Ten months ago, I started reading the 783 pages of Volume 1 of Banner of Truth’s tiny fonted Works of John Newton. With three volumes left, and I expect that I will be reading and rereading his letters the rest of my life, at least until I lose my eyesight (or my mind).
You might know Newton as a slave trader or as a hymn writer. His salvation, the resulting lyrics of Amazing Grace, and his influence on the abolitionist legislator William Wilberforce will continue to ring throughout history.
Although he has been dead for 212 years, John Newton has become a good friend of mine. I written about him before, about reading his letters, about godly speech, about hearing sermons, and about pride among preachers. Newton was an amazing man, and he makes me think. I love him more because he communicates in such a way that makes me want to be more like Jesus. As he said of another preacher, “he not only informed my understanding, but his discourse inflamed my heart” (p. 74).
This volume I just finished was first published in 1839 and included a narrative of his memoirs along with more than 600 pages of personal letters. I’ve been reading a smaller volume of his letters for years, but over these last months, I have come to appreciate him even more. Here are a few reasons that this pastor and his 250 year-old letters stir my heart.
1. Newton was a shepherding pastor-counselor. Some pastors are good preachers. Some pastors are good shepherds. Some pastors are good counselors. Some pastors are good shepherd-counselors, and but very few are good preacher-counselors. Newton’s letters and sermons illustrate that he was dedicated to all three.
All of our afflictions, under his gracious management, are appointed to prove, manifest, exercise, and purify the graces of his children. And not afflictions only, prosperity likewise is a state of temptation; and many who have endured sharp sufferings, and came off honorably, have afterwards greatly hurt and ensnared by prosperity. (p.383)
2. Newton pleaded with people to know and follow Jesus. He was concerned not just for evangelism and the beginning of faith, but for the working out of salvation, addressing the affections, the motives behind a life of faith.
Love is the clearest and most persuasive casuist; and when our love to the Lord is in lively exercise, and the rule of his word is in our eye, we seldom make great mistakes. (p. 397)
There is no fool like the sinner who prefers the toys of earth to the happiness of heaven; who is held in bondage by the foolish customs of the world, and is more afraid of the breath of man, than of the wrath of God. (p. 259)
3. Newton addressed his congregants, questioners, and detractors with great affection. He wrote to men and women, young and old, wealthy and impoverished, seekers and pastors, and was plainly affectionate with all. He wrote often of friendship as a gift from God. To a struggling correspondent he wrote:
I should rejoice to be his instrument of administering comfort to you. I shall hope to hear from you soon; and that you will then be able to inform me he has restored to you the joys of his salvation. But if not yet, wait for him, and you shall not wait in vain. (p. 505)
4. Newton demonstrated his humility with life-long learning. He was well-versed in the classics, in Greek, in theology, and had traveled widely, but he continued to ask questions and to study the Scriptures. He knew that he could never plumb the depths of the knowledge of God and so set his heart to study.
I am still a learner, and the Lord still condescends to teach me. I begin at length to see that I have attained but very little; but I trust in Him to carry on his own work in my soul, and by all the dispensations of his grace and providence, to increase my knowledge of him, and of myself. (p. 79)
5. Newton confessed his sin to his dear friends. He recognized that the grace of God sparkled in his life when he confessed that Christ alone was perfect and was the only Redeemer.
I am a poor changeable inconsistent creature; but he deals graciously with me; he does not leave me wholly to myself; but I have daily proofs of the malignity and efficacy of the sin that dwelleth in me, as ought to cover me with shame and confusion of face, and make me thankful if I am permitted to rank with the meanest of those who sit at his feet. (p. 601)
6. Newton asked his friends to pray for him in dark seasons. He understood the reality of depression, loss, and disappointment, personally and in walking with others, and sought for the Lord’s relief in those days
Pray for me, my dear friend, that now the Lord is bring forward the pleasing spring, he may favour me with a spring season in my soul; for indeed I mourn under a long winter.” (p.602)
Don’t you wish that you could sit down for tea in Newton’s garden?