John Newton's Letters
A letter from John Newton, which he had printed and distributed to every family in his church in London, in 1781
"I beg you to listen to me patiently!" Acts 26:3
My dear friends,
It being impracticable to write separately and distinctly to every person in the church, I offer you this testimony of my sincere regard for your best welfare. And I wish, while I express myself with the freedom to observe the same respect and tenderness, as if I had an opportunity of conversing personally with each of you.
My income from the parish is settled, and regularly and readily paid. I am well satisfied with it; and only desire that you may be benefited by the ministry which you contribute to support. I acknowledge likewise, with thankfulness to God and to you, that in the fellowship I have had among you—I have never received the least personal incivility or unkindness from anyone! Though I cannot but know and lament, that the subject-matter of my preaching is not pleasing to many of you; and, though several steps I have thought it my duty to take, must appeal, to some of you—as unnecessary and troublesome innovations, I have met with no opposition or ill-will. Your conduct has, in this respect, been worthy of the politeness and kindness which distinguish you.
The only cause of complaint, or rather of grief, which you have given me, is—that so many of those to whom I earnestly desire to be useful, refuse me the pleasure of seeing them at church every Sunday. My concern does not arise from the lack of hearers. If either a numerous congregation, or the respectable characters of many of the individuals who compose it, could satisfy me—I would then be satisfied. But I must grieve, while I see so few of my own parishioners among them. Let me entreat your favorable attention, while I respectfully and affectionately expostulate on this point.
The general design of my ministry in this city, might, and I trust would have been answered, if it had pleased God to place me in some other church; but He saw fit to fix me among you. This appointment gives you a preference in my regard, and makes me studiously solicitous to promote your best welfare; and likewise it gives you a more immediate and particular service to you, than to others. However little worthy of your notice in any other view, if I am a servant of God, a minister of the Lord Jesus Christ, if I speak the truth in love—how can I but be pained at the thought, that many to whom the word of salvation is sent (Acts 13:26) refuse to hear it, and reject the counsel of God against themselves! (Luke 7:30)
When I consider the progress of infidelity in the present day, I cannot but fear, that there may be some among you who absent themselves from the church, not so much from a dislike of what may be called my doctrines, or my sentiments—as from a disregard to the Christian religion in general. I know how to pity people of this unhappy sentiment, for it was too long my own sentiment. It is not only a dangerous state—but an uncomfortable state; for, notwithstanding their utmost reasonings and endeavors, they cannot wholly avoid painful apprehensions, lest the Bible, which they wish to be false—should prove to be the truth!
It was thus with me, and it must, in the nature of things, be thus with every unbeliever. To doubt or deny the truth of Christianity is too common; but to demonstrate that it is false, is an utter impossibility! I labored long in the attempt—but, when I least expected it, I met with evidence that overpowered my resistance; and the Bible which I had despised, removed my skepticism. He against whom I had hardened myself, was pleased to spare me! And I now live to tell you, that there is forgiveness with God—that he may be feared! (Psalm 130:4)
But the greater part of you, I am persuaded, will agree with me thus far at least—that the Scripture is a divine Revelation. But do not some of you act inconsistently with your acknowledged principles? Can you reconcile your conduct—to the precepts of God, or to the character of those who fear and love Him, as described either in the Old or New Testament? If you have children—you expect them to obey you. And do you profess yourselves to be the children of God—and yet allow yourselves in the breach of His known commandments? The habits of business or amusement in which you live, not only engross your time and thoughts during the rest of the week—but indispose you for the due observation of our church services. You have engagements of another kind, which will not admit of your regular attendance on the public worship of God; and, if you constrain yourself to be present occasionally, the light which a faithful preacher forces upon your conscience offends you, and makes you willing to catch at every pretense which may furnish you with the shadow of an excuse for not hearing him again!
But this is not the character of all who have withdrawn themselves. Some of you have not forsaken the public worship; you attend at other churches, are ready to complain that you have been driven from your own. If you have candor to allow that possibly I mean well, yet the manner of my preaching is so different from what you were formerly accustomed to, and from what you approve, that, after having heard me, and perhaps more than once, you have been constrained to seek new places of worship. If I venture to plead with you upon this ground, it is not without being aware of the delicacy of the subject. It will seem like pleading my own cause. But I am conscious that I would not trouble you with a single line—if it were not for your sakes, and with a desire of obviating such misapprehensions as I truly believe you cannot retain without disadvantage to yourselves.
As a Christian minister, and preaching to professing hearers, I not only take my text from the Scriptures—but likewise draw from thence the proofs and illustrations of what I advance in my sermons. I frequently, yes constantly, appeal to the Bible—the acknowledged standard and touchstone of all true religious sentiments. As a minister of the church of England, when speaking to the professed members of that church, I might likewise appeal to the current doctrine expressed in our liturgy and articles; but I seldom do it, because having, as I conceive, the highest authority, the Holy Scripture, on my side, I need no other.
If you could be certain, that with respect to the points wherein we differ, that the Scriptures are for you and against me—then your refusal to hear me would be justifiable. But otherwise it behooves you to be cautious, lest, while you think you only reject what appears to you novel or impertinent, your contempt should unhappily fall upon the doctrine of the prophets and apostles, and of Christ Himself. I must magnify my office. (Romans 11:13) On other occasions, I wish to demean myself as the least of all, and the servant of all; but, when I stand in the pulpit, I speak in the name and under the authority of Him, whom we believe will shortly come to be our Judge, and who has said, "He who despises you, despises Me." (Luke 10:16)
I mean not to take up your time, at present, with a detail or a discussion of my doctrines. I offered a brief outline of my thoughts and aims in the first sermon I preached among you, and which was printed solely with the design of presenting it to you; though by a mistake which gave me pain at the time, it became more public than I intended. To the profession I then made, I have, by the goodness of God, been enabled invariably to conform. I doubt not but I have spoken the truth. (Ephesians 4:15) I have endeavored to speak it in love. It is true, I have not dared to disguise or palliate my principles. I account it a great mercy to me, that I have not been influenced by the fear or the favor of men. But my conscience bears me witness, that so far as truth and duty would admit—I have studied to avoid whatever might give you needless offence or pain.
When I came to this church, not being altogether a stranger to what is called the world, and to the maxims prevalent in genteel life, I could not promise myself very genteel acceptance as a preacher. I knew that if I would be faithful to Scripture and my conscience, that some of my hearers must be displeased. But, though I was constrained to risk your displeasure, I have been solicitous not to needlessly provoke it, or to lay any unnecessary difficulties either in your way, or in my own.
Many people whose good sense and liberal education exempt or free them from prejudices of other kinds—are frequently much under the power of religious prejudices. We lament this, more than we wonder at it. The reason is obvious. In temporal concerns they examine and judge for themselves. But in religious matters, they are content to let others judge for them, and (if I may so speak) to swim with the stream of a prevailing opinion. To this cause—I must ascribe some of the objections that are made to my ministry.
In almost every age and country where Christianity has been professed, some hard name or term of reproach has been imposed upon those who ventured to maintain a more evangelical strain of doctrine, or a stricter course of conduct—than was agreeable to the spirit of the times in which they lived. Even the name 'Christian', as honorable as we may now think it, was first used by the heathen, as a stigma, a term of the utmost contempt and hatred! Then Christians were, by common consent, reputed the off-scouring and filth of all things. (1 Corinthians 4:13) In a like manner, terms of reproach were applied by the papists—to scorn those whom God honored as His instruments in freeing our forefathers from the shackles of popery, by introducing that light of truth which issued in the Reformation.
Men of the same spirit were afterwards branded in protestant nations with the terms of reproach, such as Pietist, Puritan or Methodist. I have not hitherto met with a person who could give me a definition or precise idea of what is generally intended by these words, by those who use it to express their disapprobation. Until I do, I am at a loss whether to confess or deny that I am (what some account me) a Methodist. If it is supposed to include anything, whether in principle or conduct, unsuitable to the character of a Christian minister—I may, and I do, disown it. And yet it is probable, that some of my parishioners, hearing and easily taking it for granted, that I am a Methodist, think it a sufficient proof that it cannot be worth their while to hear me.
That I may not disgust and weary my hearers by the length of my sermons, I carefully endeavor not to exceed three quarters of an hour, at those seasons when I have most reason to hope for the presence of my parishioners. At other times, I allow myself a longer term; but even this, I understand, is thought too long. If I considered my preaching only as a customary appendage, without which I could not, with a good grace, collect my pay—we would not long differ upon this point. So far as brevity would be pleasing to you—it would cost me little trouble to please. But, if the proper ends of preaching are to instruct, to admonish, to exhort, and to persuade; if the great truths of Scripture are to be explained, illustrated, and applied; if the various known or probable states and cases of the several people who compose our congregation are to be attended to; in a word, if, as a preacher, I am conscientiously to endeavor to save myself and those who hear me; (1Ti. 4:16) then I confess I know not how to answer these ends, were I to limit myself to a much shorter space than I do!
And, sometimes, when my heart has been deeply impressed with a sense of the worth of souls, the brevity and uncertainty of life, and the solemnity of that hour when both preachers and hearers must give an account of themselves to God—I have perhaps, in defiance of my previous determination, been constrained to exceed it a few minutes, though but seldom.
I am persuaded you are mistaken, when you think the length of my discourses is the cause of your dissatisfaction. It is not so much the length, as the subject-matter which wearies you. It is possible I could, if I dared, preach a sermon, which, though it exceeded three quarters of an hour—you would not think too long. Many people can afford their attention for several hours to some vain entertainment without weariness, whose patience is quickly exhausted under a sermon, where the principles of Scripture are plainly enforced, and a faithful application of them is addressed to the conscience!
I lay no claim to the honor of being a polished orator; nor do I expect, or even wish, to engage your attention by the elegance of my words. If I possessed abilities of this kind, I would decline the use of them. I must speak to the unlearned as well as to the wise—and therefore my principal aim is to be understood. Yet I would hope that I am not justly chargeable with speaking nonsense, or expressing myself with a levity or carelessness unsuitable to the pulpit, or disrespectful to the congregation. But, alas! there are too many hearers, who seem more desirous of entertainment, than of real benefit from a Christian sermon!
They do not thus act in the affairs of common life. Were they to consult a physician or a lawyer, they would not be content with listening to some opinion upon a needless point of law, or upon a case of medicine in which they themselves had no personal concern. It is their own case they expect should be considered. But, when they come to church, if the discourse is clever, and the elocution of the preacher is pleasant—it suffices them. And the less the subject comes home to their personal concernment, the more they are pleased with it. That is, they are disposed to be pleased with the preacher—if he says nothing to make them displeased with themselves!
Another objection which I must likewise treat as a prejudice is, that I am an extemporary preacher. The practice of reading sermons to a public assembly, has been hitherto peculiar to the English nation. Burnet observes, that it took its rise soon after the dawn of the Reformation among us. Latimer and other great men, whose names, now that they are dead, are mentioned with some respect, were, when living, treated by many as if they had been enthusiasts. They were contemptuously styled Gospellers, and preaching in tumultuous times, when there were insurrections in different parts of the kingdom, they were traduced as our Savior and His apostles had been before them, and charged with having a design to foment sedition by their sermons! The preachers not only disavowed the charge—but were led to write their discourses, that they might, if necessary, confute their slanderers, by producing what they had actually delivered. The like accusations, and the like suspicions, in some succeeding reigns, rendered the same precaution expedient. At length the custom of writing down the whole sermon, became general and established. In most, if not in all other parts of Christendom, a man who would attempt to read his sermon from the pulpit, would find but few hearers; and would be judged disqualified for the office of a preacher. Insomuch that those who after having previously considered their subject, are not able to speak upon it with some degree of readiness, are obliged not only to write their sermons—but to submit to the burdensome task of committing them to memory; for reading them would not be endured.
With us, on the contrary, the prejudice in favor of reading the sermon is so strong, that many people can form no expectation of sense, argument, or coherence, from a man who preaches without notes. They will require little more proof of his being unworthy of their notice, than to be told he is an extempore speaker. Here again, in the concerns of common life, they judge and act otherwise. There is little doubt but the theaters would soon be much less frequented, if the performers were to appear with notebooks in their hands, and each one to read his respective part. And perhaps the theater is the only place where a public speaker would be much admired, if it were known that he spoke neither more nor less than he had previously determined to say.
In parliamentary debates, and in pleadings in our courts of justice, the occurrence of unexpected replies and objections, and other new circumstances, renders it necessary that a man should be so far master of his subject and his thoughts, as to be able to accommodate himself to those sudden turns, which often lead him into a train of discussions and arguments, which could not be premeditated, because such occasions could not be foreseen. If this habit and facility of speaking off the cuff, and applying principles of general knowledge to particular subjects and incidents as they offer—is allowed, approved, and even required in other public speakers, why should it be supposed that the preacher is the only person who cannot, or must not, express his thoughts—but in that order, and in those words, in which he has previously written them?
Is not divinity a subject sufficiently copious? Are not the topics which the Scriptures afford, well suited, by their importance, certainty, and authority, to awaken the strongest emotions, and to draw forth the highest exertions of which the human mind is capable? Shall the management of the contested claim of a house or a field, or the interests of contending political parties, be deemed of such consequence as to engage the attention and admiration of hearers? And shall a minister of the gospel, when called by his office to unfold the wonders of redemption, or to enlarge on the solemn themes of judgment, heaven and hell—be thought the only man who has chosen a subject incapable of justifying his earnestness, or of furnishing him with such thoughts and expressions upon the spot, as the most judicious part of his congregation need not hear? Certainly, if the Bible is true, a minister must have the same advantage of all other people who speak in a public character. His subject is more weighty, and of infinitely more concern to his hearers. He speaks in the name of God, and has an express promise of the assistance of His Holy Spirit, if not to supersede his faculties, yet to influence, animate, and guide them, to bring things seasonably to his remembrance, and to apply them to the heart with a divine energy!
We know that it is so in fact; and though we are slighted, and perhaps despised, by many, there are others who receive our testimony with joy, and will acknowledge that what the world esteems the foolishness of preaching, (1 Corinthians 1:21) has, by the blessing of God, made them wise unto salvation. (2 Timothy 3:15)
I earnestly entreat you, my beloved friends, seriously to consider these things. In the midst of the various sentiments and opinions which prevail, it is at least certain that we are all mortal; and that life is not only short—but highly precarious. If you believe the Scriptures, you acknowledge, that after death there is an appointed judgment, followed by an unchangeable, everlasting state. If so, should you not carefully examine the ground of your hope, and fear even the possibility of a mistake, which, if not rectified before death—will then be fatal and without remedy?
If you would not sign a lease or a contract without examining it for yourselves, why will you venture your eternal soul implicitly upon the prevailing opinions of those around you? Especially, when our Lord Himself has told us, that whoever may be right, the many are undoubtedly wrong! "Enter through the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the road is broad that leads to destruction, and there are many who go through it!" (Mat. 7:13) If for the present you seem confirmed in your manner of thinking and living, by the numbers, names, and examples, of those with whom you agree; yet consider, that you must soon be separated from them all. Not one of them will be able to answer for you to God, in the day of judgment. You may live in a throng—but you must die alone.
Religious subjects are seldom the chosen topics of conversation, in what is usually called good company; if occasionally introduced, how superficially are they treated, yet how instantly are they decided upon, and then how readily dismissed! But sooner or later their importance will be known. The Scripture is the rule by which we must all be judged at last; it is therefore our wisdom to judge ourselves by it now. Would you be persuaded to do this, praying to God for that assistance which you need to direct your inquiries, and which He has promised He will afford to those who ask Him—it would have a happy effect upon your principles and your peace. Search and read for yourselves, to see—if the Scripture does not speak to all mankind as in a state of condemnation; (Romans 2:19) if it affords us any hope of deliverance—but for the sake of the Lord Jesus Christ; (Acts 4:12) if it intimates any method of being saved through Him—but by a faith (Mark 16:16) wrought by the operation of God, and evidenced by a temper of love, and a habit of cheerful obedience to His precepts (Col. 2:12, Galatians 5:6, 1 Peter 1:2) If these points, which comprise the general scope of my preaching, are contained and taught in the Bible—then they ought not to be spoken against.
I have no selfish interest to forward by this address, except that interest which I feel in your welfare. I have no favor to solicit from you—but that you would attend to the things which pertain to your eternal happiness. I can truly say, "What I want is not your possessions—but you!" (2 Corinthians 12:14) Though I am not indifferent to your good opinion, so far as respects my integrity and moral character, yet it is a small thing with me to be judged by any man's judgment. Nor would your united approbation content me, except I could hope it was founded in your cordial acceptance of the gospel which I preach.
I have taken this method, as it seemed the only one in my power of acquainting some of you with my sentiments, which it highly concerns you to know; not because they are mine—but (I speak it with confidence) because they are true, and of the utmost importance. However amiable and benevolent you are in your private characters, unless you are born again, (John 3:3) born from above, delivered from the love and spirit of the world, (Galatians 1:4) and made partakers of the love and spirit of the Lord Jesus, (Romans 8:9) you cannot be accepted by Him in the great approaching day of His appearance. My heart longs for your salvation; but whether you will hear or whether you will forbear, I must take your consciences to witness, that I have been faithful to you. If after this warning any of you should finally perish—I am clear of your blood! (Acts 20:26)
Permit me to make one request. It is not likely that I shall ever trouble you in this way again, and therefore I would entreat you to preserve this paper. If it makes no impression on you at present, a more favorable season may come. If you pay but little attention to it in your prosperity, a time of affliction may invite you to peruse it again. If you regard it not while I am living—you may, should you survive me, read it more carefully after my decease.
It is however probable, that some of you will not survive me. Death may be even at your door! If the thought of such a visitant is unwelcome to you, it is owing to a secret consciousness that you are not prepared for it, and therefore you seek refuge from the painful apprehension, in a round of business or pleasure; perhaps, for the present, with too much success. Yet, sooner or later, the hour you dread must come! "It is appointed for all men once to die—and after death comes the judgment." There we shall all meet. May the Lord God so influence your minds now, that our meeting then may be comfortable and happy!
Thus far I have written chiefly to those who absent themselves from the church. But I thank God I am not wholly deserted by my parishioners. With regard to those who have patience and candor to hear me, I have a hope that what may now seem harsh and difficult in my sermons, may hereafter approve itself to their judgment. No person in the congregation can be more averse from the doctrines which I now preach—than I myself once was! This gives me encouragement for others, especially when they are willing to attend on the means which God has promised to bless. For faith comes by hearing. (Romans 10:17) If I have at any time, contrary to my intention, uttered a single sentence in my own spirit, or that might give them just cause of offence, I would be glad, if I knew it, to ask their pardon.
Some of you there are, (may God increase the number,) who not only hear—but approve, because they have an experience in their own hearts that I speak the truth. They have felt the evil of sin—and the necessity of a Savior. They have received the, record God has given of His Son, and place their whole dependence upon Him, as their wisdom, righteousness, sanctification, and redemption. (1 Corinthians 1:30) To these I can address myself with more freedom.
You know the difficulties of my situation, and will assist me with your prayers. I trust likewise you will assist me with your conduct, and that your lives and godly speech will contribute to stop the mouths of gainsayers, and constrain them to acknowledge, that the doctrines of grace, which I preach, when rightly understood and cordially embraced—are productive of peace, contentment, integrity, benevolence, and humility.
Many eyes are upon you, watching for your halting, and seeking occasion by your miscarriages, if they can observe any—to speak evil of the way of truth. (2 Peter 2:2) May the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ enable you to disappoint them and make them ashamed!
We must expect some opposition, along with many temptations and trials. But we are engaged in a good cause, and we have a mighty Savior, a compassionate Friend, a prevailing Advocate! He knows your path; He sees your conflicts—and He has engaged to support, to guide, and to guard you, and at length to make you more than conquerors, (Romans 8:37) and to bestow upon you a crown of everlasting life!
I am your affectionate servant,