John Newton, My Friend

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. But his salvation, the lyrics of Amazing Grace, and his influence on the abolitionist legislator William Wilberforce will continue to ring through all of history.

Although he has been dead for 212 years, John Newton has become a good friend over the years. I written about him before, about reading his letters, about godly speech, about hearing sermons, and about pride among preachers. Newton is special, and he makes me think, but 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).

John Newton’s Grave in Olney, England

This volume I just finished included was first published in 1839 and included a narrative of his memoirs more than 600 pages of personal letters. I’ve been reading a small volume of his letters for years, but over these months, I have come to appreciate him even more. Here are a few reasons that these 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 and speak with him of Jesus?

Newton’s Parsonage in Olney, England

7 comments

  1. Excellent post, Lisa. Newton showed extraordinary care over William Cowper, one of the finer yet lesser-known (hymn) writers of the 18th century. Plagued with a slew of mental health issues and internal torment, Cowper found a steady anchor of a friend and preacher in Newton that endured through his more tumultuous years. That friendship is but one example of his ability to pastor, shepherd and counsel. “Amazing”, indeed!

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  2. We have had the privilege of visiting here twice, once while we were living in England and another time when we brought our daughters back as a graduztion from college trip to revisit. On the revisit we had the privilege of having a private personal tour with the caretaker of the property in Olney. We love the Amazing Grace movie that was made and how John Newton was such an influence in William Wilberforce’s life-to the glory of God and the abolition of slavery. My husband was a Navy Chaplain and then a pastor to a church in Pennsylvania so I understand the Pastor, Shepherd, Counselor gifts, and you are right that not many pastors have all three. Actually as a Chaplain you really need the administrative part as well as you do if you are the pastor of a church with no secretary. Thank you for your insight and love of a man who fought the good fight well!

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    • Also wanted to let you know that I was privileged to listen to your recording “Undistracted Devotion” and sent it to my 37 year old single daughter. I never dreamed that she would not be married yet, but she does have her focus on the Lord and what He has for her. Thank you so much for how you are serving the Lord! So glad that today, through Tim Challies, the Lord brought you to my computer. In His Joy and Love,
      Georgette

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  3. Thank you Lisa, for writing this. I downloaded a kindle book with all Newton’s letters and I am so relishing his wisdom, and the way he writes. He was master in writing truth unoffensively. What a treasure!

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