John Newton's Letters
The Christian and the world
My London journey, which prevented my writing in October, made me amends by an opportunity of seeing you in person. Such seasons are not only pleasant at the time—but afford me pleasure in the review. I could have wished the half hour we were together by ourselves prolonged to half a day. The subject you were pleased to suggest has been often upon my mind; and glad would I be, were I able to offer you anything satisfactory upon it. There is no doubt but first religious impressions are usually mingled with much of a legal spirit; and that conscience at such a time, is not only tender—but misinformed and scrupulous. And I believe, as you intimated, that when the mind is more enlightened, and we feet a liberty from many fetters we had imposed upon ourselves, we are in danger of verging too far towards the other extreme.
It seems to me—that no person can adjust and draw the line exactly for another. There are so many particulars in every situation, of which a stranger cannot be a competent judge, and the best human advice is mixed with such defects, that it is not right to expect others to be absolutely guided by our rules, nor is it safe for us implicitly to adopt the decisions or practices of others. But the Scripture undoubtedly furnishes sufficient and infallible rules for every person, however circumstance; and the throne of grace is appointed for us to wait upon the Lord for the best exposition of his precepts. Thus David often prays to be led in the right way, in the path of judgment. "Show me the path where I should walk, O Lord; point out the right road for me to follow. Lead me by Your truth and teach me, for You are the God who saves me. All day long I put my hope in You." Psalm 25:4-5
By frequent prayer, and close acquaintance with the Scripture, and a habitual attention to the frame of our hearts, there is a certain delicacy of spiritual taste and discernment to be acquired, which renders a proper judgement concerning the nature and limits of the Adiaphora, (questionable things) as they are called, or how near we may go to the utmost bounds of what is right, without being wrong, quite unnecessary. Love to Christ is the clearest and most persuasive factor; 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!
And I believe the over-doings of a young convert, proceeding from an honest simplicity of heart, and a desire of pleasing the Lord, are more acceptable in his sight—than a certain coolness of conduct which frequently takes place afterward, when we are apt to look back with pity upon our former weakness, and secretly to applaud ourselves for our present greater attainments in knowledge, though perhaps (alas that it should ever be so!) we may have lost as much in warmth, as we have gained in light.
From the time we know the Lord, and are bound to him by the cords of love and gratitude, the two chief points we should have in our view, I apprehend, are to maintain communion with him in our own souls, and to glorify him in the sight of men. Agreeable to these views, though the Scripture does not enumerate or infallibly decide for or against many things which some plead for, and others condemn; yet it furnishes us with some general rules, which, if rightly applied, will perhaps go a good way towards settling the debate, at least to the satisfaction of those who would rather please God than man. Some of these rules I will just mark to you: Rom. 12:1-2; 1Co. 8:13, and 1Co. 10:31; 2Co. 6:17; Eph. 4:30; Eph. 5:11, Eph. 5:15, Eph. 5:16; 1Th. 5:22; Eph. 6:18 : to which I may add, as suitable to the present times, Isa. 22:12; Luke 21:34. I apprehend the spirit of these and similar passages of Scripture (for it would be easy to adduce a larger number) will bring a Christian under such restrictions as follow.
To avoid and forbear, for his own sake, whatever has a tendency to dampen and indispose spiritual mindedness; for such things, if they are not condemned as sinful per se; if they are not absolutely unlawful; yes though they are, when duly regulated, lawful and right (for often our chief snares are entwined with our blessings); yet if they have a repeated and evident tendency to deaden our hearts to Divine things, of which each person's experience must determine, there must be something in them, either in season, measure, or circumstance, wrong to us; and let them promise what they will, they do but rob us of our gold—to pay us with pebbles. For the light of God's countenance, and an open cheerfulness of spirit in walking with him in private, is our chief joy; and we must be already greatly hurt, if anything can be pursued, allowed, or rested in, as a tolerable substitute for it.
For the sake of the church, and the influence that example may have upon his fellow-Christians, the law of charity and prudence will often require a believer to abstain from some things—not because they are unlawful—but because they are harmful to others. Thus the Apostle, though strenuous for the right of his Christian liberty, would have abridged himself of the use, so as to eat no meat, rather than offend a weak brother, rather than mislead him to act against the present light of his conscience.
Upon this principle, if I could, without hurt to myself, attend some public amusements, as a concert or oratorio, and return from thence with a warm heart to my closet (the possibility of which, in my own case, I greatly question); yet I should think it my duty to forbear, lest some weaker brother than myself should be encouraged by me to make the like experiment, though in their own minds they might fear it was wrong, and have no other reason to think it lawful—but because I did it. In which case I should suspect, that, though I received no harm—they would.
I have known and conversed with some who have made shipwreck of their profession, who have dated their first decline, from imitating others, whom they thought wiser and better than themselves, in such kinds of compliances.
It seems that an obligation of this sort of self-denial, rises and is strengthened in proportion to the weight and influence of our characters. Were I in private life, I do not know that I would think it sinful to hunt for partridge—but, as a minister, I no more dare do it, than I dare join in a drunken frolic, because I know it would give offense to some, and be pleaded for as a license by others.
There is a duty, and a charity likewise, which we owe to the world at large, as well as a faithfulness to God and his grace, in our necessary converse among them. This seems to require, that, though we should not be needlessly singular—yet, for their instruction, and for the honor of our Lord and Master, we should keep up a certain kind of singularity, and show ourselves called to be a separated people: that, though the providence of God has given us callings and relations to fill up (in which we cannot be too exact)—yet we are not of this world—but belong to another community, and act from other principles, by other rules, and to other ends, than the generality of those about us.
I have observed that the world will often leave professors in quiet possession of their notions, and sentiments, and places of worship— provided they will not be too stiff in the matter of conformity with their more general customs and amusements. But I fear many of them have had their prejudices strengthened against our holy religion by such compliances, and have thought, that, if there were such joy and comfort to be found in the ways of God as they hear from our pulpits, professors would not, in such numbers, and so often, run among them to get relief from the burden of time hanging upon their hands.
As our Lord Jesus is the great representative of his people in heaven, he does them the honor to continue a succession of them as his representatives upon earth. Happy are those who are favored with most of the holy unction, and best enabled to manifest to all around them, by their spirit, tempers, and conversation, what is the proper design and genuine effect of his Gospel upon the hearts of sinners.
In our way of little life in the country, serious people often complain of the snares they meet with from worldly people, and yet they must mix with them to get a livelihood. I advise them, if they can, to do their business with the world as they do it in the rain. If their business calls them abroad, they will not leave it undone for fear of being a little wet; but then, when it is done, they presently seek shelter, and will not stand in the rain for pleasure. Just so, providential and necessary calls of duty, which lead us into the world, will not hurt us, if we find the spirit of the world unpleasant, and are glad to retire from it, and keep out of it as much as our relative duties will permit. That which is our cross—is not so likely to be our snare. But if that spirit, which we should always watch and pray against, infects and assimilates our minds to itself—then we are sure to suffer loss, and act below the dignity of our profession.
"Redeeming the time, because the days are evil." Ephesians 5:16. The value of time is to be taken into the account. Time is a precious talent, and our Christian profession opens a wide field for the due improvement of it. Much of it has been already lost—and therefore we are exhorted to redeem it.
Many things which custom pleads for, will not be suitable to a Christian, for this one reason—that they are not consistent with the simplest notion of the redemption of time. It is generally said—that we need relaxation. I allow it in a sense—the Lord Himself has provided it; and because our spirits are too weak to be always upon the wing in meditation and prayer, He has appointed to all men, from the king downwards, something to do in a secular way.
And when everything of this sort in each person's situation is properly attended to, if the heart is in a right state—spiritual concerns will present themselves, as affording the noblest, sweetest, and most interesting relaxation from the cares and toils of life. On the other hand, secular work will be the best relaxation and unbending of the mind from pious exercises. Between the two, perhaps there ought to be but little mere leisure time. A life, in this sense divided between God and the world, is desirable, when one part of it is spent in retirement, seeking after and conversing with Him whom our souls love; and the other part of it employed in active services for the good of our family, friends, the church, and society, for His sake. Every hour which does not fall in with one or other of these views, I apprehend is lost time.
The day in which we live seems likewise to call for something of a peculiar spirit in the Lord's people. It is a day of abounding sin, and I fear a day of impending judgment. The world, as it was in the days of Noah and Lot, is secure. We are soon to have a day of apparent humiliation; but the just causes for it are not confined to one day—but will exsist, and too probably increase, every day. If I am not mistaken in the signs of the times, there never was, within the annals of the English history, a period in which the spirit and employment described Eze. 9:4, could be more suitable than the present, "Go throughout the city—and put a mark on the foreheads of those who grieve and lament over all the detestable things that are done in it." The Lord calls for mourning and weeping—but the words of many are stout against him! New kinds of evil are invented almost daily; and the language of those who bear the greatest sway in what is called the polite circle, I mean, the interpretative language of their hearts, is like that of the rebellious Jews, Jer. 44:16-17, etc., "As for the word which you have spoken—we will not hearken unto you at all!"
In short, things are coming to a point, and it seems to be almost putting to the vote whether the Lord or Baal is God. In this state of affairs, methinks we cannot be too explicit in avowing our attachment to the Lord, nor too careful in avoiding an improper relationships with those who are in confederacy against him. We know not how soon we may greatly need that mark of providential protection which is given to those who sigh and cry for our abominations.
Upon the whole, it appears to me, that it is more honorable, comfortable, and safe (if we cannot exactly hit the golden mean), to be thought by some too scrupulous and precise—than actually to be found too compliant with those things which, if not absolutely contrary to a Divine commandment, are hardly compatible with the genius of the Gospel, or conformable to the mind which was in Christ Jesus, which ought also to be in his people. The places and amusements which the world frequent and admire, where occasions and temptations to sin are cultivated, where the law of what is called custom is the only law which may not be violated with impunity, where sinful passions are provoked and indulged, where the fear of God is so little known or regarded—that those who do fear him must hold their tongues though they should hear his name blasphemed—can hardly be a Christian's voluntary chosen ground. Yet I fear these characters will apply to every kind of social amusement or assembly in the kingdom.
As to family connections, I cannot think we are bound to break or slight them. But as believers and their friends often live as it were—in two elements, there is a mutual awkwardness, which makes their interactions rather dry and tedious. But upon that account they are less frequent than they would otherwise be, which seems an advantage. Both sides keep up returns of civility and affection; but as they cannot unite in sentiment and leading inclination, they will not contrive to be very often together, except there is something considerable given up by one or the other; and I think Christians ought to be very cautious what concessions they make upon this account. But, as I said at the beginning, no general positive rules can be laid down.
I have simply given you such thoughts as have occurred to me while writing, without study, and without coherence. I dare not be dogmatic; but I think what I have written is agreeable both to particular texts and to the general tenor of Scripture.