married well: attentiveness to idolatry, patience for a very long journey, and supernatural humility.
1. Attentiveness to idolatry
This is a wedding. You know how the father brings the bride down the aisle to the groom? In this case, the father is God. God is doing the honors, and he’s bringing the wife to the husband. When Adam sees Eve, he literally explodes into art. This is the first piece of art in the history of the world, according to the Bible. The reason it’s printed out on the page the way it is is because this is Hebrew poetry using parallelism, assonance, word play, and a chiastic structure. It’s a song. He’s exploding into poetry and song, and he’s saying two things.
First of all, the first Hebrew word in the poem is at last. I know it comes out in the English here as “This is now,” but that word now, which can be translated at last or finally, means Adam is saying, “This is what I’ve been looking for all my life.” Some of you might say, “Well it hasn’t been a very long life, has it?” All right, all right, but the point is he’s saying, “At last,” meaning, “This is the thing I’ve been looking for. This is what I’ve been looking for all my life.”
Well what is it? “Bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh.” That’s weird. What is that? It’s a poetic way of saying, “As I see you, I now know who I am. I have found myself in you. I’m not just coming to another; I’m coming to someone who is helping me see who I am. At last, finally, by discovering you I have found out who I am.” That’s what he’s saying. That is powerful. Let’s just spend a moment noticing that here we are in paradise, where Adam has a perfect relationship with God, yet he’s responding to romance and marriage like this.
What that means is that John Newton, whom you probably know as a hymn writer (he wrote “Amazing Grace”), but who was actually a great pastor in eighteenth-century Britain, was right when he said (which he regularly did to newlyweds), “You may think your biggest problem, spiritually speaking, is the prospect of a bad marriage.” He says, “Every bit as big a spiritual danger is the prospect of a good marriage.”
In one of his letters he wrote to this young couple who had just been married. I’ll read it to you, but it’s eighteenth-century English. He uses jargon. I’ll have to explain it. To paraphrase, he says, “Permit me to say to both of you with regard to marriage, ‘Beware of idolatry.’ I have smarted for it. I have found my choicest mercies have been the principal occasions of drawing out the evils of my heart and causing me to walk heavily and in darkness, because the old leaven, a tendency toward the covenant of works, still cleaves to me.”
What? Here’s what he’s saying. What is “covenant of works”? It’s an old theological term for a system in which you earn your salvation through perfect performance. In other words, “The reason I go to heaven and get blessed is that I’m living this good life. I’m doing everything perfectly, and therefore I get blessed.” That’s called the covenant of works.
What is he saying? He says his biggest problem, practically, in his life has been idolatry with regard to his wife and his marriage, which helps him slip back into a covenant of works. He says there is (or can be) something so powerful about marriage, so fulfilling about marriage, that unless you deliberately stop it, this is what’s going to happen. You will look to your spouse to give you the things only God can really give you.
You will look to your spouse’s love, your spouse’s respect, your spouse’s affirmation, to give you meaning in life, and to give you a foundation for your own sense of value, all of the things you should only be getting from God. In other words, you will be looking to your spouse to save you. It’ll slip you back into the covenant of works. Oh, you won’t say that. You won’t say that to yourself, and you won’t say that to other people, but you’ll be doing it.
In fact, you’ll be doing it unless you know you’re doing it and stop it, because marriage is this powerful a thing. It’s this attractive a thing. It’s this great a thing. “O Lord,” says John Newton, “save us from the wonderfulness of marriage.” If you do it (and we will do it, to some degree) … In fact, as I’ll show you in a minute, the idolatry happens even if your marriage is bad. No human relationship can bear the weight of those kinds of expectations.
You will crush your marriage with those expectations. Nobody can bear the weight of the expectations and the hopes of ultimate joy. The criticism of your spouse will crush you. The problems of your spouse will crush you. They will devastate you much more than they should, because you’re looking to your spouse and to marriage to save you, to make everything right in your life. Now there are a whole lot of ways this plays out. Let me just give you a couple.
When you’re married, the way it plays out is you just feel that your spouse isn’t perfect. “My marriage isn’t perfect, and I don’t like it.” You cannot live with imperfection. You can’t ever settle for anything other than this incredible picture you have in your mind of absolute blissful love. You have to have it, because you’re looking to it to give you what only God can give you. So when you’re not able to actually handle mediocrity in marriage, and you get all bent out of shape about the imperfections of your spouse and your marriage and refuse to be content with the good things you have, it’s idolatry.
How do unmarried people do it? There are a lot of ways. One of the ways unmarried people make an idol out of marriage and think it’s going to save them and fix them is by being incredibly picky as they evaluate spousal prospects. You say, “Oh, I want a marriage, and it’s going to be like this, and it’s going to be like this. This person has to be so this and this.” You’re looking for virtually perfect spousal prospects, but there aren’t any out there. And you’re not perfect spousal prospects. Hypocrite! You want something you’re not, and that’s idolatry.
Or maybe the most frequent form of idolatry I know is a single person who wants to be married and who so pines after being married that they cannot enjoy their present condition. What are we going to do? This is just plain common sense. There’s a tendency for us to say, “So are you trying to say I shouldn’t love my spouse too much, or hope to love my spouse too much?”
C.S. Lewis says it is probably impossible to love any human being too much. You may love him too much in proportion to your love for God, but it is the smallness of your love for God, not the greatness of your love for the person, that constitutes the inordinacy. Do you know what that means? Marriage will strangle us unless we have a really great, true, existential love relationship with God.
You must not try to demote your love for your spouse or the person you think you’re going to marry. You can’t at all. You have to promote your love for God. Otherwise, it’ll strangle you. Don’t you see that? So married people, you have to do that, or you are not going to be able to settle for the imperfections of your marriage and of your spouse, and single people, you have to remember Christianity is the only major religion that was started by a single person. Do you know that?
Traditional societies believe you’re nobody unless you’re somebody’s spouse, but our faith was started by a single man. Another one of the great founders of Christianity, Saint Paul, has an interesting place in 2 Corinthians where he says, “You want to be married? Great. You’re not married? Great.” That was unique in antiquity, because in ancient times and in traditional cultures, you’re nobody unless you’re married.
But Paul says the relationship every single Christian has with God through Christ is so intimate and so great, and the relationship Christian brothers and sisters have inside the family of God is so great, no one who’s single should be seen as being a second-class person. You are fully human as a single person. After all, the person who saved us was single. I mean, all of this works against idolatry. Use it. But that’s only the first thing we need.
2. Patience for the long journey
A very long journey. Verse 18: “The LORD God said, ‘It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him.’ ” This little word, “a helper suitable …” Let’s look at this, and let me show you why I’m saying this is telling us marriage is a long journey.
The Hebrew word used here that’s translated to the word helper is regularly used in the Bible in Hebrew to refer to military reinforcements. So here’s an overwhelmed little army. You’re outnumbered five to one, and you’re about to be destroyed, and in come reinforcements. That’s help: military reinforcements. In fact, several times God uses that term for himself and says, “You were about to be wiped out, O Israelite army, but I came in and smote everybody with blindness, or I knocked them out, and I saved you. You would have been destroyed without my help.”
Help is a military word, help is a strong word, help is a divine word, and God has the audacity to use it to refer to Eve. What the woman brings into the man’s life is a strength, but here’s a certain kind of strength. Do you see that word suitable? Some translations try to translate it “I will make a helper fit for him.” “I will make a helper meet for him.” That’s the old King James, a helpmeet. “I will make a helper that is suitable for him.”
There are actually two Hebrew words there the word suitable is trying to translate. The Hebrew word literally says, “I will make a helper like opposite him.” Like opposite? Wait a minute. Make up your mind here. Is it like or is it opposite? You can’t be like and opposite. Oh yes, it can, if it’s a complement. See, two pieces of a puzzle fit together not if they’re identical. If they’re identical, they don’t fit. Right? On the other hand, they can’t just be different in general. They have to be rightly different. They have to be like opposite. They have to be perfectly complementary.
Now here’s what we’re being told. God is sending into Adam’s life (and therefore, God is sending into Eve’s life by definition) somebody with enormous power but power that is very different. Like opposite. This help does what? The poem tells you what’s happening. Into your life in marriage comes a person of a different gender, a person with mysteriously profound differences that are really almost impossible to define.
As soon as you start to try to define the difference between male and female, it never quite fits. Yet there it is, and it’s irreducible, and it’s inexorable. In marriage, into your life comes a person with a very radically different view of you, of the world, a person of different gender, of equal power, equal resources, but incredibly different, and you’re thrown into an incredibly tight, close relationship.
Do you know how close? One flesh. “A man shall leave his father and mother and cleave to his wife. The two shall become one flesh.” That word flesh is not what you think. It’s not talking about the bodies. When God says, “I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh,” he’s not saying, “I will pour out my Spirit on all bodies.” He’s saying, “I will pour out my Spirit on all persons.”
What it is saying is marriage puts you into the same space. You literally occupy the same space. You hold things in common. You’re raising your family together. Two people, very different, like you, not you, opposite you, put together in the same tight location. What’s going to happen? Constantly butting heads. It has to be. This is a military word. Let me put it like this. I’ve used this illustration before, but I hope this’ll be even more illuminating under these circumstances.
My wife and I have had 34 years of marriage. Neither my wife nor I are particularly gender-stereotyped. I’m not a particularly masculine-type guy. My wife is not a particularly feminine kind of girl. Yet you get into marriage, and you find you see the world differently, and you see each other differently. She sees things in me I would never see, but she sees because she’s a different gender and she’s in close, and I see things in her, and I see things in the world.
After 34 years of conflict, of arguing, of head-butting (it’s military, you know), now every single day when I get out into the world and things happen to me, I have a split second to react. What am I going to say? What am I going to do? What am I going to think? For years, even halfway through my marriage, I only thought like a man, but now, after years and years of head-butting, here’s what happens.
Something happens, and for a split second, I not only know what I would do, what I would think, how I would respond, but I know how Kathy would think, and I know what Kathy would do. For a split second, because it’s so instilled in me, I actually have a choice. Which of these approaches would probably work better? You see, my wisdom portfolio has been permanently diversified. I’m a different person, and yet I’m me. I haven’t become more feminine. In fact, probably in many ways I’ve become more masculine as time has gone on.
What’s going on? She came into my life, and now I know who I am. I’ve become who I’m supposed to be only through the head-butting, only through having a person who’s like me, not me, opposite to me, in close. Now here’s what worries me a great deal about marriage in our culture. We are consumers. We are trained to be consumers. Consumers do a cost-benefit analysis, and you do it in your head automatically. You don’t even realize how much you’ve been trained to do it.
You want a product that satisfies. You don’t want a product that fights back. You want a product that does exactly what you want, customized. You don’t want someone who’s like you, not you, opposite you. I’m afraid we get into our marriages and we say, “This isn’t right. This is supposed to be blissful. This is supposed to be beautiful. It’s supposed to be wonderful. Why are we always having these confrontations?” Because marriage is meant to, or you’ll never become the person God wants you to be. You’ll never finally get there.
It’s not just Eve who’s brought into Adam’s life with her gender resources to help him be who he’s supposed to be. Go to Ephesians 5. Do you realize it’s the same thing as Genesis 2, reversed? “Husbands, love your wives as Christ loved the church. Give yourself for her. Help her become who she ought to be. Make her a radiant person. Find ways of helping her overcome her flaws.” It’s the same thing. He’s using his gender-differentiated resources to bring her to who she should be, but it’s a long journey. Will you have the patience to stick with it?
This is the reason one of my favorite quotes that I always read every time I can when I’m preaching on marriage … Stanley Hauerwas says there’s an assumption out there in the culture that there’s someone just right for us to marry, and if we look closely enough we will find that right person. That’s the consumer mindset.
“This overlooks a crucial fact about marriage. It fails to appreciate the fact that when you get married, you always marry the wrong person. We never know who we marry; we just think we do. Even if we first marry the right person, just give it a while, and he or she will change. For marriage, being the enormous thing it is, means we are not the same person after we’ve entered it.”
Do you get that? You know, you’re looking. “Oh, I want to marry the right person.” So you’re trying to evaluate who that person is, but how do you know who that person is going to be when you get in there? Once you get in there, marriage is so incredibly powerful it’s going to change the person. You always marry the wrong person, as it were. You always marry somebody who’s going to be butting heads with you.
Where will you get the patience to stick with it and to understand what the confrontation is there for? Marriage is not designed to bring you so much into confrontation with your spouse; it’s actually designed to bring you into confrontation with yourself, to show you your sins, to show you what’s wrong with you, to show you ways to change that otherwise you never would find.
Remember how Ulysses during his odyssey at one point had to navigate his boat right through the center between the Scylla and the Charybdis? The Scylla is idolatry, because that’s romantic naïveté, this incredibly beautiful high view of marriage that is so unrealistic, and the Charybdis is the disillusionment of actually finding out what marriage is like and being afraid of it and being cynical about it because it’s always so much work. How are we going to get what we need to have a vaccine against the idolatry but, at the same time, a patience so that marriage will pay off in the end?
3. A kind of humility only the gospel can give you
It’s indicated here at the beginning where it says, “The LORD God said, ‘It is not good for the man to be alone.’ ” Most commentators will tell you that is a very surprising statement. It’s first of all surprising because it’s a departure. Up to now, everything God has been saying is, “It is good.” It keeps saying, “He saw this, and it was good. He made this, and it was good.” This is the first thing to which he says, “Not good.” Everything else was a benediction, a good word. This is the first malediction, a bad word. This is bad. So that’s surprising.
What’s really surprising about it is it’s inexplicable. How could you be unhappy in paradise? Why would Adam be lonely? Why would he be unhappy in paradise? There’s only one possible answer, really. God deliberately made him to need someone besides God. Oh, don’t get me wrong. We all need God. He made us to need him, and that’s the foundation of a relationship, but think about this. Several theologians have put it like this.
This is the most humble act you could imagine. This is the most un-self-centered act you could imagine. God made human beings to need not just him, but other human beings, other relationships, other selves, other hearts. How humble of God, how un-self-centered of God, how other-oriented of God, how sacrificial, in a way, of God. It’s nothing compared to what we see later. Here’s what we see later. When in the Bible God says repeatedly in Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Hosea, “I am the bridegroom, and you, my people, are the bride,” do you know what that’s teaching? It’s teaching two things.
First of all, it’s teaching you need to have God in your life, not just as someone you believe in, not just as someone you try to obey; you need God in your life as your spouse. He’s the ultimate helpmeet you need. He’s like you but not you. He’s like you because you’re in his image. That means you’re personal and relational. He’s personal and relational. But he’s not like you because he’s holy. There is no other helpmeet you need in your life like God.
You’ll never become the person you’re supposed to be unless he comes into your life, not just as a kind of abstract principle of love or somebody you kind of obey in a general way. He has to be in your life as your lover. He has to be in your life intimately. There has to be interaction. There has to be prayer. There has to be listening to his Word. All that has to be there. Why? You need him. That’s the main help you need. He has to be in your life. He’s like you and not you. You’ll never become the person you ought to be unless that’s the case. So we need to have that relationship. He is the ultimate spousal relationship we need.
The second thing this teaches when he says, “I am the bridegroom and you are the bride,” is he has given us his heart. A groom does not ask a woman to marry him unless he has lost his heart, as it were. His heart is bound up with her. This is God’s way of saying, “I have given you my heart, and how you act and how you live and how you treat me now hurts me.”
Think about this. The Bible says when you say, “Oh, I believe in God,” but you really live for your career, or you really live for this or you live for that, that’s called spiritual adultery. You’ve given the deepest passions and love of your heart to someone besides God. The Bible says God has a sense of betrayal and grief far greater (because he’s perfect and holy and his love is perfect) than you would feel if your human spouse was unfaithful to you.
By the way, there are people in this room that has happened to, and you know how bad it is. Therefore, you know how incredible it is for God to say, “What you have felt is nothing like the grief I feel when I look at every one of you every day.” This means we are the spouses from hell, and God is in the longest-lived, worst marriage in the history of the world. Now you can understand the whole history of the Bible.
Why did God come to earth in the form of Jesus Christ? John 1, says he came to his own, but his own received him not. He was trying to get us back. He was trying to get his wayward bride back. But we didn’t just spurn him; we nailed him to the cross. Some of you may be in bad marriages and you think, “Oh, my spouse is crucifying me,” but in God’s case it really happened.
When he was on the cross looking down, realizing what it would take for him to stay and love us to the end, guess what? He stayed. Here’s the ultimate spousal love. Here’s the man, here’s the spouse, who has no illusions. He doesn’t expect us to be perfect. He knows we’re not perfect. He’s loving us not because we’re lovely and not because we’re going to give him so much affirmation. He loves us to make us lovely. He loves us for our sakes, not for his sake, so he’s the perfect spouse, and he’s the perfect helpmeet.
He has come into our lives, and he has gone to the cross, and he has died on the cross for our sins. When he did that … Martin Luther says, “Now you understand the gospel.” Martin Luther has a great little essay he wrote called “The Freedom of a Christian.” In it he tries to give the essence of what it means that you’re saved by faith, not by works. He says there’s no better way than understanding what Jesus Christ did when he died on the cross for our sins and says, “Now believe in me.”
Listen to this paraphrase from “The Freedom of a Christian.” This is incredible. “The third incomparable grace of faith is this: it unites us to Christ as a wife and a husband are made one flesh. When two people are married, it follows that all they have becomes theirs in common, good things as well as evil things, so that whatsoever Christ possesses, that now belongs to you, and whatever belongs to you, that Christ claims as his.
Oh, if we compare these possessions we shall see how infinite is our gain. For Christ is full of grace, life, and salvation, and we are full of sin, death, and condemnation. But let faith step in, and then sin, death, and hell belong to Christ, and grace, life, and salvation come to us. For if he is a husband, he must needs take to himself that which is his wife’s and, at the same time, impart to his wife that which is his.
Therefore, we the believing, by the wedding ring of faith, become free from all sin, fearless of death, safe from hell, and endowed with this eternal righteousness, life, and salvation of our husband Jesus Christ. Oh, who can value highly enough these royal nuptials? Who can comprehend the riches of the glory of his grace? Do you not see the importance of faith, which is a wedding ring, and that it alone can fulfill the law and justify without works?”
If you know our spouse, Jesus Christ, died for us, that he had the patience to stick with us to the end, that he didn’t come and love us because we were lovely but to make us lovely, that’s everything you need for two reasons. First of all, there’s the patience you need for the journey. The main thing you need to really stick with a marriage is you need to over and over and over again look at your spouse and say, “You wronged me, but I wronged my great spouse, Jesus Christ, and he kept covering me and forgiving me, so I’m loved enough by him that I can offer the same thing to you.” That’s the only way you’ll have the patience for the journey.
Here’s the other thing. It’s the vaccine against idolatry. If you look at your spouse and say, “He or she isn’t very incredible, is he or she?” and if you look at your own life as an unmarried person and say, “Why can’t I be married?” now look at this spouse. This spouse, Jesus Christ, is the only spouse who’s really going to save you. He’s the only one who can really fulfill you. The great wedding day on which we fall into his arms is the only wedding day that will really make everything right in our lives, and it awaits you if you put on the wedding ring of faith.
So don’t get too upset about the flaws in your current life. Single people, here’s one last thing to say. You say, “How am I ever going to become myself and figure out who I am if I don’t get married?” Think about this. When you get married, it pulls you away from all of the brothers and sisters out there in the church. I mean, there are a lot of men and women out there who can be your friends, people of a different gender as well.
When you get married, it gets you into a deep relationship with one person of the other gender, and it pulls you away from all kinds of other relationships with men and women. Therefore, there are a lot of ways in which God can get you help through the body of Christ that you can’t get once you’re married. It’s up to God to know what you need to grow in grace and what you need to grow into the person he wants you to be. Only he knows whether you should be married. Only he knows whether you should not be married. So let him rule your life.
The Bible begins with a wedding, and this wedding’s original purpose was to fill the world with children of God, and it failed. Why? Because the husband in that marriage failed to step in and help his wife when she needed him. But at the end of time there will be another wedding, the marriage supper of the Lamb, and its purpose is to fill the world with children of God, and it will succeed where the first marriage failed. Do you know why? Because the first husband failed, but the second husband will not. The true Adam, Jesus Christ, will never let his wife down. He hasn’t. He won’t. Let us love him for that. Let’s pray.
Our Father, we thank you for giving us insights into the gospel through the metaphor of marriage. We thank you that now, as we partake of the bread and the cup, we actually have a foretaste of that wedding feast. We just need to come closer to you and have a closer walk of love with our true spouse, Jesus Christ, so we can be, in all of our relationships, who we need to be. We ask that you would meet with us now. We pray in Jesus’ name, amen.
ABOUT THE PREACHER
In 1989 Dr. Timothy J. Keller, his wife and three young sons moved to New York City to begin Redeemer Presbyterian Church. In 20 years it has grown to meeting for five services at three sites with a weekly attendance of over 5,000. Redeemer is notable not only for winning skeptical New Yorkers to faith, but also for partnering with other churches to do both mercy ministry and church planting. Redeemer City to City is working to help establish hundreds of new multi-ethnic congregations throughout the city and other global cities in the next decades.
Dr. Tim Keller is the author of several phenomenal Christo-centric books including:
Joy for the World: How Christianity Lost Its Cultural Influence and Can Begin Rebuilding It (co-authored with Greg Forster and Collin Hanson (February or March, 2014).
Romans 1-7 For You (God’s Word For You Series). The Good Book Company (2014).
Encounters with Jesus:Unexpected Answers to Life’s Biggest Questions. New York, Dutton (November 2013).
Walking with God through Pain and Suffering. New York, Dutton (October 2013).
Judges For You(God’s Word For You Series). The Good Book Company (August 6, 2013).
Galatians For You (God’s Word For You Series). The Good Book Company (February 11, 2013).
Every Good Endeavor: Connecting Your Work to God’s Plan for the World. New York, Penguin Publishing, November, 2012.
Center Church: Doing Balanced, Gospel-Centered Ministry in Your City. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, September, 2012.
The Freedom of Self Forgetfulness. New York: 10 Publishing, April 2012.
Generous Justice:How God’s Grace Makes Us Just. New York: Riverhead Trade, August, 2012.
The Gospel As Center: Renewing Our Faith and Reforming Our Ministry Practices (editor and contributor). Wheaton: Crossway, 2012.
The Meaning of Marriage: Facing the Complexities of Commitment with the Wisdom of God. New York, Dutton, 2011.
King’s Cross:The Story of the World in the Life of Jesus (Retitled: Jesus the KIng: Understanding the Life and Death of the Son of God). New York, Dutton, 2011.
Gospel in Life Study Guide: Grace Changes Everything. Grand Rapids, Zondervan, 2010.
The Reason For God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism. New York, Dutton, 2009.
Counterfeit Gods: The Empty Priorities of Money, Sex, and Power, and the Only Hope That Matters. New York, Riverhead Trade, 2009.
Heralds of the King: Christ Centered Sermons in the Tradition of Edmund P. Clowney (contributor). Wheaton: Crossway Books, 2009.
The Prodigal God. New York, Dutton, 2008.
Worship By The Book (contributor). Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2002.
Ministries of Mercy: The Call of the Jericho Road. Phillipsburg: P&R Publishing, 1997.
Tags: # Aspects of a successful marriage, Attentiveness to idolatry, Humility, John Newton on marriage, Patience, Series The Bible: The Whole Story Part 1 - Creation and Fall, Successful in marriage, The First Wedding
If John Newton is not best of the writers of pious letters, he certainly occupies a most distinguished place among them; and if the age of such letter-writing is now very much a thing of the past, there is yet a permanent value and interest in these productions of Newton. We have abundant evidence in the life of this good man that his letters were perused "with avidity and delight" wherever they were known, and that they were to a singular extent instrumental of good. Such testimonies came to him from all quarters. Mr. Newton's conviction of a special call to this service is evident from his reply, addressed, at the close of his life, to a friend who was speaking to him of the benefit he had derived from his letters, "Yes," he said, "the Lord saw I should be most useful by them." Hence his extraordinary diligence in this work. Not only were Omicron, Cardiphonia, and Letters to a Wife, published by himself — but there are also his Posthumous Letters, and several separate volumes published by his friends, together with very many more which have never seen the light.
Cardiphoniawas the happy title which the poet Cowper suggested to Mr. Newton for the principal volumes of his letters, and they are truly the voice of the heart. It is an apt and beautiful description of them; for it must be remembered that, with the exception of Omicron's Letters — none of these productions were originally intended for publication. Written by a man of large Christian experience, of clear and discriminating views of truth, and of deep sympathy with those he addresses — these letters are, according to the various circumstances of his correspondents, designed to guide and direct, to comfort, or, if need be, with all tenderness to reprove, while they often become the ardent effusions of Christian love towards those who formed the inner circle of his friends. They are full of wisdom and piety, rich in kindly feeling, written in easy flowing language, with many happy turns of expression, and often made striking by their simple yet ingenious illustrations.
Notwithstanding all this, the letters of Mr. Newton are now little known. Cardiphonia has become a scarce book; other published series have had but a limited circulation, while the posthumous letters are well near buried in the six-volume edition of our Author's works. It is believed that the recent publication of Newton's Life has awakened a fresh interest in his memory; and it has been suggested to the Editor to prepare a Selection of his letters as a companion volume to that work. From the space to which he is limited, their number is few, as compared with the many Mr. Newton wrote. He has been kindly furnished with some letters never before published; and for this and other help, he would here return his grateful thanks. To A. C. Hobart Seymour, Esq., he is under special obligation for the interest he has taken in this work, and the valuable assistance he has afforded.
There are one or two features in this volume it may be well to notice. It has been thought desirable to introduce each series of letters with a slight biographical sketch of the correspondent to whom such letters are addressed. The wish on the part of the reader for such information is natural and justifiable, as greatly enhancing his interest in their perusal. The remote period at which these letters were written renders it possible, without any impropriety, to gratify this feeling. Such an arrangement has another advantage. It is a pleasant relief to the attention which, otherwise, is apt to become wearied in the continuous perusal of a series of letters, especially of this class, however excellent in themselves, where there is otherwise no natural break nor pause. Wherever it has been necessary for explanation, notes have been added to throw light on the subject to which reference is made.
One other remark may be added. A tone of eulogy it may be thought, runs through most of the biographical sketches, bringing all their subjects up to the same high level of Christian experience and practice. The explanation is simple. The time when Mr. Newton wrote was a season of great spiritual revival in the Church. The godly people of that day were far more separate from the world than now, and exhibited, we venture to think, a higher type of the pious life. At all events, Mr. Newton's circle of friends was certainly among the best men and women of the day. Towards such, his affections were especially drawn out, and with them he came chiefly into contact and most entirely sympathized.
Josiah Bull, Editor
The following letters are taken from Mr. Newton's sequel to Cardiphonia, published after his death. They are headed "Eighteen Letters addressed to several Ladies" principally however to Miss Medhurst. These ladies lived in Yorkshire, and were frequently visited by Mr. Newton in the several tours he made in that district, at the time of his residence in Liverpool. It is presumed that these friends lived near together, and sought each other's society that by pious fellowship they might promote their own spiritual life and devise plans of usefulness for the good of others. The strain of Mr. Newton's letters shows them to have been eminently devout women. Miss Medhurst was related to the Countess of Huntingdon.
To Miss Medhurst.
Letter I. — Duty and happiness of looking to Jesus.
September 10, 1760.
Dear Madam — I address my letter to you — but consider myself as writing to the whole of the little society I had the pleasure of meeting at your house, and at Miss K.'s. I still reflect with pleasure on the opportunities I was favored with among you; and if, as I hope, my little visits were not unacceptable to each or any of you, let us not lose a moment in apologies or compliments to each other — but refer the whole praise to where it is wholly due. . . . . Though we can but lisp a little word about the Lord's goodness — yet when He is pleased to be near us, his presence and blessing can work by the humblest instrument, and cause our hearts to burn within us. . . .
The best advice I can send, or the best wish I can form for you, is, that you may have an abiding and experimental sense of those words of the apostle which are just now upon my mind, "Looking unto Jesus!" The duty, the privilege, the safety, the unspeakable happiness, of a believer — are all comprised in that one sentence! Let us first pray that the eyes of our faith and understanding may be opened and strengthened; and then let us fix our whole gaze upon Him!
But HOW are we to behold Him? I answer, in the looking-glass of His written Word! There He is represented to us in a variety of views. The wicked world can see no form nor loveliness in the portraiture He has given of Himself. Yet blessed be God, there are those who can "behold His glory as the glory of the only begotten Son of God, full of grace and truth!" And while they behold it, they find themselves "changed into His image, from glory to glory," by the transforming influence of the Spirit. In vain we use our reasonings and arguments, and resolutions — to beat down our corruptions, and to silence our fears; but a believing view of Jesus does the business!
When heavy trials in life are appointed to us, and we are called to give up, or perhaps to pluck out, a right eye — it is an easy matter for a bystander to say "Be comforted;" and it is as useless as easy; but a view of Jesus by faith comes home to the point. When we can fix our thoughts upon him, as laying aside all his honors, and submitting for our sakes to drink off the bitter cup of the wrath of God to the very dregs; and when we further consider, that He who thus suffered in our nature, who knows and sympathizes with all our weakness — is now the Supreme Disposer of all that concerns us, that He numbers the very hairs of our heads, appoints every trial we meet with in number, weight, and measure, and will allow nothing to befall us but what shall contribute to our good — this view, I say, is a medicine suited to the disease, and powerfully reconciles us to every cross!
Just so, when a sense of sin prevails, and the tempter is permitted to assault us with dark and dreadful suggestions — it is easy for another to say, "Do not be afraid!" But those who have tried, well know that looking to Jesus is the only and sure remedy in this case. If we can get a sight of him by faith, as He once hung between the two thieves, and as He now pleads within the veil — then we can defy sin and Satan, and give our challenge in the apostle's words, "Who is he who condemns? It is Christ who died, yes rather that is risen again, who also makes intercession for us." (Romans 8:34.)
Again, are we almost afraid of being swallowed up by our many restless enemies — or, are we almost weary of our long pilgrimage through such a thorny, tedious, barren wilderness? A sight of Jesus, as Stephen saw him, crowned with glory — yet noticing all the sufferings of his poor servants, and just ready to receive them to himself, and make them partakers of his everlasting joy — this will raise our spirits and restore our strength! This will animate us to hold on, and to hold out; this will do it and nothing but this can!
So, if obedience be the thing in question, looking unto Jesus is the object that melts the soul into love and gratitude! Those who greatly love, and are greatly obliged — find obedience to be easy. When Jesus is upon our thoughts, either in His humbled — or His exalted state; either as bleeding on the cross — or as worshiped by all the host of heaven then we can ask the apostle's question with a befitting disdain, "Shall we continue in sin that grace may abound? God forbid!" What! shall I sin against my Lord, my Love, my Friend — who once died for my sins, and now lives and reigns on my behalf! What! shall I sin against my Redeemer who supports, and leads, and guides, and feeds me every day? God forbid! No! I would rather wish for a thousand hands and eyes, and feet, and tongues — for ten thousand lives — that I might devote them all to His blessed service. He would have all then; and surely He shall have all now!
Alas, that in spite of myself there still remains something that resists his will! but I long and pray for its destruction; and I see a day coming when my wish shall be accomplished, and I shall be wholly and forever the Lord's.
"Looking unto Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith!" Hebrews 12:2
I am your affectionate servant.
To Miss Medhurst and Her Friends.
Letter II. — Trials ought not to discourage us — Gracious promises of future blessedness — Necessity of humility and watchfulness.
November 2, 1761.
My dear Sisters — Your letter was welcome and comfortable. I praise the Lord on your behalf. . . You have reason, indeed, to praise the Lord, and so have I. Oh, what a wonder of grace, that Jesus should say to those who were once children of wrath, "Behold I go to my Father — and to your Father, to my God — and to your God!" John 20:17. "Henceforth I call you not servants but friends," and as a proof of it, "Ask what you will, and it shall be done unto you." Here are words sufficient either to raise our souls up to heaven — or to bring heaven down to our souls, according to that glorious promise which to many is fulfilled even in our day. "Behold, the tabernacle of God is with men, and he will dwell with them, and they shall be his people, and God himself shall be with them, and be their God." Rev. 21:3.
Let us not be greatly discouraged at the many tribulations, difficulties, and disappointments which lie in the path that leads to glory — seeing that our Lord has foretold us of them, has made a suitable provision for every case we can meet with, and is Himself always near to those who call upon Him in His almighty strength — as a sure refuge, and a never-failing, ever-present help in every time of trouble!
Seeing likewise that He himself was a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief for our sakes. He drank off the full cup of unmixed wrath for us; shall we then refuse to taste of the cup of affliction at His appointment, especially when His wisdom and love prepare it for us, and proportion every circumstance to our strength; when He puts it into our hands, not in anger but in tender mercy — to do us good, to bring us near to Himself; and when He sweetens every bitter draught, with those comforts which none but He can give?
Let us rather say, None of these things move us, neither do we count anything on this side eternity dear, so that we may finish our course with joy, and run with patience the race which is set before us.
The time is short, the world is passing away, all its cares and all its vanities will soon be at an end! Yet a little while, and "we shall see Him as He is." Every veil shall be taken away — every seeming frown be removed from His face — and every tear wiped away from ours! We shall also be like Him. Even now, when we contemplate his glory as shining in the looking-glass of the Gospel, we feel ourselves, in some measure, transformed into the same image: what a sudden, wonderful, and abiding change shall we then experience, when He shall shine directly, immediately, and eternally upon our souls without one interposing cloud between! Because He lives — we shall live also; because He shines — we likewise shall shine forth as the sun, in our Savior's brightness: then shall we sing with understanding those glorious songs, Isaiah 61:10; Rev. 5:9, and 7:10, without one jarring note, or one wandering thought forever.
"Having therefore these promises, dearly beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from all filthiness of flesh and spirit, perfecting holiness in the fear of the Lord." "Let us lay aside every weight!" "Let us not be slothful," but followers of that cloud of witnesses who in every age have set their word to the truth and power of God. They were once as poor as we are now; they had their trials and their fears, their enemies and their temptations; they were exercised with a wicked heart, and a wicked world; and I doubt not, but many of them, in a fit of unbelief, have been ready to conclude, "I shall one day perish by the hand of Saul!" But at length the "blood of Jesus, and the word of his testimony," made them more than conquerors; and now their warfare is finished, they are "before the throne of God and the Lamb, and shall go no more out!" While we are sighing — they are singing; while we are fighting — they are triumphing; but their song, their triumph, their joy, will not be complete until we are called up to join them. The Lord prepare us for, and hasten, the happy hour.
The strain of your present experience requires you, above all others, to be humble and watchful; and I trust you are so. However, it is our duty to exhort one another daily. One of the greatest contradictions in human nature, and the very strongest proof of our depravity is, that the communication of extraordinary measures of divine comforts, which in their own nature have a direct tendency to humble — has, through our corruptions, sometimes a contrary effect; not in the present moment, indeed that is impossible — but afterwards. Paul himself was liable to danger in this matter: see 2 Corinthians 12:7. You will do well, therefore, to entreat the Lord to give you a double guard on this side, to keep you in continual remembrance what you were by nature — and what you still are in yourselves. We are often forced to learn this recollection by bitter experience.
Again, be watchful. Many eyes are upon you. Satan envies you. Oh! he hates to see any people, especially young people, walking very closely with God. So far as he is permitted, he will spread snares for your feet every hour. He desires to have you, "that he may sift you as wheat."
Further, the world observes you: many would rejoice at your halting; and a little thing in you would give them more pleasure and advantage in opposing the truth, than a greater slip in others who are content to plod on in the common way.
I do not mention these things to discourage you. No, were every leaf upon the trees, and every blade of grass a sworn enemy to our souls — we are safe under the shadow of our great Rock; the blessing is his and He will not withhold it; but the appointed means are our part, and it is our wisdom and happiness to be found waiting on him in the use of them.
To Miss Medhurst.
Letter III. — How the unspeakable mercy of God in Christ ought to affect us — Happiness of the saints in heaven — Heaven near to us — Personal experience.
May 25, 1762.
My dear Madam — How can I begin better than with the apostle's words, "Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all consolation, who, according to His abundant mercy, has begotten us again to a lively hope by the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead!" What a fountain of life and joy and praise is here! that the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ — should vouchsafe to be our Father, our God; that He who is the source of all mercy and consolation — should direct the stream of his fullness to flow into our souls; that when we are dead in sins — He should look upon us and bid us live; that when we were sunk into the depths of despair — He should send his word and raise us to a lively hope; that He should give us such a bright prospect, and such a sweet foretaste of the exceeding riches of his glory!
Oh! who can say which is the most wonderful part of this wonderful subject? that He should provide such a happiness for such hell-deserving wretches, and that He should commend his great and undeserved love to us in such a wonderful way, as to give his own and his only Son to be born, to be buffeted, to be crucified for us? Alas! alas! for our stupidity, that we can write, or hear, or speak of these things — with so little feeling, affection, and fruitfulness. Oh! that the power of God would set my heart and pen at liberty while writing, and fill your heart while reading — that we may rejoice with joy unspeakable and full of glory!
Oh this unbelief! Why can we not pierce through the veil of flesh and blood, and by faith behold the humble worship of heaven? What countless multitudes have gone before us in the path that leads to that kingdom! They were, in their time, followers of an unseen Savior, as we are now; but now they see him as He is, face to face in all his glory, and in all his love. With them are joined the innumerable company of angels. Angels and saints however distinguished, are joined in one happiness and one employment. Even now, while I write, and while you read — they are praising the Lamb who was slain, and casting their crowns at his feet! And perhaps this scene is not so far distant as we imagine.
Where is heaven?Is it some millions of leagues from us, far beyond the sun and the fixed stars? What have immortal spirits to do with space and place? Who knows — but a heaven-born soul, who is freed from the clog of this vile body, and filled with all the fullness of God, may pass as easily and quickly from one brink of the creation to the other, as our thoughts can change and fly from east to west — from the past to the future? Perhaps, even now, we live in the midst of this glorious assembly; heaven is there where our God and Savior displays himself; and do not you feel him near you, nearer than any of his visible works? Perhaps there is nothing but this thin partition of flesh and blood between us and those blessed spirits that are before the throne! If our eyes were open — we would see the mountains around us covered with chariots and horses of fire! If our ears were unstopped — we would hear the praises of our great Immanuel resounding in the air, as once the shepherds heard. What a comfortable meditation is this, to strengthen our weak faith in such a dark declining day as this, when sense would almost persuade us that we are left to serve God alone!
When we are wearied with looking on careless sinners and backsliding professors, let us remember that we have invisible friends present in our assemblies, our conferences, and our closets, who watch over us, and, in ways which we cannot possibly conceive, are helpers in our joy, and witnesses of our conflicts. They are with us now — and we shall soon be with them. Ah! how little does the vain world think of the privileges and the company in which a believer lives! and, what is worse, how faintly do we think of these things ourselves! and this is the reason we are so full of fears and complaints, so prone to distrust the Lord's methods of dealing with us, and so easily drawn aside to seek for something to rest upon in creatures like ourselves.
With respect to my own experience, I have little now to add, to what I have formerly offered, at least, little variety; for, in one sense, every new day is filled up with new things: new mercies on the Lord's part — new ingratitude on mine; instances of the vileness of my nature — and new proofs of the power of sovereign pardoning grace; new hills of difficulty — new valleys of humiliation; and now and then (though alas! very short and seldom), new glimpses of what I will be — like Christ, and where I will be — with Christ.
The everlasting love of God, the unspeakable merits of Christ's righteousness, and the absolute freeness of the gospel promises — these form the threefold cord by which my soul maintains a hold of that which is within the veil. Sin, Satan, and unbelief, often attempt to make me let go, and cast away my confidence — but as yet they have not prevailed. No thanks to me who am weaker than water — but I am wonderfully kept by the mighty power of God, who is pleased to take my part, and therefore I trust in him that they never shall prevail against me. A vile sinner, indeed, I am; but since God, who alone has a right to judge, is pleased to justify the believer in Jesus — who is there that shall dare condemn?
I bless the Lord for that comfortable portion of Scripture, Zech. 3:1-5. When the Lord is pleased to pluck a brand out of the fire to save it from perishing — what power in heaven or earth, shall presume or prevail to put it in again? No, He has done it — and who can reverse it? He has said it — and his word shall stand. And I humbly believe (Lord help my unbelief) that not one good thing shall fail of all that the Lord my God has, in his Word, spoken to me of.
Yet, alas! I must still charge myself with a great lack of watchfulness and diligence: the enemy cannot destroy my foundation — but he spreads many nets for my feet — to weaken me, and to interrupt my peace. And, to my shame I must confess, he too often prevails. The Lord in great mercy preserves me from such sins as would openly dishonor my profession; for I can infer from my heart, what my life would be, if I were left to myself. I hate sin: I long to be delivered from it; but it is still in me, and works in me. "O What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?" I bless God for Jesus Christ my Lord. To his grace I commend each of you.
Letters of John Newton to Captain Alexander Clunie
Captain Cluniewas engaged in the West-Indian trade; and, as the readers of Mr. Newton's Life will remember, the latter became acquainted with him at St. Kitts on his homeward voyage from Africa in the year 1754. From the time of his conversion the peculiar circumstances of Mr. Newton had very much shut him out from all fellowship with professing Christians. The Lord was pleased to lead him, he tells us, for the space of about six years in a secret way, and his religious conceptions were in many respects confused. He proceeds to say that the fellowship of Captain Clunie, a man of experience in the things of God, was greatly helpful to him. Among other advices, his friend urged upon him the duty of a public profession, and directed him to some of his Christian connections in London, and especially to his pastor, the Rev. Samuel Brewer of Stepney. In a letter of Mr. Newton to Captain Clunie, dated Liverpool, Feb. 1761, he further says: "I often think of you with peculiar pleasure and thankfulness, as by you the Lord was pleased to bring me to know his people. Your fellowship was much blessed to me at St. Kitts; and the little knowledge I have of men and things took its first rise thence."
The connection thus formed became very close and intimate. Mr. Newton always addressed Mr. Clunie as his "dear brother." In his letters to him, which are very frequent, Mr. Newton opens his whole heart to his friend, and is ever very solicitous for an interest in his prayers. Captain Clunie was often at Olney and was sometimes accompanied by Mr. Brewer, whose friendship Mr. Newton greatly valued.
About the end of the year 1769 the health of Captain Clunie began to fail; and, writing to him during his illness, Mr. Newton says, "You were remembered at our Bethel tonight. Our hearts, you may be assured, are much interested in your welfare. I hope to see the day when you will come to join us in praise to a prayer-hearing God." This however was not to be, for early in 1770 this truly excellent man, whose connection with Mr. Newton had proved so pleasant and so valuable, was removed to a better world.
Letter I. — State of religion in Yorkshire — The blessed Future — We know not how soon it may be ours — Duty of diligence and watchfulness.
Liverpool: May 21, 1763.
I have lately been a journey into Yorkshire, which is one reason why I have not written sooner. That is a flourishing country indeed, like Eden, the garden of the Lord, watered on every side by the streams of the Gospel. There the voice of the turtle-dove is heard in all quarters, and multitudes rejoice in the light. I have a pretty large acquaintance there among various denominations, who, though they differ in some lesser things, are all agreed to exalt Jesus and his salvation. I do not mean that the truth is preached in every church and meeting through the county — but in many, perhaps in more proportionably than in any other part of the land, and with greater effect both as to numbers, and as to the depth of the work in particular people.
It is very refreshing to go from place to place and find the same fruits of faith, love, joy and peace. What then shall it be before long — when the Lord shall call us up to join with those who are now singing before the eternal throne! What shall it be, when all the children of God, who in different ages and countries have been scattered abroad — shall be all gathered together, and enter into that glorious and eternal rest provided for them; when there shall not be one trace of sin or sorrow remaining — not one discordant note to be heard, nothing to disturb or defile, or alleviate the never-ceasing joy!
Such is the hope to which God has called us: that day will as surely come — as the present day is already arrived; every moment brings on its approach. While I am writing and you are reading, we may say, "Now is our full salvation nearer." Many a weary step we have taken, since the Lord first drew us to Himself; but we shall not have to tread the past way over again. Some difficulties may remain — but we know not how few. Perhaps before we are aware, the Lord may cut short our conflict and say, "Come up hither!" At the most, it cannot be very long! He who has been with us thus far — will be with us to the end. He knows how to cause our consolations to exceed our greatest afflictions!
And when we get safe home, we shall not complain that we have suffered too much along the way. We shall not say, "Is this all I get — after so much trouble?" No! When we awake into that glorious world, we shall in an instant — be satisfied with His likeness. One sight of Jesus as He is — will fill our hearts, and dry up all our tears! Let us then resign ourselves into his hands; let us gird up the loins of our minds, be sober and hope to the end. Let us, like faithful servants, watch for our Lord's appearance, and pray earnestly that we may be found ready at his coming.
We live in a trying time! How many erroneous principles and scandalous practices abound! how many fair professors miscarry! This should teach us to be jealous of ourselves. We may feel the same root of bitterness in our own hearts. And, if we stand when others fall — we have nothing of our own to boast. But neither need we be distressed and unbelieving: Jesus is able to keep us from falling. Let us be steady in the use of his instituted means, and sincerely desirous to abstain from all appearance of evil. The rest we may confidently leave to him, in whom whoever trusts shall never be ashamed.
Mrs. Newton joins in respects to you and Mrs. Clunie. We beg a frequent remembrance in your prayers.
Letter II. — Ministerial responsibility — but comfort in the promises and power of God.
Olney: July 26, 1766.
My dear Brother — I seldom choose to let you go without a line; nor will I now, though I have little to offer. Indeed, we should never be weary of writing and reading about Jesus: if his name sounds warm in your heart — you may well call this a good letter, though I should not add a word more.
How fast the weeks return! We are again upon the eve of a Sabbath. May the Lord give us much of his own Spirit on his own day. I trust I have a remembrance in your prayers. I need them much: my service is great. It is, indeed, no small thing to stand between God and the people, to divide the word of truth aright, to give every one their portion, to withstand the counter tides of opposition and popularity, and to press those truths upon others, the power of which, I, at times, feel so little of in my own soul. A cold, corrupt heart is uncomfortable company in the pulpit!
Yet, in the midst of all my fears and unworthiness, I am enabled to cleave to the promise, and to rely on the power of the great Redeemer. I know I am engaged in the cause against which the gates of hell cannot prevail. If He died and rose again, if He ever lives to make intercession — there must be safety under the shadow of his wings: there would I lie. In his name I would lift up my banner; in his strength I would go forth, do what He enables me — then take shame to myself that I can do no better, and put my hand upon my mouth, confessing that I am dust and ashes — less than the least of all his saints.
I suppose you will get this before your next meeting at Mr. West's. My heart will be with you there, and I and my dear friends attempting to pray for you all. May that little meeting be as a garden planted and watered by the Lord. May great grace be with your dear minister, and with all the members; and may you and Mrs. Clunie grow up as plants of renown, and find every ordinance, opportunity, and providence sanctified to the good of your souls.
Letter III. — Expressions of desire for more grace and trust in God.
Olney: Oct. 12, 1766.
My dear Brother,
I have not written to you lately, because you had one with you who could tell you much of my mind. I have had my health perfectly, and all things have been well with us abroad and at home — only the common causes of illness, arising from a depraved nature, and the workings of indwelling sin. I wish I was more humbled for them — and watchful against them. I trust I do, in some measure, know what the Lord's redeemed people ought to be; and I hope sincerely to be growing and pressing forward; but, indeed, I am not what I would be — or should be.
I would be thankful — few have more evident causes;
I would be humble — none can have greater reason;
I would be more spiritually-minded — for even my experience tells me that all below is vanity; and surely my lot is peculiarly favored, for the Lord has wonderfully prevented and exceeded my wishes on every hand; but without the light of his countenance — all is faint and tasteless.
Blessed be God for the news of a better world, where there will be no sin, change, nor defect forever! And let us praise him, likewise, that He has appointed means of grace, and seasons for refreshment here below, for a throne of grace, a precious Bible, and returning ordinances. These are valuable privileges; and so they appear to us — when our hearts are in a lively frame. Then everything appears little and worthless — in comparison to communion with God. Oh, for a coal of fire from the heavenly altar, to warm our frozen spirits! Oh, for a taste of love and a glimpse of glory — that we might mount up as with eagle's wings! Let us pray for each other.
Sunday morning. — I am unwilling to send the paper half empty, therefore would scribble something additional. Mrs. Newton came home well — but was yesterday morning seized with an illness that has proved rather violent. It is a comfort, under all changes, to be enabled to look to covenant love and special grace. The Lord has promised to direct, moderate, sanctify, and relieve every trial of every kind. I long to have a more entire submission to his will, and a more steadfast confidence in his Word, to trust him and wait on him, to see his hand, and praise his name — in every circumstance of life great and small. The more of this spirit, the more heaven is begun upon earth. And why should we not trust him at all times? Which part of our past experience can charge him with unfaithfulness? Has He not done all things well? And is He not the same yesterday, today, and forever? O my soul, wait upon him. And may this be the desire and attainment of you and dear Mrs. Clunie.
The bells are just beginning to call me to church. Lord, meet me there, and pour forth your good Spirit on all my fellow-laborers and fellow-worshipers. May you and yours taste today that He is gracious.
Our best love to you both. Remember us to all friends. Time presses. Sincerely,
Letter IV. — Satan as an angel of light.
Olney: Oct. 19, 1766.
Dear Brother — I received your letter, and thank you for your information. The Lord has brought us through another Sabbath. I have been some time (in a morning) on Isaiah 42; today began the 5th verse. In the afternoon I spoke a little of Satan's trials, from 2 Corinthians 2:11. May the good Lord keeps us from his delusions! He is always dangerous — but never more so than when he pleads for Gospel doctrines in order to abuse them, and when he tries to pass his counterfeit humility, zeal, and sanctity upon us — for pure gold. No coiner can equal him for imitation. Where Christ has a church — Satan will have a synagogue; where the Spirit produces any graces — Satan, like the magicians of Egypt, will do something as like it, and yet as unlike it, as possible. He has a something that comes so near the Gospel, that it is called by Paul another gospel, and yet in reality it is no gospel at all. He deals much in half convictions, and almost Christians — but does not like thorough work. He will let people talk about grace as much as they please, and commend them for it — provided talking will satisfy them. Satan will preach free grace when he finds people willing to receive the notion — as an excuse and cloak for idleness. But, let him look and talk as he desires — he is Satan still; and those who are experienced and watchful may discern his cloven foot hanging below his fine garment of light! He is never more a devil — than when he looks most like an angel. Let us beware of him; for many wise have been deceived, and many strong have been cast down by him. Let us continually apply to him who is able to keep us from falling, and to present us spotless in the end.
I remain, etc.,
Letter V. — Prayer meetings at the Great House — The times call for prayer — Looking at present things in the light of eternity.
Olney: April 1, 1769.
My dear Brother,
On Thursday evening I preached a funeral sermon for Sally Perry, from Job 33:23, 24, which passage I hope and believe was remarkably verified in her case. I have been pretty full handed in preaching of late. I trust the Lord was graciously with us in most or all of the opportunities. We are going to move our prayer meetings to the great room in the Great House,* which I do not know if you have seen. We proposed to open it next Tuesday evening; but if the present very sharp weather continues, we may perhaps defer it a week longer. It is a noble place, with a parlor behind it, and holds one hundred and thirty people conveniently. Pray for us that the Lord may be in the midst of us there; and that as He has now given us a Rehoboth, and has made room for us, so that He may be pleased to add to our numbers, and make us fruitful in the land.
* The Great House, a mansion in Olney, commonly so designated, was the property of Lord Dartmouth. Being unoccupied, and Mr. Newton thinking its spacious rooms might be available for some of his religious services, he obtained the use of it in the first instance for the meetings of the children. He met them there once a week; but their numbers so increased that it was necessary to move them to the chapel. Subsequently, as appears from this letter to Captain Clunie, the meetings for prayer and exhortation were held at the Great House. In Mr. Newton's Diary there are many interesting references to these gatherings. It was for this special occasion that two of the hymns in the Olney Collection were composed, the forty-third and forty-fourth of the second book — the first beginning, "O Lord, our languid frame inspire," by Mr. Newton, and the second, "Jesus, wherever your people meet," by Mr. Cowper.
Surely there is a need of prayer to disperse the clouds which seem to be gathering around us. Every newspaper brings us sad tidings from your great city — but I hope there will be mercy afforded for the sake of the Lord's remnant. Oh that all who know his name may be found crying day and night before him, that iniquity may not be our ruin! Then, at least, we shall have a mark set upon us, and find favor for ourselves if the sentence should be gone forth.
Saturday evening has returned again. How quick the time flies! Oh that we may have grace to number our days, and to begin to view the things of this world in that light which they will, doubtless, appear in — when we are upon the point of leaving them. How many things, which are too apt to appear important now, and to engross too much of our time, and thoughts, and strength — will then be acknowledged as vain and trivial as the imperfect recollection of a morning dream! May the Lord help us to judge now, as we shall judge then — that all things on this side of the grave are of no real value, further than they are improved in subservience to the will and glory of God; and that an hour's enjoyment of the light of his countenance is worth more than the wealth of the Indies and the power of kings!
How often we are like Martha, cumbered about many things, though we say and I hope at the bottom believe, that one thing alone is needful. May the Lord give us a believing, humble, spiritual frame of mind, and make it our earnest desire and prayer — that we may be more like the angels of God, who are always employed, and always happy, in doing his will and beholding his glory. The rest, we may be content to leave to those who are strangers to the love of Jesus and the foretaste of heaven. "Teach us to number our days aright, that we may gain a heart of wisdom!" Psalm 90:12
I have been attempting to pray that you and our friends in London may, together with us, behold the King in his beauty tomorrow; that we may, like David, be satisfied in our souls as with marrow and fatness, and feel something of what Thomas felt, when he put his finger upon the print of his nails and cried out with transport, My Lord and my God!
With our dear love to Mrs. Clunie and all friends,
Letters of John Newton to Mrs. Wilberforce
In 1764 Mr. Newton went to London to receive ordination. He was compelled to stay several weeks — but that protracted stay, he says, gave him the opportunity of acquaintance with many whom, perhaps, he would otherwise have never known, and he adds: "I have cause for wonder, praise, and humiliation, when I think what favor the Lord gave me in the eyes of his people, some of rank and eminence." We think we are justified in the supposition that Mr. Newton, at that time, made the acquaintance of Mrs. Wilberforce, both from the circle to which he was then introduced, and from the fact that a few months afterwards his correspondence with her was commenced.
Mrs. Wilberforce was the wife of William Wilberforce, Esq., uncle to the celebrated statesman and philanthropist, William Wilberforce. With these relatives he spent some of his earlier years, and then, probably, received those religious impressions which were fully developed in after life. Mrs. Wilberforce was also sister to John Thornton, Esq. She was a remarkably godly woman, a lover of all true Christians, and ever anxious and ready with her influence and her wealth, to promote the cause of Christ. Many of her letters to the Rev. William Bull are in the possession of the Editor, all of them breathing a most devout spirit.
Writing to Mrs. Wilberforce, in 1769, Mr. Newton says: "We are much obliged for your late visit, and I am glad to find that the Lord is pleased to give you some tokens of his presence, when you are with us, because I hope it will encourage you to come again." And speaking in another letter of praying specially on the Saturday evening for the Lord's ministers and people, Mr. Newton adds: "At such times I particularly remember those friends with whom I have gone to the house of God in company — consequently you are not forgotten. I can venture to assure you that if you have a value for our prayers, you have a frequent share in them — yes, are loved and remembered by many here." Mrs. Wilberforce had visited Olney several times. When Mr. Newton went to reside in London, it was his practice to go regularly to the house of Mrs. Wilberforce, when she was in town, to conduct, what he terms, "parlor preaching." There at one time he expounded the Pilgrim's Progress.
Mrs. Wilberforce died at the close of the year 1788. From her dying bed, she wrote a brief and touching letter to her friend, Mr. Bull. Referring to the decease of the Rev. J. Symonds of Bedford, a godly man, and much respected by Mrs. Wilberforce, "Happy," she says, "is the dear man who is gone to glory, now in the presence of Jesus, whom unseen he loved. My heart seemed to jump for joy. Things have an awful appearance, and such as you can be ill spared. Myself better and worse: Jesus as good as ever."
Letter I. — Scriptural views of sin — Looking to Jesus.
My dear Madam — The complaints you make are inseparable from a spiritual acquaintance with our own hearts: I would not wish you to be less affected with a sense of indwelling sin. It befits us to be humbled into the dust; yet our grief, though it cannot be too great — may be under a wrong direction; and if it leads us to impatience or distrust, it certainly is so.
Sin is the sickness of the soul, in itself mortal and incurable, as to any power in heaven or earth, but that of the Lord Jesus only. But He is the great, the infallible Physician. Have we the privilege to know his name? Have we been enabled to put ourselves into his hand? We have then no more to do but to attend his prescriptions, to be satisfied with his methods, and to wait his time. It is lawful to wish we were well; it is natural to groan, being burdened; but still He must and will take his own course with us; and however dissatisfied with ourselves, we ought still to be thankful that He has begun his work in us, and to believe that He will also make an end.
Therefore, while we mourn — we should likewise rejoice; we should encourage ourselves to expect all that He has promised; and we should limit our expectations by his promises. We are sure, that when the Lord delivers us from the guilt and dominion of sin — He could with equal ease free us entirely from sin if He pleased. The doctrine of sinless perfection is not to be rejected, as though it were a thing simply impossible in itself, for nothing is too hard for the Lord — but because it is contrary to that method which He has chosen to proceed by. He has appointed that sanctification should be effected, and sin mortified, not at once completely — but by little and little; and doubtless He has wise reasons for it. Therefore, though we are to desire a growth in grace — we should at the same time acquiesce in his appointment, and not be discouraged nor despond, because we know that conflict will surely terminate with our lives on earth.
Again, some of the first prayers which the Spirit of God teaches us to put up — are for a clearer sense of the sinfulness of sin, and our vileness on account of it. Now, if the Lord is pleased to answer your prayers in this respect, though it will afford you cause enough for humiliation — yet it should be received likewise with thankfulness, as a token for good. Your heart is not worse than it was formerly, only your spiritual knowledge is increased. And this is no small part of the growth in grace which you are thirsting after — to be truly humbled, and emptied, and made little in your own eyes.
Further, the examples of the saints recorded in Scripture prove (and indeed of the saints in general), that the greater measure any person has of the grace of God in truth — the more conscientious and lively they have been; and the more they have been favored with assurances of the divine favor, so much the more deep and sensible their perception of indwelling sin and infirmity has always been. So it was with Job, Isaiah, Daniel, and Paul.
It is likewise common to overcharge ourselves. Indeed, we cannot think ourselves worse than we really are; yet some things which abate the comfort and alacrity of our Christian profession are rather impediments than properly sinful, and will not be imputed to us by him who knows our frame, and remembers that we are but dust. Thus, to have an infirm memory, to be subject to disordered, irregular, or low spirits — are faults of the constitution, in which the will has no share, though they are all burdensome and oppressive, and sometimes needlessly so by our charging ourselves with guilt on their account.
The same may be observed of the unspeakable and fierce suggestions of Satan, with which some people are pestered — but which shall be laid to him from whom they proceed, and not to those who are troubled and terrified, because they are forced to feel them.
Lastly, it is by the experience of these evils within ourselves, and by feeling our utter insufficiency, either to perform duty, or to withstand our enemies — that the Lord takes occasion to show us the suitableness, the sufficiency, the freeness, the unchangeableness of his power and grace. This is the inference Paul draws from his illness, Romans 7:25, and he learned it upon a trying occasion from the Lord's own mouth, 2 Cor. 12:8, 9.
Let us, then, dear madam, be thankful and cheerful, and, while we take shame to ourselves — let us glorify God, by giving Jesus the honor due to his name. Though we are poor — He is rich; though we are weak — He is strong; though we have nothing — He possesses all things. He suffered for us; He calls us to be conformed to him in suffering. He conquered in his own person, and He will make each of his members more than conquerors in due season. It is good to have one eye upon ourselves — but the other should ever be fixed on him who stands in the relation of Savior, Husband, Head, and Shepherd: in him we have righteousness, peace, and power. He can control all that we fear; so that, if our path should be through the fire or through the water — neither the flood shall drown us, nor the flame kindle upon us, and before long He will cut short our conflicts, and say, Come up hither! "Then shall our grateful songs abound, and every tear be wiped away." Having such promises and assurances, let us lift up our banner in his name, and press on through every discouragement. . . .
I am, dear madam,
Your much obliged and affectionate servant,
Letter II. — The Christian warfare — Assurance — Love to Christ.
My dear Madam — Your welfare I rejoice in; your warfare I understand something of. Paul describes his own case in a few words, "Without were fightings; within were fears." Does not this comprehend all you would say? And how are you to know experimentally either your own weakness — or the power, wisdom, and grace of God, seasonably and sufficiently afforded — but by frequent and various trials? How are the graces of patience, resignation, meekness, and faith, to be discovered and increased — but by exercise? The Lord has chosen, called, and armed us for the fight; and shall we wish to be excused? Shall we not rather rejoice that we have the honor to appear in such a cause, under such a Captain, such a banner, and in such company? A complete suit of armor is provided, irresistible weapons, and precious balm to heal us if perchance we receive a wound, and precious cordials to revive us when we are in danger of fainting.
Further, we are assured of the victory beforehand; and oh what a crown is prepared for every conqueror, which Jesus, the righteous Judge, the gracious Savior, shall place upon every faithful head with his own hand! Then let us not be weary and faint, for in due season we shall reap. The time is short; yet a little while, and the struggle of indwelling sin, and the contradiction of surrounding sinners — shall be known no more.
You are blessed, because you hunger and thirst after righteousness. He whose name is Amen, has said you shall be filled. To claim the promise is to make it our own; yet it is befitting us to practice submission and patience, not in temporals only — but also in spirituals. We should be ashamed and grieved at our slow progress, so far as it is properly chargeable to our remissness and miscarriage; yet we must not expect to receive everything at once — but wait for a gradual increase. Nor should we forget to be thankful for what we may account a little — in comparison of the much we suppose others have received. A little grace, a spark of true love to God, a grain of living faith, though small as mustard-seed — is worth a thousand worlds! One drop of the water of life gives interest in and pledge, of the whole fountain. It befits the Lord's people to be thankful. To acknowledge his goodness in what we have received — is the surest as well as the pleasantest method of obtaining more. Nor should the grief, arising from what we know and feel of our own hearts — rob us of the honor, comfort and joy, which the word of God designs us, in what is there recorded of the person, offices, and grace of Jesus, and the relations He is pleased to stand in to his people. . . .
Though the believer is nothing in himself — yet having all in Jesus — he may rejoice in his name all the day. May the Lord enable us so to do. The joy of the Lord is the strength of his people: whereas unbelief makes our hands hang down, and our knees feeble, dispirits ourselves, and discourages others; and though it steals upon us under a semblance of humility — it is indeed the very essence of pride. By inward and outward exercises, the Lord is promoting the best desire of your heart, and answering your daily prayers. Would you have assurance? The true solid assurance is to be obtained no other way.
When young Christians are greatly comforted with the Lord's love and presence, their doubts and fears are for that season, at an end. But this is not assurance; so soon as the Lord hides his face — they are troubled, and ready to question the very foundation of hope. Assurance grows by repeated conflict, by our repeated experimental proof of the Lord's power and goodness to save; when we have been brought very low and helped, sorely wounded and healed, cast down and raised again, have given up all hope — and been suddenly snatched from danger, and placed in safety; and when these things have been repeated to us and in us a thousand times over, we begin to learn to trust simply to the word and power of God, beyond and against appearances; and this trust, when habitual and strong, bears the name of assurance; for even assurance has degrees.
You have good reason, madam, to suppose that the love of the best Christians to an unseen Savior — is far short of what it ought to be. If your heart is like mine, and you examine your love to Christ by the warmth and frequency of your emotions towards him — you will often be in a sad suspense, whether or not you love him at all. The best mark to judge by, and which He has given us for that purpose — is to inquire if his word and will have a prevailing, governing influence upon our lives and temper. If we love him — we do endeavor to keep his commandments. And if we have a desire to please him — we undoubtedly love him. Obedience is the best test; and when, amidst all our imperfections, we can humbly appeal concerning the sincerity of our desires — this is a mercy for which we ought to be greatly thankful. He who has brought us to will — will likewise enable us to do according to his good pleasure. I doubt not but the Lord whom you love, and on whom you depend, will lead you in a sure way, and establish, and strengthen, and settle you in his love and grace. Indeed He has done great things for you already. . . .
As to daily occurrences, it is best to believe that a daily portion of both comforts and crosses, each one the most suitable to our case, is adjusted and appointed by the hand which was once nailed to the cross for us! Where the path of duty and prudence leads — there is the best situation we could possibly be in at that juncture. We are not required to afflict ourselves immoderately for what is not in our power to prevent, nor should anything that affords occasions for mortifying the spirit of self be accounted unnecessary.
I am, my dear madam,
Your obliged and affectionate servant,
Letter III. — Sensible comfort — Rejoicing in God alone — Loss of friends — Deprivation of ordinances.
My dear Madam — We are much obliged to you for your late visit; and I am glad to find that the Lord is pleased to give you some tokens of his presence when you are with us, because I hope it will encourage you to come again. I ought to be very thankful that our Christian friends in general are not wholly disappointed of a blessing when they visit us.
I hope the Lord will give me a humble sense of what I am, and that broken and contrite frame of heart, in which He delights. This is to me the chief thing. I had rather have more of the mind that was in Christ, more of a meek, quiet, resigned, peaceful and loving disposition — than to enjoy the greatest measure of sensible comforts — if the consequence would be spiritual pride, self-sufficiency, and a lack of that tenderness to others which befits one who has reason to style himself as the chief of sinners. I know, indeed, that the proper tendency of sensible consolations is to humble; but I can see that, through the depravity of human nature, they have not always that effect. And I have been sometimes disgusted with an apparent lack of humility, an air of self-will and self-importance — in people of whose sincerity I could not at all doubt. It has kept me from envying them of those pleasant frames with which they have sometimes been favored; for I believe Satan is never nearer us than at some times, when we think ourselves nearest the Lord.
What reason have we to charge our souls in David's words, "My soul, wait only upon God!" A great stress should be laid upon that word only. We dare not entirely shut him out of our regards — but we are too apt to allow something to share with him. This evil disposition is deeply fixed in our hearts; and the Lord orders all his dispensations towards us with a view to rooting it out; that being wearied with repeated disappointments, we may at length be compelled to betake ourselves to him alone. Why else do we experience so many changes and crosses? Why are we so often in heaviness? We know that He delights in the pleasure and prosperity of his servants; that He does not willingly afflict or grieve his children; but there is a necessity on our parts, in order to teach us that we have no stability in ourselves, and that no creature can do us good — but by his appointment. . . .
The Lord gives us a dear friend to our comfort; but before long we forget that the friend is only the channel of conveyance, and that all the comfort is from himself. To remind us of this, the stream is dried up, the friend torn away by death, or removed far from us, or perhaps the friendship ceases, and a coolness insensibly takes place, we know not how or why. The true reason is, that when we overvalued our gourd, the Lord, for our good, sent a worm to the root of it. Instances of this kind are innumerable; and the great inference from them all is, cease from man, cease from creatures.
My soul, wait only — only upon the Lord, who is (according to the expressive phrase, Hebrews 4:13) He with whom we have to do for soul and body, for time and eternity. What thanks do we owe, that though we have not yet attained perfectly this great lesson — yet we are admitted into that school where alone it can be learned; and though we are poor, slow scholars, the great and effectual teacher to whom we have been encouraged and enabled to apply — can and will bring us forward! Though all are but dunces when He first receives them, not one was ever turned out as incapable, for He makes them — what He would have them to be. Oh that we may set him always before us, and consider every dispensation, person, thing, we meet in the course of every day — as messengers from him, each bringing us some line of instruction for us to copy into that day's experience! Whatever passes within us or around us, may be improved (when He teaches us how) as a perpetual commentary upon his good Word. If we converse and observe with this view, we may learn something every moment, wherever the path of duty leads us, in the streets as well as in the closet, and from the conversation of those who know not God, (when we cannot avoid being present at it,) as well as from those who do.
Separation of our dear friends is, as you observed, hard to flesh and blood; but grace can make it tolerable. I have an abiding persuasion, that the Lord can easily give more than ever He will take away.
A time of weeping must come — but the morning of joy will make amends for all. Who can expound the meaning of that one expression, "an exceeding and eternal weight of glory!" The case of unconverted friends is still more burdensome to think of; but we have encouragement and warrant to pray and to hope. He who called us — can easily call others; and He seldom lays a desire of this sort very closely and warmly upon the hearts of his people — but when it is his gracious design sooner or later to give an answer of peace. However, it befits us to be thankful for ourselves, and to bow our anxieties and reasoning before his sovereign will, who does as He pleases with his own. . . .
When we have opportunity of enjoying many ordinances, it is a mercy to be able to prize and improve them; but when He cuts us short for a season, if we wait upon him — we shall do well without them. Secret prayer, and the holy Word — are the chief wells from whence we draw the water of salvation. These will keep the soul alive when creature streams are cut off; but the richest variety of public means, and the closest attendance upon them, will leave us lean and pining in the midst of plenty — if we are remiss and formal in the other two. I think David never appears in a more lively frame of mind than when he wrote the 42nd, 63rd, and 84th Psalms, which were all penned in a dry land, and at a distance from the public ordinances.
I am, with the greatest regard, dear madam,
Your most obedient and obliged servant,
Letter IV. — The Christian mourning and rejoicing — First love.
My dear Madam — I did not hear of your late illness until I was informed you were much better. I praise the Lord for your recovery, and hope you will have reason to praise him for all his chastisements — for surely they are sent in love, for the sake of the supports with which they are accompanied, and the fruits which (by his blessing) they produce; they deserve a place in the list of our peculiar and covenant mercies. Of Mr. Thornton's recovery, I had the pleasure to be informed by himself. May the Lord long preserve him and you for many years, for the comfort of your friends and the glory of his name.
Your letter was truly welcome. All yours are so, and therefore I do not choose to remain longer in your debt than I can avoid, that I may have hope of hearing from you again.
I observe that your experience is a mixture of joy and sorrow — and thus it must be until the Lord shall be pleased to put an end to our conflict with indwelling sin. Both are right. We have reason to mourn that there is such an opposition within us to all that is good; and we have reason to rejoice, for Jesus is all-sufficient, and we are complete in him. We cannot but mourn to find that our passage lies through fire and water; we ought to rejoice that this difficult way will lead us to a wealthy place, where joy will be unspeakable, glorious and endless. We may well mourn that our love to the Lord is so faint and wavering; but oh! what a cause of joy to know that his love to us is infinite and unchangeable! Our attainment in sanctification is weak and our progress slow; but our justification is perfect, and our hope sure. May we so look to the bright side of our case as not to be cast down and discouraged, and may we maintain such a sense of the dark side as may keep us from being exalted above measure.
You say you are not as lively as you once were. It is generally true that the time of espousals, the beginning of our profession, is attended with sensible sweetnesses and a liveliness of spirit which we afterwards look back upon with regret when we are led into a different dispensation. The young believer is like a tree in blossom. But I have a good hope that if you seem to have lost in point of sensible affections — you have proportionally gained in knowledge, judgment, and an establishment in the faith.
You see more of your own heart than you did or could in those early days; and you have a clearer view of the wisdom, glory, and faithfulness of God, as manifested in the person of Christ. Though the blossoms have gone off — the fruit is found, and, I trust, ripening for glory.
The Lord deals with us as children. Children, when they are young, have many little indulgences. As they grow up, they are subject to discipline and must learn obedience. So when faith and knowledge are in their infancy — the Lord helps this weakness by cordials and sensible comforts; but when they are advanced in growth — He exercises and proves them by many changes and trials, and calls us to live more directly upon his power and promises in the face of all discouragements, to hope even against hope, and at times seems to deprive us of every subsidiary support, that we may lean only and entirely upon our beloved!
I am sincerely, dearest madam,
Your most affectionate and obliged servant,
Olney: January 18, 1770.
Letter V. — Benefits of affliction.
My dear Madam,
Though afflictions in themselves are not joyous, but grievous — yet in due season they yield the peaceful fruits of righteousness. Various and blessed are the fruits they produce.
By affliction — prayer is quickened, for our prayers are very apt to grow languid and formal in a time of ease.
Affliction greatly helps us to understand the Scriptures, especially the promises, most of which being made to times of trouble, we cannot so well know their fullness, sweetness, and certainty — as when we have been in the situation to which they are suited; have been enabled to trust and plead them; and found them fulfilled in our own case.
We are usually indebted to affliction as the means or occasion of the most signal discoveries we are favored with of the wisdom, power, and faithfulness of the Lord. These are best observed by the evident proofs we have that He is near to support us under trouble, and that He can and does deliver us out of it. Israel would not have seen so much of the Lord's arm outstretched in their behalf, had not Pharaoh oppressed, opposed, and pursued them.
Afflictions are designed likewise for the manifestation of our sincerity to ourselves and to others. When faith endures the fire, we know it to be of the right kind; and others, who see we are brought safe out, and lose nothing but the dross, will confess that God is with us of a truth. Daniel 3:27, 28. Surely this thought should reconcile us to suffer, not only with patience — but with cheerfulness, if God may be glorified in us. This made the apostle rejoice in tribulation, that the power of Christ might be noticed, as resting upon him, and working mightily in him.
Many of our graces, likewise, cannot thrive or show themselves to advantage without trials — such as resignation, patience, meekness, long-suffering. I observe some of the London porters do not appear to be very strong men; yet they will trudge along under a burden which some stouter people could not carry so well; the reason is, they are accustomed to carry burdens, and by continual exercise their shoulders acquire a strength suited to their work. It is so in the Christian life; activity and strength of grace is not ordinarily acquired by those who sit still and live at ease — but by those who frequently meet with something which requires a full exertion of what power the Lord has given them.
So again, it is by our own sufferings we learn to pity and sympathize with others in their sufferings. Such a compassionate disposition, which excites our feelings for the afflicted — is an eminent branch of the mind which was in Christ. But these feelings would be very faint, if we did not in our own experience know what sorrows and temptations mean.
Afflictions do us good likewise, as they make us more acquainted with what is in our own hearts, and thereby promote humiliation and self-abasement. There are abominations which, like nests of vipers, lie so quietly within, that we hardly suspect they are there — until the rod of affliction rouses them! Then they hiss and show their venom! This discovery is indeed very distressing; yet, until it is made, we are prone to think ourselves much less vile than we really are, and cannot so heartily abhor ourselves, and repent in dust and ashes.
But I must write a sermon rather than a letter — if I would enumerate all the good fruits which, by the power of sanctifying grace, are produced from this bitter tree. May we, under our several trials, find them all revealed in ourselves, that we may not complain of having suffered in vain.
While we have such a depraved nature, and live in such a polluted world; while the roots of pride, vanity, self-dependence, self-seeking, are so strong within us — we need a variety of sharp afflictions to keep us from forgetting what we are, and from cleaving to the dust.
I am, dearest madam,
Your much obliged and affectionate servant,
Letter VI. — Trials unwelcome but beneficial — Vanity of the world — The Lord our guide and strength.
My dear Madam — (After referring to the fact of domestic affliction in his own family and in Mrs. Wilberforce's, Mr. Newton thus continues) — What a mercy it is to know that all is in safe hands; that sickness and health, comfort or affliction, life or death — are all equally in the inventory of a believer's privileges — all equally blessings, though some in one view are more apparently so, and some are sent more under a disguise to do us good; so that, perhaps, we are afraid of them, and would willingly, if we could, prevent them from coming. But they are the Lord's messengers, they have a gracious errand to deliver, and therefore they must have admittance; and though at first we do not like their looks or their language — yet afterwards, when we have received the benefits, the peaceable fruits of righteousness they were commissioned to bestow — we are not sorry they were sent, or that we were not able to shut them out.
The hour is coming when we shall be astonished to think what mere trifles were once capable of discouraging us; for though many things we now meet with have a kind of importance respecting the present life and our natural feelings — yet when we come to see things as they are, and get a clearer view of the difference between the temporary and the eternal — of the lightness of the one and the weight of the other — we shall be satisfied that there is a greater disproportion between them than between molehills and mountains; and that when the Lord has put us in possession of the pearl of great price — the gain or loss of a pebble was hardly worth a serious thought.
It appears so to us in some measure now, when we are first seeking the Lord's peace. How common is it, then, to think — Oh! if my sins were but pardoned, and I had reason to hope that I was one of his children — then other worldly trifles would not greatly move me. There are times, too, afterwards, when for a season we form the like judgment, as when we are favored with a golden hour of the light of his countenance — how little does the world and its concerns appear!
So, likewise, if we stand by the bed of a dying believer, just ripe for glory, upon the point of entering, we see then how light such a one makes both of the trials he has passed through, and of the world he is about to leave; we feel something of the same spirit, and could wish, if it were the Lord's pleasure, to go along with him. When Peter was upon the Mount, he was so filled with the glory which he beheld, he was for remaining there, and could have bid farewell to all his connections he had left below. Had we in a lively degree that faith in exercise which is the evidence of things not seen — we would live at a much higher rate than we often do. But it is a mercy to be aiming aright, though we have not as yet attained.
It is a comfort to think that in our several changes and movements — the same Lord is present with us all. If we are in the path of duty and follow as He leads — we may depend on him to do us good. Every good is connected with his favor. He will withhold nothing from us — but what he sees we had better be without; and we shall meet with nothing — but what He will overrule for our benefit. Oh, how pleasant to lean upon an almighty arm, and to commit ourselves without anxiety to the guidance of infinite wisdom and love! Hitherto the Lord has helped us. The enemy has often thrust sore at us that we might fall; but the Lord has been our stay! And as mercy and goodness have followed us all our days, each Ebenezer we have already set up is an encouraging monument to engage us to trust him to the end. For this God is our God forever and ever! He will be our guide even unto death; and beyond death, to the land of life and joy, where we shall hear the voice of war no more. I commend you and your family and friends to his gracious care. . . .
I am, my clear madam,
Your obliged and affectionate servant,
Hoxton: June 11, 1783.
John Newton's Letters to the Earl of Dartmouth
William Legge, second Earl of Dartmouth, was born in 1731. Early in life he was deprived of his father, and his education devolved on his surviving parent. Upon the death of his grandfather, in 1750, he succeeded to the earldom. Soon after his marriage with the daughter and heiress of Sir Charles G. Nicholl, he was introduced to Lady Huntingdon. At her house he made the acquaintance of Mr. Whitefield, Mr. Romaine, the Wesleys, and other good men of the same class. Indeed, Lord and Lady Dartmouth very soon attracted general attention for the profession of religion they made, and the countenance they afforded to faithful ministers of Christ, suspected of what was called "Methodism." As early as 1757, Mr. Hervey wrote to Lady Fanny Shirley, "I have not the honor of Lord Dartmouth's acquaintance; but I hear he is full of grace, and valiant for the truth — a lover of Christ, and an ornament to his gospel."
Exalted as was the social position of Lord Dartmouth, he did not escape the misrepresentations and even the ridicule of some of his friends, who regarded his opinions and practices as fanatical and absurd. They, however, afterwards saw cause entirely to change their views.
Lord Dartmouth befriended the college for the American Indians, and contributed largely towards the Orphan House in Georgia. He was also, with Baron Smyth (Lord Chief Baron of the Treasury), one of the principal supporters of evangelical preaching at the Lock Chapel. It was through Dr. Haweis that Mr. Newton was introduced to Lord Dartmouth as a person well qualified to take the vacant curacy at Olney. His lordship prevailed on the Bishop of Lincoln to ordain Mr. Newton; and, ever afterwards, in various ways, showed a true friendship for him. The twenty-six first letters in Cardiphonia are addressed to Lord Dartmouth.
It may be added that the Earl of Dartmouth was highly esteemed by King George III. He appointed him principal Secretary of State for the American department, which office his lordship afterwards exchanged for the place of Lord Keeper of the Privy Seal; and some years after he was constituted Lord Steward of his Majesty's household. "They call my Lord Dartmouth an enthusiast," said the king, in an interview with Dr. Beattie, "but surely he says nothing on the subject of religion but what any Christian may and ought to say."
Lord Dartmouth died in 1801. It is to him that the poet Cowper refers in the following lines:
"We boast some rich ones whom the gospel sways,
And one who wears a coronet and prays;
Like gleanings of an olive tree they show
Here and there one upon the topmost bough."
Letter I. — What a believer would do — if he could.
My Lord — I have been sitting, perhaps a quarter of an hour, with my pen in my hand, and my finger upon my upper lip, contriving how I should begin my letter. . . . At length my suspense reminded me of the apostle's words, Galatians 5:17, "For the flesh lusts against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh. These are contrary the one to the other — so that you cannot do the things that you would!" This is a humbling but a just account of a Christian's attainments in the present life, and is equally applicable to the strongest and to the weakest. The weakest need not say less — the strongest will hardly venture to say more. The Lord has given his people a desire and will aiming at great things; without this they would be unworthy the name of Christians; but they cannot do as they would. Their best desires are weak and ineffectual, not absolutely so (for He who works in them to will, enables them in a measure to do likewise) — but in comparison with the noble mark at which they aim. So that while they have great cause to be thankful for the desire He has given them, and for the degree in which it is answered — they have equal reason to be ashamed and abased under a sense of their continual defects, and the evil mixtures which taint and debase their best endeavors. It would be easy to make out a long list of particulars, which a believer would do if he could — but in which, from first to last, he finds a mortifying inability. Permit me to mention a few, which I need not transcribe from books, for they are always present to my mind.
He would willingly enjoy God in prayer. He knows that prayer is his duty; but, in his judgment, he considers it likewise as his greatest honor and privilege. In this light he can recommend it to others, and can tell them of the wonderful condescension of the great God, who humbles himself to behold the things that are in heaven, that He should stoop so much lower, to afford his gracious ear to the supplications of sinful worms upon earth. He can bid them expect a pleasure in waiting upon the Lord, different in kind and greater in degree than all that the world can afford. By prayer he can say, You have liberty to cast all your cares upon him who cares for you. By one hour's intimate access to the throne of grace, where the Lord causes his glory to pass before the soul that seeks him — you may acquire more true spiritual knowledge and comfort, than by a day or a week's converse with the best of men, or the most studious perusal of many folios. And in this light he would consider it and improve it for himself. But, alas; how seldom can he do as he would! How often does he find this privilege a mere task, which he would be glad of a just excuse to omit! and the chief pleasure he derives from the performance, is to think that his task is finished! He has been drawing near to God with his lips — while his heart was far from him. Surely this is not doing as he would, when (to borrow the expression of an old woman here,) he is dragged before God like a slave, and comes away like a thief.
The like may be said of reading the Scripture. He believes it to be the Word of God: he admires the wisdom and grace of the doctrines, the beauty of the precepts, the richness and suitableness of the promises; and therefore, with David, he accounts it preferable to thousands of gold and silver, and sweeter than honey or the honeycomb! Yet, while he thus thinks of it, and desires that it may dwell in him richly, and be his meditation night and day — he cannot do as he would. It will require some resolution to persist in reading a portion of it every day; and even then his heart is often less engaged than when reading a newspaper. Here again his privilege frequently dwindles into a task. His appetite is vitiated — so that he has but little relish for the food of his soul.
He would willingly have abiding, admiring thoughts of the person and love of the Lord Jesus Christ. Glad he is, indeed, of those occasions which recall the Savior to his mind; and with this view, notwithstanding all discouragements, he perseveres in attempting to pray and read, and waits upon the ordinances. Yet he cannot do as he would. Whatever claims he may have to the exercise of gratitude and sensibility towards his fellow-creatures — he must confess himself mournfully ungrateful and insensible towards his best Friend and Benefactor. Ah! what trifles are capable of shutting Him out of our thoughts, of whom we say: 'He is the Beloved of our souls, who loved us, and gave himself for us, and whom we have deliberately chosen as our chief good and portion!' What can make us amends for the loss we suffer here? Yet surely if we could, we would set him always before us; his love should be the delightful theme of our hearts:
From morn to noon, from noon to dewy eve!
But though we aim at this good — evil is present with us: we find we are renewed but in part, and have still cause to plead the Lord's promise, to take away the heart of stone, and give us a heart of flesh.
He would willingly acquiesce in all the dispensations of divine Providence. He believes that all events are under the direction of infinite wisdom and goodness, and shall surely issue in the glory of God, and the good of those who fear him. He has no doubts that the hairs of his head are all numbered, that the blessings of every kind which he possesses, were bestowed upon him, and are preserved to him — by the bounty and special favor of the Lord whom he serves! He fully believes that afflictions do not spring out of the ground — but are fruits and tokens of Divine love, no less than his comforts! He is sure that there is a need-be, whenever for a season he is in heaviness. Of these principles he can no more doubt, than of what he sees with his eyes; and there are seasons when he thinks they will prove sufficient to reconcile him to the sharpest trials.
But often when he aims to apply them in an hour of present distress — he cannot do what he would! He feels a law in his members warring against the law in his mind; so that, in defiance of the clearest convictions, seeing as though he perceived not — he is ready to complain, murmur, and despond! Alas! how vain is man in his best estate! How much weakness and inconsistency, even in those whose hearts are right with the Lord! and what reason have we to confess that we are unworthy, unprofitable servants!
It were easy to enlarge in this way — would paper and time permit. But, blessed be God, we are not under the law — but under grace! And even these distressing effects of the remnants of indwelling sin are overruled for good. By these experiences — the believer is weaned more from SELF, and taught more highly to prize and more absolutely to rely on Him, who is our Wisdom, Righteousness, Sanctification and Redemption! The more vile we are in our own eyes — the more precious He will be to us! A deep repeated sense of the evil of our hearts — is necessary to preclude all boasting, and to make us willing to give the whole glory of our salvation where it is due!
Again, a sense of these evils will (when hardly anything else can do it) reconcile us to the thoughts of DEATH! Yes, they make us desirous to depart that we may sin no more, since we find depravity so deep-rooted in our nature, that, like the leprous house, the whole fabric must be taken down before we can be freed from its defilement!
Then, and not until then — we shall be able to do the thing that we would! When we see Jesus — we shall be transformed into His image, and be done with sin and sorrow forever!
Letter II. — The evil a believer would not do — if he could.
My Lord — I think my last letter turned upon the apostle's thought, Galatians 5:17, "You cannot do the things that you would." In the parallel place, Romans 7:19, there is another clause subjoined, "The evil which I would not do — that I do." This, added to the former, would complete the dark side of my experience. Permit me to tell your lordship a little part, (for some things must not, cannot be told,) not of what I have read — but of what I have felt, in illustration of this passage.
I would not be the sport and prey of wild, vain, foolish, and vile imaginations; but this evil is present with me! My heart is like an open highway — like a city without walls or gates. Nothing so false, so frivolous, so absurd, so impossible, or so horrid — but it can obtain access, and that at any time, or in any place! Neither the study, the pulpit, nor even the Lord's table — exempt me from their intrusion.
But if this awful effect of heart-depravity cannot be wholly avoided in the present state of human nature — yet, at least, I would not allow and indulge it; yet this I find I do. In defiance of my best judgment and best wishes, I find something within me, which cherishes and cleaves to those evils, from which I ought to be horrified by, and flee from — as I would if a toad or a serpent was put in my food or in my bed. Ah! how vile must the heart (at least my heart) be, that can hold a parley with such abominations, when I so well know their nature and their tendency. Surely he who finds himself capable of this, may, without the least affectation of humility (however fair his outward conduct appears), subscribe himself less than the least of all saints, and the very chief of sinners!
I would not be influenced by a principle of SELF on any occasion; yet this evil I often do. I see the baseness and absurdity of such a conduct — as clearly as I see the light of the day. I do not affect to be thought ten feet high — and I know that a desire of being thought wise or good, is equally contrary to reason and truth. I would be grieved or angry if my fellow-creatures supposed I had such a desire! And therefore, I fear the very principle of SELF, of which I complain, has a considerable share in prompting my desires to conceal it. The pride of others often offends me, and makes me studious to hide my own; because their good opinion of me — depends much upon their not perceiving it. But the Lord knows how this dead fly taints and spoils my best services, and makes them no better than splendid sins.
I would not indulge vain reasonings concerning the counsels, ways, and providences of God; yet I am prone to do it! That the Judge of all the earth will do right, is to me as evident and necessary as that two plus two make four. I believe that He has a sovereign right to do what He will with his own, and that this sovereignty is but another name for the unlimited exercise of wisdom and goodness. But my reasonings are often such, as if I had never heard of these principles, or had formally renounced them! I feel the workings of a presumptuous spirit, that would account for every thing — and venture to dispute whatever it cannot comprehend. What an evil is this, for a potsherd of the earth to contend with its Maker! I do not act thus towards my fellow-creatures; I do not find fault with the decisions of a judge, or the dispositions of a general, because, though I know they are fallible — yet I suppose they are wiser in their respective departments than myself. But I am often ready to take this liberty when it is most unreasonable and inexcusable.
I would not cleave to a covenant of works. It would seem from the foregoing particulars, and many others which I could mention, that I have reasons enough to deter me from this. Yet even this I do. Not but that I say, and I hope from my heart, "Enter not into judgment with your servant, O Lord." I embrace it as a faithful saying, and worthy of all acceptance, that Jesus Christ came into the world to save sinners; and it is the main pleasure and business of my life, to set forth the necessity and all sufficiency of the Mediator between God and Man, and to make mention of his righteousness, even of his alone. But here, as in everything else, I find a vast difference between my judgment and my experience.
I am invited to take the water of life freely — yet often discouraged, because I have nothing with which to pay for it. If I am at times favored with some liberty from the above-mentioned evils, it rather gives me a more favorable opinion of myself, than increases my admiration of the Lord's goodness to so unworthy a creature; and when the returning tide of my corruptions convinces me that I am still the same — an unbelieving legal spirit would urge me to conclude that the Lord is changed. At least I feel a weariness of being indebted to him for such continued multiplied forgiveness. And I fear that some part of my striving against sin, and my desires after an increase of sanctification, arise from a secret wish that I might not